Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita: The Marvel of the High Sierras

 

Article extract

California’s golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) was first described by Dr. David Starr Jordan in 1893 as a species of trout of unusual beauty. Native to the South Fork Kern River and Golden Trout Creek and its tributaries, their narrow distribution has been threatened by human impact for more than a century.

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In the 1960s, the State of California embarked on an intense conservation program to conserve the species and their habitat. In 1978, the Golden Trout Wilderness was established within the Inyo and Sequoia National Forests, protecting the upper watersheds of the Kern and South Fork Kern Rivers.

In 2004, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife signed an agreement with federal agencies to work on restoring backcountry habitat as part of a comprehensive conservation strategy. In that document, genetic introgression from other species is listed as the present greatest threat to golden trout within their native distribution.

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While threatened in their native range, golden trout have been transplanted throughout backcountry habitats in numerous western states to include a plethora of alpine lakes in the High Sierras. As early as the late 1800s, golden trout were transplanted from Golden Trout Creek or its tributaries into nearby Cottonwood Creek, and then Cottonwood Lakes. Decades later, fish from Cottonwood Lakes would serve as the founding population for transplants.

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A number of high Sierra lakes presently offer remarkable angling opportunity for this captivating species among breathtaking wilderness views and elevation. Traditional tenkara and fixed-line fly fishing can be quite productive in the shallows for cruising fish, but the often-overlooked cracks draining and feeding golden trout lakes offer unique challenge for their shy residents.

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Back-country Trek for Treasure Lakes Trout

Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below.

The journey to landing a California golden trout on the fly in the Sierra Nevada was by far my most thrilling bucket-list adventure yet. What you need to know to make it happen is contained within the pages of the May 2019 edition of California Game and Fish Magazine.

Read it here!

Carving out a Memory

Honestly, I have no legitimate excuse for having not returned. The experience still calls like a siren song playing softly in the background. Snow-capped peaks and glaciers. Expansive vistas of low-country lakes surrounded by ghostly granite, golden grasses and solemn conifers. Hot springs and chapparal scrublands. Mountain quail. And honest-to-God golden trout. The jewel of California’s Sierra Nevada Range.

It was a bucket-list trip. One I had dreamed of, for how many years, I am unsure. We had “golden trout” in Appalachia, but they were rainbow trout genetically selected and bred in a hatchery to have a golden color. “Palomino trout” is another name for them, although some like to attempt a distinction between the various mutants. Of all the years I fished stocked trout in my Virginia youth, I never caught one. To tell the truth, I was unimpressed.

It must have been Sports Afield or Field and Stream stacked on the stone fireplace hearth in my grandfather’s cabin room where I read of California’s legendary state fish. The California golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) is a rainbow trout subspecies native to only two watersheds draining the Kern Plateau of the southern Sierra Nevada Range: Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River. Even late in my single-digit years, I knew that one day I would cast a fly to the authentic finned bullion of the far west. The non-imposter is now sprinkled throughout the high elevation lakes and streams of the Sierras and Wyoming’s Wind River drainage. Even a few alpine lakes in Washington’s Cascades support the aguabonita.

One of the four Treasure Lakes

Catching my breath from the miles of ascent and vertical boulder-hopping, carving new quad muscle on the ascent, I stood surrounded by the cluster of four known as the Treasure Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness. Thirteen-thousand-foot Mt. Dade peak loomed overhead to the south. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted pewter by the wind, was feeding the lakes. Below the shimmering surface of the crystal-clear depths lurked the paragon.

The journey itself in the frigid, pre-dawn frost, giving way to the golden rays and 60 degrees in such scenic country, made for an unforgettable moment. As the wind laid, a floating fly line followed, terminated with a size 12 “cherry limeade”, which is really just a Royal Wulf tied with pink wings rather than traditional white.

As the hostile water warmed into 40-something degrees, golden trout began to appear in the shallows, cruising carefully and targeting small flies. Sight-casting to a larger shape as it glided over a sandy shoal, the fish turned to inspect the fly and engulfed it nonchalantly.

A moment of panic overwhelmed me as I realized I was playing a trout I had obsessed over for somewhere upward of two decades. Kneeling on a flat boulder at water’s edge, I softly cradled my first golden trout in the frigid alpine waters. An awesome spectacle in a small package with a rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks, and olive-sized parr marks. A trophy in its own right and a rare dream realized.

The Aguabonita

While harvest is allowed on most lakes in the Sierra Nevada, I had no intention of bonking the most beautiful trout I had ever laid eyes on. Luckily, the one and only immaculate image my old cell phone would ever capture happened to be of this incredible fish as it approached shore.

I was witnessing utter perfection. An image simply wouldn’t do the memory justice. Sitting against a house-size slab of bister stone, I pondered the options as the trout disappeared past the sandy shallows into the emerald depths. How to memorialize the experience in three dimensions? Then it hit me.

 Dayton’s own Tom Schirm is a master carver of fin and scale. A renowned artist in the realm of hand-carved fish replicas, whose artistry is viewable at http://www.tomschirmfishcarvings.com/. An estimated length and a few photos of the fish were all that he needed to get started.  

Understanding that an artist needs time to achieve perfection, I left Tom to find his muse. Wanting the fish on a free-standing pedestal, we shared a few calls to talk details. Marble or wood and stone? Either way it would be carved from wood, per the rules of the World Fish Carving Championship, in which Tom has placed well in the past.

Standing by the folding table in my makeshift home office, every glance at the precisely proportioned and painted specimen puts me right back at the top of the crag, short of breath from the climb and elevation. Sun rays glistening atop the lake surface like they were cast from a disco ball. And the goldens are rising.

A masterpiece from Tom Schirm

Three Keys to Mountain Stream Trout

Published July 2021 @HarvestingNature

Stepping into a reach I had never laid eyes on, water spilled across the floodplain through newly cut side channels, occupied new backwaters, and spilled through massive apex log jams. Beautiful pools formed below the jams and behind precisely placed root wads. Riffles spilled across cobble bars parallel to the head of the pool, forming textbook dry-fly dead-drifting waters, irresistible to inhabiting trout.

Knowing the fish would be somewhat less active in the glacial June flows, I nevertheless opted for a size 12 elk hair caddis. Having embraced fishing simply, a tenkara fly rod has become my go-to for mountain trout streams. Capable of landing fish as large as salmon (speaking from personal experience), easily reaching mid-stream pocket water habitats, and presenting a flawless dead-drift, a lightweight tenkara rod and single fly box graced my presence as I traversed the cottonwood riparian and shallow riffles.

A riffle formed the beautiful emerald pool where it collided at 90-degrees with a large toppled tree root wad. Hydraulic forces cut their way through the substrate until the head of the pool widened enough to shift flow and scour downstream depths. It was the ideal location for a calculated approach and fly presentation.

Dropping the caddis into the riffle and watching it bob carelessly into the flow seam below, it was no surprise that a rainbow stealthily slithered to the surface, trouncing the fly with the confidence of snagging an easy meal. A soft pop of the wrist set the hook with the tenkara rod, which played the 12-incher through the riffle and into a shallow pocket for a safe release. The fish’s cotton candy pink lateral line, grape-sized parr marks, and overall random speckling of bluish blotches and tiny black flecks were a sight to behold. Its otherwise chrome sheen was nearly blinding in the morning sun as rays peaked over the eastern basalt rim.

Approaching “fishy” habitat is an important consideration. How the angler casts a shadow, disturbs the water, or presents the fly and line can mean the difference between landing multiple, and possibly big fish, and no fish. Consider a classic log jam and downstream pool.

Whenever possible, approach the pool with the sun in your face. Keeping a long shadow off the water serves well to avoid spooking fish. Additionally, I like to approach from the side and begin near the top of the pool. Bigger trout get the best “lie”, meaning they take preferred feeding zones, which are usually farther back in the pool where the water is calmer and predators more visible. Fish are easily spooked here and often race into the whitewater at the top of the pool seeking shelter. Game over.

Approaching from the side, one can cast high or across the pool and drift down for the best presentation. Additionally, any fish caught in the top of the pool are less likely to escape to the tail and spook other fish when released.

If you must approach from the bottom end, carefully work your fly further and further into the pool to try to catch any fish near the tail before spooking them with the line touching down or wading into them.

When approaching from the top, keep a low profile and dead drift the fly from the head of the pool into the middle and tail. This is superbly easy to do with a fixed length of line approximately one-, to one-and-a-half times the rod length. Keep the rod tip high as the fly touches down, then slowly drop the rod consistent with the flow rate to keep line drag from affecting the fly drift. A hungry trout cannot pass on a caddis presented accordingly.

Aside from log jams and pools, gentle runs with large boulders providing velocity breaks are a good choice. Side channels, root wads, and anywhere riffles push perpendicular into a stream bank or other structure, creating a deeper pocket, is bound to hold trout. Trout also seek flow seams where faster water eddies off into slower water, depositing food, and allowing trout to save energy when holding position.

Approaching the next pool from below, a gravel bar split the pool, sending a run to the river-right bank that paralleled a downed tree, and creating a scour pool on the river-left bank beneath a small, submerged tree. Drifting a fly along the right-bank produced a single missed strike, but working slowly to the head of the left-bank pool enticed several fish seeking shelter beneath the tree.

While fly-fishing may seem intimidating to the novice, there are three general keys to mountain stream trout that can be quickly mastered; quality habitat, a stealthy approach, and clean fly presentation. The best producing areas are always those resembling quintessential trout habitat, with braided channels, large wood, a good riffle-run-pool sequence, and lush riparian vegetation. An elk hair caddis or Adams are staple flies, working on nearly any mountain stream at any time, making fly choice less concerning.

Mountain streams are the heart and soul of fly-fishing. Keep it simple. Keep the rod tip high. And savor the radiance of those speckled forest gems.