Friday, March 4, 2011

Heritage Trout of the Kern River Drainage

Note: This article was originally published in the December 2006 issue of California Fly Fisher Magazine

Heritage Trout of the Kern River drainage
by Andrew Harris

            By June 2006 my girlfriend Katie Mackey and I had caught three of the eleven California Heritage trout.  With the McCloud, Goose Lake, and Warner Valley redband trout under our belts, we had exhausted California’s compliment of native redband trout.  We only needed three more heritage trout to get our California Heritage Trout Challenge certificates.  Since three of the heritage trout populations are clustered in the Kern River drainage, we planned a trip to try and catch all three.
            During a break in my guiding schedule in June, I spent some time researching the trip.  The three heritage trout populations that live in the Kern drainage are the Little Kern golden trout, Kern River rainbow, and California golden trout.  After looking at several maps, I determined that all three fish could be caught inside the boundaries of the Golden Trout Wilderness.  I scheduled six days in August for a backpacking trip, and decided to do the rest of the trip planning later.
            Before I knew it, two months slipped by and the trip was only two days away.  I hurriedly consulted Robert Behnke’s book “Trout and Salmon of North America.”  According to Behnke, the Little Kern golden trout lives in the Little Kern River and its tributaries, the Kern River rainbow lives in the mainstem Kern River, and the California golden trout lives in the South Fork Kern River and in Golden Trout Creek, a tributary to the mainstem Kern River. 
Little Kern Golden Trout
            I studied my Golden Trout Wilderness map with trepidation.  The South Fork Kern River is on the eastern side of the wilderness, and the mainstem Kern River runs from north to south right through the middle of the wilderness.  The drainage of the Little Kern River comprises the western side of the wilderness.  I found it rather difficult to plan a six day backpacking trip that would allow us to catch all three fish.  If you hike in from the east side, it’s easy to get a California golden trout, but the others are a long hike away.  Likewise, if you come in from the west side, it’s a long haul to get to the South Fork Kern or Golden Trout Creek.  It looked like it would be possible to do a giant loop and catch all three fish, but it would take it least eight days.  If we were going to catch all three fish in six days, a loop wasn’t in the cards.  We would either have to come in from the east or west and go back the same way we came in.
            I did a little more research on the U.S. Forest Service website.  The western half of the Golden Trout Wilderness is in the Sequoia National Forest and the eastern half is in the Inyo National Forest.  The websites for both National Forests were helpful.  I discovered that there were quotas in effect for hikers entering the wilderness on the Inyo side.  I called up the Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permit Office for clarification.  There is only one trail (Cottonwood Pass) on the Inyo side that has quotas in effect, and it wasn’t one we were planning to use.  I then called up the Sequoia National Forest and found out that while bear canisters (bear-proof food storage devices) weren’t required, they were recommended.  Katie and I added “bear canister” to the list of last-minute items to get at our local outdoor store.  We also needed a wilderness permit, which could be obtained in advance by mail or at any Forest Service office.

Misconceptions Dispelled
            Katie and I arrived at the Lewis Camp trailhead on the southwest side of the Golden Trout Wilderness around 5pm on Sunday August 6th.  It quickly became apparent that we were in horse country.  There were at least five big diesel trucks towing huge horse and livestock trailers parked at the trailhead.  There was only one other car that looked like it might belong to backpackers.  I felt like I was in Montana, about to pack into the Bob Marshall Wilderness!  Except we were on foot.  And we were in California.  Some happy folks who had just rode out of the wilderness on horses looked at us and our huge backpacks and wished us luck.  Note to file: organize a pack trip next time!
Little Kern River
            The next revelation was that the trailhead was below the tree line, and we were headed down about 1800 vertical feet to our first camp on the Little Kern River.  I had always (wrongly) associated golden trout with the High Sierra above the tree line.  I’ve only caught golden trout once before, on a backpacking trip over Bishop Pass into Dusy Basin when I was in high school.  What I didn’t know then was that golden trout had been introduced to the lakes in Dusy Basin.  The California golden trout has been introduced into many lakes and streams throughout the Sierra Nevada, as well as lakes in Wyoming and beyond.  If you’ve caught golden trout anywhere other than the South Fork Kern, Golden Trout Creek, and Little Kern River drainages, you were not catching native fish.
            Katie and I took a few photos at the trailhead and then started down the trail.  The hiking was easy – only about four miles and all of it downhill.  It was so easy we were really dreading coming back up the same trail on our last day.  Our packs were heavy, but they would be lighter by then.  We reached our destination on the Little Kern River within a couple hours.  We found a nice, well-used campsite by the river and set up camp.  Right at dusk the fish began to get frisky in the pool by our camp.  I excused myself from my camp chores and strung up my new Sage 3710 TXL.  I made a few casts with an elk hair caddis and quickly hooked up.  After a short fight I was holding my first ever Little Kern golden trout, a beautiful nine-inch specimen. 
            In coloration, the Little Kern golden trout is somewhat of an intermediate form between the cartoonish California golden trout and the Kern River rainbow.  They have prominent, regularly spaced parr marks and a fairly bright red band.  They are fairly heavily spotted above the lateral line, but have very few spots below the lateral line.  The specimens we collected also had a very white belly and underside below the lateral line.  I was quite pleased with the size of the fish, also.  I didn’t expect to catch many fish in the 9 to 12 inch range on this trip.  Over the next few days we would catch plenty of nice fish.
            The next morning Katie and I packed up camp and then went on a fishing and photo expedition up the Little Kern River.  The Little Kern is not nearly as little as I expected it to be, for a stream at 6,000 feet in elevation.  It was easily crossable, but had some tight granite gorges that were difficult to negotiate.  The stream is quite beautiful, with clear water, a rocky and gravelly bottom, and bushes and trees alternating with granite on the banks.  We had fun taking turns fishing our way up for about a third of a mile.  Katie and I both caught numerous Little Kern goldens.  The best was an 11 inch fish that Katie caught on a long cast into the head of a nice pool.

Kern River rainbow trout
Kern River Rainbow
            Our next stop was the main stem of the Kern River.  When we crested the divide between the Little Kern and the main stem and could look down at the Kern River, I was blown away.  This was a huge river.  When we got to the edge of the river, I was very impressed.  Here at 6,200 feet elevation was a river that was bigger than the Pit, Upper Sac, or McCloud.  The Kern is a raging freestone river with many appealing water types.  It has pocket water galore, but also many plunge pools and deep long runs.  In certain sections it meanders through broad valleys almost like a spring creek.
            While the drainages of the Little Kern and South Fork Kern Rivers are wholly contained within the Golden Trout Wilderness, the main stem Kern River starts farther to the north inside Sequoia National Park.  The headwaters of the main stem of the Kern River are located on the northerly, westerly, and southerly slopes of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the 48 contiguous United States.  The river drains a huge area, and is swollen with runoff every spring and early summer.  I would estimate that the river was flowing at 800-1000 cfs when we were there.  It was dropping noticeably every day, though, as the amount of snowmelt decreased.
            Katie and I spent a fair amount of time fishing the Kern.  Our best fish were about twelve inches and very fat.  We talked to some other fishermen along the trail who told tales of twenty inch rainbows.  We also heard stories of giant brown trout.  I’m inclined to believe that if you were on the Kern at the right time, you could catch a lot of fifteen inch plus rainbows on dry flies.  I had a feeling we were maybe a week or two early in terms of catching the river at the perfect flow.
Golden Trout Creek
            Kern River rainbows are very attractive fish.  Their most distinguishing characteristic is heavy spotting both above and below the lateral line.  The spots extend forward over the gill cover.  The fish also has a prominent red band.  We caught fish that fit the Kern rainbow description and fish that looked more like coastal rainbows.  According to Behnke, non-native rainbows have been stocked extensively in the lower part of the Kern River watershed.  Measurable traits such as the number of vertebrae and scales along the lateral line confirm that there has been considerable hybridization with hatchery rainbow trout.

California Golden Trout
            Our next stop was Golden Trout Creek, home of the California golden trout.  Golden Trout Creek is very interesting because it once flowed into the South Fork Kern River, but long ago a lava flow diverted it into the main stem Kern River.  The golden trout in the stream are almost identical to the golden trout in the South Fork Kern River.  They have been protected from hybridization with the Kern River rainbow trout by a series of impassable waterfalls.  As Katie and I climbed the 2,100 vertical feet up from the Kern River canyon, we had several prime vistas of these waterfalls.  There were at least five major falls spanning over 1,500 vertical feet.  Golden trout could go downstream, but no fish can go upstream, thus the genetic integrity of the fish in the creek was maintained until humans intervened.
California Golden Trout
            White settlers began moving fish around as soon as they arrived in the area.  According to Behnke, at one point the brown trout largely replaced the native golden trout in Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River.  Non-native rainbows and hybrids have also penetrated the South Fork Kern River and the Little Kern River.  All of these streams and many of their tributaries have been poisoned to remove non-native fish at one point or another.  Several barriers have been built on the South Fork Kern River to prevent non-natives from migrating upstream.
            When we finally reached Golden Trout Creek, Katie and I quickly strung up a fly rod and started fishing.  The stream had a good head of water, perhaps still a little high from runoff.  There were many log jams and brushy areas that restricted access, but the creek was very fishable.  I rushed up and made a quick blind cast into a tailout above a log jam.  A small fish raced up from the bottom and smacked my fly, but I missed it!  I hooked a fish on my next cast.  I quickly landed the eight-inch golden trout, and was overjoyed to find the exact embodiment of Joseph Tomelleri’s illustration in “Trout and Salmon of North America.”  This fish was so brightly colored it seemed to be more a caricature of a golden trout than the real thing.  The fish had large, oval, regular spaced olive parr marks, and almost no spots below the lateral line or forward of the dorsal fin.  The fish’s back was golden olive and its lower half was buttery yellow.  The fish also sported a bright red racing stripe superimposed over its parr marks and a scarlet belly.
            After taking a few photos, we noticed that there were fish almost everywhere we looked in the stream.  Every good looking piece of holding water had at least one fish.  It was truly amazing how many fish were packed into this small stream.  Indeed, according to Peter Moyle in his book “Inland Fishes of California,” “golden trout densities and biomass are among the highest recorded for trout streams anywhere.”  Katie and I spent the rest of the afternoon sight-fishing to golden trout.  We both caught several nice specimens up to ten inches.  I got the feeling that if you fished enough water you might be able to find a twelve inch fish.
California Golden Trout
            As I cast my beat-up dry fly to eager golden trout on this beautiful stream, I chuckled to think that I formerly associated golden trout with lakes above the tree line.  Before embarking on this adventure, I thought that golden trout lived mainly in high country lakes.  Despite the fact that golden trout have been planted in hundreds of lakes in the High Sierra, their native range does not include a single lake.  According to Moyle, streams are the principal habitat of golden trout.  And it’s no coincidence that these fish evolved in a drainage below the tree line.  The only reason they survived the ice age is because the Kern River, situated at the far southern end of the Sierra Nevada, is the only unglaciated watershed in the entire mountain range.  According to Behnke, the Kern River fish share many physical characteristics with the redbands of the McCloud River, which live in another area untouched by glaciers.  The Kern River natives and the McCloud redbands probably share the same ancient ancestor, the first rainbow to invade the greater region.  This rainbow trout ancestor likely migrated up the Kern during a wetter period when Tulare Lake at the river’s terminus overflowed and connected with the San Joaquin River.  The Kern River rainbow, Little Kern golden, and California golden trout were later separated from each other by impassable natural barriers.  The Kern River rainbows were kept separate from later invasions of coastal rainbows after Tulare Lake receded and warmed.

            Shortly before writing this article I received my first California Heritage Trout Challenge certificate of completion.  It’s a handsome, full color certificate complete with illustrations of each of the fish that I caught.  I’m going to have it framed and it will soon be on display in my office.  Katie and I are now engaged, and we plan to catch the remaining types of heritage trout and re-apply for a new certificate next year.  Stay tuned!

If you go…
            If you are planning a trip to the Golden Trout Wilderness, be sure to get a wilderness permit in advance.  Quotas are in place for the Cottonwood Pass trail on the east side of the wilderness, but all other trails are unrestricted.  Although wilderness permits can be obtained at any Forest Service office, keep in mind that they’re closed on weekends.
            You will need an approved bear canister if you come in via the Cottonwood Pass trail.  Bear canisters are recommended, but not required, on all the other trails.  We saw bear scat and tracks but did not encounter any bears on our trip.  We did hear reports of bear problems a little to the north near Funston Meadows in Sequoia National Park.
            During the strenuous hike out of the wilderness to the Lewis Camp trailhead, I made a few mental notes about our next trip into the Golden Trout Wilderness.  The first and foremost was to do a pack trip.  During our six days on the trail we encountered only 18 people and between 40 and 50 pack animals.  Most of the people we saw were on horseback or at least using pack animals to haul their gear.  If you are going to plan a pack trip, I recommend getting in touch with Guy Jeans at Kern River Fly Fishing (866-347-4876 or
            If you’re on foot, I would also recommend planning for a longer trip, or focusing on either the west (Little Kern) side or the east (South Fork) side and not trying to do it all.  We felt a little rushed to try and catch all three fish in six days.

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