Tips & Trivia

Golden Trout: Past, Present, & Future

The world's most coveted trout -vs- the State's most inept agency

150 years ago, almost all Sierra Nevada waters were barren of trout. Other than very limited areas of the Truckee, Carson and Kern River drainages, trout were unable to ascend from their lowland domain to infiltrate the high country.
During the last ice age, the Sierra was frozen solid and trout habitat was non existent. As the climate warmed, the glaciers thawed and the resulting melt waters blasted down the granite slopes in churning flood. California’s Central Valley garnered the runoff in a vast inland sea that stretched from the Siskiyous to the Tehachapis and poured into the Pacific through the Golden Gate.

From the Pacific, ancestral rainbows closely related to today’s redband trout, tasted the sweet run off and made probing forays up the rivers. For thousands of years the trout nosed into foothill streams in search of higher ground only to be frustrated by impassable barriers.

At the southern tip of the mountain range a river flowed along a faultline only slightly less steep than the other Sierra waterways. In this river, the Kern, trout finally breached the Sierra’s defenses. Desperately leaping over cascading waterfalls and quietly sneaking around the edges of raging cataracts, these trout worked higher and higher up the Kern River and into it’s icy tributaries. Under full view of the retreating glaciers the ancestral rainbows established themselves as the only trout resident in the southern high Sierra.

The climate continued to warm, the glaciers largely melted themselves out of existence and the glacial fed rivers dried to a comparative trickle. The Kern dwindled to the point of preventing further trout from entering the high country and the Sierra population became landlocked and isolated. Over countless generations of inbreeding, the trapped pool of rainbows gradually evolved into a fish unlike any ever seen.

While the new trout were evolving to best exploit their Sierra environment, the environment itself was evolving. The thin crust of the Kern Plateau bulged then split open to disgorge billions of acre-feet of lava. Molten rock oozed through the forests in searing waves and sculpted the landscape with bizarre formations. As layers of lava built up the countryside, subterranean pressures continued pushing the plateau skyward. The push was so great; the South Fork of the Kern reversed its flow and raged east and south through newly formed chasms to rejoin the main stem many miles downstream. The trout in the South Fork and it’s major tributary, Volcano Creek, became isolated from their parent stock and the effects of their inbreeding grew wonderfully intense.

What had originally been a rainbow-like trout modestly dressed in pastel shades of silver, green and pink was now transformed into an animal of exquisite beauty. Rising like a phoenix literally forged by the forces of fire and ice emerged the Volcano Creek golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita).
In a family known for perfection, no salmonid is quite so perfect as the golden. The broad fanned tail that so easily powers the fish through swift waters is perfectly balanced by a long and slender head almost reminiscent of the cutthroats. A school of golden trout looks like a handful of molten nuggets come to life. The bodies aren’t golden; they are gold. The crimson lateral line and brilliant orange belly set the gold on fire. The Volcano Creek golden is so strikingly unique that it has been designated the California State fish.

About ten thousand years ago a particularly vigorous vent spewed lava that separated Volcano Creek from the South Kern and steered it over a spectacular two thousand foot cliff into the Kern River. The fish in Volcano Creek and the South Kern continued to evolve separately from one another and many biologists consider them distinct subspecies of goldens.
In the mainstem Kern the rainbows evolved into a golden trout only slightly less gaudy than their Volcano Creek counterparts. Around 15,000 years ago a relatively brief period of global cooling occurred and the resultant glaciers created a second flood down the Kern when the environment once again warmed.

During this second flood, rainbow trout from the San Joaquin valley breached the Sierra and supplanted themselves on top of, and interbred with, the Kern River goldens. The cross between the goldens and the coastal rainbows produced a unique and distinct subspecies of trout known as the Kern River rainbow (Oncorhynchus mykiss gilberti). The Kern River rainbow looks like a generic rainbow trout speckled with flecks of gold and, like the golden, typically retains its distinctive parr marks well into adult hood.

On the Little Kern River, only a tiny population of goldens protected behind impassable falls escaped genetic extinction. This isolated fish, the Little Kern Golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss whitei) had a second brush with extinction in the early nineteen seventies. Introduced brown and brook trout had crowded this beautiful fish into a mere three miles of creek and many experts predicted the species would be gone within a decade.Under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, state and federal agencies rallied behind the Little Kern golden trout. Under scorching sun on hands and knees through rattlesnake infested brush, these biologists systematically and painstakingly treated every creek, brook, spring, and stream in the basin with fish killing Rotenone. Only after the drainage was proven clean of all exotic fish did the California Department of Fish and Game (DF&G) reintroduce the Little Kern golden back into its native waters. Today the fish thrives in almost eighty miles of its original habitat, but it is feared that rainbow trout may have been recently introduced into the watershed.

The Little Kern Golden Trout survives only in the Little Kern River watershed and the Kern River rainbow is only found in the mainstem Kern and a few of it’s tributaries. The Volcano Creek golden by contrast, hasbeen liberally transplanted throughout the Sierra, several western states, and even in Canada, Europe and Africa.

From its tiny origin of the creeks of the Kern Plateau the golden has become identified as THE trout of the high Sierra. It has been planted in most lakes and streams throughout the range and where conditions have been favorable and it hasn’t been forced to compete with other species of trout, the golden has made itself at home. It currently occupies some 300 lakes and over 200 miles of stream.

The ancestral waters of the golden were put under the protection of the US Forest Service and designated the Golden Trout Wilderness. Ironically, from a golden’s perspective, the Golden Trout Wilderness is one of the most hostile locations in the Sierra. The Wilderness is massively grazed and the resulting stream damage is tremendous. Even as volunteer crews work to rebuild overgrazed and cow trampled banks, Inyo Forest Service administrators continue to renew grazing leases against the disapproval of their own biologists. Citing "wilderness concerns" the same Forest Service Administrators recently prohibited DF&G from creating a fish barrier on the (overgrazed) South Fork of the Kern River. This modification of an existing waterfall would have stopped upstream migration of exotic fish and helped protect the native goldens.

Rainbow and brown trout have infiltrated the watershed and since 1970 DF&G biologists have been working tirelessly to remove non-native species from the area. Rainbow trout readily interbreed with goldens and have already contaminated the gene pool in the lower reaches of the South Fork Kern.

Fish and Game themselves may have inadvertently contaminated virtually every golden trout lake in the Sierra Nevada. The agency denies there is any problem; however, independent DNA analyses conclusively demonstrate that their brood fish in Cottonwood Lakes are crossed with rainbows.

The Cottonwood Basin is accessible only by foot or with pack animals and is several day’s journey from the closest rainbow water. The most likely scenario is that a Fish and Game aircraft was mistakenly loaded with rainbow trout fry which were planted atop the genetically pure and priceless population of Volcano Creek golden trout.All Sierra lakes planted with goldens in the last thirty years now contain the progeny of those hybrid fish. Stocking is a gamble where each and every time a water is planted there is risk of spreading disease, exotic organisms, or unwanted fish.

DF&G dump fingerlings via aircraft into most golden trout lakes every other year. This is done all-to-often without regard for natural spawningpotential, without regard for habitat constraints, and with little thought to other species that might exist in the waters.

Ph.D. fisheries biologists Roland Knapp and Kathleen Matthews spent three years evaluating Southern Sierra fisheries. Using mask, snorkel, and gill nets their crews meticulously surveyed over 2,000 bodies of water. In dozens of lakes that get biannual plants of goldens they found zero golden trout but strong populations of brook trout. On paper at least, these lakes have been "managed" strictly for goldens since the fifties.

Many lakes get planted with the justification that golden trout need moving water to spawn and that without continued stocking, these fisheries would disappear. It appears that in many waters this is simply not the case. In their netting surveys Knapp and Mathews are finding goldens in every year class, even though the lakes are only planted every other year. It appears goldens are adept at using the tiniest gravel pockets in streams and even in-lake springs for recruitment.

Golden trout have a reputation for being small; however, a golden trout in a food rich environment grows just as fast and just about as big as a rainbow. Sierra goldens are typically small because the nutrient poor waters in which they dwell don’t provide much food. Under these conditions, the poorest management strategy in the world would be to add extra fish into a habitatthat can barely support its existing population; yet, that is exactly what DF&G is doing in the Sierra.

In the late seventies, National Park administrators prohibited DF&G from planting fish in Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. DF&G argued that historic use practices justified the plants and issued dire predictions that the fisheries would evaporate and go away.

80% of the lakes being planted today could maintain themselves through natural reproduction.

After twenty years of no planting, 20% of the lakes have lost their fisheries and have reverted to their natural state. The remaining 80% of the lakes are essentially the same as they were twenty years ago. . . with zero dollars spent on hatchery "improvement". In an agency as financially strapped as DF&G claims to be, this is an obvious place to save more than a few bucks and redirect them to biologists rather than fish farmers.

Field level biologists understand the problems better than anyone, but they’re overworked, underfunded, spread too thin, and administrative objectives are politically rather than biologically driven. Frustration and bitterness sum up the feelings of many field biologists. DF&G has a politically powerful, well-entrenched, pro-hatchery bureaucracy that has a deep financial stake in maintaining the status quo. To hear their spin, even the mere suggestion that planting allotments be reevaluated is un-American. It would be just as preposterous to manage High Sierra lakes for the benefit of warty little frogs instead of the State Fish. And that is exactly what is about to occur.

At the turn of the century the mountain yellow legged frog was extremely abundant throughout the Sierra. It is the size of a small rat and was likely once a very important food source for Sierra predators such as wolverines, mink, and weasels. The frog is unique in that it remains a tadpole for several years and the tadpoles generally require deep lakes for protection against winter ice and summer heat. These are the same deep lakes that now contain trout.

Today the mountain yellow legged frog is scarce and completely missing from up to 90% of it’s native range. There may be several reasons that have contributed to the crash of the frog population but it is certain that introduced trout are a key factor in its decline. As long ago as 1924, biologist Joseph Grinnel noted that, "The advent of fish sooner or later nearly or quite eliminates the [mountain yellow legged] frogs."

The Mountain Yellow Legged frog. This once abundant amphibian has been driven to the brink of extinction by unneccessary trout plants in the Sierra.

With few exceptions, in lakes with frogs there are no fish and in lakes with fish, frogs are absent. Many of these lakes stand adjacent to one another making it tough to blame air pollution, frog disease, or changes in the atmosphere. It is difficult to argue with hard data from more than 2,000 lakes.The frogs are in a precarious situation and their numbers are plummeting. If the trend doesn’t change, and change quickly, the Federal government will likely step in and declare the mountain yellow legged frog a threatened or endangered species. With that listing comes a staggering bureaucracy and an inflexible set of guidelines [note: 5 months after this was written, the Mountain yellow Frog has officially been cited as a candidate for endangered species status. For more information go to]

The same thing has already happened downstream of the Sierra. The federal government has outlawed the planting of striped bass in the San Francisco delta for fear that they may impact perhaps one percent of the endangered salmon population. This, despite that fact that water diversions are the irrefutable reason the salmon are in such dire straits.

The key to preventing further decline in the frog population is to get DF&G to manage the Sierra on a lake by lake basis rather than as a single vast block of real estate. By managing the most productive lakes for trout and turning the marginal waters over to frogs (and the multitude of other native invertebrates impacted by trout) we can have our toads and eat them too.

The mountain yellow legged frogs have proven adept at re-colonizing lakes once trout have been removed. By providing refuge for the frogs we will stave off the threat of endangered species listing and all its associated baggage. By fine tuning trout lakes we can manage the fisheries for optimal self-sustaining populations and significantly drop our reliance on hatchery fish. With management by watershed, there is absolutely no biological reason we can’t have reasonable shots at two to six pound goldens. Let’s stop planting the lakes, let them show us their potential, then resume plants if, and as necessary, to optimize that particular water’s potential.

It makes perfect sense to everyone except the hatchery dependant DF&G bureaucracy. The Department’s position as stated by senior hatchery manager Mike Haynie is, "The issue certainly deserves further study, but until then, we will continue to stock backcountry lakes as usual". It’s a shoot first and ask questions later policy.

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