Everything in life worth doing has a pinnacle. The journey to summit that pinnacle is often elusive and arduous, but leaves us with a sense curiosity, determination, and awe. It is what keeps us coming back. For every endeavor there are as many pinnacles as there are souls to pursue them. In the pursuit of fly fishing, catching the weary permit (Trachinotus falcatus) on an old rusted Merkin crab; going head-to-head with a silver king – the tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) – on a perfectly tied toad; or perhaps chasing chrome in one of the famed coastal steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) rivers might be spiritual feats for some. As for me, these pinnacles are all incredible accomplishments worth bragging about, but in all honesty they are false peaks. Some feel (myself included) the true dignity of a pinnacle lies within the quest to reach it. Trophies are earned through blood and sweat; effort is gauged in worn out boots. The true litmus of a trophy is the hours spent researching maps and anecdotal clues in the off season to put yourself at the pinnacle’s base just to begin the upward journey. The Holy Grail at the end of this journey is the elusive golden trout (Oncorhynchus aguabonita)…
Golden trout are remnants of the Pleistocene epoch and survived the Ice Age only to inhabit Golden Trout Creek, Volcano Creek, and South Fork of the Kern River in the southern Sierra Nevada range of California. Historically, it is believed these backcountry residents inhabited meandering creeks and drainages from 7,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Due to altitude, the growing season is cut short leaving fish to reach an average length of 6 to 12 inches while individuals over 12 inches are rare and considered trophies. Once reaching sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years of age males will display bright, vibrant mating colors during spawning which occurs in the late spring and early summer when water temperatures reach 10° to 15° C. Females will deposit 300 to 2,500 eggs in shallow redds where they will incubate for 3 weeks. The golden trout was originally thought to be a sub-species of the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). However, recent genetic research suggests there are enough differences between the two to consider the golden trout as its own species.
In the late 1800’s Col. Sherman Stevens transported a small number of goldens from the Kern River tributaries into Cottonwood Creek, CA. After this small population was established, eggs were routinely collected and shipped to a national fish hatchery in Bozeman, Montana throughout the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Montana would soon after establish small populations from the original Cottonwood Creek members deep in its Rocky Mountains. Although this is the earliest account of stocking efforts, golden trout have since been stocked in a number of western states and mountain ranges. Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming have all seen various stocking efforts throughout the decades. Some populations have established while others have faded for one reason or another. Perhaps the synergistic effects of competition, climate change, and dwindling habitat have left these salmonids in small isolated numbers struggling for existence. Whatever the reason for their decline, in 2008 the American Fisheries Society listed the species as threatened. Since these backcountry beauts need pristine, cold headwaters, creeks, or lakes to survive they are typically stocked deep in the heart of mountain ranges, giving the very region they inhabit its soul.
In the backcountry there are three main players: brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii), and golden trout. Brook trout inhabit most every major drainage in the Rocky Mountain west. Due to their tenacity and voracious personality, brook trout have seriously outcompeted cutthroat trout for habitat and resources. Cutthroat trout numbers have suffered in recent history, but stocking efforts seem to be stabilizing their decline. Similar to the golden trout, these mountain residents often fail to reach trophy size of more than 12 inches. However, there are pockets of trophy backcountry cutthroats that can reach 20 inches or more.
Finding them is a pinnacle in itself and their locations are usually closely guarded by fisherman. Now, talk to any backcountry angler about potential golden trout waters and lips quickly become tightly sealed. Due to their extreme rarity, fishermen tend to keep their whereabouts closely guarded, especially if a particular water holds trophy fish in the 20”+ range. In the Wind River mountain range of Wyoming there are multiple lakes that have sequestered such trophies. For whatever reason this particular corner of the Rockies holds monster goldens. There is a catch, however. Most of these locales are deep in the backcountry, sometimes 20 miles one way just to reach them. The pristine waters, lack of competition from other species, and regional productivity give the golden trout the extra boost needed to grow to epic proportions. Putting in time and effort to find these waters can be exhausting. Anglers can hike 15 miles to a prospective lake just to find it barren. Sometimes lakes or creeks that hide goldens are not present on any map almost as if forgotten by the cartographer (or he was hesitant about divulging their location to keep them to himself). But when the stars align, the piscatorial gods smile, and the mountains relinquish a trophy lake to an angler a golden trout must still be enticed to hit a fly. Brook trout are typically always receptive to flies as long as the presentation is halfway decent. Cutthroats will cooperate if an angler does their part, and they usually are more than willing to investigate a buggy morsel. Their cousin, the mighty golden, is the most finicky, stubborn, and picky of the backcountry trifecta. If all goes well, an angler has found cruising fish
and presented a well tied fly. The conditions have to be just right for the golden to bite. Many times trophy goldens will rise to investigate a passing morsel only to reject the offering at the last minute leaving the angler in an irate and frustrated stupor, and rightfully so because those long and grueling miles weren’t hiked just to be rejected by one of God’s creations with a brain the size of a bean. But in the rare instance an angler has the opportunity to hook, fight, and land a trophy golden then they have summited the backcountry pinnacle against all odds.
Taking into consideration the amount of effort required to reach these rare waterways, the paucity of trophy golden trout, and their weary stubbornness to take a fly it is easy to see why many anglers refuse to speak of golden trout locales. In these instances one could consider the golden trout to be the K2 of the backcountry salmonids while leaving the Mt. Everest pinnacle to those looking for something other than hinterland gold. If you ever find yourself in a conversation in which trophy goldens are brought up or pictures are shown, do not bother asking any revealing questions. I guarantee you will receive laughs and sly remarks.
Literature Cited and Further Reading
Behnke, R.J. 1992. Native trout of western North America. American Fisheries Society Monograph 6. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD.
Behnke, R.J. 2002. Trout and salmon of North America. The Free Press, New York, NY.
Cross, F.B., R.L. Mayden, and J.D. Stewart. 1986. Fishes in the western Mississippi basin (Missouri, Arkansas, and Red Rivers). 363-412 in C.H. Hocutt and E.O. Wiley, eds. The zoogeography of North American freshwater fishes. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.
Hubert, W. 1994. Exotic fishes. 158-174 in T.L. Parish and S.H. Anderson, eds. Exotic species manual. Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Laramie, WY.
Marcuson, P. E. 1984. The history and present status of golden trout in Montana. State of Montana, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Fisheries Division.
Miller, R.R., and J.R. Alcorn. 1946. The introduced fishes of Nevada, with a history of their introduction. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 73:173-193.
Moyle, P.B. 2002. Inland fishes of California. 2nd edition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Sigler, W.F., and J.W. Sigler. 1987. Fishes of the Great Basin: a natural history. University of Nevada Press, Reno, NV
Wiltzius, W.J. 1985. Fish culture and stocking in Colorado, 1872-1978. Division Report 12. Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Zuckerman, L.D., and R.J. Behnke. 1986. Introduced fishes in the San Luis Valley, Colorado. 435-452 in R.H. Stroud, ed. Fish culture in fisheries management. Proceedings of a symposium on the role of fish culture in fisheries management at Lake Ozark, MO, March 31-April 3, 1985. American Fisheries Society, Bethesda, MD.
http://calfish.ucdavis.edu/species/?uid=117&ds=241 Photo by Gerard Carmona Catot
http://www.backpacker.com/skills/multisport-skills/fishing/catch-a-golden-trout/ Photo by Graham Owen