Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Little Kern Golden Trout

Pointing at Farewell Gap 6.5 miles away.
Looking back at Mineral King

The Little Kern Golden Trout (O. mykiss whitei) is the second prettiest fish in the world. Except for the stunning South Fork Kern Golden trout (O. mykiss aquabonita) the Little Kern Golden has the most spectacular coloration and features a trout can have.  Unfortunately, the Little Kern Golden is not as well known or photographed as the South Fork Kern Golden, which holds the honor of being the California state fish.  Tucked away in a high Sierra valley only accessible by a long, up hill, multiday backpacking trip, this beautiful trout has only been seen or caught by dedicated outdoors people.  Whether the trout’s stunning colors were a surprise for a passing visitor or a celebrated triumph for a trout enthusiast no one could deny that the Little Kern Golden is a unique and beautiful fish. 
The Little Kern River and Farewell Gap

            The Little Kern Golden is most closely related to the South fork Kern Golden trout, which is the ancestral species of the Kern valley and also known as either the Volcano Creek Golden Trout (geographically separated from the South Fork Kern Golden by a waterfall in Volcano Creek) or the Golden Trout Creek Golden Trout (the south fork of the Kern is also called Golden Trout Creek).  The South fork Kern Golden took residence in the Kern valley approximately 70,000 years ago (Benhke 2002).  At some point the Little Kern Golden became geographically isolated and evolved slightly different characteristics during thousands of years of isolation.   The Kern River Rainbow Trout was also isolated from the same ancestral population and has diverged more dramatically to resemble a coastal rainbow.  It is thought that coastal rainbows may have inter-bred with the Kern River Rainbow though invasion form the San Joaquin river system.  
            Both the South fork Kern and Little Kern have olive to golden-olive backs and golden flanks with a crimson red lateral line.  They have white bellies and iridescent purple par marks throughout adulthood.  The South fork Kern Goldens have large spots concentrated at the tail that fade towards the head.  Little Kern Goldens have significantly more spots and variation in spot size.  Spots occur from head to tail and predominantly above the lateral line. 
            I spent at least one week in the Sierras every summer I lived in California.  I mainly camped and fished in Kings Canyon National Park but have backpacked in the Golden Trout Wilderness as well.  My first trip for Goldens was to the Cottonwood Lakes area in the southeastern Sierras.  The Cottonwood Lakes were used as fish-rearing facilities for South Fork Kern Goldens and although they are not used for that purpose anymore they remain a decent spot to catch some beautiful trout.  Since they are not part of the native range of the South Fork Kern Golden they do not count for the California Heritage trout challenge but they are a great place to visit.  You have to be able hike 6 miles starting at about 10,500’ and finishing well over 11,000.  You also have to sleep at very high altitude, which can be hard on the brain blood vessels.   Two weeks ago I headed out of Mineral King in southern Sequoia National park to the head waters of the Little Kern River to try and catch a Little Kern Golden trout.
            We had spoken with a ranger the previous week and found out that the pass we were planning on heading over, Farewell Gap, was still very snow covered and no one had made it over yet.  We gave it a shot anyway and set our sights on getting over to the Little Kern valley.  The hike was about 8.5 miles and 3000 feet of elevation gain culminating at the 10,500 foot Farewell Gap where Sequoia Park ended and the Golden Trout Wilderness began.  It took 7 hours, 3 dangerous river crossings, 3 perilous snow reroutes, 1 hail storm and 1 nearly lost hiking boot to get there but we made it.  We were the first people of the year to make it over and were completely alone in the Little Kern valley.  Ahh, solitude. 
Top of Farewell Gap
            The valley was amazing.  Bristle cone pines dotted the rocky mountainsides and the Little Kern River cut a silvery slash across the verdant valley floor.  The river was moving really fast, fed by snowmelt creeks that seemed to spring from every crevasse in the valley walls.   Water falls cascaded off sheer cliffs in nearly every feeder creek.  The Little Kern River originates from upper and lower Bull Frog lakes and drops 1,100 feet in 0.5 miles on its way to the valley floor.  A spectacular waterfall coming down from the lakes seemed to be an impenetrable fish barrier.  
Fishing the Little Kern

            The next day we hiked up to Bullfrog lakes.  A few websites say that upper and lower Bullfrog lakes have Little Kern Goldens so I thought that would be my best shot for catching one since the river was swollen and running too fast for fishing.  The lower lake is at 10,700’ and we started at about 9,900’ so it was tough going and the trail wasn’t exactly easy to follow.  We got up there and ran into a mother and her two daughters.  They had hiked through the same hail we did and made it up to Bullfrog the night before.  They traversed without a trail from the pass to the lakes.  I can’t believe they made it.  What a tough day.  We hiked over to the lake and didn’t see any fish.  In fact, both lakes as far as I could tell were fishless.  Upper Bullfrog was still partially frozen over so who knows if the trout were active yet.  I assume that if there were fish at all they would try to start feeding as soon as the ice was off the surface.  Maybe they were still deep and not active yet but I doubt it.  I think they are either fishless or nearly fishless.  I walked back down, defeated.  I tried the river all day in every possible pocket and pool with dries and nymphs, big and small but no fish.  I didn’t even see a fish skitter away at any point.  The upper Little Kern headwaters do not contain a sizable population of trout, at least in July after the melt.  I’ll have to try again and come in from the South where the river is larger.  
Lower Bullfrog Lake
Upper Bullfrog Lake
High sticking with no success

            Even though my trip to catch a Little Kern Golden was unsuccessful it was still a great backpacking trip and the scenery was spectacular.  Honestly, any trip to the Sierras is a success if you love the outdoors.   
Looking out towards the south at sunset.  The Little Kern Golden is somewhere down stream....