In Search of Golden Trout in the Eastern Sierra

Jul 14, 2021

There’s something mysteriously alluring and downright magical about golden trout.

An aura hangs around California’s state fish that enables it to swim through angler’s dreams and even calls out to non-anglers to make a mecca into the High Sierra—battling the snow, wind and even Big Foot if necessary, just to catch a glimpse of a golden.

About the Eastern Sierra Golden Trout

Other Names for Golden Trout

Oncorhynchus aquabonita Also called Volcano Creek, Little Kern, Mountain or Roosevelt trout.

Average Size of Golden Trout

Average “6- 12.” World Record: 11.25 lb, 28” golden landed in Wyoming in 1948. California record: 9.8 lb landed in Virginia Lake in 1952.

Where to Find Golden Trout

Golden troute have historically been found from Lake Isabella north along Kern River’s tributaries to just above Rock Creek. Transplanted by miners and other strange smelling folk across the High Sierra. Experts believe these trout currently inhabit about 300 bodies of water throughout the region.

The ideal habitat for a golden trout is clear cool lakes and streams above 6,600’, but above 10,000’ is your best chance at catching one. In Mammoth Lakes, you can hike to higher elevation lakes out of the Mammoth Lakes Basin or Sherwin Range. Just outside of town, you can also hike to golden-friendly lakes along the June Lake Loop, the Treasure Lakes area above Bishop or the Cottonwoods Lakes area in the Golden Trout Wilderness near Lone Pine.

Golden Trout Fun Facts

Named official state fish of California in 1947, the golden trout was once transplanted as far as east as New York. Now primarily found in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, the Wind River Range in Wyoming and the Golden State’s Sierra Nevada.

Golden trout have few natural predators besides man, although some folks believe there are no true wild goldens left — they’re all just some form of rainbow, brook and golden hybrids.

One theory states golden trout’s beautiful golden color is mainly to attract mates. Sadly the fish’s colors fade at lower elevations, so if you want to see a brightly colored golden trout, your best bet is to fish on the high end of their habitat’s elevation. 

A Tale of Fishing for Golden Trout

So it was with the shear delight of a boy landing his first monster Alpers trout that I accepted an invitation to join a group of Eastsiders on their annual spring trek to the Eastern High Sierra in search of golden trout.

“Okay, okay, now stop squealing like a girl,” said Billy Ray, the trip organizer after I delightedly accept the invitation. “There are only two rules: As the rookie, you’ve got to carry in beer for everybody else; And you can’t write about where we go or we’ll kidnap your first born and raise him as a Yankees fan!”

[Having grown rather fond of my first born, this threat will be heeded.]

The morning of our departure greeted us with bluebird skies and a half-foot of fresh spring snow. Come to think of it, make that three feet—this is a fishing story, for crying out loud. Despite the snow, our group of three (a fourth person would hike in later) headed into the mountains in the spirit of the Sierra Nevada’s most famous sojourner, John Muir. The only real difference being that Muir only took a knife, some tea bags and crackers with him while we each packed bags the size of Volkswagen Bugs stuffed with beer, fishing tackle and canned oysters.

After hiking for hour upon hour, through snow, rain, wind, sleet and flatulence, crossing over the Canadian border twice and apparently passing over some place in Uruguay, we made it to our first night’s camp. Ollie, the lone city slicker/non-Eastsider in the group, immediately marked his spot in camp by puking on it, which is apparently his tradition. I decided to mark my spot by putting my VW-sized backpack down on it instead.

As the sun slowly set like a comet crashing into the evergreen canopy above, our fourth member, G-Dubs, triumphantly arrived in camp. Triumphant because not only was he carrying a pack the size of VW Bus on his back, but he also held what at first looked like a large purse, but thankfully turned out to be a canvas bag from The Gap filled with beer.

Early the next morning, as Clark’s Nutcrackers swooped in to snatch up any crumbs we’d left from breakfast and our crew sang Little Feet’s classic, “There’s a Fat Man in a Bathtub with the blues,” we made our final decent to the goldens. By late afternoon, we’d made it to Lake Tellanyoneandwe’llkillya. And the casting commenced.

Before the sun had finally set in a blaze of High Sierra glory, Billy Ray had landed several goldens, Ollie had a few and G-Dubs had caught so many fish he was hoarse from hollerin’ out ”Fish on!”

I, however, got skunked on goldens, only catching a couple of lazy rainbows, and crawled into my bivouac that night dejected. It seemed like all that long, lonely night the wind whispered through the pine trees those famous words of John Steinbeck: “Any man who pits his intelligence against a fish and loses has it coming.”

Late the next morning, however, the Fishing Gods decided to smile upon me and finally I proved that I’m as smart as at least a few golden trout.

Landing that first one was a thrill I’ll never forget. Besides the birth of my children or seeing my wife on our wedding day, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything so awe-inspiring. For a few seconds, it felt like holding a squirming, glimmering slice of heaven in my wet hands.

Later that night, as we sat around watching the sun melt over the Sierra Nevada, G-Dubs told us about the legend of the Ghostman of Lake Tellanyoneandwe’llkillya. The Ghostman is an old, gray haired guy who always wears a flannel shirt, jeans and a trash bag when it rains. Ghostman seems to always appear out of nowhere and the best chance you have of seeing him is when he’s shore casting from his favorite point on the lake. Even though the Ghostman always startles you at first, he’s said to be good luck.

We never did see the Ghostman that trip, but maybe he decided to send us some luck anyway, since I did get to see another mysterious legend of the High Sierra—a golden trout.


Mike McKenna

Award-winning author and journalist Mike McKenna is the writer behind the new book Casting Around the Eastern Sierra, which was recently awarded runner-up in the Outdoor Writers Association of California's Best Outdoor Guidebook category. The book focuses on fishing in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding area, with tips and tricks from local experts.

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