Backcountry Trek for Golden Trout
June 11, 2019
Hike in for trout treasure in these High Sierra lakes.
Golden trout fishing requires gaining altitude to where the scenery and trek can take your breath away.
Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over and across jagged granite, I found myself perched 11,300 feet above sea level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake, about a mile and hundreds of feet below. The gray walls of the high peaks reflected off the deep blue of the lake. The solemn green of the evergreens cast deep contrast against the light granite with a dappling of brilliant goldenrod amid sparse quaking aspen and grasses changing with the season.
Turning around, I faced the cluster of four alpine lakes, known as the Treasure Lakes, in the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Thirteen-thousand-foot Mt. Dade loomed overhead to the south. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted gray by the wind, was feeding the lakes. Below the shimmering surface of the crystal-clear depths lay pure California gold.
California’s state fish, the California golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) is native to only two creeks draining the Kern Plateau but has been distributed throughout many of the high Sierra lakes where they now thrive. Revered as one of the most beautiful trout in the world, golden trout have made the bucket list for many anglers, myself included. Their beauty, complimentary to the breathtaking wilderness areas in which they thrive, the effort required to reach their habitat, and the suite of skills required to entice a strike harmoniously strums every chord in my soul.
There are a number of golden trout lakes in the Sierra Nevada range, but the Treasure Lakes in the Little Lakes Valley are by far the most productive, in my experience, and are managed under the general fishing regulations for the Sierra District of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Little Lakes Valley is nestled between the towns of Bishop and Mammoth Lakes, along the eastern side of the Sierras.
Accessing the wilderness via the Mosquito Flats-Mono Pass Trailhead provides a generally modest hike into some of the most scenic wilderness the Western U.S. has to offer. The trailhead lies at approximately 10,200 feet elevation, 20 minutes up the Rock Creek drainage from U.S. Highway 395.
The main trails are well-manicured, but an official trail to Treasure Lakes has not been developed. A narrow fisherman’s path follows the Treasure Lakes drainage from the southern end of Long Lake, traversing a long boulder field as it climbs. To avoid losing the trail among the boulders, follow the bottom of the drainage and work along the right side of the canyon as you ascend. The complete hike climbs about 1,100 feet over 5 miles.
From the northeast to the south, and around to the northwest, the Treasure Lakes are numbered 1 through 4 on a map included in Eastern Sierra Back Country Fishing Guide, published by the CDFW. The trail arrives at Lake 1 to the northeast. Lakes 1 and 2 hold golden and brook trout, while only goldens are found in lakes 3 and 4.
A number of common trout-fishing techniques with flies or lures coax these little beauties into a strike, but prepare to work for the goldens, particularly if fishing later in the season. If spinning gear is your forte, focus on ultralight tackle with no larger than 4-pound-test monofilament or similar diameter fluorocarbon line for finicky fish. While some larger fish may be lurking in the depths, the majority of your catch will likely measure 12 inches or shorter.
Lure patterns such as Panther Martin, Rooster Tail, Super Duper, and Daredevle spoons are reliable classics, but use the smallest size available. Avoid swivels and split-shot if possible for a more “natural” presentation. You may need to vary retrieval speeds, and if a simple reel-in retrieve doesn’t produce with the Daredevle or Super Duper, try pausing or twitching randomly.
Fly-fishing offers the best opportunity for success, in my experience. Standard patterns like the Adams, Royal Wulff, Blue-winged Olive, and Caddis in sizes 16-18 reliably elicit strikes. Wind can be unpredictable in the higher elevations, but casting comes easy when the gusts lay down. Lay out a dry fly on a 7 1/2-foot, 5X tapered leader, where the shallows drop into the deep blue, and let it ride.
When conditions are right, dry-fly fishing can be remarkable. Keep the fly on the water as long as possible, allowing cruising fish to spot the fly. Watching fish approach the fly from more than 20 feet away is a remarkable experience. Sight-casting works with a soft presentation. Be sure to place the fly far enough ahead of a cruising fish to avoid spooking it as the line touches down on the clear water. But beware, goldens can be quite picky, scrutinizing a dry fly like a clever spring creek brown trout.
Backcountry fishing also requires thrift in gear selection. I recommend a full-sinking fly line and just a few common wet-fly and nymph patterns as the single, most effective method.
Sizing up Lake 3, I tied up a size 14 Hare’s Ear wet-fly on my 4-weight. Stepping down onto a boulder along the lake’s edge, I rolled the olive-green sinking line into the depths. After a 6-second countdown, I began my retrieve with short, quick strips, pausing randomly. My breath, still labored from the climb, or maybe just the elevation, was sucked away completely as the line jerked tight between my fingertips. The fly was engulfed as it slowly sank on the pause.
A moment of panic overwhelmed me, as I realized I was playing a trout I had obsessed about for more than a decade. Kneeling on the flat boulder, rod tip held high overhead, I softly cradled my first golden trout in the frigid alpine waters. An awesome spectacle — its rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks and olive-sized parr marks — in a small package.
Common, effective wet flies and nymphs include soft-hackle flies, such as Hare’s Ear, and nymph patterns — Pheasant Tail, Copper John, Hare’s Ear in sizes 14-18. Let your line sink at least 6 to 8 seconds before beginning your retrieve. Strips should be short and quick, about 6 inches at a time, pausing the fly randomly after a series of strips. If quick strips don’t work, slow the retrieve. And if all else fails, choose a smaller fly. Stripping a size 16, bead-headed nymph will produce when larger flies fail.
Another tip for fishing wet flies and streamers: steer clear of a tapered leader. Tapered leaders carry buoyancy that floats the fly above the sinking line and reduces the fly’s action. Instead, cut a 4-foot length of light fluorocarbon line as your leader. You can avoid the buoyancy issues of the tapered leader, and the softness of the fluorocarbon will allow the fly to move more naturally under water.
While pursuit of High-Sierra gold is the allure of a backcountry trip into the Treasure Lakes, proper fishing gear and technique are only pieces of the puzzle of success. Day-hiking can be enjoyable with the potential for an overall exceptional experience, but when breaching 10,000 feet, elevation is a force to be reckoned with.
It’s common knowledge that atmospheric oxygen saturation decreases with increasing elevation, but it’s difficult to appreciate the significance of “thin air” without having survived it. The symptoms of altitude sickness are basically that of severe dehydration with headache, nausea, dizziness and energy loss. At no time in my life have I felt worse than amidst the dire clutches of altitude sickness. If traveling to the Sierras from elevations below 6,000 feet, consider camping or lodging at about 8,000 feet for a couple days to acclimate to the environment before setting out for higher destinations.
Other things to consider in thin air at altitude is the sun’s rays. Chap stick and sunscreen or long sleeves, pants and a large-brimmed hat are important as the sun’s rays are more intense in the alpine environment. Hydration is also key in remaining comfortable at high elevation. Packing light with a water filter is a viable option.
The U.S. Forest Service publishes a free guide (PDF format) — Eastern Sierra Backcountry Fishing Guide – USDA Forest Service — to the high lakes. It provides excellent location and species information. I recommend using it in combination with additional internet searches to understand length and difficulty of hikes, trail popularity and quality of fishing for a given lake. Just remember: information on catch rates and fish size can change dramatically between seasons. I typically assume information older than two years to be a data point, but not necessarily accurate to the present.
STRIKE IT RICH
With some pre-trip planning and research, striking gold in the Treasure Lakes, or other areas of the Sierra Nevadas, is easily attainable. Standing among the jagged peaks, stunted pines and crystalline waters of the alpine elevations neatly framed the experience for this angler. The feeling of amazement and blessing, as I gazed for the first time upon the overall masterpiece of a true golden trout in the Sierra Nevada backcountry, will not soon depart.
Golden Trout – A Timeline for Conservation
The historic distribution of California golden trout includes two watersheds draining the Kern Plateau of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California: Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River.
However, their populations have been imperiled since the early 1900s. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt recommended a biologist to be dispatched to study the plight of California’s golden trout.
In the 1960s, the State of California embarked on an intense conservation program to conserve the species and their habitat, which was historically damaged by heavy livestock overgrazing. In 1978, the Golden Trout Wilderness was established within the Inyo and Sequoia National Forests, protecting the upper watersheds of the Kern and South Fork Kern Rivers. — Scott Trumbo