The golden trout is found naturally only in the Kern River basin, but it has been stocked outside its native range in Wyoming, Montana, and Washington. This beautiful species may be the result of an ancient hybridization of rainbows and an ancestral golden trout. Migratory fish, like a steelhead, may have moved into the Kern River and spawned with the resident trout. The result - a beautiful fish that teems with color.
Scientists think that there are three subspecies of golden trout, all found in the same small drainage basin that were separated by landslides, glaciers, and waterfalls or other barriers; and to some degree, they remain separated today. Modern testing, using the fish's DNA, bears out the theory that rainbow trout are related to golden trout.
Parts of the Kern River basin are underlain with dark basaltic lava rock. Like wearing dark clothes, these rocks hold the heat on a sunny day. The same could be said for some golden trout habitat. These fish are well adapted to their home waters that hold the heat. Even though these fish live at high elevations, the summer sun can stoke the water to about 80 degrees, a temperature that would make other trout species a little uncomfortable.
Like most other native western trout species, the golden trout spawns in the spring, from June to July, at water temperatures around 52 degrees. Movement to and from spawning habitat is minimal. Golden trout that inhabit lakes may move to the outlets or inlets to spawn. Female goldens dig loose gravels in a riffle, ridding it of sediment. The eggs are deposited, fertilized and covered with clean gravel. A 12-inch female might lay 1,200 eggs in a single spawning season. The eggs hatch in about three weeks time. After hatching, the golden trout fry eat tiny zooplankton and as they get bigger, set about eating mayflies, scuds, ants, wasps, and beetles. It takes about three to five years for a golden trout to mature.
Golden trout may put on about a half inch per year, depending upon where they live. The largest known fish, caught from Wyoming's Cooke Lake, weighed 11 pounds. In the past, fishermen caught goldens as big as 8 pounds. But such is not the case today. A 15-incher is about as large as you might find in the Kern River. A short growing season means slow growth. Ice-out in the California high country may not come until the end of May. A few months of warm weather may ensue, but winter always comes early in the high elevations.
Adult golden trout are strictly insect eaters, surviving mostly on caddis and midge, both aquatic and terrestrial. Ants, grasshoppers, and small beetles are in the diet to a lesser degree. This species is active throughout the spring and summer and can be seen rising on the surface at just about any time of the day.
The California Fish and Game department is working hard to improve the conservation status of golden trout. Of primary concern is hybridization with hatchery stocked rainbow trout. The hatchery fish could interbred with the native goldens and essentially breed them out of existence.
Snow keeps some golden trout waters inaccessible until well into spring or summer. Some require hiking or packing into the wilderness. But given the species' penchant for aquatic bugs, they are a fly-fisherman's fish.
--Springer is a fisheries scientist in New Mexico
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