I would put money on the fact that anyone addicted to mountains and adipose fins has, at some point, dreamed of landing a true golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) in California’s Sierra Nevada range. Personally, I have obsessed about it for years.
California golden trout are native to only two stream systems on the eastern side of the Kern River (Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River) in the Golden Trout Wilderness, but have 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 anglers of many nations.
My opportunity to prospect California gold came in September at a moment’s notice. With minimal prep time, my friend Chas and I set out for novel waters. As avid fly fishermen, we had a solid grasp of our gear needs, but the high Sierra environment can be readily humbling, particularly for those of us living below approximately 6,000 feet in elevation. I am a lowlander with alpine backcountry experience, but each region or mountain range brings its own challenges. Here is what you should know to strike gold, day-hiking in the high Sierra Nevada.
Its common knowledge that atmospheric oxygen saturation decreases with increasing elevation, but it’s difficult to appreciate the significance of “thin air” without surviving it. My first trip into the Sierras, my wife and I drove up to a trailhead from around 1,500 feet to over 8,000 feet. We lasted approximately two miles of a day hike before the crippling symptoms of altitude sickness sent us clawing our way to the car and back to our lowland, oxygen-rich environment.
For those who have never experienced altitude sickness, the symptoms 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 clutches of altitude sickness.
Lesson learned: Never embark on a high elevation adventure without at least two days prior acclimation. Know your max elevation and try to base camp within about 3,000 feet of it.
Another high elevation consideration is being closer to the sun. Sunscreen and lip balm are critical. I always opt for long-sleeved, quick-dry clothing. Huk apparel is a perfect choice. You may even want to protect your face, neck, and ears with a Huk gaiter.
Climate and Weather
Late September blessed us with bluebird skies and temperatures in the upper sixties mid-day. At about 8,000 feet, temps would dip into the mid-thirties at night, and below freezing over 10,000 feet. The season changed from late summer to early fall with the quaking aspen leaves turning somewhere around 9,500 feet. Prepare to wear at least a sweatshirt or a packable jacket for the morning hike.
Expect wind. While it may be calm at lower elevations, every day on the lakes offered high gusts and generally sustained winds up to twenty miles per hour. As with the acute sun exposure, the wind is rough on skin. Lip balm is essential!
While we did not experience any rain, always be prepared for every condition. Summer thunderstorms through August are common. You won’t need to pack rain gear on every hike, but have it available. If there is a chance of rain, take your rain gear. Sunny and sixty can change rapidly to hypothermic conditions in the alpine.
Also, the Sierra climate can be bone dry.
Lesson Learned: Humidity below 30% is possible and will wreck your sinuses and skin. The wind, sun, and low humidity combined can make hands cracked and rough within hours. Consider nasal spray, hand lotion, and of course, lip balm.
Hydration is Key
Drink water. Constantly. A gallon per day should be your minimum goal. Staying hydrated will combat altitude sickness and minimize torture on sinuses and skin.
Go easy on the booze! The effects of alcohol in such a dry climate with low oxygen can be disastrous. Even one drink can disrupt sleep and exacerbate the symptoms of altitude sickness, thus detracting from what could be an epic wilderness experience. You will need your sleep every night to tackle the mountain the next morning.
I recently stayed in Mammoth Lakes, California, at about 8,000 feet and fished similar elevation for a couple days while acclimating to local conditions. The third day I hiked a ten-mile out-and-back to Treasure Lakes in the John Muir Wilderness. My only noticeable symptom of high elevation was shortness of breath. Remember to pace yourself and work into a breathing rhythm like an endurance runner, particularly on steep climbs.
Ideally, you will have time to exercise in preparation for you trip, but you can’t simulate the Sierra atmosphere. Remember, it’s not a race. If at any time you feel the effects of altitude sickness, turn back, fish a closer lake, and try it again the next day. You can’t “walk it off”.
I fantasize of solitude and peace in the wilderness, but rest assured, the beauty and accessibility of many of the high Sierra lakes attracts a high volume of visitors. The good news? There are a number of golden trout lakes within easy day-hiking distance.
To this end, fishing is likely best soon after ice-off in June or early July. Chas and I found fish, but we worked for them. We expected fish indiscriminately gill-deep in the feed bag in preparation for the upcoming eight months of ice. To our surprise, many golden trout studied our flies like a complex text the night before a college exam, nonchalantly turning away with high-brow arrogance.
Gear and Essentials
Backpack: You will want a mid-sized pack in the thirty-liter range for day trips. There is a sweet spot relative to pack size that must not be breached, and here is why. Whether you realize it or not, if you have room in your pack, you will fill it with something unnecessary. The additional weight may not be noticeable at first, but will cost you energy and stamina in the long run. A mid-sized pack can be stuffed to the gills with food, water, first aid, fishing gear, and clothing sufficient to get you through a long day unburdened.
Conversely, too small a pack will likely lead you to cut water supply as this tends to be the bulk of the load. Bad decision. I always carry a safe water supply of two-liters in a hydration bladder in addition to a filter on day hikes.
Be certain the pack fits you well. Fitting a pack comfortably sounds simple, but if you are new to the backcountry game, or an unusually sized person like me (super tall), I recommend you go to an outdoor shop like REI, or other local ski or climbing specialist as they generally have knowledgeable staff and good selection to fit you properly. Appropriate weight distribution and comfort can add miles to your hike and days to your stamina.
Boots and Socks: Good boots and socks are a must. Feet are incredibly unique, so I can’t tell you how to fit a boot, but I can tell you they must provide adequate ankle support, be durable, and comfortable. If you are not familiar with good hiking boots, I recommend talking to staff at an outdoor specialty shop under the same logic as fitting a pack.
Comfort is key, and good socks can make or break your trip. You can have the best boots on the market, but a pair of thin cotton socks in a new pair of boots can result in an unfortunate hike back to the truck. Game over. I wear smart wool for everything hiking. There are a number of choices on the market, so its tough to go wrong in my opinion. But remember, you get what you pay for.
Essentials: I have mentioned a variety of needs or recommended items for handling elevation, wind, and dry conditions. Here is a bulleted list that I found critical to my comfort and overall enjoyment of the trip.
- Water: Two liters for a ten-hour day
- Food: I pack light. A few granola bars and some form of protein. You may need more than that.
- Lip balm
- Sweat shirt (if necessary)
- Basic First Aid: Waterproof tape, gauze, bandages, latex gloves, space blanket, acetaminophen and antihistamines. This will all fit in a zip-lock sandwich bag. The more remote and rugged, the more important items like ace bandages and suture kits become.
- Rain jacket (if necessary)
- Trekking poles (optional): Truth be told, I carry an ironwood stick from Appalachia that can support my 280 pounds and serves for self-defense. I use it to distribute my weight on unstable surfaces mostly. Some form of hiking stick or pole helps with balance and full-body assistance on climbs. The advantage to trekking poles is they can be broken down, strapped onto a pack, and weight next to nothing.
Fishing Gear: If you have read any of my other Angler Pros blog posts you are probably expecting a laundry list of fly-fishing gear. You are partially correct. Because backcountry fishing requires thrift, a sparse supply of the right items is best.
I do recommend fly fishing. Why? Out of a dozen lakes we fished over a few days and the thirty-something other anglers we encountered, only three anglers caught fish; the only three fly-fishermen. If you are not a fly-fisherman, there is a hybrid spinning method I discuss below.
Given the wind, the most successful approach was one that I preach time and again; a sinking line with a small nymph or wet fly. Sinking the fly deep, stripping very short, quick strips, and pausing randomly produced the vast majority of our fish.
For a single set-up, I recommend a nine-foot, five-weight pack rod (minimum four-piece). The five-weight is generally too heavy for fish averaging less than twelve inches, but was important for casting into the wind. Fit the rod with a full sinking line, fluorocarbon leader, and a handful of beaded nymphs and wet flies of common patterns (prince nymph, hare’s ear, pheasant tail, copper John, etc.) ranging from size 14-18.
I generally recommend a four-foot leader for a sinking line, but for picky fish and crystal-clear water, you should tie up a few feet of 4X to the fly line, then attach a few more feet of 5X or 6X to the 4X, making at least a six-foot leader. Remember, a tapered dry-fly leader doesn’t work as well because it has buoyancy, causing the fly to float above the sinking line, botching the action.
Fishing Gear Summary
- Five-weight pack rod (minimum four-piece) + a spare
- Reel with full sinking line
- Fluorocarbon tippet (4X-6X)
- One box of flies (common patterns size 14-18)
- Line clippers
The Alternative Method
If you are not a fly-fisherman, you can use the simple “float n fly” method. This method uses a small slip bobber to fish nymphs, wet flies, and even streamers on your spinning rod.
Set-up: (Google for illustrations)
- Slip the bobber-stop up the line
- Slip the line through the bobber
- Tie a barrel swivel on the end of the line (acts as a bobber stop and tippet connection)
- Tie on about sixteen inches of 5X tippet
- Tie on your fly of choice
- Estimate about twelve feet of line above the fly and tighten the bobber stop
- Put a small split-shot on the tippet below the swivel
You are now ready to spin/fly-fish. The fly can be cast and gently worked in giving it some action, or nymphs can simply be left hanging. This works particularly well when there is a little chop on the water. I won’t promise this method is as effective as using fly-fishing gear, but it may very well be the key to landing golden trout rather than enviously watching others.
Resources and Planning
The US Forest Service developed an excellent guide to the high lakes of the Sierra Nevada and is available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5410679.pdf. This guide provides locations and species information for the Sierra lakes, but I recommend using it in combination with internet searches to get a handle on length and difficulty of hikes, trail popularity, and the quality of fishing.
As always, the more recent the information, the more likely it will be representative of conditions when you arrive. When it comes to fisheries, information on catch rates, fish size, etc., can change within a season. I typically assume information older than two years to be a data point of how it could be, but not necessarily indicative of the present.
I covered a number of intimidating negatives associated with pursuing golden trout in the high Sierras, but rest assured, following my recommendations will keep you healthy, happy, and eager for a future trip.
Striking it Rich
Our last mile of ascent traversed what appeared to be a glacial spillway. What looked like a talus slope from afar turned out to be a massive boulder-strewn drainage between two granite walls. The fisherman’s trail was no longer discernible, so in classic Chas fashion, he picked the most difficult route; straight up.
Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me firmly atop a solid outcrop at 11,300 feet. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake over a mile and hundreds of feet below. The gray walls of the high peaks reflected off the deep blue depths of the lake. The solemn green of the evergreens cast dark contrast against the light granite with a dappling of brilliant goldenrod from the quaking aspen and grasses changing with the season.
Turning around, I faced the cluster of four known as Treasure Lakes. Twelve-thousand-foot peaks loomed overhead. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted gray by the wind, was still feeding the lakes. Eagerly, we scrambled to a lake holding strictly golden trout. The sun shone high on the transparent water revealing every detail of its depths, yet the lake refused to divulge its fish.
I rigged up with a small wet fly, stepped down onto a boulder along the edge of the lake, and rolled the olive-green sinking line into the infinite blue. My strips were short and sweet, pauses barely longer. My breath was labored from the climb, or maybe just the elevation, but was sucked away completely as the line jerked tight between my fingertips.
The fight is now a mere blur, but the feeling of amazement as I gazed for the first time upon the rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks, olive-sized parr marks, and overall marvel of a true golden trout in the Sierra Nevada back-country will not soon depart.