Chasing the Iconic Golden Trout Along the John Muir Trail
Article by Adam Klagsbrun
In the Summer of 2017 I had the pleasure of backpacking the John Muir Trail (JMT), which happens to be one of the most beautiful and iconic backpacking trails in the United States. It requires a heck of a lot of commitment and planning – both in terms of time and effort. I quit my job and built a long road trip around this idea, but the JMT was the crux as well as the peak of the whole experience by far.
The trail officially runs for 211 miles, from Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park, to Mount Whitney, with an elevation change of almost 47,000 feet. It crosses through Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the John Muir Wilderness and maybe more that I’ve left out by mistake.
There was a lot on the table for me in this experience. I was warned that I would have to navigate the snowiest season in recorded high-Sierra history, contend with actually life-threatening water crossings (two women died in the weeks just before I hiked the trail,) as well as survive a bumper-crop of mosquitoes and smoke from two fires burning just as it was time to begin the trek. But, let me get this out of the way right now, the only thing that ended up being an issue out of that list of warnings was the mosquito hatch. Everything else ended up being overblown and it was by far the most perfect possible year in which to hike the trail. I feel lucky.
Possibly the best part of all of this for a tenkara angler is knowing that along the way, I’d have the chance to fish some of the most fantastic tenkara-friendly water in the country. And that one particular trout native to that region was calling my name, the golden trout!
Golden trout are native to a very limited area in the Southern High Sierra mountains of California. The details relating to their range and history are rather complicated and best digested with a bit of time, as well as a glass of whiskey. Frankly, I didn’t concern myself with all of those details, and focused on the more important elements of surviving a long distance through-hike in style, while still feeling the energy to fish along the way.
Some of the golden trout I caught were hybrid, while others were pure. Some were native where I caught them, while others had been introduced. One thing that was always for sure was their willingness to hit a fly, almost any fly, when one was presented. Catching golden trout was surprisingly easy. Getting to them, and being where one can present a fly, however, was not.
Healthy golden trout populations exist mostly far above 10,000 feet, and along the southern portion of the trail. In the northern section of the trail, and at lower altitudes, I caught rainbows, browns and brook trout, with the latter being the most prevalent fish other than the golden trout up at the higher elevations.
I remember vividly coming over Seldon Pass, and down the most beautiful little gorge along some tight switchbacks. There was quite a bit of snowmelt flowing off of a mountainside snowfield. As I walked down into this beautiful area, I noticed some particularly colorful trout dashing up and down the current of this tiny little stream. They were my first look at pure golden trout, and they were beautiful!
Below the pass was Heart Lake, and looking down from the trail, one could see literally hundreds of these beautiful trout hanging out in the inflow, feeding, in a post-spawn frenzy that put a huge smile on my face. Fishing lakes along that middle section of trail was just a taste. Many more passes, lakes and streams lay ahead for me to fish.
Survival in the High Sierra is something that clearly all forms of life struggle with, as one can see from hiking this trail; even during August, a month we would consider solidly summer even in most high-mountain regions. The record levels of snowfall this year meant additional challenges for us, but also additional beauty to observe. The flowers, normally fighting for drops of water to support a few buds, were instead blooming with abundance all around. The wilderness of the High Sierra was unusually lush, green, and teeming with life. It was amazing.
But just as the wildlife and flowers were thriving in this ideal environment, humans surely were not. I learned many valuable lessons about pitching tents with rocks, positioning oneself behind breaks to help with the high winds, and choosing a forested site when possible to avoid condensation. Carrying the right warm clothing, a trekking umbrella, a good shelter, some micro-spikes, a warm backpacking quilt and extra food were absolutely necessary at all times.
Along the way I heard many stories of people who weren’t prepared not making it. There were a few missing people along the trail near the South Fork King’s river, and as I fished for some golden trout there, a ranger questioned me to see if I had seen them. I was constantly reminded by the dangers of nature all around. Yet my experience went without so much as a hitch beyond a prematurely worn out pair of hiking shoes.
The most beautiful area that I caught golden trout in, was near the base of Mount Whitney’s eastern side. The surrounding mountains were all dissected by streams and rivers that were all teeming with hungry golden trout, which brings me to the fishing aspect. There really isn’t much to say other than that its absolutely amazing. The fish are just always hungry. They have a few precious months in which to eat, and then they are stuck in a frozen world for the rest of the year.
All you need to do is position yourself in a way that does not spook them, and present a fly. Pretty much any fly, and you can present it sloppily, too. Usually the fly gets eaten as soon as it hits the water, or at least as soon as it sinks, if the fish aren’t feeding in the top of the water column.
Throughout the trail, I found myself fishing in the most beautiful areas, with some of the most beautiful backdrops of my life. I was able to focus on my technique, casting with mostly open sky above, picking pockets and enticing trout to appear from the depths below to viciously attack my fly. Honing my skills, even though they weren’t needed at all.
There was something incredibly special about being up at these extreme altitudes and following in the footsteps of some of the earliest wilderness explorers. Living a dream, chasing a different kind of California gold, traveling the mountains without knowing exactly what I was looking for… and finding it anyway.
Adam Klagsbrun is an avid lightweight backpacker and angler of all flavors. Originally fishing small streams in the Northeast USA, Adam has relocated to Colorado where he enjoys all that the outdoors have to offer. Find some of his journals at Of Rock & Riffle.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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