100 Best: Kern River
Location: Central California
Type of stream: Freestone
Angling methods: Fly, Spinning
Species: Rainbows and browns
Season: Late April—mid Nov.
Supporting Services: Kernville
Short take: Where anglers come to prospect for wild gold
Handicapped Access: None
Closest Chapter: Sac Sierra (Sacramento)
The Kern watershed is home to California’s state fish: the golden trout. Robert J. Benhke in Trout and Salmon of North America, a book beautifully illustrated by Joseph R. Tomelleri and which every angler ought to own, maintains that golden trout consist of three subspecies: Oncorhynchus mykiss augabonita, the South Fork Kern and Golden Trout Creek strains; O. m. whitei, the Little Kern River strain; and O. m. gilbert, the Kern River rainbow trout. You’ll find all three native in the 303,287- acre Golden Trout Wilderness.
Beginning in the early 1970s, the California Department of Fish and Game initiated an extensive campaign to protect golden trout in the wilderness area. Three barriers—essentially man-made ten-foot waterfalls—were created. Above the barriers, streams were treated with piscicides to remove invasive browns, brook trout, and hybrids. Today, the native trout are thriving.
Verdantly lush in summer, the meadows are surrounded by low, sparsely forest ridges. None of the streams is large. You can hear them chatter down cobbly runs, and their silence in the meadow is only belied by a splashy rise. This is four-weight country at most, a back packing angler’s dream. Within the wilderness, only artificial lures with barbless hooks may be used. Trails shadow much of the Kern and its tributaries, and a number of outfitters pack anglers into the wilderness.
Downstream from the wilderness, the Kern is managed under artificials only regs. The river from Johnsondale bridge down to Lake Isabella is stocked and open to fishing year ‘round.