XX. The Golden Trout

After Farewell Gap, as has been hinted, the country changes utterly. Possibly that is why it is named Farewell Gap. The land is wild, weird, full of twisted trees, strangely colored rocks, fantastic formations, bleak mountains of slabs, volcanic cones, lava, dry powdery soil or loose shale, close-growing grasses, and strong winds. You feel yourself in an upper world beyond the normal, where only the freakish cold things of nature, elsewhere crowded out, find a home. Camp is under a lonely tree, none the less solitary from the fact that it has companions. The earth beneath is characteristic of the treeless lands, so that these seem to have been stuck alien into it. There is no shelter save behind great fortuitous rocks. Huge marmots run over the boulders, like little bears. The wind blows strong. The streams run naked under the eye of the sun, exposing clear and yellow every detail of their bottoms. In them there are no deep hiding-places any more than there is shelter in the land, and so every fish that swims shows as plainly as in an aquarium.

We saw them as we rode over the hot dry shale among the hot and twisted little trees. They lay against the bottom, transparent; they darted away from the jar of our horses' hoofs; they swam slowly against the current, delicate as liquid shadows, as though the clear uniform golden color of the bottom had clouded slightly to produce these tenuous ghostly forms. We examined them curiously from the advantage our slightly elevated trail gave us, and knew them for the Golden Trout, and longed to catch some.

All that day our route followed in general the windings of this unique home of a unique fish. We crossed a solid natural bridge; we skirted fields of red and black lava, vivid as poppies; we gazed marveling on perfect volcano cones, long since extinct: finally we camped on a side hill under two tall branchless trees in about as bleak and exposed a position as one could imagine. Then all three, we jointed our rods and went forth to find out what the Golden Trout was like.

I soon discovered a number of things, as follows: The stream at this point, near its source, is very narrow--I could step across it--and flows beneath deep banks. The Golden Trout is shy of approach. The wind blows. Combining these items of knowledge I found that it was no easy matter to cast forty feet in a high wind so accurately as to hit a three-foot stream a yard below the level of the ground. In fact, the proposition was distinctly sporty; I became as interested in it as in accurate target-shooting, so that at last I forgot utterly the intention of my efforts and failed to strike my first rise. The second, however, I hooked, and in a moment had him on the grass.

He was a little fellow of seven inches, but mere size was nothing, the color was the thing. And that was indeed golden. I can liken it to nothing more accurately than the twenty-dollar gold-piece, the same satin finish, the same pale yellow. The fish was fairly molten. It did not glitter in gaudy burnishment, as does our aquarium gold-fish, for example, but gleamed and melted and glowed as though fresh from the mould. One would almost expect that on cutting the flesh it would be found golden through all its substance. This for the basic color. You must remember always that it was a true trout, without scales, and so the more satiny. Furthermore, along either side of the belly ran two broad longitudinal stripes of exactly the color and burnish of the copper paint used on racing yachts.

I thought then, and have ever since, that the Golden Trout, fresh from the water, is one of the most beautiful fish that swims. Unfortunately it fades very quickly, and so specimens in alcohol can give no idea of it. In fact, I doubt if you will ever be able to gain a very clear idea of it unless you take to the trail that leads up, under the end of which is known technically as the High Sierras.

The Golden Trout lives only in this one stream, but occurs there in countless multitudes. Every little pool, depression, or riffles has its school. When not alarmed they take the fly readily. One afternoon I caught an even hundred in a little over an hour. By way of parenthesis it may be well to state that most were returned unharmed to the water. They run small,--a twelve-inch fish is a monster,--but are of extraordinary delicacy for eating. We three devoured sixty-five that first evening in camp.

Now the following considerations seem to me at this point worthy of note. In the first place, the Golden Trout occurs but in this one stream, and is easily caught. At present the stream is comparatively inaccessible, so that the natural supply probably keeps even with the season's catches. Still the trail is on the direct route to Mount Whitney, and year by year the ascent of this "top of the Republic" is becoming more the proper thing to do. Every camping party stops for a try at the Golden Trout, and of course the fish-hog is a sure occasional migrant. The cowboys told of two who caught six hundred in a day. As the certainly increasing tide of summer immigration gains in volume, the Golden Trout, in spite of his extraordinary numbers at present, is going to be caught out.

Therefore, it seems the manifest duty of the Fisheries to provide for the proper protection and distribution of this species, especially the distribution. Hundreds of streams in the Sierras are without trout simply because of some natural obstruction, such as a waterfall too high to jump, which prevents their ascent of the current. These are all well adapted to the planting of fish, and might just as well be stocked by the Golden Trout as by the customary Rainbow. Care should be taken lest the two species become hybridized, as has occurred following certain misguided efforts in the South Fork of the Kern.

So far as I know but one attempt has been made to transplant these fish. About five or six years ago a man named Grant carried some in pails across to a small lake near at hand. They have done well, and curiously enough have grown to a weight of from one and a half to two pounds. This would seem to show that their small size in Volcano Creek results entirely from conditions of feed or opportunity for development, and that a study of proper environment might result in a game fish to rival the Rainbow in size and certainly to surpass him in curious interest.

A great many well-meaning people who have marveled at the abundance of the Golden Trout in their natural habitat laugh at the idea that Volcano Creek will ever become "fished out." To such it should be pointed out that the fish in question is a voracious feeder, is without shelter, and quickly landed. A simple calculation will show how many fish a hundred moderate anglers, camping a week apiece, would take out in a season. And in a short time there will be many more than a hundred, few of them moderate, coming up into the mountains to camp just as long as they have a good time. All it needs is better trails, and better trails are under way. Well-meaning people used to laugh at the idea that the buffalo and wild pigeons would ever disappear. They are gone.