All That Glitters : Squawfish, an Aquatic Fool’s Gold, Are Devouring the State-Supplied Rainbow Trout in the Kern River


A fisherman comes into Sierra Sporting Goods all excited about the golden trout he has been catching in the Kern River.

Proprietors Jack Dempsey and John Spoon exchange a look that says, “Do you want to tell him or shall I?”

Finally, one says, “Uh, sir, there’s something we should tell you. . . . “

There are no golden trout--the state fish--in the roadside sections of the Kern 20 miles above Kernville. Fishermen are catching Sacramento squawfish, a strain of minnow that grows to three feet long in the Kern and makes a lousy meal. Too many bones. The only trout there are planted by the California Department of Fish and Game, and the squawfish eat most of them--perhaps as many as 85%.


Sacramento suckers also are plentiful, feeding along the bottom. They don’t seem to bother the trout, but together these “trash” fish outnumber the trout by more than 25-1 and dominate the forage.

They should thank the anglers who pay $22.60 each for a California fishing license for picking up their meal tab. Is the Kern out of whack or what?

In its 100 miles above and below Isabella Lake, the Kern is different things to different people--popular not only for various forms of fishing but for whitewater rafting, kayaking and inner-tubing, or simply camping out. About a mile above where the Kern wanders away from roads at the Johnsondale Bridge it has federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River. Sometimes the scenery includes sunbathers au naturel .

Anglers can fish with easy roadside access below Johnsondale, hike a parallel trail along the unplanted wild-trout section or horse-pack into the upper part leading into the Golden Trout Wilderness below Sequoia National Park. There they can try for a remarkably beautiful, fighting strain of native Kern River rainbow trout.


But many deplore what has happened to the Kern. The Kern Valley, consisting of other communities such as Wofford Heights, Lake Isabella and Bodfish, has 20,172 residents, more than half of whom are retirees older than 65.

Those senior citizens who thought they would retire to Kernville and fish year-round were jolted two years ago when the state Fish and Game Commission, in an attempt to standardize its complex fishing regulations, closed year-round fishing on the Kern. It also crippled Dempsey’s business for nearly half the year. Appeals persuaded the commission to reopen the river for three miles from Kernville to the Tulare County line last winter, but the rest remains closed from Nov. 15 to the end of April.

Most of the Kern is closed by winter weather anyway, but Dempsey and Spoon have collected more than 1,000 signatures petitioning the commission to reopen the Kern year-round south of the Johnsondale Bridge.

About three-fourths of the signers list residences in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Kernville is only a three-hour drive from downtown L.A. Year-round fisheries in the lower Eastern Sierra are nearly twice as far.


“It doesn’t make any sense,” Dempsey says. “We aren’t greedy. We’re just trying to survive.”

John Saltzgaver, who runs the John McNally’s resort upstream, had reports of a 25-inch brown trout caught at Goldledge Campground last spring and an 18-inch catch south of his place last month. Those fish were big enough to defend themselves from the squawfish and compete for food. Others tell of the squawfish chasing hatchery fish up onto the banks.

“I had two guys in this morning,” Saltzgaver said. “One caught a 15-inch trout and was very happy. But they also caught 20 or 30 squawfish and were really frustrated.”

Such tales are repeated up and down the river.


“The squawfish have taken over the river,” Saltzgaver said.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Dan Christenson, a DFG fishery biologist for 35 years, reported in 1975: “The presence of a reservoir (Isabella) providing warm-water fish habitat has increased the Sacramento sucker and squawfish populations. . . . “

This month Christenson led a project by volunteers from the South Coast chapter of Trout Unlimited to survey the populations once again by snorkeling the slower, deeper pools.

Entrix, Inc., whose research work is highly regarded by environmentalists, was conducting an electroshocking project the same weekend, working the swifter riffles in 100-yard sections. Entrix was under contract to Southern California Edison to collect data for renewal of its operating permit for the Fairview Dam. The groups had similar findings: It’s getting worse.


As Dempsey and others watched, the Entrix crew collected, counted, measured and weighed hundreds of squawfish--and then put them back into the river. They weren’t authorized to do otherwise.

Christenson’s solution: poison the squawfish. A couple of volunteers and 30 gallons of the chemical rotenone is all it would take.

“It would be easy to do below Fairview Dam, where the flows could be reduced to where we’d need only a small amount of rotenone chemical to wipe the fish out,” Christenson said. “Then it could be detoxified at the power house 15 miles downstream.”

Since the July railroad spill that killed the Upper Sacramento, alarms go off when anyone talks about poisoning a river. But Christenson is a recognized expert on the controlled process.


“Rotenone is a chemical found in the roots of a South American plant,” he said. “It doesn’t affect plants or warm-blooded animals. As soon as the fish are gone, those insect populations tend to recolonize within a couple of weeks and blossom into numbers many times what they were before.”

When could the river be fished again?

“The next day,” Christenson said. “Or as soon as some (trout) could be planted.”

Otherwise, the DFG will continue to waste money dumping good hatchery fish into the Kern.


Christenson said, “The tagging study we did a few years ago indicates that of the planted trout that are put in the section below Fairview Dam, only 15 or 20% are being caught by fishermen. Between Fairview Dam and Johnsondale Bridge it might be 30 or 35%.

“That doesn’t meet Fish and Game Commission policy, which says you don’t plant a water unless you get a 50% return to the angler--and we know that squawfish eat those trout.”

Christenson filed similar reports two years ago, with little effect.

Bob Rawstron, chief of the DFG’s Inland Fisheries Division, said: “I would agree there are significant numbers of squawfish. But they all evolved together. It’s our responsibility to take care of all the fish--not just the trout.”


Before adopting new regulations for 1992-93, the Fish and Game Commission will hear testimony in meetings at Redding Oct. 3-4 and San Diego Oct. 31-Nov. 1.

Trout Unlimited hopes its survey was worthwhile. The project was a risky business. The Kern has claimed many lives.

One of the Trout Unlimited snorkelers, Rodger Lowery of Irvine, said: “It was pretty cold for the guys that didn’t have wetsuits. It was spooky. The squawfish are in there like battleships, and the suckers . . . 30 or 40 all over the bottom. And you’re snorkeling along looking at the bottom and all of a sudden you feel yourself being sucked into the next set of rapids. That happened to me about three times.”

The squawfish also have worked their way into the wild-trout section, where the restrictions call for artificial lures and a limit of two fish of 14 inches or more. Colder water upstream probably will restrict the migration, but Trout Unlimited and the Kern River Fly Fishers share another concern. Regulations for the area where the Kern River rainbows spawn are standard--bait and a five-fish limit--so despite the difficult access, the fish-- Oncorhynchus mykiss gilberti-- are becoming scarce.


Trout Unlimited wants to protect them by having the upper 50 miles to the headwaters also placed on wild-trout status, with a two-fish limit and a maximum of 12 inches, which would allow broodstock to survive.

The Kern River Fly Fishers have reservations.

“We’ve got a good start here,” says Kelvin Gregory, who runs the Fishing Hole tackle store in Bakersfield. “This (wild-trout) section’s a lot better than it was a year ago. The fish are growing. Why make a rash decision until we know what’s happening?”

Trout Unlimited also wants the DFG to stop planting the upper roadside tributaries that feed into the Kern for fear of contaminating the Kern River rainbow strain. Christenson has another proposal that might please both sides: Leave the regulations alone, but plant the tributaries with Kern River rainbows bred in the old Kernville Hatchery that is phasing out its golden trout rearing program.


Steven Black, a fly-fisherman from Bakersfield working the wild-trout section, said: “This is a treasure. It needs to be protected. This could be a world-class wild-trout stream.”

Said Christenson: “We could do so much better with very little effort.”