Coming to a Fork in the River : Middle Fork of San Joaquin Isn’t Far From Civilization, but It Is a Hot Spot for Trout


For David Moss, there is nothing like standing in the middle of a cool-running river, surrounded by grassy meadows and an evergreen forest.

But then Moss used to work in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles. Standing in the middle of a mud puddle would be fine with him, as long as it’s a mud puddle up here.

“I still have to go to Los Angeles on family business sometimes,” Moss says. “But that’s fine, as long as I know I get to come home.”


Moss, 57, now owns a car rental company in town, but most days he can be found waist-deep in water somewhere on the outskirts, trying to get a rise out of a trout.

If he does, chances are the trout will soon be at the end of Moss’ line. Moss is also one of Mammoth Lakes’ top fly-fishing guides.

And for a price--he works out of Kittredge Sports and charges $100 for four hours or $150 for a full day--he will introduce you to the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, one of the best-kept secrets in town.

“People hear San Joaquin and they think you’re talking about the Delta,” says Dick Gaumer, a La Crescenta-based marketing consultant who works for the city of Mammoth Lakes.

Moss knows better.

The Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, with headwaters in the back country above town at Thousand Island Lake, runs just west of Mammoth Mountain through some of the most beautiful country in the state, before meeting up with the main river of Delta fame.

Wildflowers and cottonwoods provide a brilliant display of color each fall. Deer graze in the meadows, and bears sometimes wander the river’s banks.


“I may be prejudiced, but I think this is prettier than Yosemite,” Moss says.

He isn’t alone.

Paul Payne, 38, a local hotel owner and avid fisherman, describes a trip to the San Joaquin as “a Yosemite-like experience without the crowds.”

Both Moss and Payne are quick to point out, however, that what makes the San Joaquin unique is that it is the only place within a stone’s throw from town--it’s accessible 10 minutes down the road from the U.S. Forest Service gate at the end of the ski area parking lot--where an angler has an opportunity to accomplish a grand slam of sorts, catching four species of trout--rainbow, brown, brook and golden--in a day.

Most of the goldens are actually a hybrid, the result of mixed breeding with stocked rainbows, which are planted every other week at some of the campgrounds. But there are some pure goldens, differentiated by their brighter gold coloring, swimming the upper reaches of the river as well.

“Or you can try for the super grand slam,” Moss says, referring to stocked and wild rainbows, browns, brookies and both types of goldens.

Such a feat is difficult, but far from impossible. The wild trout in the San Joaquin are simply wild about flies, or lures and bait for that matter.

“The San Joaquin is a classic dry-fly stream,” says Moss, who fishes the river about 35 days each season. “Particularly if you get away from the campgrounds (where the hatchery fish are stocked and tend to hold). But if they aren’t farmed out (before the next plant), even a stocked fish will rise to a dry fly here.”


So unique is the fishery that it has become a candidate for Wild Trout Stream status, a state listing that, if approved by the Fish and Game Commission, will mandate the Department of Fish and Game to take a more active role in protecting the wild trout in the river.

Restricting vehicle access helps keep the pressure down. The U.S. Forest Service allows cars through the gate only before 7:30 a.m. and after 5:30 p.m.

And Steve Parmenter, a fishery biologist with the DFG, says a big step toward protecting wild trout populations was taken 25 years ago when the DFG stopped planting hatchery-raised fish in the Devil’s Postpile and Soda Springs areas, leaving large stretches of river inhabited almost solely by wild trout.

So for now, the fishery seems to be in fine shape.

“Now in one riffle you may catch a brown, a brook, a (wild) rainbow and something resembling a golden, and there might even be some genuine goldens in that riffle as well,” Parmenter says. “In that little valley you have that whole spectrum of fish.”

None of the fish are particularly big--a 20-inch brown is considered a prize catch--but they are full of spirit. And they are apparently as plentiful as the mosquitoes that torment those who dare venture into the valley without dousing themselves with repellent.

“It’s not uncommon for us to go down there and in a period of a few hours catch hundreds of fish,” Payne says.



One recent balmy afternoon, Moss set out to prove how productive the San Joaquin really is.

He parked near Pumice Flats Campground and was soon ready in waders and boots. Stan Elmore, a volunteer caretaker at the campground, stopped by and said he had to chase a bear away the night before.

Moss smiled and took off along the river bank, watching the water along the way. He stopped about a hundred yards from the camp and carefully stepped in. Soon he had the fly working beautifully through the air, landing it in a shaded pool and drifting back through the ripples. After a few casts, a fish rose to the fly. On the next cast, it struck. Moss set the hook, and the fish went skittering across the narrow river.

Moss soon landed the fish, a brown trout about six inches long. He carefully unhooked the fish and it disappeared in a flash.

Working his way down the river, casting perfectly to pools beneath the overhanging brush, he landed a larger brown, then caught a brook trout about eight inches long.

Shadows from the pines were forming over the meadow behind the fisherman. There was nobody else in sight.


About an hour passed, and Moss, after catching and releasing several more brown trout and a few more brook trout, landed a golden trout that was more yellow than gold, with a red streak running down its side.

With time running out, Moss decided to go back to the campground. He waded into the water, mosquitoes buzzing around his head, and after about a dozen casts he hooked up again. The fish, a planted rainbow about 12 inches long, put up a decent fight, but Moss successfully brought it in, completing the grand slam.

He smiled as though he has never done this before. “So what if some of the fish are only three or four inches long,” he says. “The idea is to fool the fish, any fish.”

And there seem to be plenty of fools in the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin.