Craig’s Corner: Search for the Kern River Rainbow


By Craig Ballenger
CalTrout Fly Fishing Ambassador

Search For the Kern River Rainbow

A Walk Through the High Sierra

It’s a river to nowhere.

With a remote source in the backwater of California’s high Sierra, the Kern begins at an altitude of around 13,600 ft (4100m). Framed beneath a large glacial cirque, to the west, the Kaweah Peaks rise, dark and ragged. To the north rises the wall of the Kings-Kern Divide. To the east is the Sierra Crest itself, including Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.

Photo: Craig Ballenger


Photo: Craig Ballenger


Below, the water carves into a granite Yosemite like gorge over 8,000 ft deep. Yup, over a mile and a half deep.

More akin to the Kaligandaki Gorge dividing Dhaulagiri and Annapurna in the central Himalaya. But it’s right here in our California backyard. Tectonic forces have also contributed, with the Kern River Fault at the bottom.

In a sense, the Kern has the highest source of any river originating in the Sierra Nevada, and indeed, of any river along the North America Pacific Rim mountain ranges.


Why a river to nowhere? It tumbles south past the terminus of the range, and once emptied into plains forming Lake Buena Ventura, near Bakersfield. But it had no outlet, its water roasted to evaporation by fierce summer heat. Think Owens Lake to the east. The lake is long gone today, tilled by corporate agriculture to nuts, alfalfa and other crops. 

In the ancient past, geologists explain, via seasonal sloughs reflecting California’s restless juxtaposition between flood and drought, it once connected past former Tulare Lake, and into to the San Joaquin River system. Today the Kern flows into the reservoir of ‘Lake’ Isabella, where it is canaled to various water districts.

Photo: Craig Ballenger

Photo: Craig Ballenger


First documented by Spanish missionary Francisco Garces in 1776, fur trapping brigades led by Jedidiah Smith and later Joseph Walker crossed the river searching for fabled California.

Today it travels beneath the name Kern, named in 1845 by Charles Fremont for his expedition topographer Edward Kern, who apparently nearly drowned attempting to ford it.

Today the Kern is a whitewater bucket list run. It’s chilling nickname: The Killer Kern.


Photo: Craig Ballenger


Photo: Craig Ballenger

And what of the Kern Rainbow? Overshadowed in public consciousness by the more regally named golden trout to the east, and the Little Kern Golden to the west, the enigmatic Kern River Rainbow (oncorhynchus mykus gilberti) May no longer exist.

Seldom studied, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has classified them as a candidate for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act. According to California’s Trout’s SOS II scientific report, grazing, and the well-thumbed culprit of introduced generic hatchery rainbows has done the rest. The Kern fish will hybridize with them, as well as their cousins the golden trout.

According to California Department of Fish and Wildlife, a remnant population has been identified above the Arroyo Creek headwaters, a Kern tributary. Apocryphal tales exist of them reaching 28 inches long, and being compared to steelhead. These were caught during the first decade of the 20th century, when the Kern became a renowned angling destination.


What I discovered during a 24-day unassisted wilderness jaunt will be the subject of an upcoming video. We’ll explore high mountain passes, glacier carved canyons and world class wilderness as we unpack secrets of the lair of the Kern River Rainbow. Until then, enjoy this short trailer.


Photo: Craig Ballenger


Photo: Craig Ballenger

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