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8— Fishes
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Edwin P. Pister


For all practical purposes, the fishes of the White Mountains are introduced species. It is unlikely that native species ever existed in these mountains except in the very lowest reaches of either easterly or westerly drainages.

Perhaps the terms introduced species and native species should be clarified. When Europeans first arrived in the Owens Valley, only four fishes were found there, all of them considered nongame species: the Owens Pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus Miller), Owens Chub (Gila bicolor snyderi Miller), Owens Dace (Rhinichthys osculus sp.), and Owens Sucker (Catostomus fumeiventris Miller). On the east side of the range, in Fish Lake Valley, only a chub (Gila sp.) was found. These constitute the native fish fauna of the White Mountains area, and through many years of neglect only one of them, the Owens Sucker, now occurs in abundance. The others are endangered, threatened, or of undetermined status. Recovery programs are in progress for the endangered and threatened fauna, under the provisions of the federal and state endangered species acts.

The streams flowing from the White Mountains are spring-fed. Being a desert range, the White Mountains seldom hold the summer snowbanks that typify the Sierra Nevada, just a few miles to the west. Once the winter snows have melted, the stream flows quickly stabilize except during occasional summer thundershowers.

A glance at a map of the Inyo National Forest reveals a large number of streams flowing from the crest of the White Mountains. However, only a few of them contain significant fish populations, and these generally only in the upper reaches. The vast majority of these streams, whether they flow east or west, have for many years been diverted for irrigation.

Early Trout Planting

The exact history of fish introductions into the White Mountains is unknown. Accurate records of early fish planting, unfortunately, were not kept. It is safe to assume, however, that most introductions occurred in this century prior to World War II. Some introductions were made by the California Division (now Department) of Fish and Game, and others were made by the Rainbow Club, an early sportsmen's club headquartered in Bishop. The club has planted no fish since before World War II.

Most White Mountain streams have been planted with trout, and one may expect to find Eastern Brook Trout, Salvelinus fontinalis (Mitchill), and Rainbow Trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdnerii (Richardson), in the higher elevations and Brown Trout,


Salmo trutta Linnaeus, in the lower elevations. However, the California streams are no longer being stocked with trout; all populations are self-sustaining. The Nevada Department of Wildlife, however, occasionally stocks Rainbow Trout in streams flowing into northern Fish Lake Valley.

Paiute Trout

An exception to the general rule concerning trout species composition and distribution is found in Cottonwood Creek, which flows easterly into Fish Lake Valley from near White Mountain Peak. In 1946, when Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Forest Service biologists noted that the Paiute Cutthroat Trout, Oncorhynchus clarki seleniris (Snyder), populations of the upper East Fork Carson River (Alpine County, California) were seriously threatened, a limited number were planted in the previously fishless upper North Fork Cottonwood Creek. This stream has been generally closed to angling since that time. The subspecies is currently listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The North Fork Cottonwood Creek Paiute Cutthroat population is perhaps the only genetically pure population left in the world, and it is being protected as part of the recovery plan for the subspecies. Should the subspecies recover sufficiently, management plans may allow a very limited harvest. Until that time, however, the North Fork Cottonwood Creek will remain closed to angling. To accelerate the recovery of the Paiute Cutthroat Trout, it may be spread to other suitable streams as part of a plan under consideration by the Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service. At present, however, the only stream area in the White Mountains with a special restriction is the North Fork Cottonwood Creek. Anglers planning to fish anywhere in California should check current fishing regulations, which are available at most sporting goods stores.

Species Descriptions

Rainbow Trout,Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdneri(Richardson). (Fig. 8.1) Other than the Paiute Trout, the Rainbow Trout is the only trout species in the White Mountains that is native to California. It may be distinguished from the other species by its generally silvery appearance and profusion of spots, including a spotted tail. It also commonly has a reddish lateral band extending from head to tail. However, look for the spotted tail as the definitive characteristic. None of the other trout species in the White Mountains has a heavily spotted tail.

Eastern Brook Trout,Salvelinus fontinalis(Mitchill). (Fig. 8.2) Although called a trout, the Eastern Brook Trout is actually a char. It is native to the eastern United States and was brought to California many years ago. It has been introduced widely throughout the Sierra Nevada and occurs in several streams in the White Mountains.

Eastern Brook Trout are generally olive green with light spots on the sides. They may be distinguished from the trout species by vermiculations, or wavy lines, along


Figure 8.1
Rainbow Trout,  Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdnerii  (Richardson).

Figure 8.2
Eastern Brook Trout,  Salvelinus fontinalis  (Mitchill).

Figure 8.3
Paiute Cutthroat Trout,  Oncorhynchus clarki seleniris

Figure 8.4
Brown Trout, Salmo trutta  Linnaeus.


the back from head to tail. They also have distinct white borders along the anterior margins of the ventral and anal fins.

Paiute Cutthroat Trout,Oncorhynchus clarki seleniris(Snyder). (Fig. 8.3) The Paiute Cutthroat Trout, which is native to the Great Basin, was introduced into the North Fork Cottonwood Creek in 1946 in one of the first recorded efforts toward species preservation in California. It has survived in Cottonwood Creek in limited numbers, but the North Fork is closed to angling to ensure its protection. The Paiute Cutthroat Trout evolved through geographic isolation from the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi (Gill and Jordan), in upper Silver King Creek, Alpine County.

This trout normally has an overall purplish hue, which distinguishes it from the other trout species in the White Mountains. It also has very few (if any) spots and possesses the distinctive reddish cutthroat marks under the jaw.

Brown Trout,Salmo truttaLinnaeus. (Fig. 8.4) The Brown Trout, a native of Europe, was brought into California many years ago and eventually found its way into the White Mountains. It is common there, especially in the lower stream areas. It is an excellent game fish and is sought after by anglers, especially fly fishermen.

The Brown Trout is usually dark or olive brown on the back and golden brown on the sides. It generally has red spots surrounded by a halo on its sides. It may have spots on the tail, but they are sparse in contrast to the profusion of tail spotting present in Rainbow Trout.


Some researchers are now questioning the general advisability of introducing nonnative species into a naturally balanced ecosystem. The trout stocking that occurred in the early 1900s was a result of resource management procedures in practice at that time, but current research is beginning to recognize the long-term implications of stocking to the ecosystem. Such introduction invariably harms native organisms and is now considered unacceptable ecological practice.


California Department of Fish and Game. 1969. Trout of California . Calif. Dept. of Fish and Game, Sacramento.

Hubbs, C. L., and R. R. Miller. 1948. Correlation between fish distribution and hydrographic history in the desert basins of western United States. In The Great Basin, with emphasis on glacial and postglacial times . Bulletin of the University of Utah, no. 38, pp. 17–166.

Miller, R. R. 1948. The cyprinodont fishes of the Death Valley system of eastern California and southwestern Nevada . Miscellaneous Publications of the Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan, no. 68.

Miller, R. R. 1973. Two new fishes , Gila bicolor snyderi and Catostomus fumeiventris, from the Owens River basin, California . Occasional Papers, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan, no. 667.


Miller, R. R., and E. P. Pister. 1971. Management of the Owens pupfish, Cyprinodon radiosus , in Mono County, California. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 100:502–509.

Pister, E. P. 1974. Desert fishes and their habitats. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 103:531–540.

Pister, E. P. 1976. A rationale for the management of nongame fish and wildlife. Fisheries 1:11–14.

Pister, E. P. 1979. Endangered species: Costs and benefits. Environmental Ethics 1:341–352.

Pister, E. P. 1981. The conservation of desert fishes. In R. J. Naiman and D. L. Soltz (eds.). Fishes in North American deserts , pp. 411–455. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Schumacher, Genny (ed.). 1969. Deepest valley: Guide to Owens Valley and its mountain lakes, roadsides, and trails . Wilderness Press, Berkeley, Calif.

Soltz, D. L., and R. J. Naiman. 1978. The natural history of native fishes in the Death Valley system . Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Science Series, no. 30.

Vestal, E. H. 1947. A new transplant of the Paiute trout (Salmo clarkii seleuiris ) from Silver King Creek, Alpine County, California. California Fish and Game 33(2):89–95.


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