California State Fish: Golden State, Golden Species
Mar 12, 2021 | 4 minute read
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Choosing the California state fish would be a difficult job. There are so many awesome species on offer, from Calico Bass to Largemouth Bass and from Stripers to Sturgeon. Clearly, it was a tough choice, because California landed on not one, but two state fish: Golden Trout and Garibaldi. Here are a few facts about each one.

Freshwater State Fish: Golden Trout

A Golden Trout, one of two California state fish, bring released into a shallow stream by an angler.

Scientific name: Oncorhynchus aguabonita

For a lot of people, Golden Trout are the world’s most beautiful fish. We’d have to agree. Their bright yellow belly and iconic red stripe make them instantly recognizable, especially when they shine in the sunlight. They’re certainly not the largest fish in the family. But boy, are they pretty.

How big?

Golden Trout reach different sizes depending on where they live. In streams, they’re unlikely to grow beyond 8 inches. Lake-dwelling Goldies can occasionally reach double that, though. In fact, the IGFA record for Golden Trout is just over 20 inches, with a weight record of 11 pounds. 

Just because they’re small, doesn’t mean that they’re easy to catch. Golden Trout are tough to trick and have plenty of spirit once you hook them. That only adds to their legendary status among freshwater anglers.

When and Where

A rocky stretch of the Kern River in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California.

Golden Trout are native to the remote waters of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, some 7,000 feet above sea level. Originally, you could only find them in two rivers in the Upper Kern River basin: Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River. 

Due to their popularity, Golden Trout have since been introduced throughout the mountain range, as well as other high-altitude rivers and lakes. However, their original waters are still the most iconic place to target them. The area is now a “Golden Trout Wilderness.”

The best time to target Goldens is summer and early fall. This is down to the weather as much as the fishing itself. They live there year-round, but at 7,000 feet up, you want to be fishing when the weather’s warmest.

Saltwater State Fish: Garibaldi

A bright orange Garibaldi fish, one of the state fish of California.

Scientific name: Hypsypops rubicundus.

It seems like the State of California had clear priorities when choosing their fish. They had to be small, and they had to be as colorful as possible. Enter Garibaldi. These guys were named after Guiseppe Garibaldi, hero of the Italian unification and lover of bright red shirts. You can guess which part they were referring to.

How big?

Garibaldi are the largest species in the Damselfish family. That’s not really saying much. They normally measure about a foot long as adults and rarely get bigger than 14 inches. There’s no IGFA record for Garibaldi, as they’re not a game fish.

Their size, shape, and color make Garibaldi a widely popular aquarium fish. However, they don’t tend to play nice with their neighbors. This is an aggressively territorial species which will even swim at people who get too close to their tank.

When and Where

A rocky underwater reef near Catalina Island, California. A Garibaldi fish swims in the foreground and giant kelp is visible in the distance.

Garibaldi really are a California speciality. They only live along the stretch of coast from Monterey Bay to Baja California Sur and are a rare sight north of Santa Barbara. Catalina Island is an especially good place to look for them.

Garibaldi’s ideal habitat is rocky inshore structure. They usually find a patch of rock that they like, then guard it fiercely as their own. However, adventurous fish occasionally show up in kelp forests and nearshore waters, up to 100 feet deep.

When should you catch Garibaldi? Never! For reasons that remain unclear to most people, these fish are strictly protected in California. They’re not endangered. They’re not a popular commercial catch. But for some reason, targeting them can earn you a $500 fine. If you accidentally hook one, release it unharmed as quickly as possible.

California State Fish: Two Colorful Critters

Golden Trout and Garibaldi make a strange pair. One is a mysterious game fish found in the most remote streams of the Sierra Nevada. The other is an orange blob named after an Italian revolutionary. The only thing they have in common is their bright color. Pretty appropriate for the Golden State, we suppose.

Have you ever caught a Golden Trout? Any clues on why Garibaldi are so protected? Drop us your stories in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

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