Friday, March 4, 2011

Chasing my Heritage (Trout)

This article was originally published in the December 2005 issue of California Fly Fisher Magazine.  It's the first article in my series about the California Heritage Trout Challenge.

Chasing My Heritage (Trout)
By Andrew Harris

            I’ve long been a fan of wild trout.  Wild trout are born in the rivers where they live.  They do battle with the elements, live authentic lives and do their best to make more wild trout.  There’s something different about catching a wild trout than catching a trout that was just dumped into the river out of a truck.  Wild trout are survivors. They’re independent.  In short, wild trout are rugged individualists.  But despite fitting these American ideals, not all wild trout are American.  Even fewer of them are bona fide native Californians.
            To highlight the great diversity of California’s native wild trout and help secure their future, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) created the Heritage Trout Program in 1998.  A central part of the program is the Heritage Trout Challenge (HTC).  To complete the challenge, anglers must catch six of the eleven heritage trout, then submit an application and photos for documentation.  Each angler receives a certificate for successfully completing the challenge.
            Being a big fan of wild trout and heritage trout in particular, and being a bachelor in need of some more stuff to hang on my barren walls, I decided to take a stab at the Heritage Trout Challenge.  I made it my goal to get my certificate, and to catch as many of the eleven heritage trout subspecies as I could.  Starting in August 2005, I began researching the challenge, the fish, and the waters where they live.  I also began to plan my first challenge road trip, which would be to the far northeastern corner of the state.  This is the first report of a series.

The Wild Side
Goose Lake Redband
California’s original assemblage of trout and char included three species.  The rainbow, with eight subspecies, lived primarily in coastal rivers and in the tributaries to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys.  Cutthroat trout, with three subspecies, lived in the northern coastal rivers and the tributaries to the Great Basin on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.  The other major species was the Bull Trout, technically a char, which lived solely in the McCloud River.  The Bull Trout is now extinct in California, although they can still be found in other states.  All other trout and char species that now exist in California are nonnative, including the brown trout, brook trout, and lake trout.
            Although California only has two existing native trout species, these two species can be subdivided into eleven native subspecies that are genetically distinct.  The rainbow trout subspecies include the coastal rainbow/steelhead, Eagle Lake rainbow trout, Kern River rainbow trout, Goose Lake redband trout, McCloud River redband trout, Warner Valley redband trout, Little Kern golden trout, and California golden trout, the state fish of California.  The three cutthroat trout subspecies include the coastal cutthroat, lahontan cutthroat, and pauite cutthroat.
The Goose Lake and Warner Lakes Redbands
            I left Redding with my girlfriend, Katie Mackey, around six in the evening on August 26, 2005. We were both exhausted from a long week, so we stopped at a campground near Adin around 8:30 that night. In the light of my LED headlamp, I studied up on our quarry. We were after two varieties of redband trout, the Goose Lake redband and the Warner Lakes redband. Katie and I picked these fish for our first trip because of their proximity to each other. Some of the home streams of the two fish are less than 10 miles apart.
            I cracked open Robert J. Behnke’s Trout and Salmon of North America, which is beautifully and accurately illustrated by Joseph R. Tomelleri. According to Behnke, the Goose Lake and Warner Lakes redbands were two of the seven redband varieties known as the redband trout of the northern Great Basin, or the Oregon redband trout. All of these fish live in closed basins with no access to the ocean.
            If the Oregon redband trout was a comic book superhero, its special power would be the ability to withstand high water temperatures.  The closed basins where these fish live are located in the high desert. During the long, hot summers, daytime water temperatures can soar well above the range preferred by most trout. The redbands of the northern Great Basin have been documented to survive water temperatures in excess of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
            The other interesting tidbit about the Goose Lake and Warner Lakes redbands is that they can have multiple life-history strategies. Some fish live their entire lives in the headwater streams, while others live primarily in the lakes, making spawning runs up the tributary streams.  Still others use the lake habitat only when it’s seasonally available, spending most of their time in the streams.  In Oregon, Warner Valley contains the bodies of water now known as the Warner Lakes. They are remnants of the ancient Warner Lake, which used to fill the valley. Like Goose Lake in California, the Warner Lakes fluctuate dramatically, depending on snowfall and precipitation, and sometimes dry up completely. In both drainages, the lake-dwelling form of the species has been wiped out numerous times by lengthy droughts. Each time, stream-dwelling fish have recolonized the lakes.
            As for the evolutionary history of the northern Great Basin redbands, there are three main theories.  If you’re a creationist, it will suffice to say that God made them the way they are and put them where he wanted them.  Now if you’re into intelligent design, I propose something along these lines: God led the ancestors of the redband trout up the ancient rivers to the northern Great Basin and suggested to them that they might want to get used to hot water for He was about to make the climate much warmer and He didn’t want the poor redbands to become high desert trout fossils.       Alternately, if you believe in evolution, you might be interested in Behnke’s account, which goes something like this: the northern Great Basin redbands evolved from Columbia River, Klamath Lake, and upper Sacramento trout ancestors which invaded the northern Great Basin beginning about 70,000 years ago.  It’s not known exactly where along the evolutionary line the redband trout diverged from the rainbow.  Redband trout are considered to be more primitive, or less highly evolved, than their coastal rainbow trout cousins.
            Being isolated from other types of trout, the northern Great Basin redbands were able to evolve independently. However, although nature has kept these redbands isolated from other trout, humans haven’t done so well. It appears that hatchery rainbows have been introduced into both the Goose Lake and Warner Lakes basins. When hatchery rainbows hybridize with native trout varieties, genetic diversity can be lost. This fact leads to two conclusions. First, there may not be any absolutely pure Goose Lake or Warner Lakes redbands left. The second conclusion is more uplifting: Since the native redbands had superior evolutionary adaptations that allowed them to cope with extreme local conditions, the progeny of hatchery trout and hybrids would be less likely to survive. The fact that the physical characteristics of these fish continue to be significantly different from those of hatchery rainbows would support this conclusion.
            Digging a little deeper into the literature, I read about the distinguishing physical characteristics that define the Goose Lake trout. The distinguishing physical characteristics were described in terms of numbers of gill rakers, vertebrae, and scales above and along the lateral line. I’ve cleaned hundreds of trout, and I’m not opposed to eating fish under the appropriate circumstances, but I harbor no desire to dissect a trout.
For the purposes of the Heritage Trout Challenge, I’d have to identify the fish by location and coloration.  I consulted an illustration of a Skull Creek redband trout of the Catlow Basin by Joseph R. Tomelleri. The Catlow basin is east of and adjacent to the Warner Basin.  The redband in the illustration has oval or circular parr marks along the lateral line, with smaller bluish marks above and below. Near the tail, some of the parr marks are in pairs above and below the lateral line.  It was a distinctive fish to be sure.  If all went well in the next two days, Katie and I would get to see the redbands first-hand.

Goose Lake Redbands
We arose to another beautiful August day on the twenty-seventh. By 9:00 a.m., we were on the road, headed for Goose Lake. There were several tributaries that I wanted to investigate, all draining the west side of the Warner Mountains, on the east side of Goose Lake. I decided to drive all the way up to the northernmost California tributary of Goose Lake, a little stream called Pine Creek. From there, I’d work my way south to the others.
            At the town of Pine Creek, which straddles the Oregon border, Katie and I drove eastward on a dirt road that closely follows Pine Creek. We found a parking spot that we liked and began to rig up. I walked to the closest pool on the creek. While casting downstream to a pool that I had probably already spooked, I actually saw a fish rise in the next pool up. On my third cast of the trip, I hooked an eight-inch fish on a traditional Adams. It looked like a redband. I called Katie over to take a picture.
            While I was waiting, I examined the fish. The most striking physical feature was the bluish splotches, some of which looked like parr marks, or remnants of parr marks. The bluish dots varied in size from 2 to 10 millimeters and were distributed thoroughly. They were smaller below the lateral line. Near the tail, it appeared as though the bluish dots were arranged in a zigzag fashion. They extended all the way up onto the back of the fish. Cutting through the bluish dots was a fairly prominent red band, right along the lateral line. The overall background coloration on the sides was a yellowy gold, yielding to a golden olive color on the fish’s back. The operculum, the gill cover, was pinkish red, with a couple faint bluish spots. The fish had a generous sprinkling of small black dots, mainly on the upper body above the lateral line. This was obviously an atypical rainbow, if it was a rainbow. But did that make it a redband? I wasn’t about to ask it how many gill rakers it had, so I decided it must be a genuine Goose Lake redband.
            I moved upstream to the next pool, which quickly yielded another hookup. I was in the middle of exclaiming “Heritage trout rock!” when I realized the small fish on the end of my line was a brown trout. That explained the peculiar regulations for Pine Creek, where you’re allowed to keep 5 browns a day and have 10 in possession, but everything else must be released. I was tempted to keep the fish for dinner, but Katie and I had a nice steak waiting for us in the cooler.  We kept moving upstream, and Katie soon qualified for the Challenge with a Goose Lake redband of her own.  In one stretch, I had five browns in about a hundred yards of stream. If you’re into catching a bunch of brown trout for your dinner, this is the creek for you. You can have a delicious meal and feel good about yourself for helping out the native Goose Lake redband trout.
            Since we were both qualified for the Goose Lake redband trout, we decided to get in the truck and explore some more. We drove south to Willow Creek.  Checking out a stream at the end of August gives you a good indication of whether a stream is truly perennial. We took one look at Willow Creek and kept driving. It was barely flowing. We headed farther south, to Lassen Creek, where we parked at a little bridge. I hopped out and dapped my fly into a mini pool and quickly caught a mini redband.  If you were desperate, you could spend some time fishing Lassen Creek. Davis Creek, one drainage farther to the south, was similar.
            It was the end of the day. Katie and I headed back up the Pine Creek road and camped at Cave Lake Campground. Cave Lake and Lily Lake straddle the divide atop the Warner Mountains. Lily Lake has a nice picnic and day-use area. We actually saw some decent-looking fish jumping at Lily Lake. A brief evening of fishing at Cave Lake yielded two stunted brook trout.
Warner Lakes Redbands
Warner Lakes Redband
The next day, after tearing down camp and downing a quick breakfast, Katie and I drove north on a dirt road. There wasn’t much north left before we got to Oregon, but I could see a small stream on the map between us and the border. After driving through a forested area and past several old gold mines, we emerged into a clearing called Dismal Swamp. The vast expanses of Oregon’s high desert loomed to the north. We had yet to see any water, but as we drove across the north side of the swamp, I noticed a small culvert going under the road. Because of the tiny size of the stream, I didn’t have a lot of hope, but I knew that this creek was one of only two that drain out of California into the Warner Valley in Oregon. I had to look. Besides, culvert pools had always been good to me. Every culvert has a culvert pool, and most of them are filled with fish. Instead of casting into this one, I decided the best way to find out if it had a fish was to rush up to it and take a look. Sure enough, three small fish scattered and fled into the shade below the culvert pipe. I ran back to the car and told Katie to get her rod.
            After gearing up, Katie went upstream and I went downstream. Perhaps uptrickle and downtrickle would be more accurate. This was the smallest stream that I’d ever tried to fish in my life, and that’s saying something. The stream was so small that it was actually hard to land my fly on the water. I was used to making accurate casts, but this was truly a challenge. In some narrow holes that had vegetation overhanging from both sides, it was necessary to land the fly and leader all in the same six-inch-wide lane.
            I kept moving downtrickle until I found a large, deep pool, partially covered by a large bush. The hole was filled with trout. I could see at least eight fish milling around, and one of them was an honest nine inches long — a true hog monster for a stream this size. And best of all, I could see that they were redbands. They were beautiful, high-desert-dwelling redband trout. 
            To make a cast, I had to walk around some bushes to get to the open upstream side of the pool. Thankfully, Katie was just upstream, and she made her way down carefully to where I was. I made my first cast and instantly hooked a five-inch redband. We rushed up and grabbed it. The fish had distinctive coloration, to be sure. It had splotchy parr marks superimposed over a red band. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the fish was the uneven placement of the parr marks. Some were right on the lateral line, while others were entirely below the lateral line. The size of the parr marks also varied considerably.
            After taking a picture for my challenge application, we let the pool rest for a while. Katie took quite a few casts and ultimately hooked the nine-inch fish I had seen earlier. After a quick battle, the fish threw the hook, sending Katie into fits.
            We got the feeling we had exhausted Dismal Creek, so we got back in the truck and hit the road. Katie’s hopes for a Warner Lakes redband now rested in Twelvemile Creek. We set out to find it.
            Our search for Twelvemile Creek took us into Oregon and back into California. After about half an hour of driving dirt roads, we came to a bridge over a small stream. There was a modest “Welcome to California” sign on the south side of the bridge. Our joy at finding the creek was dampened by the “No Trespassing” signs. The area upstream from the bridge was posted, as was the area starting about forty yards downstream from the bridge. Fortunately for us, there was one very nice pool in between the private areas. And I could see a 10-inch fish sitting in the tailout. This would be Katie’s opportunity.
            I won’t detail the number of casts that it took, or the number of flies lost, or any of the words spoken during the stalking of the trout. Katie finally caught that trout, and it was quite beautiful. It was heavily spotted, like a typical rainbow trout, but had a rosy pink band and some of the most interesting parr marks I’ve ever seen. Like the smaller fish I caught from Dismal Creek, this fish had many smaller bluish blotches, many of which were entirely below the lateral line. Some of them were located above the lateral line, almost on the back of the fish. It was no run-of-the-mill rainbow. We took some pictures and headed home.

Imagining the Sequels
            As we drove home, I gathered my thoughts about the adventure.  My first observation was that the Heritage Trout Challenge is as much about the landscapes and habitats as it is about the trout themselves.  I doubt I would have ever visited this remote corner of California had it not been for the presence of rare, native varieties of trout.  The fact that trout exist and arguably thrive in these arid environments is amazing.
            I began thinking about my next Heritage Trout adventure.  Would it be to catch a golden trout in the high Sierra Nevada?  A silvery steelhead within miles of the ocean?  Maybe a fat Eagle Lake rainbow or Lahontan Cutthroat!  Or perhaps a coastal rainbow from my home river, the Lower Sac.  In many ways, the challenge was in finding where these rare forms of trout live, rather than catching them.  During the course of my first heritage trout adventure I consulted three maps, four books, and countless websites.  I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, and couldn’t wait to unravel the next clue.

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