Note: This article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of California Fly Fisher Magazine. This is the second installment in a series of articles about the California Heritage Trout Challenge. The first article, published in the December 2005 issue, discussed the Goose Lake and Warner Lakes redband trout.
Chasing my Heritage Trout, part II
by Andrew Harris
by Andrew Harris
Katie Mackey and I made our first attempt to catch the McCloud redband trout on June 4th, 2006. This was our second trip in pursuit of the California Heritage Trout Challenge (CHTC). The CHTC was created by the California Department of Fish and Game to promote awareness of the native trout populations that exist in California. There are eleven Heritage Trout populations in the state. Anglers that catch six of them can send in documentation to the CHTC staff and receive an attractive full-color certificate for completing the challenge.
Last August, Katie Mackey and I kicked off our challenge attempt with a trip to the northeast corner of the state where we successfully caught the Goose Lake and Warner Lakes redband trout. That was a great trip – we managed to catch both fish in a single weekend. Little did we know that this trip wouldn’t be quite as easy as our first.
We left Clearwater Lodge on the Pit River and drove north through Fall River Valley towards the town of McCloud. I had done a quick internet search and found the names of several streams that are home to the McCloud redbands. As we drove I marked the five streams on my Shasta/Trinity National Forest map with a yellow highlighter. It was a beautiful day. This would be my second day in a row on the McCloud. On a guide trip the day before, my client and I experienced some excellent dry fly fishing just below McCloud Reservoir. I was looking forward to doing a little fishing for myself.
As we approached the town of McCloud, we began exploring some of the dirt roads on the north side of Highway 89. Katie drove as I navigated. We noticed quite a bit of snow still on the ground. As we approached the little yellow line on my map, the snow piled higher and higher. About a mile from the first stream, the road became impassable. Oh well, we had all day and there were four more streams to check out.
The second creek on my list was much easier to find and had a good head of clear water. We strung up our rods and started fishing. The stream was extremely cold, and appeared to flow through a streambed that wasn’t very well established. We fished for about thirty minutes and didn’t see any fish or get any grabs. We moved on.
The third and fourth streams on my list were farther back towards Mount Shasta. We stopped at impassable piles of snow well before we came within a mile of either of them. We finally found a likely candidate in the fifth stream, the last one on my list. It was high with snowmelt, but not unfishable by any means. In my experience, little trout are starving during the snowmelt period and eagerly attack any fly that lands on the water. But that was not to be the case. Katie and I fished the creek in several good-looking spots and had no luck.
We took a tour of Upper, Middle and Lower Falls and tried to regroup. We considered fishing the river in between the waterfalls, but it was swollen with runoff and looked pretty hard to fish. We finally decided to abandon the redband mission and go catch some fish on the Lower McCloud. We drove down to Ash Camp, an area right below McCloud Reservoir, and enjoyed some good dry fly fishing. The sulphur duns weren’t hatching as well as the day before, but it was great to cast some dry flies and catch a few fish. Katie and I both caught a few wild rainbows. We also caught a few hatchery rainbows which must have washed over the dam, since no hatchery fish are planted on the lower McCloud.
The wild rainbows we caught would definitely qualify as coastal rainbow trout for the purposes of the CHTC. We would have to wait a few more weeks to qualify with a McCloud redband trout.
Trout in a Time Capsule
Many native trout populations throughout the west are under constant threat from competition and interbreeding with other trout populations. If you were to ask a fisheries biologist to create a stream that would effectively isolate a native fish population from invading species, it would have the following characteristics: it would flow into a closed basin so that it wasn’t connected to other streams or lakes, it would have a steady supply of water, and it would be small enough to go unnoticed by marauding hatchery trucks.
This description perfectly describes a handful of streams that are home to the McCloud redband trout. These streams arise on the eastern flank of Mount Shasta. Snowmelt that sinks into the mountain comes back to the surface to feed these streams. Some of them flow for less than two miles before sinking into the ground and are totally isolated from the rest of the McCloud drainage. Others flow for a few miles and then dry up, but are occasionally connected to the upper McCloud River during spring runoff. Even then, the water is usually so turbid that fish are unlikely to swim up from the main river.
These streams are so isolated that it brings into question how the McCloud redband trout became established here in the first place. To find the answer, I turned to Robert Behnke’s excellent book, “Trout and Salmon of North America.” According to Behnke, the purest form of the McCloud redband trout is endemic to just one of the isolated streams to the east of Mount Shasta. These fish have fewer gill rakers than any other known rainbow trout population. According to the California Department of Fish and Game website, most of these fish also have basibranchial teeth, “a characteristic normally associated with cutthroat trout.” Behnke concludes that these fish “represent the earliest ancestral invasion that gave rise to the northern Sacramento redband trout.” Elsewhere, Behnke also refers to this purest form of McCloud redband trout as an “ancient relict trout.” In other words, this population of redband trout has been isolated from other invading populations of rainbow and redband trout longer than any other similar population. The McCloud redband trout is truly a fish in a time capsule.
Geography of the McCloud
The McCloud redband trout is not the only noteworthy fish to swim in the McCloud River. To fully understand the fishery and the history of the McCloud, you must first understand the local geography. The headwaters of the McCloud River are located near the tiny settlement of Bartle on Highway 89 in between Burney and McCloud. The upper McCloud flows through a mixture of public and private land for about ten miles before entering a series of waterfalls. There are three waterfalls, Upper, Lower and Middle Falls, near Fowlers Campground, which is about five miles due east of the town of McCloud. Just above these falls is a small impoundment called Lakin Dam. Below Lower Falls, the river flows about a mile through public land and then for about five miles on private land owned by the Hearst family. The river then empties into McCloud Reservoir, which is about a fifteen minute drive from the town of McCloud. The “upper” McCloud is everything above the reservoir. The “lower” McCloud is the river downstream from the reservoir. Below the reservoir, the river flows through public land for another four miles and then through land owned by the Nature Conservancy for about five miles. The remaining eighteen miles of the river belong to two private clubs. The river drains into Lake Shasta.
The rainbow trout that inhabit the lower part of the McCloud River are technically considered coastal rainbow trout. This part of the river has historically been connected with the Sacramento River, and therefore the rainbow trout have continually mixed and interbred. There is no species distinction between resident coastal rainbows and steelhead, which are seagoing (anadromous) rainbows.
The McCloud redband trout was historically isolated from the coastal rainbows by the falls. Redbands could migrate downstream, but the rainbows could not migrate above the falls. This phenomenon resulted in a continuum of redband/rainbow hybrids which persists to this day. Many of the fish caught on the lower McCloud display some of the characteristics of the redband trout, especially the brick-red lateral stripe. I’ve personally caught wild fish just above and below Middle Falls that displayed incredible redband coloration.
The isolation of the McCloud redband trout above the falls came to an end when white settlers arrived and began moving fish around. Since the advent of fish hatcheries, untold thousands of rainbows of unknown origin have been planted above Upper Falls. Brook and brown trout were also introduced and now reproduce naturally above Upper Falls. According to Peter Moyle in “Inland Fishes of California,” the fish in the mainstem McCloud above Upper Falls are now genetically closer to coastal rainbows than redbands (p.281). Stocking of rainbow trout above Lakin Dam was discontinued in 1995 to avoid further hybridization.
While the future of the McCloud redband trout seems relatively secure, two of the other historically prominent McCloud fish have not been so fortunate. One is the bull trout. The McCloud River was formerly the very southern extreme of the bull trout’s native range. The native range of the bull trout extends to the Northwest Territories in Canada and east to Alberta and Montana. The closest remaining populations are in the Jarbridge River in Nevada and tributaries to the Klamath Basin in Oregon. Bull trout require clear, cold water. They once thrived in the spring-fed waters of the McCloud, feasting on small trout and the abundant salmon and steelhead smolts.
When sport fishing became popular in the late 1800s, people came to the McCloud to catch “calico trout.” This was one of many local names for the bull trout. The most famous is “Dolly Varden,” which is still in use to describe another member of the char family. The taxonomy of the bull trout and Dolly Varden has historically been muddled. It is now agreed that the fish that lived in the McCloud was the bull trout, and that Dolly Varden never existed there.
Several changes in the McCloud watershed worked in concert to extirpate the bull trout. The first was the introduction of brown trout. The brown and bull trout fill a similar ecological niche. They’re both predators and are highly piscivorous. Once the brown trout became established in the McCloud, they were in direct competition with the bull trout for food and space. The construction of Shasta Dam was the next blow. It flooded many miles of the lower McCloud, eliminating some of the bull trout’s habitat. Most importantly, though, it stopped the migrations of salmon and steelhead, eliminating the bull trout’s primary food source. The bull trout was now limited to preying on resident rainbow trout.
The coup de grace for the bull trout was the completion of McCloud Reservoir in 1965. The dam diverted most of the cold spring water from the river to a powerhouse on the nearby Pit River. The amount of water flowing below the dam was reduced by about eighty percent. The dam effectively separated the bull trout’s feeding habitat from its spawning habitat near the springs. The bull trout may have weathered the introduction of brown trout and the loss of the salmon, but the McCloud Reservoir did them in.
The other McCloud fish to meet an unfortunate end is the Chinook salmon. These fish use to migrate up the McCloud by the thousands. They could swim as far up as Lower Falls, where the local Wintun native Americans caught them quite readily. For a full history of the McCloud, I heartily recommend Craig Graham Ballenger’s book “Shasta’s Headwaters: An Angler’s Guide to the Upper Sacramento and McCloud Rivers.” There are detailed sections on the native peoples of the area, the development of the area as a fishing destination, the construction of the first federal fish hatchery on the McCloud, and the decline of the bull trout and Chinook salmon.
McCloud redband trout, 2nd attempt
Katie and I waited a few weeks for the snow to melt and tried again on July 23rd, 2006. We drove up from Redding, which felt like it was about to spontaneously combust. The mercury would hit 116 degrees that day in Redding. The air felt a lot cooler at 5,000 feet on the eastern slope of Mount Shasta.
We started with two of the creeks that had been totally inaccessible due to snow on our last outing. We were approaching one of the creeks when I saw a little flash of water out of the corner of my eye. The stream was so small, we hadn’t even noticed the culvert as we drove over it! Katie turned around and we parked by the bridge. There was a great culvert hole immediately below, with a couple more good holes farther down. The creek above the bridge was an overgrown mess. I carefully approached the culvert hole and quickly saw a really cool-looking fish. It was holding near the edge of the pool, repeatedly mouthing a small stick that had fallen in the water. It was definitely sporting some redband trout coloration.
I got out my new digital camera and took a few shots with my polarized lens. Meanwhile, several fish crashed the surface of the pool, chasing some sort of wasp that kept landing on the water. Katie already had her rod strung up and managed to catch a beautiful redband on her third cast. It was about five inches long, and displayed all of the typical redband characteristics: huge bluish parr marks, a prominent red lateral stripe, black spots primarily above the lateral line, and large bluish dots on the operculum. I snapped a few pictures for her CHTC application and then grabbed my rod. I tied on a black ant and quickly caught a larger specimen, about eight inches long. We documented the catch and then moved on to the next stream.
Our second destination is perhaps the best known stream in the area. There is a campground on it and it has quite a bit of fishable water. I’ll call it Bonefish Creek. The snow was gone now and we were able to sample several parts of Bonefish Creek. The fish here were just as eager, albeit a little more spooky than at our last stop. They were definitely redbands, although their coloration was much more yellowy than I’ve seen before. Bonefish Creek was really a delight to fish. There wasn’t a fish in every spot, but there were plenty of small redband trout to catch and they rose readily to dry flies.
We finished off our trip by visiting two of the other streams we fished on our trip in June. One of them had completely dried up. The other looked great, but just didn’t seem to have any fish. We were pleased to find a few McCloud redband trout, even if we didn’t find them in every stream. Just like our first trip, the research and the adventure of trying to catch a California Heritage Trout proved to be extremely rewarding.
The Full Package
When I’m discussing guide trip destinations with my fishing clients, I like to describe the McCloud River as having the “full package.” It has everything a fly angler could want: incredible scenery, cold water teeming with rainbows and browns, good hatches, and the occasional very large trout. The McCloud also has a full compliment of angling history, including three distinct populations of native trout, two of which survive to this day. If you’re looking for a place to catch a California Heritage Trout, what more could you ask for?