Needing one last trout for the CA Heritage Trout Challenge my wife and I knew that a trip north was required. The McCloud Redband is famous. Honestly. One of the very first “rainbow trout” hatcheries in the United States was opened on a tributary of the McCloud River. Eggs of this species’ lineage were then used to introduce rainbow trout not only around the country but around the world. Another fascinating part of this fish’s history is that it’s genetically very similar to the esteemed and coveted CA Golden Trout. Steelhead trout are the ancestors of all trout. As they migrated inland due to their anadromous capabilities some become residents and through geological changes and ecological adaptations their physical characteristics varied dramatically. Some became cutthroat, some became golden trout, some became redbands, some retained their rainbow characteristics.
It’s reasonably understood that at some point a very, very, long time ago redband lineage steelhead and bull trout found there way into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The last bull trout in CA were extirpated in the mid 70s from the McCloud River. Those redbands that went south found themselves in the Kern River basin and are today known as the Kern River Rainbow, SF Kern Golden Trout (CA Golden Trout), and the Little Kern Golden Trout. The steelhead which followed the bull trout found there way to the upper Sacramento River, the McCloud River, and the Pit River. Through poor stocking methods and practices on the lower McCloud the genetics of most McCloud River trout have been compromised. The purest redbands are isolated in remote streams and creeks near Mt. Shasta whose lava flows “locked” the trout in unreachable (to other migrating trout) streams. The most famous of these populations is the Sheephaven or Sheepheaven Redband. According to some biologists this is a subspecies of O. mykiss whitei. To others, this trout should be its own species due to the unique genetic profile. For those geeking out on science, it’s possible that even the Goose Lake Redband’s lineage traces back to the same redband steelhead trout. Though, it’s more likely that the Goose Lake fish truly is an inland redband that gained access to the Pit River through geological and climactic shifts. The latter would mean that perhaps another redband (sub)species could be confirmed in CA in remote streams where only the initial redband and later inland redband would have reached and no stocked/hybrid genetics could be present. This is unlikely but possible….and fascinating!
Sorry for the ridiculous digression. If you were just interested in photos, I hope you just jumped down!
So we drove up Highway 5 and after meandering around Lake Shasta found the turnoff to McCloud. Stocking up on a few groceries and filling up the gas tank we made out way to our campsite on a rural creek known to sustain a very pure population of McCloud Redband. We setup camp and spent the next 1.5 hours working our way up and down the creek without any luck. Let me just say that this creek is cold. It is fed by the glacial melt from Mt. Shasta which travel underground from the mountain and “bursts out” the subterranean magma tubes and lava fields. This super chilled and oxygen rich water is perfect for trout. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any.
The next morning we decided to explore an even more remote stream which is known to have an isolated population of ancient McCloud Redband which have a strong genetic similarity to the Sheephaven Redband. After a good drive we finally crossed the creek. Looking at the plunge pool created by the culvert we could see small trout and even fry. Jackpot! We knew we’d find descent and beautiful trout.
Driving for another 20 minutes put us onto a spot that just felt right. We unloaded our gear, locked the car, and blazed our trail down to the water. It was probably about .75 miles to the stream. It’s possible that no anglo American had ever set foot in that part of the stream. It was heavily shrouded in thick reeds, weeds, bushes, and small trees. Crawling on hands and knees was often required.
Once we hit the creek walking up and down in it was the only real means of making any headway. After a couple corners bingo. I spotted a gorgeous trout resting in a cool pool. A perfectly placed bow and arrow cast with a caddis was all that was needed to bring me one of the prettiest fish I’ve ever seen. This was my first McCloud Redband. In fact, this was my first redband.
With the pressure and stress lifted we sat down for a brief snack and drink of water. It also feels good to bring that first fish to hand and successfully photograph it for the HTC requirement. It’s often a long drive and solid hike to find the heritage trout. Unsuccessful trips are not only exhausting but demoralizing. After the rest and recharge we made our way upstream a bit farther and found a relative beast in a small pocket of water. A simple roll cast with the same caddis landed me one of the top trout of my life. I spent a good three to four minutes with this incredible specimen. I made sure to keep it wet and well oxygenated. In the third photo down you’ll notice a slight cutthroat slash which absolutely blows me away…but in light of the science lesson at the start of this post it does make sense.
Here’s the pocket were this beauty came from. I cannot believe such small water held such a gem. But considering the icy cold temperatures, relatively low densities, and abundance of food it was an ideal environment
After a few more hours of fishing, hiking, crawling, slipping, falling, resting, and just basically getting stuck we called it a day and traipsed (happily) back up the steep hill to the car after catching numerous fish of multiple sizes. I was so physically beat and emotionally worn out that I just reclined my seat and closed my eyes. It was probably only a 15 minute nap but it sure felt like hours. After thanking my wife profusely for her photographic prowess and willingness to get wet and dirty I drove us back to our campsite….which we were both grateful was already setup. A quick dinner, a couple glasses of wine, and a few minutes of light conversation did us in and we passed out for the night.
In the morning we decided to try the upper reaches of the first stream (near the campsite) where we were unsuccessful the first afternoon. About 25 minutes of recourse put us into a very nice pool with a lovely fish holding toward the tailwaters. Seeing that is was attacking subsurface buggers I tied on a copper john and pow, the fight was on. A couple agonizing minutes later and I brought the lovely fish to hand. The minutes were not so much spent on landing the fish as they were trying to avoid deeper section of water. Never before in my life have I felt such cold water. My feet were absolutely on fire from the pain. I have no other way to describe it. You know that cold water which takes your breath away when you jump into an alpine lake? Yea, that would have felt like a warm bath. This water was excruciatingly cold. Any colder and I swear it would have been ice. I’d prefer to fully submerge in the middle of Lake Tahoe for 30 seconds over standing ankle deep in that creek for the same 30 seconds.
Overjoyed by the redemptive success and even happier to be out of the water and we returned to camp, broke it down, packed the car, and headed back down the dirt road, to the forest road, to the two lane highway, to the interstate….and eventually all the way home. I love that I get to share this type of adventure with my wife.