Trek for Redbands

July 23-25, 2017

My father introduced me to fly fishing so many years ago. I wanted to spend some quality time with him and invited him to search for native trout with me. Given the international nature of my job, we have not always had the ability to fish together. In fact, it had been more than eight years since the last time we wetted a line around Markleeville, California. I wanted him to share in my love of native trout as he’s not been familiar with them. Though he raised me camping, backpacking, and fishing, our time was often spent in the high Sierras catching self-sustaining populations of helicopter-introduced brookies, rainbows, and browns. This time, we traveled to the border of California, Oregon, and Nevada. It is there that two relatively unknown species of heritage trout live: the Goose Lake and Warner Lakes Redbands.

A wedding for an old family friend took my wife and me to Northern California. After the Saturday evening festivities, my dad and I made our final arrangements for the early Sunday morning departure. At 4:30 am, our alarms sounded. We made coffee, put the final bags into the car, and left for Reno. There were very few reports on road conditions for the dirt and gravel tracks that would lead us into the upper reaches of redband territory. Having read old reports for the area, I was concerned that the high rainfall/snow pack from the wet winter could cause some problems if washouts occurred. Not wanting to take the risk in either of our sedans, we rented a Hyundai Sante Fe, which turned out to be a great vehicle as it was very comfortable, felt very solid over all terrains, and averaged over 33 miles per gallon.

If you’re already tired of reading here’s a video recap

We crossed into Nevada via Donner Pass by about 7:30. A few hours later, we were cruising through the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, which was blanketed in wildflowers. My time in East Africa has conditioned me to look excitedly out the window in these types of “reserves”. However, there were no elephants, lions, giraffe, or rhinos to be seen — only flocks of geese, gulls, and elk. Not bad for California wildlife, but nothing compared to the massive pachyderms of the African savanna. A quick stop in Alturas for bottled water saw us properly stocked and ready for fishing. As we continued north on 395, we finally reached the Goose Lake Basin, which resembled a massive volcanic crater. Goose Lake is a collection point for hundreds of square miles of watershed drainage. From all directions, water slowly makes its way toward the lake. In time, we made it to our turnoff and onto our first dirt road. We were surprised by its condition. It was wide and very well maintained. As the miles ticked by, we found our way through private property and eventually into the national forest. Our first day’s target was the Goose Lake Redband. We drove up and down the creek looking for just the right spot to work. Satisfied with our location, we parked the car and excitedly popped the back door of the SUV. We opened the tubes for our rods, strung up, and covered ourselves in DEET.

It felt great to have my feet back in the water; however, I was a bit alarmed by the color. The water had a tinge of grey to it, and the immense quantities of cow pies indicated that perhaps grazing pressure in the system has somewhat compromised the clarity and quality of the watershed. Nonetheless, a closer inspection of the pools and runs revealed that this is indeed a very fishy place. It wasn’t long until redband after redband was brought to hand.

These are quite a beautiful trout whose large and purple parr marks are remarkable. Their namesake red band ranges from light purple to pink to red. The belly of the fish is a stark white while the top of the back is very dark. From above, these fish are nearly invisible. Considering the nesting bald eagles within 50 meters of us, I’d say this camouflage is quite on point. The fish were striking everything from elk-hair caddis to prince nymphs to copper johns. They were not particularly picky but did seem to prefer a specific presentation. As the flies casually drifted past them, they were not keenly interested. But once the stripping began, they’d spring to life and ferociously attack their intended meal. Once we’d sorted out how to entice the lovely little trout, the game was afoot.

As I worked one section of creek, I came upon a tree whose large root system created quite an overhang. It reminded me of a mangrove forest but a bit less knotted. I had a suspicion that the exaggerated undercut might hold some larger fish. The overhanging branches made accessing the pockets very near impossible to a standard cast. The depth of the pockets also made getting a dry fly down to the feeding zone unlikely given the speed of the current and likelihood for the line to tangle if allowed to drift milliseconds too long.

I tied on a copper john and employed the trusted bow and arrow casting technique. I targeted the small windows between the branches and the submerged roots. I successfully lured out two beauties from tangles. The first hit the fly so hard that I hardly needed to set the hook. Just by feel, I knew this was a very large trout for a remote native stream. I carefully played the fish and navigated it out of the web until my father and I both laid eyes on it for the first time. It was nothing short of  a whopper. I carefully pulled it through the quicker moving water and brought it to the extended net my father was outstretching. Excitedly, he brought it up out of the water. In the activity, I didn’t realize that I’d become ensnared in my fly line and needed to unwrap myself for a minute. My father briefly set down the net and decided to snap a quick picture of the fish in the net before asking if I needed help. I’d freed my left Chaco sandal from the leader and walked a few steps to him and moved the net into the water. I want to keep native trout wet and only briefly remove them above the water to admire them. As I removed the fish from the net, my father’s excited remark was an old quote from his father: “That’s eatin’ size.” I must say, if I was in the backcountry and needed protein, I would have done just that.

As I got the redband into my hands, I was very excited to look at its differences from the smaller fish I’d been catching. I figure it’s possible that this beauty may have traveled up from Goose Lake itself to spawn. That said, I also know that the lake-faring specimens usually lose their parr marks and, often, their coloration. This fish was easily three inches larger than all others we caught in that stream. With the adrenaline finally wearing off, I knew that it was time to carefully resuscitate this beauty in the quicker moving section of the stream. I kept it on the line and knelt over the fish as my hand cradled it, ensuring that water was moving easily through its gills. My left hand held the line a foot or so in front of it, and as the fish gained strength, my right hand slipped from beneath it. As it gained its “legs” again and began to move better, I carefully slid my hand back underneath it, lifted it out of the water about six inches, moved my left hand back down the fly line, and, in a moment, backed the barbless hook from its lip. In only a matter of seconds, it was back in the shallow stream and resting in the cool current.

My dad and I high-fived each other and laughed. What a last few minutes. This was just the type of memory I hoped to create with him. We both agreed it was time to celebrate with a beer. Returning to the car, we opened the cooler and popped a couple of cold ones. We walked back over the stream and saw that our new friend was holding in a good pocket of water no worse for the wear. Enjoying the brewskies, we sat next to the bank and took a few minutes to talk about fly fishing and where it’s taken me around the state. That same pool was still calling my name, so I placed my beer on the ground and flicked a line back to the bottom of the run. Bam! Another beauty was on the line, and I was able to bring it in without the need of net…allowing my father to continue enjoying his cold beverage. Slightly smaller than the last fish, this one was still a looker. Whipping out the phone, I took a picture and easily removed the hook. Within a moment, it was over, and I was back to my beer.

One of the things that fascinates me about native trout is how they’ve had to adapt to their unique environments and surroundings. The geological forces at play over thousands of years have forced these fish to adapt. In places like Golden Trout Creek with red, yellow, and black lava rocks mixed with green stones and ivory sand, the fish disappear from sight right in front of you. Here in this creek, the black volcanic rock and obsidian have created a different challenge. The larger parr marks and dark backs make the fish invisible as aforementioned. The few and scattered lighter colored stones perfectly hide the fish, and their slight movements in the currents are easily mistaken as lighter weight rocks being tossed about. Believe it or not, there is a small trout hidden in the photo below.

Before moving downstream, we headed back to the car to grab some “lunch”. I’m not sure that jerkey, energy bars, and beer constitute a meal, but that’s what we had, so that’s what we ate. Ironically, I’ve eaten better in the backcountry. Go figure. Sometimes the luxury of a vehicle actually causes me to be a bit less careful in my planning. Food was an afterthought. Whereas on a backpacking trip, it’s the first concern. After the food and more hydration (wink), we found a more open area that allowed us to properly cast to riffles and runs holding more aptly sized five and six-inch trout. Hours later, we decided to call it a day around 4:30…12 hours after leaving the house. One last photo on our way to the car perfectly summed up the day and why I love fishing for native trout…the places it takes me.

We did not feel like camping on this vacation, so we were at the mercy of local accommodations. I knew that left us with Alturas, CA or Lakeview, Oregon. So a few weeks prior, I booked a room at the Interstate 8 Motel in Lakeview because it was closer to our next day’s fishing grounds. Eventually, we reunited with Hwy 395 and turned right. Within 40 minutes, we hit Lakeview and circled the town trying to determine where we would eat our one and only proper meal of the day. Realizing that it was a Sunday evening and that most places would be closed in the sleepy town, we resigned ourselves to making a Safeway stop for whatever fixing we could find. Most likely, that would have meant a loaf of bread, deli meat, and packaged cheese slices with a bag of potato chips. Not terrible, but not the pizza we were both craving. We decided to stop by our motel first and square away our belongings. We walked out of the room and noticed the Tall Town Cafe across the street. It was open until 7:00 and sure beat the heck out of a boring sandwich. We sat down and learned that it’s a breakfast and lunch joint that serves breakfast all day. Done. I ordered the biscuits and gravy with two sunny-side-up eggs and a side of hash browns. Pops ordered the chicken-fried steak with two eggs and hash browns. Hey, we were on vacation and technically had not eaten breakfast yet. In the words of Chris Farley, “Lay off me, I’m starving!” The food was awesome, though I must say that breakfast and a fountain cola-flavored soda is not exactly a normal pairing.

Absolutely beat, we walked back across the street and entered our room. A couple of showers and beers later, we turned on the television to watch recap highlights of the British Open Championship for golf. In his retirement, my father has been able to really engage two activities: playing golf and watching it on TV. I was hoping that reintroducing him to fly fishing would change that a bit. Eventually, we both crashed for the night. I doubt it was even 9:30 pm. The way I figure that is by about 5:00 am, we were both ready to go again after a full night’s sleep. We packed our gear and finally did make it to the Safeway where I grabbed some Nature Valley bars, a sports drink, and some chocolate milk. Don’t worry Mom, only the chocolate milk was consumed in the morning. The others were for later in the day.

That day’s journey took us barely back into California. When I say barely I mean it. At no point were we more than a mile from the CA/OR border. The day’s redband target inhabits less than 20 miles of cumulative stream in CA before entering the remainder of it’s territory in Oregon. We had to drive a steep but well maintain dirt road to an altitude just north of 7,000 feet before cresting the range that splits the waterflows between westward and northward. The swamp we were driving to has a very narrow stream running through it. If you don’t know it’s there you will drive right passed it. I knew where it was and we still overshot by about 1.000ft and had to turn around. The water above and below the culvert indicated that the water was fishy. I certainly wanted to fish the stream but I also knew about a real diamond in the rough that lay just a bit downstream.

Scouring and searching the stream a few hundred meters up and down from the crossing helped me zero in on how the Warner Lakes Redbands were behaving in the current conditions. They were deep in the cuts and the water was quite high. Getting them to take an interest in a dry would be difficult in this spot because of the flow rates. I figured that a prince nymph would get me into their feed zones better so I tied on one. The grasses and algae in the water made it very difficult to keep the fly clean. Nearly every strip would require a cleaning of the fly to remove the gunk from it. I came upon a nice corner in one of the trenches that was deep and clear. If a good sized fish was going to be anywhere it would be at the back of that narrow and tight turn. I carefully flicked the prince upstream a few feet and let it descend a bit. I mended the line a but to guide the nymph it into the current which I hoped would pass right through the opening without catching on the gloopy green bits all around.

A flash and a moment later the fly was gone and the line was four feet upstream buried in thick reeds and weeds. The fish that I’d hooked felt large and smart. He drove himself deep into the gunk. My line was covered in algae and grasses. In fact the line was so weighted down that I thought he’d moved downstream. The double weight did not make things easy. I carefully moved down from where the trout had apparently lodged and began to carefully extract him from his hiding spot. I was carefully going about this as I’d never before caught a Warner Lakes Redband and I really wanted to document this one because I anticipated it to be about as large as yesterday’s largest redband. As a increased the pressure on the line everything went slack and I was crushed.

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach? That one when you feel like you really should have been more patient but you rushed it? Yea, that’s how I felt. I was dejected and frustrated. My pole tip was nearly in the water.

Suddenly the fly line ripped through the water and a fish tore off through the skinny water. Thankfully I had not reeled in the fly line as it shot off through the guides. The fish was still on! You know that feeling when you ask a girl if she’d like to go to prom with you and says no. She’d love to go with you. That’s about how this roller coaster was feeling. My father, God bless him” lunged to the creekside with the net. He was ready. As I increased the tension on the line the large trout turned around and began to tear back toward his original location. For some reason he changed course at the last moment and buried himself into the grass coming from the undercut on our side of the creek. Knowing he wouldn’t leave his anchor I carefully guided my dad through his next steps. I reeled in all the slack and had him run his fingers carefully down the line. In doing so he felt the tail, then the back of the fish. He lightly pressed the fish against the grasses with his left hand and brought the net in with his right. The fish was easily and harmlessly netted. What a relief. What a fish!

I know that to many people this is still a small fish. But for this skinny water and this species I was over the moon to have safely landed this specimen. It was absolutely stunning. Most inland redband species or subspecies of trout look very similar to each other. In fact it takes quite an aficionado to correctly identify them….and even then they are often wrong. However as a rule of thumb what differentiates the Warner and Goose redbands is that the Warner is a bit more golden in it’s base color and its parr marks are less rounded more more oblong. Instead of thumbprint sized marks, they are more like your pinky finger down to the second knuckle. Again, this is not a scientific differentiation as that gets into gill rakers and alleles which is just fancy science talk. This is just a physical generalization that is often accurate enough.

Again, what a fish.

With my first Warner Reband successfully documented I was a very happy (youngish) man of 32 years. I was elated to have caught my 9th California heritage trout species (if you follow CA DFW’s distinction of steelhead and coastal rainbows). Hungry for more and wanting my father to catch one also, we continued our explorations downstream. I’ll be honest, the fishing was not as easy as my first target made it out to be. The water was small, the vegetation thick, and the footing often terrible. Like the day before evidence of horses, cattle, deer, and elk all drinking from the water made walking along the creek downright dangerous. Many times were nearly tweaked an ankle. I’m thankful no serious falls were taken. There were a few close calls.

I knew that something beckoned me from father downstream so we continued our bushwacking and pocket fishing. The scenery was amazing. The far hillside was OR. The trout was still in CA, but barely.

The trout hiding in the stream were hungry and active. Did I mention they’re stunningly beautiful. Just look at this one:

As we headed further and further north we entered a couple of amazing meadows filled with flowers and colors. Not many people venture out here but if you do make it sometime please take a moment to absorb more than just the fish. This countryside is one to behold. Time and time again my dad and I stopped to just take a 360 view. Incredible. Just incredible.

Eventually the bushwacking became too much and I honestly was not sure how far I was from the mother load. I called it quits and we returned following our same tracks. Tired and without water we made for the car. Upon arrival we skipped the beers and went for the water and sports drink. We sat down for a bit in the cushioned seats and ate some jerkey and bars like the day before. Hoping we might be able to continue our northward quest using the Hyundai we packed up and drove a bit further on the same dirt track until we found another creek crossing. I disembarked and surveyed the landscape…bingo. We parked the car and headed down. After a 20 minute hike we found what I was looking for….water packed with fish on fish on fish. We were catching trout with every cast. In fact trout were literally jumping over each other out of the water to hit our dry flies. Their acrobatics were a joy to watch. Unfortunately the forecasts were correct and a serious thunderstorm began to roll through with lightening strikes every 15-20 seconds hitting not far away. We decided not to risk things and made the hike back out to the car. But not before one last cast which brought me a redband with a true red band. I had to snap a quick picture. Again, note the difference in the parr maks from the Goose Lake variety.

 

One last look at the stream before we got out of dodge…

We climbed our way back to the car and settled down for a few minutes. We both knocked the rocks and gravel from our sandals and smiled at each other. What a great day it was indeed. We made our way back down the mountain but decided to fish the creek running alongside the road. I knew it contained a mixture of wild and self-sustaining brown trout and native Goose Lake Redbands. We worked a few miles of creek and brought brown after brown to hand. We found them in plunge pools. We found them in riffles. We drew them out from the undercuts. We lured them out from under fallen logs. It was a blast. My father’s lone brown may have been the trip’s largest fish.

Like the day before we called it quite around 4:30 and made our way back to Lakeview. We knew that on a Monday there would be more food options available for dinner in Lakeview. However the prior nights meal was so good that we decided that burgers sounded just about right. The patties are a mix of beef and pork to keep them moist and juicy. I ordered the Cowboy burger which is a bacon cheeseburger with grilled onions and bbq sauce on a buttered brioche bun with a side of fries.

It was the perfect end to an amazing day in nature with my dad. His burger satiated him with much satisfaction and once again the routine of shower, beers, and golf channel ensued for the night. I cannot more highly recommend an eatery in Lakeview than Tall Town Cafe. The food far exceeded expectations. If you want to target the NorCal and Central OR redbands and don’t want to camp, Interstate 8 and Tall Town Cafe are an affordable and easy combo. The motel is nothing special but it’s exactly what you need and nothing you don’t.

Our last morning found us checking out of the hotel and repeating the last morning’s Safeway run. We decided to fish the same creek as our first day but in a different area. After about an hour’s drive we hit the water. However we did not fair very well. After an hour of only three minuscule trout we made out way back toward where we encountered the beast from the first day. We didn’t make it that far before seeing some very nice water. It was in that stretch that we would spend the rest of the day. There was no reason to leave, the fishing was that good. Pocket after pocket, run after run held numerous lovely redbands. The two of us tag-teamed about half a mile of water over 3-4 hours and brought more fish to hand than we could count. There is not better feeling than reading the water, determine where the fish “should” be, perfectly presenting a fly to that location, and properly setting the hook as a native trout decides to dance. Again and again that was the narrative. Again and again my father and I high-fived and “dugout hugged” each other. None of the fish were trophy sized but 6-8 inches is nothing to scoff at when you’re targeting native trout in remote CA headwater streams.

Knowing that we’d need to drive back “home” today we eventually called it quits a little before noon. We sadly but satisfyingly packed up the car. We backtracked our progress from Sunday morning stopping in Alturas for hot dogs and milkshakes and then stopping in Reno at the Cabelas. A few minutes of looking at their meager fly fishing section saw us off and over Donner Pass. A few hours later we were home and finally eating the pizza that we’d been craving since our first night.

I’m very happy to report that two days after returning my father has already purchased a new rig and as they say, is now hook, line, and sinker into native trout fly fishing!

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