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Pilgrimage to the McCloud River

My choleric grandfather taught me fly-fishing. He had been a colonel in the Gurkha regiment in India in the days of the British Raj, and told me heart pounding stories of big rainbow trout introduced into India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from the McCloud River in California. I was ten or so at the time, so couldn’t really comprehend what he was talking about - relative to the more immediate fun of catching nine-inch brook trout on blue upright dry flies on the River Torr, close to Zeal Monachorum, in central Devon.

After my grandfather died in 1965, I came across an article he wrote in 1943 referring to the probable source of most rainbow trout (Salmo Shasta) worldwide, being the McCloud River in northern California.

This year (2007), I had the opportunity to stop off in San Francisco to see Henry Little an old friend (and member of Friends Creek Anglers Association), on my way to Hawaii. Henry has worked for the Nature Conservancy for many years, and has repeatedly kindly offered to take me fishing on a stretch of the McCloud that was gifted to the Conservancy.

Three of us, including Henry’s college friend Tom Richardson, drove about five hours north up the Central Valley to Mt. Shasta. The McCloud flows into the Sacramento River, and the latter makes numerous twists and turns on the drive north to Shasta, near Dunsmuir, the location of Ted Fay’s marvelously equipped Fly Shop.

The great Shasta dam, completed in approximately 1950, has left a series of unnaturally deep blue lakes, which were a hundred or so feet below their normal level, due to a progressive drought. The migratory steelhead population was essentially wiped out when the dam became operational, and there are no longer steelhead runs in the McCloud. It made for rather an eerie sight as we drove above the plunging shoreline of interconnecting lakes along the Sacramento, where horizontal lines of sediment produced the tell-tale off-white signs of successive drops in water level.

On arrival at the Nature Conservancy preserve, we deposited our SUV above the River; loaded up to the gunnels with backpacks; and hiked a half mile or so along the McCloud’s rocky banks to the Conservancy cabins. There is one large well appointed cabin complete with bath, flushing loo, and outside solar powered shower, for up to nine or so guests, plus various smaller cabins for Conservancy staff when in residence. I was amused to see that the outhouse had side-by-side seats, with a copy of the Nature Conservancy journal perched between the two seats - clearly high end stuff!

Fishing next day was tough but productive. Tough, because white water was pounding through the McCloud’s multiple rapids, and the river bed was incredibly slippery, making it hazardous to move without the support of a wooden staff. Henry had lined up a guide for the first day to show us where the big fish were lying, and how to read that particular stretch of the McCloud. The guide showed us how to spot the “redds,” where large trout had scooped out areas immediately downstream of half submerged rocks, to expose long lines of golden-yellow gravel for spawning. With a trained eye, and the help of Polaroid glasses, it was possible to make out large shadows of some really big trout as they patrolled their redds.

“That rainbow has to be at least eight pounds,” whispered our guide, as he pointed excitedly to an area of comparatively clear water behind a large rock.

Over the next three days the three of us and a fourth friend, Chris Allen, who joined us separately, had some really phenomenal fishing. Henry Little caught over twenty fish during his two hour stint with the guide.

In spite of an almost mystical hatch of caddice, which flew high on their silver lace gossamer wings into the Douglas fir forest that plunged down to the banks of the McCloud, there was relatively little surface action by trout. The fish seemed to prefer small brown insects that were flying close to the water, and this only selectively. We tried all manner of fly combinations. The preferred rig by our guide was a threesome, with a large stimulator on top, acting as a dry fly indicator; a small nymph rigged a couple of feet below; and an imitation trout egg tied about eighteen inches off the curved shank of the nymph. Strong anecdotal evidence pointed to the polystyrene fuzzy pink egg being the most effective. I caught a nice brown and an even larger rainbow trout using this rig, but spent as much time untangling multiple “bird’s nests” from back casting too often. I asked our guide if he had heard of Occam’s ‘modified’ Razor Law: “When faced with the choice of using multiple flies on a single leader, choose the simpler approach.” I’m not sure he fully appreciated this unsolicited advice, and was probably muttering under his breath “If only this guy knew how to cast…”

Although the Nature Conservancy’s six mile stretch of the McCloud is limited to a certain number of rods, we did see a few fellow anglers. It was then that we began to hear rumors of a very large rainbow trout being caught by an old man by the bridge upstream from our cabin. By mid afternoon the river was positively abuzz about the “old man” with no particular fishing skills, doing everything wrong, and landing this huge Denison of the Deep with his son - who had to use not one, but two, landing nets.

As the light was rapidly disappearing from the deep valley, and I was returning from fishing upstream of our cabin, I met two fishermen hiking out of the preserve. One of them was about my age and the other appeared to be in his early forties. We chatted away about conditions on the river; sightings of water ouzels and belted kingfishers; the staggering beauty of the northern California wilderness with its sculptured Ponderosa pines and huge Douglas firs; and what flies seemed to work best. In no time at all, it became apparent that this was the “old man” who had caught the 32 inch fish. He told me that it took about half an hour to play, and did indeed require two landing nets, since their nets were too small – and by the way, it was a brown trout, not a rainbow. In addition to both of us being derogatorily classified as “old men,” each of us had sons that ran software companies, so we had much in common except, that is, for the disproportionate size of our respective catches!

I mentioned that my grandfather had written about the source of most rainbow trout coming from the McCloud, and that I was on a pilgrimage of sorts to fish the great River, and leave a copy of his 1943 article in the Conservancy cabin (and preferably not in the outhouse). Peter Sharer, the son, kindly sent me several photographs of his father’s extraordinary catch, in return for a copy of my grandfather, Col. R. B. Phayre’s article written in India – where McCloud rainbow trout flourish to this day.

Stephen M. D. Day
Washington, DC. November 26, 2007