Back in 2009, I decided to do the California Heritage Trout Challenge. This is a program that the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) hosts. The challenge is to catch six of the eleven native trout in California. All you need is photographic proof that you actually caught them. They must also be caught from their historic drainage. There is no time limit. The prize, along with memories that will last a lifetime, is a beautiful certificate of the six fish, drawn by world famous fish illustrator Joseph Tomelleri.
I first heard of The California Heritage Trout Challenge from Scott Lyons, a customer and friend from my old fly shop. The enthusiasm he had for these native fish piqued my interest. Later that year Jeff Weaver from DFG came in to my fly shop and did a presentation on the challenge. Jeff spoke of the fun the contestants had on their journeys. He spoke of participants mixing it up and adding their own flair to the contest; such as one gentleman completing it entirely with the same fly. (I heard by the time he was done the fly was pretty much destroyed.) There was a father-daughter team that did it as there summer vacation before she moved away for college. I heard there was also a bamboo rod builder who built a bamboo rod just for the event. I was now very interested. I wanted to pursue this challenge and I wanted to add my own flare as well. With my love of float tubing and fishing stillwater, I felt that doing it completely out of a float tube would be a great way to complete my heritage trout challenge. I knew a lot of driving would be required to complete the challenge and I also really wanted to share this experience with someone else. I asked around and no one had any interest in doing this with me. Everybody felt it would be impossible without fishing rivers or streams. I had recently reconnected with my cousin Andy, and felt he would be a good candidate. He loves to fish, he loves road trips and the fact that he is family means he is most likely not too bright and could be tricked into joining me. When I approached Andy with the idea, he was extremely excited and could not wait to get started.
Now all we had to do was go catch some fish. This would be easier said than done. Of the eleven fish, I had only heard of four of them and I wasn’t even sure of the original drainages that these fish came from. In the earlier years the California Heritage Trout Challenge was not as popular as it is today. There was little to no information on the internet. The Department of Fish and Game did not tell you the drainages from which the fish came from.
There were many late nights into the early morning reading books, studying maps and checking out every little bit of info I could find. I put more research into finding these fish than anything I had ever researched in my life. I become obsessive. The research turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the adventure.
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout
We decided the first fish we would go after was the Lahontan Cutthroat. We found a high sierra lake that was part of the Carson River drainage. In order for a lake to hold a qualifying Lahontan Cutthroat, it would have to be part of the Carson, Truckee Walker or Susan River drainages. It is believed the Susan River Lahontan Cutthroat trout have become extinct.
A lovely high sierra lake that would give us our first heritage trout.
The lake we would pursue was about a mile or so in and we both had a couple of free days so we decided to spend the night up there. We walked around the lake to just check it out and we saw lots of bait fish and even saw a Lahontan about 18 inches cruising the shore. We were jazzed. We pumped up our float tubes and put in. We fished the lake for what seemed like eternity without even a bite. We were starting to wonder if we were going to have to pack up and try another lake. Andy decided to switch from the sheep creek special fly he originally started with and put a purple wiggle tail nymph on. His first cast after switching flies he hooked a nice Lahontan. I reeled my line in and kicked over to get a picture and congratulate him on his first heritage trout. Andy caught another shortly after. I had only one bite. I was starting to wonder what was going on, and then I felt something. It fought a little strange and when I got it up to my tube I realized I had caught a sandal that probably belonged to some swimmers earlier in the summer. I switched to a fast sinking line and a purple wiggle tail nymph and instantly caught one. The pressure was off. We caught a few more then decided to go in and celebrate with a couple of steaks and some red wine.
McCloud River Redband Trout
Our second attempt at a California Heritage Trout led us to the McCloud area.
We heard about a dammed up section of the Upper McCloud River that created a small pond for a mill that was on the river. We thought this might be a feasible place to float tube and could give us a chance at a McCloud River Redband. When we arrived at the destination, the water was very shallow and we were certain there would be no chance of catching a redband.
The sign said there would be redband trout here, but we didn't believe it.
We looked at the map and noticed a small lake at the headwaters of one of the tributaries. If we could get to this lake it would possibly hold our treasured redband.
After a few hours on some nasty logging roads and putting Andy’s rental car through some pretty hairy terrain we decided to give up and just head home. At this point we were pretty bummed out. We knew our chances of catching a McCloud Redband were getting slim.
Failing miserably in our first attempt at a McCloud Redband we thought it would be way too tough to find these fish, in a suitable float tube environment and put it on the back burner. A few days later a good friend of mine told us of a spot he felt even we could catch them. He said it was an old cattle pond that connected to the Upper McCloud River. He said it was now used as a swimming hole. He also said he saw redbands and if we arrived before the swimmers showed up, we were sure to catch a few. This brought our spirits up and we were ready to try again.
Our second heritage trout came from this swimming hole, that used to be a cattle camp.
We headed out on a Monday morning bright and early. Rental car loaded with gas, we were determined not to fail this time. We arrived at our destination at around 11:00 in the morning. We were not sure where to go so we pulled into a campsite and asked the camp hosts if they had any idea where our honey hole might be. They knew exactly what we were talking about and made a comment that DFG had been there recently .The camp host warned us it was a an old cattle pond that would be way too small to put our float tubes in. When we pulled up to the water my first thought was that it was plenty big enough and it was actually a little bigger than I expected. I had float tubed smaller bodies of water for bass, so I was ok.
We decided to walk around the old cattle pond first to see if there were any fish present. As we got towards the inlet I noticed a fish swimming out from under a rock. It was a Redband. We grabbed our float tubes, put in and started fishing. We did not catch anything for at least an hour except for one small brookie that Andy caught. Another hour or so went by without a fish. A few cars showed up loaded with teenagers and dogs. They walked over to the sand bar at the end of the pond and sat there patiently waiting for us to get off of the water so they could swim. I told Andy that this was a swimming hole first and a fishing hole second. We left and let them swim. We figured they would be gone by the evening and we would have it to ourselves.
We left there and ran over to the dammed up mill pond that we did not fish on our last trip. I put in and paddled towards the dam and Andy went towards the inlet. When I got near the dam the pond had opened up and was very deep. I made a cast and instantly caught a fish. It was a little brown trout. Andy showed up shortly after. We hung out at the mill pond catching brown trout and brook trout one after the other.
Andy with the wrong species, brookies don't count.
We were having fun but we needed a redband. We headed back over to our original spot hoping the swimmers had left. They were gone and fish were rising. I caught a small redband on a dry fly and was pretty excited. During my excitement of just catching my second heritage trout I noticed a farmer sitting in his pickup truck watching Andy and I. Just imagine the confusion going through the farmers mind as these two idiots are float tubing this old cattle pond and screaming with joy as we take photo after photo of a four inch fish.
A small but beautiful redband trout.
I decided to get off the water and take some pictures of the scenery and let Andy have it to himself. After losing one and feeling the pressure Andy calmed down a little and caught about a half dozen or so. We both had our redbands and we were the most excited we had ever been for catching such small fish.
Warner Redband Trout
For our third heritage trout we decided we would drive up to Modoc County and try for a Warner Redband. Andy got off work on Sunday night around 8:00 p.m. and was to swing by my house and pick me up around 9:30 p.m. Andy got distracted and showed up around 11:00.p.m. That was still ok, the plan was to drive all night and sleep on the side of the road. If we did it this way we would be closer to the spot and start fishing at first light. My friend Mike Matus who just completed the challenge told us about a beaver pond slash swamp that was located in a creek northeast of Goose Lake that contained Warner redbands. The beaver pond slash swamp would be large enough to float tube and I was excited to get started. As we were driving towards Goose Lake we noticed a grayish brown cloud coming towards us. I could not make out what it was until it hit us. It was the biggest dust storm I had ever seen. It looked like something out of a science fiction movie. The dust storm completely swallowed us up . It was so massive we had to slow down to 10 miles per hour on highway 395 just so we could see. The rest of the day had an over cast look to it and we were filthy from all of the dust in the air.
When we arrived at the creek Andy just shook his head and gave me a funny look. The creek was only one foot wide. If anyone saw us carrying our float tubes we would look pretty funny. I thought for a moment. Did Mike set us up? Was this some sort of cruel joke? Could there possibly be a spot in this tiny little creek to actually put a float tube . After hiking almost to the Oregon border we found the beaver pond and it was plenty large enough to float tube.
We pumped up our tubes and put in. We were into fish right away. We caught Warner redbands up to about twelve inches. Andy and I joked that there could possibly be a state record redband in this beaver pond.
This area is often referred to as a swamp. You can see the Oregon hillside in the background.
On the way home we both felt like we were way too dirty from the massive dust storm to just sleep in the car as we had done on all of our previous trips. We needed showers and I wanted cold beer and a steak dinner. We headed back to Alturas looking for a hotel and a place to grab dinner. We noticed a restaurant that had a hotel attached to it. Bingo, just what we were looking for. When we walked in it felt as if time stood still, and all attention was diverted towards us. It was obvious we were from out of town. The waitress asked if we were some sort of miners and why we were so dirty. We explained our adventure to her. She seemed genuinely interested and actually was able to work a deal on the hotel price for us. The beer was cold, the steaks were perfect, and we tipped her well.
Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout
Fish number four we wanted the Eagle Lake Rainbow. We believed every person that turned in an Eagle Lake Rainbow for the Heritage Challenge turned their fish in from Eagle Lake. We wanted to be different; we wanted to qualify with one from a lake that wasn’t Eagle Lake. Could this even be possible? Well with a lot of research we found a hike to lake that was in the drainage and would qualify but was an extremely difficult bite. We knew it would be tough and we put two days aside to do it. The plan was to fish this lake first and if we caught our fish on the first day, we would stop at a lake for coastal rainbows on the way home.
Possibly the only other lake in the world that you could catch an Eagle Lake Rainbow besides Eagle Lake, in its native range.
Andy got off work around 2:00 am and we were off and running. We arrived at the trail head at around 7:00 am. We did the two mile hike fairly quick. When we arrived at the lake we did not see any fish rising and our enthusiasm was low. We pumped up our float tubes and started fishing. I hooked up within fifteen or twenty minutes. The fish was much bigger than I expected and I got worked. I lost the fish and I kept wondering if that was my only chance. Andy and I both lost a few more fish and we were starting to stress. It was now around noon and neither one of us had landed a fish. I went to shore to take a little break. I heard Andy scream, he just put a 20” fish in the net. I was thrilled. A few seconds later I heard Andy scream again. He had just dropped his fish in the water before he could get a photo. He was devastated. I knew he was thinking, that fish would haunt him. Andy came to shore to take a quick break, on his way back out he hooked up again with a nice fish, this time real shallow, but that fish came unbuttoned. Man we were having a tough bite. I saw that last fish was shallow so I moved in and started stripping an orange wiggle tail nymph. I hooked up. This fish was mine I played him so cautious; I was not going to lose this fish. I got him to the net and was so relieved. This had been one of the most difficult bites we had ever faced and I did not want to come back here. I had my Eagle Lake rainbow, and it was like I felt a blanket of relief cover me.
Now that this fish is in the net, I can breath.
Now it was Andy’s turn. He started fishing shallow but the fish would not cooperate. It was getting late. I knew the fact that Andy had already caught a fish, but dropped it was eating him alive. Five hours have now passed since our last bite. I thought for sure we would have to hike out, sleep in the car and hike back in the morning. Just when I was about to call out to Andy that we only had about thirty minutes of light left, I had noticed him fighting a fish. He did not say a word. I could feel the tension and stress he was going through from across the lake. When I saw the fish get swept into the net I screamed for joy. I just wanted to go home. The fish was about nineteen inches and was a perfect example of an Eagle Lake rainbow. A few photos and we were out of there.
Andy with his Eagle Lake Rainbow.
Coastal Rainbow Trout
The next morning we were after a coastal rainbow. For a coastal rainbow to count, it has to be in a drainage on the west side of the Sierras. It also has to be in a body of water that coastal rainbows could have reached historically from the ocean. With that being said, dams would not be an issue because we are talking historically. Planter rainbows would count, but we wanted to qualify with a wild and beautiful specimen. There are only a few lakes in California that have wild, native rainbows, but we knew of one that was on our way home. We arrived at the lake about 7:30 am. Andy hooked up with a smallmouth bass right away, but it broke him off. No big deal we were after rainbows anyways. Within a few minutes we were both into rainbows and had our qualifying fish. Andy had caught a beautiful rainbow. We knew that would be the photo he would turn in. Well that’s what we thought.
About thirty minutes later Andy caught one about twenty inches long. This fish was perfect. The previous fish was a real beauty, but at only twelve inches long Andy had to turn in the big one. It was a great day and the great fishing made up for the stress of the previous day. We were on our way home with two more qualifying fish.
Coastal Cutthroat Trout
Andy and I were one fish away from finishing the California Heritage Trout Challenge. We decided we would head west and try some lagoons for the Coastal Cutthroat. These lagoons have a sand bar that separates them from the ocean. Any time there is a large storm the sand bar breaches allowing salt water and fish to come in.
Andy floating along in the Lagoon.
When we first put in the water I noticed some duck hunters on the west shore and started heading to deeper water, to stay out of there way. I started trolling and hooked up instantly. I looked behind me to give Andy a little heads up that I had a fish already. He was too busy to notice because he was releasing one. We had both just caught a couple of small steelhead. Fun fish but we were after cutthroat. We started heading towards the main creek inlet. We were getting bit the whole way, but not able to land anything. Andy headed towards the mouth of the creek. He was catching a few small steelhead. I stayed out on the main body. I was getting bites, but just could not close the deal. I was starting to get a little frustrated. Then Andy called me on the walky talky, “I got a cutthroat” he was yelling.
I was very excited for him, but now the pressure was on me. Andy said there were more in the creek mouth and I needed to get over there. Andy decided to stop fishing and move off the spot so I would have a chance. By this time I was almost back at where we started and it would take me an hour to get over to the inlet. I started trolling really fast trying to make up some time, while the same time hoping a fish would be willing to eat my wiggle tail nymph. I hooked up with a willing fish pretty quick. This fish looked a little different so I checked under his gills and sure enough he had the red slashes that indicated a cutthroat. I took a few pictures and headed towards Andy. I was relieved and now I felt I could just relax and fish.
I opened up my camera to look at the picture I just took. I was not happy with the photo and figured I would get over to the inlet and get a better photo of a cutthroat. When I arrived at the inlet fish were rising like crazy. I caught small steelhead after steelhead. Man I need a cutthroat. I fished for an hour or so, but just kept catching steelheads. By now it was starting to get late and we had a six hour drive to get home. Andy called me on the radio, his waders were leaking it was starting to rain and we had to split. The picture I had would have to do. All the way home I kept looking at the picture, hoping it would look better on the computer screen than on the small camera screen.
When I got home the first thing I did was open my computer and load the picture. It looked much better than I expected and we were good to go. The California Heritage Trout challenge is complete.
We took three months, drove thousands of miles and fished lakes, ponds, swamps and lagoons.
It was an amazing adventure. Andy and I fished places we would have never seen or even thought of going. It also brought us back together as fishing buds. I will remember this adventure for the rest of my life.A little side project my wife made for Andy and I, for her photoshop class.