September 27, 2021
This article was originally titled "A Gift of Rainbows" in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
The McCloud rises in the Cascade Mountains of far northern California, a region dominated by the soaring presence of 14,179-foot Mt. Shasta. The vast aquifer adjacent to the mountain provides the spring flows for this breathtakingly beautiful river, a river of long pools and pocketwater in a wild, water-carved canyon. It is a remote and magical place, with the ancient stillness of the old-growth fir and pine forest. In the spring, the scent of wild azalea and Shasta lilies drifts upstream on the warm air. Bears are common. Goshawks chase sooty grouse in the understory. Mountain lions hunt deer in the forest.
The river has sculpted picturesque riverside cliffs, ledges, and deep pools in the gray basalt. In the pocketwater, it flows among smoothed and variegated volcanic rocks, creating a tapestry of small pockets and seams. Unlike typical freestoners, which run high and turbid in the spring and gradually become low and warm by the autumn, the McCloud remains cold, clear, and constant most of the year, fed largely by spring water emerging through the porous volcanic rock, often in spectacular riverside cascades. About 9 miles southeast of the town of McCloud, a PG&E hydropower dam forms Lake McCloud, part of the McCloud-Pit Hydroelectric Project. Below the dam, the McCloud River flows another 12 miles into Lake Shasta.
The McCloud holds a unique place in the history of American angling. McCloud River redband rainbow trout were so admired by early fish culturists that in 1878, their eggs were sent to hatcheries in the eastern United States and, in subsequent years, around the world, establishing rainbow trout as the most popular trout on earth.
If you were to catch a rainbow anywhere in the world, and could magically look into its DNA as you held it in your net, you would see genetic markers of McCloud River rainbow trout. Admired for their brilliant colors, fighting qualities, hardiness, and tolerance of a variety of water conditions, no other North American trout species has enjoyed such widespread distribution and acceptance.
The same impulse that sent rainbow trout eggs around the world brought brown trout eggs from Germany and Scotland to California. By 1895 brown trout eggs were being raised at the hatchery in Mount Shasta City. While not native, wild browns are firmly established in the river. They spend the winter feeding in the lake and move into the river in early spring, taking up residence in the deep pools and runs until autumn, when they begin their spawning rituals.
Nymphing the McCloud
While there are some big browns, native McCloud River rainbows are what attracts most anglers to the river. These deep-bodied, brightly colored fish, typically 12 to 15 inches, are usually caught with nymphs in the fast water, or on drys when one of the abundant hatches brings them up. The standard approach is short-line nymphing. This technique was pioneered on the McCloud and the nearby upper Sacramento in the ’50s and ’60s when Ted Fay moved to the town of Dunsmuir. He learned to fish the pocketwater from a local Wintu Native American. The technique involved casting a brace of heavily weighted flies upstream into fishy pockets and bringing them downstream on a tight line. Fay refined the technique and taught it to other fly fishers, and short-line nymphing was born. Ted lived on to become a local legend and open a fly shop, still in operation in Dunsmuir.
Short-line nymphing begins with a 9- to 10-foot rod for a 3- to 5-weight line, a leader and tippet of about the rod’s length, tapering to 4X, weighted nymphs or nymphs with BB split-shot on the leader, and a modest indicator.
A wading staff is critical to success on the McCloud. With its cobble and boulder bottom, there is very little gravel or sand to make wading easy. Getting into the right position to make perfect drifts is the key to success. Cast the shortest possible line, targeting your drifts precisely and working the likely water carefully. You will rarely have more than a rod length of fly line out your rod tip.
If you use the popular Euro nymphing technique—which takes the idea of short-line nymphing several steps further—you may have only monofilament outside the rod tip. In either case, remember the four “Ls” of short-line nymphing: Look at your target. Lob your fly at that target in an arcing overhead cast that penetrates the water column vertically. Lift the extra leader off the water and set up your drift with a very slight curve from your rod tip upstream to your flies. Lead the leader downstream by moving your arm and torso and keeping that relaxed curve constant. You will be almost—but not quite—pulling your flies downstream. In this way, you can react to the slightest twitch or pause just by a simple acceleration of your downstream motion.
In the shallow runs and pockets that the rainbows favor, the less you add to the leader the better. My own indicator system is three tiny bits of strike putty, each about the size of a #18 Pheasant Tail nymph, rolled onto the leader starting 3 feet above the top fly, and spaced at about one-foot intervals up the leader. These are easy to spot in the water to help you align your leader from your rod tip to your flies.
Another popular and stealthy indicator among Euro nymphing advocates and tenkara specialists is a 2-foot section of high-vis monofilament tied into the leader 3 feet above the top fly as a sighter. This reduces drag to the flies and is supersensitive.
The nymphing technique known as the 90-degree nymph rig or puff ball nymphing was developed in the 1970s, specifically for the McCloud’s deep pools and runs. It has gained worldwide acceptance among steelheaders and trout anglers as a way to get a fly deep and drag free. This technique uses a marble-sized, bi-colored yarn indicator—the puff ball—tied to the end of a 5- to 7-foot 3X leader. Tie the tippet around the leader—above the indicator—and slide it down against the indicator, creating a 90-degree angle. Use 4X or 5X tippet, and set the length about one and a half times the average depth of the water you are fishing. In most of the McCloud’s pocketwater, that’s about 4 feet. In the deeper pools and runs, lengthen the tippet to accommodate the increased depth. In either case, cast upstream and immediately mend to flip the indicator and weight above your fly, taking the tension off the fly. Watch the indicator carefully as it drifts down, and continue to mend to eliminate drag.
Accomplished fly fishers detect most takes by looking for tiny twitching or erratic indicator movements. A two-color yarn indicator helps spot these tiny movements before the indicator actually stops or dives. Trout inhale and eject drifting nymphs many more times than we think.
The dry/dropper variation of the 90-degree nymph rig substitutes a buoyant dry fly for the puff ball, with the tippet tied onto the bend in the hook. Popular patterns for drys are the Parachute Adams; the Chubby Chernobyl, Yellow Humpys, and various stoneflies in the spring; and the October Caddis in the fall.
The McCloud’s brown trout—fish often measured in pounds rather than inches—are in the river all year, but they become particularly visible in late October and November as they dig redds in the shallow tailouts. They are easy to spot, but they should be left alone so we don’t impair their ability to spawn successfully. When fishing for rainbows this time of year, avoid wading in the spawning gravel, so as not to crush brown trout eggs.
John Rickard (wildwatersflyfishing.com) is a McCloud master guide who’s been studying the river for 20 years. He likes to say that the McCloud has two groups of fish—the native rainbows, and the brown trout that eat them.
In order to catch a big brown, offer them a fish. One of Rickard’s favorites is Andy Burk’s Hot Flash Minnow. Rickard uses a sinking-tip line, and casts the fly up into the current at the head of a pool, or along the cliff face of a deep run. He mends immediately to get the line and fly to sink deep, then he strips it along the bottom and along the edges of current seams, or swings it in front of rocks.
In the early spring and late fall, when the water is coldest, keep the fly deep by stripping slowly. In midsummer, strip fast. Sometimes the fish chase the streamer and then turn away at the last moment. When you see this, don’t just cast back in with the streamer. Show the trout a smaller nymph on the next drift, rather than continuing to pull your streamer through the pool.
John’s clients catch the greatest number of large brown trout in the summer, when angling pressure is lower and the fish are abundant. In addition to streamers, the 90-degree nymphing system is the perfect way to get a fly down into the deepest water and drift it in a drag free way. Here, the modest mends used in pocketwater become stack mends.
Begin by casting your puff ball rig upstream, and then wiggle your rod tip to stack small loops of line above the indicator to create turnover points, the neutral moments when the fly is directly below the indicator and drifting freely. With the 90-degree rig, as with short-line nymphing, take care not to add too much weight to the tippet. The fly needs to respond to the current as it drifts, appearing natural.
One key to success in the McCloud is the visibility. Ordinarily, the McCloud is clear enough to spot large fish holding on the bottom or at the tailouts of pools.
However, the aptly named Mud Creek flows from the Konwakiton Glacier on Mount Shasta’s southern flank. A thunderstorm on the mountain can send a slug of glacial silt into the creek, down through Lake McCloud, and into the river. This sometimes causes the river to go milky, but this condition typically lasts only a few days. This is the time to concentrate on shallow water, where the sunlight can penetrate the water and the trout can more easily see your fly.
The McCloud has excellent hatches, including big bugs that bring big fish to the surface. Salmonflies, Golden Stones, Green Drakes, Gray Drakes, and October Caddis each appear in their season.
Beyond these big bugs, there are abundant hatches of smaller insects all year, specifically Blue-winged Olives, Yellow Sallies, Pale Morning Duns, and numerous small caddis such as Brachycentrus and Rhyacophila.
While you are nymphing through the day, keep alert for rising fish. Sometimes a hatch appears along a shady bank for a few minutes and then just stops, as ephemeral as the little bugs themselves. An interval of casting little drys to eagerly rising trout can truly enliven a day.
Since the early 1900s, the McCloud has been protected by miles of private ownership. William Randolph Hearst built Wyntoon, his fairytale Bavarian retreat on the upper river, in 1900. At the same time, wealthy San Francisco sportsmen created private fishing clubs on the middle and lower river. It was not until the completion of a hydropower dam and the creation of Lake McCloud in 1965 that the river became more accessible to the angling public.
Access to two sections of the upper river, including the upper falls and middle falls, is via U.S. Forest Service roads south of Highway 89 outside of the town of McCloud. The area provides many miles of small freestone stream fishing with both wild and stocked trout. Private property is well marked and begins a short way below the lower falls and continues all the way to Lake McCloud.
Below McCloud Dam to Shasta Lake is strictly wild trout water with artificial flies and lures only. Check wildlife.ca.gov for particulars. There are 4 miles of public water from the dam to the U.S. Forest Service AhDiNa Campground, then 2 more miles of public water until you hit The Nature Conservancy property (nature.org). The upper 3 miles of the Kerry Landreth Preserve at McCloud River are open to catch-and-release fishing for a maximum of ten rods per day. To make a reservation, email email@example.com or call (415) 777-0487.
Below the preserve, the McCloud is private water all the way to Shasta Lake. The Bollibokka Club holds the final 7 miles above the lake, and fishing there is for club members and their guests only. Annual memberships are $500, and all the memberships are handled by The Fly Shop in Redding, California. For details, visit theflyshop.com or call 800-669-3474.
The McCloud is a river of many parts, and as worthy of a pilgrimage as the Beaverkill or the Madison. Come for the history, the special beauty of the canyon, the clear cold water, and the bright rainbows in their native habitat. You may well fall under the spell of the McCloud, as so many anglers have over the past 150 years.
Wild and Threatened
The McCloud River ranked number 7 on American Rivers’ 2021 Most Endangered Rivers list. The threat comes from a proposed project to raise the height of Shasta Dam by 18 feet. If completed, this project would inundate 5,000 acres of land and nearly a mile of the McCloud River above Shasta Lake. It would also flood 39 sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu, the Native Americans whose ancestral lands encompass much of the lower McCloud watershed. The portion of the river that would be flooded is currently owned by Westlands Water District, who purchased the entire Bollibokka Club property in anticipation of the dam being raised. While the project would theoretically add about 70,000 acre feet of water per year for agricultural use in the Central Valley, this is literally a drop in the bucket of the 30 million acre feet agriculture uses annually in the state.
The Trump administration provided $20 million for additional studies on the feasibility of the project. That prompted a lawsuit by California’s attorney general and a coalition of environmental and fisheries groups, to block Westlands Water District from assisting in the planning and construction of the project.
“The project poses significant adverse effects on the free-flowing condition of the McCloud River and on its wild trout fishery, both of which have special statutory protections under the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” the Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote.
In 1989 the state legislature, in California’s Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, declared, “maintaining the McCloud River in its free-flowing condition to protect its fishery is the highest and most beneficial use of the waters of the McCloud River.” The Act protects the river by prohibiting any agency of the state from assisting or cooperating in the planning or construction of an enlargement to Shasta Dam if the enlargement “could have an adverse effect on the free-flowing condition of the McCloud River, or on its wild trout fishery.”
Dr. Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, thinks the likelihood that the project will actually happen is slim. He points out that the $20 million is to study the project—not a commitment to begin work. The final project is estimated to cost $2 billion, and the federal government would have to pay half. Fifty percent of the cost has to be paid by another funding partner. Westlands Water District cannot be that partner because state law prohibits a public agency from funding such projects. Mount also noted that California would have to approve the project, and issue the permits. The state has shown no interest in raising the dam and has numerous ways to stop it.
Dick Galland founded and operated Clearwater House on Hat Creek from 1982 to 2005, a fly fishers’ inn, school, and outfitting service. He was West Coast field editor for Fly Fisherman magazine during that time, writing extensively about Northern California fisheries and fishing techniques. He has been a CalTrout member since 1980 and has served in various volunteer capacities, including as a board member since 2011.