Within three months of discovering the concept of the California Heritage Trout Challenge, I was standing waist deep in the middle of a creek in a Redwood Forest, casting purple flash streamers into dark shadowy areas, focusing like a laser on the task at hand. I was completely terrified that at any moment I would tip over and fill my waders. Not only was it my first time fishing this particular creek, it was also my first time actually wading and fishing, which is a whole new sensation. You can probably imagine how overwhelming this scenario was for me at the time, as a beginner fly fisher. But, from that day on I thrived, adapted and learned as I fished, becoming conservatively confident as the year progressed and the challenge ensued.
Interestingly, the HTC wasn’t just about the fishing; I learned about the diets of wild, native trout, how to tie, (often disproportionate) flies to match, and the near-extinction conditions they have endured, and are still overcoming, all while being surrounded by the breathtaking flora and fauna of many distinct regions of the state of California.
The HTC is so neat. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, (CDFW) created this program encouraging anglers to catch six of eleven native trout species in California within their historic drainages. The program goal is to raise awareness of native species and the conservation efforts that support these native fisheries.
California is a huge state: FACT. From North to South, the state spans 1,040 miles and is 560 miles wide. The HTC allowed us to travel to some of the most remote corners of California in search of beautiful native trout, spend time with friends, and appreciate nature! There is no time limit to complete the challenge, but we were so fired up we started the challenge on Memorial Day Weekend 2016 and had our ninth native species, which happened to be a Steelhead, by early October.
In case you missed an important piece of information that adds to the integrity of this story, I am new to the game here.
I’ve been fly fishing for about two years, which means that when I started this challenge, I was only one year in. I was casting into a lot of trees, misreading water, (not reading water at all sometimes), misjudging what fly was appropriate for any particular situation, and pretty much only capable of and semi-competent at one knot; the improved clinch knot, thankyouverymuch.
The point is, the HTC is accessible and anglers of all skill levels can, and should, participate. I learned and grew a lot from this opportunity. Every trip and every species had unique circumstances allowing me to add thin, continuous layers to my skillset, which is still to this day – good, not great.
The first thing I learned quickly was casting based on the environment, so that I could get my fly in the water and give myself a chance. In the Redwoods, fishing for Coastal Cutthroat trout, I achieved one cast, three trees. I noticed my overhead cast wasn’t getting me anywhere near the surface of the creek; I was surrounded by trees along the banks and downed trees in the water … yikes! I watched as my boyfriend, Russ, and our buddy Don “bow” casted and almost ripped my thumb off trying the same technique. So, I worked on my roll cast, which was the best thing for the situation, and for me.
This theme came up again in the Eastern Sierras looking for Lahontan Cutthroat trout. Surrounded by willows, open gulches, and casting from an elevated area above the creek, roll casting came in handy. That got my fly in the water, but it didn’t end there. My next problem was GIN clear water allowing me to see all the fish in the creek.
For the first couple of hours I stomped up and down the bank and scared EVERY SINGLE FISH downstream.
No wonder the guys were down the creek, happy as clams, catching fish like madmen. A good lesson was, if you can see the fish, they can see you, (I think) and casting a long shadow over pockets of fish just doesn’t work. I learned to creep around using my environment to my advantage, hiding behind big tree trunks, or using a willow tree to block my shadow.
The next problem I had was with sight casting. I wasn’t used to feeling AND seeing a fish bite. Watching a trout come up to the surface to slurp down my dry fly threw me off and I continually set the hook too early before the take had even occurred. You can imagine my frustration. I was finally able to use my environment to hide my approach, make a cast that got my fly in the right place at the right time, and then, boom, pull my fly literally out of the fish’s mouth! I was reminded to be patient, slow down and let the fish take the fly. The next thing I knew, I was catching beautiful, native Lahontan Cutthroat trout in a glorious creek up in the Eastern Sierras left and right.
In hindsight, the diversity of fishing skills I learned throughout the HTC is a pretty big deal.
I earned them by getting out there, practicing, trial and error, trial and success, having a positive attitude in most cases, spending time fishing, observing and talking to others. I valued and appreciated the experience as a whole and, although I was thrown into unique situations on every trip and learned along the way, which was difficult at times, it made me a better angler.
One particular trip was truly magical, when we went into the Southern Sierras in search of the California Golden trout. This is the California State fish, and such a beautiful rich gold color; unlike any other. This time, I had to be so discreet that I crawled on my hands and knees at one point to approach a creek that was 9 inches wide and in most areas just wet grass. At a different spot, we were in a field of golden grass, growing over and across the creek. In my mind, I’d imagined the smaller the creek, the easier the fishing would be. FALSE. We fished such tiny creeks that were so well hidden by grass that getting my fly to touch the water was a huge feat. Luckily, once the fly hit the water, there was a fish ready to eat it.
My first fish was an exquisite golden color with only a handful of spots, indicating a “pure” Golden Trout strain. He was tiny and I horsed him out of the water so bad he ended up behind me on the ground. I quickly released him back to the tiny creek. Throughout the challenge I learned the value of keeping a fish wet, and always wetting my hands before handling to remove the hook. As aggressive as these little fish were, I had to remind myself not to pull the rod too hard or they’d go flying!
Having the appropriate reaction for the size of fish we were after was a big lesson for me because there were plenty of tiny fish to be caught.
Half the fun of the challenge is to travel to beautiful areas showcasing California’s diverse ecosystems. We started in the redwoods followed by the high desert at the base of an actual volcano, then to the Eastern Sierras, followed by the Southern Sierras, back to the Redwoods, and back up to a lake that has such high alkaline levels that only one fish can survive there. The wildflowers, the birds, the geology, the obsidian, the water, and the bluest of bluebird skies make it hard to completely focus on fishing at times. I stood in a Redwood Forest surrounded by wild rhododendrons in full bloom, several species of ferns, and did I mention the giant trees?
In the Eastern Sierras I watched hundreds of bats emerge from the side of a cliff, shortly followed by a prairie falcon who feasted on a bird on the same cliff. (Well, I was never able to locate the falcon in the binoculars but other people that I trust said it happened.) I caught some of the most beautiful tiny native trout, each with distinct characteristics, and I learned to handle them quickly and gently, getting them back into the water as quick as possible. Understanding what those fish endure to survive made me appreciate and respect them to infinity. I guess the CDFW got what they wanted after all!
Spending time over 6 months traveling to remote areas, taking the back roads with Russ, (a neuroscientist) who studied trout brains, and our friend Don who works for CDFW, was monumental in my fishing career. As lucky as I was to be in such good company, this level of knowledge you can imagine, (overwhelming at times) isn’t required to complete this challenge. The HTC is accessible to everyone - all skill levels.
I am proud of my achievement, and it doesn’t hurt to receive a certificate in the mail and get a nice hat to show off to help raise awareness of the plight of the native species of trout in California. This challenge helped me enhance my casting skills and overall fishing abilities, allowed me to travel to new areas, enjoy and appreciate nature, stare at a bird for too long, count the individual spores on a fern, and learn to match the hatch.
I encourage you to take the challenge.
Start with one heritage trout and go from there. I guarantee you’ll be planning your next trip before the first one is over.