At 37 feet long, 9,000 pounds, and three miles to the gallon, Clyde didn’t fit well in Berkeley, literally or figuratively. I passed an electric car with a bumper sticker that said, “Animals are just little people in fur coats,” and eased on toward the Sac.
If you were presented with a button which, when pressed, would vaporize all fish from their non-native places—including rainbow trout in Montana, steelhead in the Great Lakes, all trout in the Southern Hemisphere, and all bass in California—would you push it? I’m pretty sure I would. But I guess I’d want to talk to a Sacramento Delta bass guy first, to see if he’s OK with it.
“You ever been in a bass boat before?” John Sherman asked as we pulled away from the dock. I confessed I had not. He threw me a life jacket. “Shit happens fast.” Four seconds later the wind was sending skin waves rippling across my face.
Sherman is a Delta maestro. He lives on it, with it, and for it. He’s engaged with its conservation battles and kindly offered a spot in his boat for me and my questions. (Since Clyde is still hitchless, we took his car.) The fishing was excellent, and I soon found myself doing something I thought only happened on TV. Reaching for my first striper, I said, “C’mon up here an’ put yer lips on mah thumm!”
We caught a lot of fish, all invasive, against a backdrop of artificial channels and backwaters, native birds in non-native trees, a mix of bank vegetation from places near and far, and water hot and brown from mud stirred by non-native carp, spawning.
A highlight came when Sherman whisper-shouted, “Look!” and pointed at the water close by. “Delta smelt!” The tiny, troubled native fish is the spotted owl of the Delta. As Sherman explained, their listing under the Endangered Species Act is linked to habitat loss resulting from dewatering of the river to serve agriculture, corrupt water brokers, and plain old overpopulation.
Striped bass might eat a few smelt too, and in a well-funded PR campaign, those in favor of taking more water have smeared them as the major cause of the smelt’s downfall. Their M.O. is that if they win that point, they’ll be absolved of blame and be free to take more water. Meanwhile, the striper population is plummeting in direct proportion to the amount of water being siphoned off, which is large and increasing.
The question of pushing the button seems a bit silly now, knowing there are people who don’t even believe fish need water. So I climbed back into Clyde and we headed north, toward the McCloud River and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
If the Sacramento Delta is the grand import bazaar of California fishes, its headwaters are an equally grand export service. In 1872 Livingston Stone unleashed America’s first official “hatching house” at the confluence of the McCloud and Pit Rivers, and over the following decades McCloud River rainbows were sent to countless bits of cold water around the world. This is a famous story, often told, but it comes with some interesting side-stories.
Firstly, the McCloud is broken by a waterfall that is impassable to fish. Below it, where the hatchery was, a few subspecies coexisted, including sea-run coastal rainbows, i.e., steelhead. Stone heavily recruited these fish and, while steelhead in the McCloud have been extinct since 1945 thanks to the Shasta Dam, rumors persist that decedents live on in a pure-ish form in tributaries of Lake Erie. My friend Stan Engel is a devotee of the McCloud, born just a few years too late to have had a shot at catching one in his home river. He said it was a strange but oddly joyous feeling to travel from California to Ohio to pursue a native McCloud River steelhead.
Meanwhile, in the isolated environment above the falls, pure-strain redband trout carried some of the most ancient trout genetics in North America. At some point, though, the upper McCloud itself was stocked with invasive trout, and now the genetic purity is mostly ruined. Only in a few tiny, extreme upper headwater trickles does hope for purity still remain.
With help from Clyde, and then a pair of skis, I found myself face-to-face with one of these picturesque, pure redband trout streams. In a remote alpine valley set with white Mt. Shasta glistening under a high spring sun, and fresh-smelling pine trees shooting up from the melting snow, everything fit. I’d seen the place from whence they come. I fished for an hour, caught nothing, and then left.
On the ski out I thought about Livingston Stone and another anecdote from the famous McCloud hatchery story. Seven years after he started sending his trout to Lake Erie and beyond, Stone collected 133 striped bass from New Jersey, carefully brought them across the country, and put them into San Francisco Bay.
Editor’s note: Follow the adventures of Clyde on drakemag.com, as well as The Drake Facebook page, as he prepares to carry his considerable weight to the Pacific Northwest.