By Chip O’Brien
Talking about fishing Hat Creek as if it were one, homogeneous fishery is like saying all California anglers are the same. It just ain’t so. Hat Creek is an iconic fishing stream named long ago in a hailstorm of profanity. In addition to its riffles, runs and pools, Hat has been made into a hodge-podge of dams, diversions, ditches and draws, all holding fish. The lowest three miles before it enters Lake Britton helped jump-start the California Wild Trout Program. Through the course of its almost forty-mile length, Hat Creek wears many different, ah, hats.
It first sees daylight when it gushes out of the volcanic earth in Lassen Volcanic National Park. It leaves the park a diminutive spring creek holding small, wild trout before merging with other subterranean waters at Big Springs near Old Station. There it begins taking on the characteristics of the fine trout stream that it is.
Upper Hat Creek is wildly popular with bait and lure fishermen who love the sizzle of fresh trout over a campfire. Upper Hat, along Highways 44 and 89, is liberally stocked one or more times a week during the fishing season, which starts the last Saturday of April and runs through November 15th. Anglers may keep up to five fish per day, with 10 in possession. Toward this upper end Hat runs through six public and one group campground where angling is a huge draw. The stream moves at a good pace in these upper reaches and there is ample deep holding water. This is family fishing at its best, and a lot of kids have become hooked on fishing for life after catching their first trout on Hat Creek.
After leaving these upper public campground areas, Hat meanders through a checkerboard of public and private lands along Hwy. 89. There are private ranches and campgrounds providing river access for a fee. As the stream arrives at the broader valley floor the gradient begins to flatten out and Hat becomes a classic meadow stream twisting and turning intermittently through open pastures and tall stands of trees.
Just upstream from the tiny town of Cassel, most of the original flow of Hat Creek magically seeps back down into the earth again. It is the renewing waters of Rising River, a huge tributary spring on private land, that brings Hat back to life bigger and broader than ever. All this takes place on private property, but public fishing begins again in Cassel, another popular fishing spot where the character of the fishing begins to change.
Cassel is where Hat Creek begins its transition from principally a bait, lure and hatchery trout fishery, to its inevitable transformation into a wild trout stream with special angling regulations down below. In Cassel and down through the Cassel Campground and Forebay, bait, lure and fly anglers share the same water very amicably. There are so many fish in this section, both hatchery and wild, that everyone seems to have a great time.
Because of all that private water above Cassel, the stream here is a tantalizing combination of hatchery trout (like up above) and larger wild trout that drift down from the private water. Most of the really big fish are rainbows, but there are also a few wild browns the size of Buicks known to stalk this water chowing on hatchery fish. There are also giant pikeminnows in this section who do the same, and removing a few of these bruisers permanently will only benefit the trout fishing.
Below Cassel Forebay the stream takes another joy ride through a massive pipe before pushing into the turbines of the Hat 1 Powerhouse at the head of Baum Lake. Though technically a reservoir with a dam at the bottom, the best fishing water on Baum Lake is toward the upper half of the lake and is anything but still. Like the Cassel water just above, Baum has both hatchery and wild trout. Another huge spring called Crystal Lake gushes into Baum down and around the corner from the powerhouse. The area where Crystal Lake water merges with Baum Lake (Hat Creek) water is always jam-packed with fish. Heading downstream, Baum Lake is the lowest point bait fishing is allowed, and the limit of where hatchery fish are stocked. All of the water downstream is dedicated to wild fish and the special angling regulations preferred by dedicated fly anglers.
Some people may consider it elitist to reserve a section of stream for one type of fishing to the exclusion of others, but this is not exactly accurate. Only bait is prohibited below the Hat 2 Powerhouse, which means anglers may fish with lures as long as the hooks are de-barbed. Two fish, 18-inches or larger may be harvested, but it’s considered something of a sacrilege here, and after all, it’s only the bottom three miles of a forty-mile stream.
The water below the Hat 2 Powerhouse is very special. To devoted fly anglers and wild trout advocates, it is even sacred. It used to be a lot like the water up above, full of hatchery fish and bait fishermen throughout the season. In the late 1960s a plan was hatched between Trout Unlimited, Pacific Gas and Electric and (then called) the California Department of Fish and Game. A small dam was built where the stream enters Lake Britton so rough fish could not migrate into it. Scientists used rotenone to poison all remaining fish below the Hat 2 Powerhouse. Wild Hat Creek rainbows and brown trout from the Trinity River drainage were stocked in that section, and then they just left it alone to see if the wild fish would get a foothold. Over the next decade the fly-fishing in those three miles of Hat became the stuff of legends. That success inspired the formation of the California Wild Trout Program and the conservation group California Trout.
Today we are left with not one, but three different Hat Creeks. Upper Hat is bait fishing Nirvana. Middle Hat, through Cassel and Baum Lake, is popular with everyone. Lower Hat is a cathedral to fly fishing and wild trout.