By Chip O’Brien
See if you can guess this famous NorCal trout stream:
It was once the southern-most river in the world where you could catch bull trout. Rainbows from this river were successfully shipped to New Zealand, South America and Europe in the 1880s, where populations still flourish. William Randolph Hearst built a castle on it. Two of the West’s oldest private fishing clubs are on it. There was once a salmon hatchery there. It was named after a famous explorer/fur trapper, but the name was misspelled. Hello, McCloud River.
From a fishing perspective, the Mac is best described as two different rivers. Above McCloud Reservoir the river is smaller, easier to wade and popular with families and folks who delight in the smell of fresh fish sizzling in pan. There are several popular campgrounds, three gorgeous waterfalls and an abundance of trout regularly stocked through the summer season and families doing all they can to connect with a few. The upper river is readily accessible from Hwy. 89 about six miles east of the sleepy little town of McCloud. There are stunning views of majestic Mount Shasta from this stretch of highway, and no one will blame you if you miss your turn because you’re gawking at the mountain.
Fish are stocked at Fowler’s Campground and Lower Falls. As far as finding the fish, well, if you can’t actually see them, look for deeper water. Because the upper river is fairly shallow and the water clear, fish do their best to avoid direct sunlight. Any manner of take shy of dynamite (bait, lures or flies) is allowed, and anglers are permitted to keep up to five trout. Though absolutely beautiful, this is hardly wilderness fishing. Restrooms are only a short stroll away from the river.
When fish are planted it can become something of a three-ringed-circus for a short while, kind of an angler’s version of chasing ambulances. But if you want to catch and keep a limit of rainbow trout, this is your time.
If you’re fishing more for tranquility as well as fish, do a bit of hiking. Take the trail down to Middle Falls. There are often fewer people there because it’s a downhill hike on the way in, and it’s difficult to forget that it’s all uphill when you’re done. Be sure to fish the pool below the falls (all of them) thoroughly, and then continue concentrating on areas of deeper water.
Below McCloud Reservoir, the Mac is something else entirely and justifiably famous. It is bigger, deeper water than up above, but this is not what attracts a congregation of devoted followers, mainly fly fishers. Frequently described as the quintessential, wilderness trout stream, this water has been well known to anglers the world over for centuries. It’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful, pristine, wild place. When it’s really hot on the valley floor, the Lower McCloud offers tons of shade and deliciously cold water for wading and fishing.
From the town of McCloud, head south toward McCloud Reservoir. From the reservoir there are two routes in, depending how close or far from the dam you want to fish. About a mile below the dam is Ash Camp, a small campground also providing parking and access up and down the river. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the McCloud here, so access to both sides of the stream is fairly straightforward.
The other access point is Ah-Di-Nah Campground, which requires a slow drive down about eight miles of rocky, dusty dirt road. There is a sign for the campground at the turnoff road from the reservoir. You can park at the campground and numerous places close by. The road dead-ends at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). You can fish this section of river for free, but TNC restricts the number of anglers to ten, five by reservation and five walk-ins. You can check on access and make free reservations by calling (415) 777-0487. It’s about a third of a mile hike in to the Conservancy cabins where you can sign in and claim your slot. Here you have about six miles of gorgeous river to fish.
The lower river is an appealing combination of pocket water and classic riffles, runs and pools. Most successful anglers fish nymphs most of the time, but there are plenty of opportunities for dry fly fishing, especially in the evenings. In the fall when the leaves are changing, enthusiastic anglers throw big streamers in the deep pools for cantankerous browns.
Although you can technically keep two trout below the reservoir, no one does. It would be like going to a world-class, five-star restaurant and ordering ketchup with your meal. This water is a cathedral to wild trout and catch and release. Bait is strictly forbidden and anglers may only fish with lures or flies with barbless hooks. Seeing anything but a fly rod down here would be highly unusual.
Besides great natural beauty and world-renowned fishing, this section of the McCloud is also rich in a few less-desirable things, rattlesnakes and poison oak. The rattlesnakes are not at all aggressive, but if I had to see one, this is the first place I would go. Unlike Hollywood rattlesnakes, these are some of nature’s most timid and shy creatures. Make a lot of noise when you move around and they will get out of your way. Be careful not to put hands or feet into places you can’t clearly see. Heck, if you stepped on me I’d be tempted to bite you too.
If you can’t identify poison oak, you better Google it before heading out. Years ago I witnessed a young couple in shorts wading through bushes of it along the McCloud. When I asked them if they know what they were walking through, they said no. When I told them, they thanked me and said they were highly sensitive to it. They also said they were on their honeymoon.
“Yikes,” I said ruefully, “I mean, congratulations.”