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The History of the McCloud River and its World-Famous Fish

Photo: California Trout

It’s the strangest feeling. I can be standing for hours in a rushing trout stream totally absorbed in the tempo of fly-fishing, when slowly I become aware of a prickly feeling at the back of my neck, as if someone is watching me.

“Here I go again,” I mutter to myself with the understanding that, for a time, fishing will have to give way to a familiar Sensation that I am not alone.

And, of course, we never really are. Woven into the fabric of every Lake and stream is a long procession of people and events that came before, making each place what it is today. Though we frequently ignore the past, none can escape it. For me, having a sense of the history of a place, of the lives and incidents that led up to the moment each gleaming trout is brought to hand, greatly deepens my appreciation for the experience.

In fact, I am haunted by it.

Not Exactly Catch & Release

As an ardent fly fisher, the McCloud has always been one of my favorite rivers and, as it turns out, a favorite of Anglers throughout history. The name of the Native Americans indigenous to the area, called Wintus, first inhabited the McCloud watershed at least 4,000 and perhaps as many as 10,000 years ago. Their culture was in large part dependent upon the year-round salmon runs – before, that is, white settlers introduced them to the dubious advantages of gunpowder, alcohol, and smallpox.

But the McCloud’s first anglers could hardly be considered sport fishermen. Such civilized notions evolved in societies where full bellies were more common.

The Wintus called the river “Winemem,” meaning “clear water” or “middle water.” As a passage into adulthood, every Wintu boy was taught to be an aggressive and cunning fisherman. Women were highly skilled at processing whatever game the men brought home into an astonishing variety of foods, tools, medicines and ornaments. Nothing was wasted.

The Wintu Tribe of the McCloud River

While salmon were harvested with 15 -foot-long duel pointed spears, McCloud River trout were pursued with somewhat more finesse. The Wintus fabricated a sinewy fishing line from wild iris and the bark of the milkweed plant, and hooks were fashioned from a certain bone found in the jaws of deer, and also from the bones of what the Wintus called “ripple pike,” (the term pikeminnow had not yet arrived on the scene). The preferred method for catching trout was to fish below salmon redds with, you guessed it, salmon eggs.

Who’s on First?

There’s some controversy over who was the first non-native to explore the river and hence claim the right of naming it after himself. Some say it was the Hudson Bay trapper Alexander McLeod who, as the story goes, became snowbound near the headwaters of the river in 1829, eventually discovering what culinary delight horse flesh could be (Dead Horse Summit on Hwy. 89). If the river indeed bears his name, cartographers are obviously less adept at spelling than drawing pictures.

Others hold tenaciously to the view that it wasn’t Alexander McLeod, but rather Pioneer Ross McCloud who first explored the river in 1852. An amusing newspaper controversy erupted in the 1880s over one group’s efforts to rename the river “McLeod” reflecting the correct spelling of their own personal champion.

Anyone who has hiked The Nature Conservancy Trail along the McCloud River can appreciate the rugged terrain, especially in the dark. During the 19th century travel along the McCloud was even more challenging than today (and an arrow between the shoulder blades was always a real possibility). This excerpt from the Shasta Courier dated May 12th, 1883, outlines the Ross McCloud position and captures some of the flavor of the era as well:

When Shasta County was first settled by whites and for several years thereafter, the tributary of the Pit or main Sacramento River was unexplored save by Indians and its banks were inhabited by unfriendly and warlike natives of the forest. Ross McCloud, who came here in 1849 and as fearless a man is ever shouldered a rifle or buckled a pistol and knifebelt explored the river from its mouth to Squaw Valley… McCloud was a man of intelligence a lover of nature, a successful sportsman, and the beautiful stream that bears his name was for him a favorite resort and he often visited it with others when others dared not for fear of the Indians who appeared to accord to this pale face according to this pale-faced pioneer a special passport of safety on account of… his bravery.

Jeremiah Blizzard Campbell was another pioneer destined to figure prominently in the future of the McCloud. He states his support for the Ross McCloud theory in this excerpt from his letter to the Shasta Courier:

My reason for this (support of Ross McLeod) is based partly on the testimony of the Indians, who say that no white man passed up or down the McCloud River before the time of the smallpox scourge in 1849, and partly on the fact that it is impractical to drive stock down the river on account of the rough character of the country.

A Blizzard of Rainbow Trout

Photo: Chip O’Brien

So either history misspelled the name of the river, or it didn’t. In any case, Jeremiah Blizzard Campbell’s view carried some weight. He was one of the river’s first white settlers and operated a ranch at the confluence of the McCloud and a tributary subsequently named for him, Campbell Creek. Today his lands lay at the bottom of Shasta Lake, but he continues to influence fly fishing the world over. Campbell was the first to collect and, starting in 1874, ship (primarily to the East Coast) eggs from a previously unknown species of game fish known as the rainbow trout.

As common as rainbow trout might seem today, they are indigenous only to the Pacific coastal regions of North America. Prior to Campbell’ shipping them elsewhere, they were found nowhere else on earth.

The Rainbow Trout of the McCloud River have often been called the “Rainbow of the World,” being exported all around the world including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Argentina, Chile, Peru and all over western Europe. What was once a fish localized to the McCloud River, now calls the world its home.

By 1887 rainbow trout and become so established in the eastern states that demand for McCloud River eggs dropped precipitously. This wasn’t considered a serious problem, however, as trout were secondary to the McCloud’s real treasure, king salmon.

King’s Ransom

In 1872 the federal government sent Livingston Stone, a recognized authority on fish culture, to California to collect King salmon eggs for introduction into East Coast waters. The hope was that introduction of Pacific salmon there would partially mitigate for the already depleted stocks of Atlantic salmon. Stone was told the spawning grounds of this giant fish lay at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, but he found this information suspect at best. Then a Chief Engineer for Sierra Pacific Company told Stone he had seen King salmon spawning at the junction of the McCloud and Pit Rivers. Stone set off for the northern end of the state and, of course, found what he was seeking.

The hatchery Stone established on the McCloud River was named Baird after his friend and Mentor Professor Spencer F. Baird, the first U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries. The operation seemed an immediate success as indicated in the document titled Report of the Commissioners of Fisheries of California 1874-5:

The largest establishment in the world for the hatching of salmon eggs is that of the government of the United States on the McCloud River in Shasta County. From six to ten million of young salmon are hatched each year and distributed to fish commissioners for the various states having rivers suitable for their growth and increase.

Spencer F. Baird

By 1883, however, the Baird Hatchery had fallen on hard times, with only one million eggs being taken that year. The severe decline was attributed to construction of the railroad from Redding northward. Salmon were greatly disturbed by the heavy blasting needed to carve a right-of-way through the rugged terrain, and they were taken wantonly for food and otherwise slaughtered by railroad workers who saw little benefit in the existence of these fish. The hatchery was closed in 1884, but reopened again in 1888. It was then permanently closed in 1935 and eventually inundated by the waters of Shasta Lake.

The following accounts, taken from the September 1, 1888 issue of the Shasta Courier, show that controversy over conservation of the McCloud River fishery is nothing new:

Mr. Ralls Ralls of Bieber returned from Sisson (known today as Mt. Shasta) Sunday, and while on his way out stopped one night at the McCloud River, a favorite fishing place of his in former times, but now a total failure as a fishing resort. He said that about 12:00 at night he heard blasting on the river which continued for some hours. He was informed that parties were blasting to kill fish to supply the Sisson market.

 This piece adds a colorful solution to the problem of poaching:

Andy Cox and Frank Lightfoot of Bartle’s, McCloud River, Siskiyou, were in town this week. They and others say the violations of the fish and game laws up there are mostly done by parties employed by hotel and restaurant men on the railroad line to finish game for their tables. Employers and employees in this nefarious business deserve medicine in the shape of doses of cold lead, and some of them are very liable to receive that prescription when they least expect it.

Photo: Chip O’Brien

During recent decades, much of the McCloud River has been under control of private fishing clubs. The river has long  attracted wealthy sportsman, as told by this prescient 1887 story from the Shasta Courier:

The Alturasites (residents of Alturas) who returned from McCloud River last week say they did not have the pleasure of catching a great many fish out of the historical river. According to their statement, it seems that simultaneous with their arrival at Huckleberry Creek, there arrived a party from San Francisco who politely informed the Alturas and Adin boys that they had bought from a man named Sisson the exclusive right to fish at Horseshoe Bend and, consequently, the country jokes had to stand back. And our boys were brought to a realization of the fact that money makes the mare go.

One of my favorite late-season stretches of the McCloud is the water downstream from the McCloud Bridge off of Gilman Road. Depending on time of year, this section is sometimes lake, sometimes river, and is closed to where Jeremiah Campbell and Livingston Stone made fisheries history. Shasta Lake is usually low during the months of September and October, revealing prime river fishing spots that would otherwise lay deep underwater. You never know whether wild, hard bodied McCloud rainbows will move down into this water, or fat Shasta Lake stockers will move up. I’ve never been disappointed with the fish or with the romantic tales of the area.

Samwel Cave also known as “Cave of the Lost Maiden” is located along this stretch of water near the Ellery Creek Campground. Ancient Wintu tradition states that long ago three Indian girls asked an old woman where to go to find a man. The woman suggested they visit a certain cave, a holy place where Indian men would venture to seek strength and bravery. According to Wintu lore, when they went inside the cave one of the girls fell to her death through an opening in the floor.

In 1903 a team of University of California anthropologists discovered the skeletal remains of an Indian girl at the bottom of a 75-foot-deep pit within Samwel Cave. Here, for once, myth and reality intersect.

That feeling of eyes on the back of my neck is something I’ve learned to live with over the years. It is, after all, part of the spice of life. However, when it starts to develop into a feeling that perhaps I had been to the spot in some distant time, I know it’s time to go home.

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Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

6 Comments

  1. Livingston Stone is my great grandfather. I have his records, memorabilia and original pictures including the originals for the one in your article. Feel free to contact me should you want any info.
    Ned Kirstein

  2. dad & I have been up Gilman Rd. hundreds of times in my life. Our greatest times we’re in the early 90’s I know that road so well going back to the bridge there’s camp sites along Gilman called Pine Point, Ellery Creek and others going back to the Bridge

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