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Not Just Any Fish

Trout have inhabited California waters from the Sierra Nevada and Warner Mountains to the Pacific Ocean since prehistoric times. However, most of the trout caught by anglers are either hatchery raised fish or naturalized species that were introduced from other areas. While catching trout of any kind is great, there is something really special about fishing for native trout in their natural habitats.

Photos by the author unless otherwise noted

The California Department of Fish & Wildlife (DFW) runs the Heritage Trout Challenge to encourage anglers to participate in a memorable outdoor experience. Accepting this challenge will find you fishing in some of California’s most remote locales. And you will be fishing for something very special: feisty trout that only a tiny fraction of other licensed anglers have witnessed up close. Gorgeous, vivid and exotic, these are not just any fish.

California’s native trout include:

  • Coastal rainbow (steelhead)
  • Eagle Lake rainbow
  • Kern River rainbow
  • California golden
  • Little Kern golden
  • Goose Lake redband
  • Warner Lakes redband
  • McCloud River redband
  • Lahontan cutthroat
  • Coastal cutthroat
  • Paiute cutthroat
  • Bull trout (now extinct in California)

The Heritage Trout Challenge was established by the DFW to emphasize education about California’s native trout. The challenge is to catch six different native species from within their historic drainages.

California Golden Trout, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
The California Golden

In order to participate, you must submit photographic proof of your catches along with the application form to the DFW. Once you have provided documentation that you have caught six of the heritage species, you will be awarded a beautiful certificate that is worthy of framing. The certificate is graced by trout illustrations by the renowned artist Joseph Tomelleri and will display the six trout you submit proof of catching.

Coastal Cuttthroat Trout, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
The Coastal Cutthroat

If you are considering the challenge, think about which six native trout you want on your certificate. For me it was the coastal cutthroat for its thrilling beauty, the three redband subspecies for their native stories of arduous survival, the Lahontan cutthroat, because it was my first backcountry cutthroat and it became a great meal, and finally the golden trout for it is the California state fish.

Heritage Trout Water, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
Heritage Trout water

The word “native” is often used too loosely. Not every pretty fish caught in a pristine mountain stream is a native. All wild trout are not necessarily native species. Participating in the trout challenge provides an explanation of the various classifications under the Endangered Species Act: protected, threatened, endangered, or species of special concern. The challenge also provides understanding of other classifications: pure strain, native, wild, holdover, etc. Finally the program will clarify many other terms such as trophy water, fast action water, compromised, hybridized, etc.

McCloud River Redband, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
McCloud River Redband

I came to California kicking and screaming while I was in the military. I wanted nothing to do with being stationed here. Then while serving in the Navy at Alameda Naval Air Station, I met a co-worker who was into fly fishing. We immediately hit it off, became good friends, and before long we were embarking on fly fishing adventures together. Many fishing trips of yore would find us wadding the McCloud and Upper Sacramento rivers, camping at places like Ah-Di-Na, and harassing the local trout populations. Those were great times! Back in the early 80’s, there were informational fliers hammered onto the McCloud streamside trees alerting anglers to the Dolly Varden trout (now known to have been bull trout) that was native to the McCloud. Zero limit…immediate release…contact DFG if you catch one…etc. Well, try as we might, we never did catch one. That’s because they were no longer there.

Extinct California Bull Trout photo courtesy of California DFW

The bull trout is the only California native that is known to have gone extinct. This is when I first learned about the native bull trout, the native redbands, and the state’s other native trout. This is also when I became seriously addicted to exploring and fishing well off California’s beaten path.

Goose Lake Redband, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
Goose Lake Redband

If you are a chest pounder who prioritizes catching only big fish, or expects easy access and specific local information, then the trout challenge is not for you. It requires research, homework and punctilious preparation, addressing even the tiniest of nuances of each fishery. Research is now much easier since a lot of information is available on line. But if you’re not careful, the internet can throw you for a loop and send you on a wild goose chase. Regardless of the source of your information, always have a plan B. That is, have more than one target water in mind before venturing out. There is no greater feeling of deflation than to discover that your targeted water is a total bust. It feels like falling for a very bad joke. Understand the fish, their diversity, historic distribution, and native ranges. Try to vet your information before you go on a trip by comparing different sources.

Warner Lakes Redband
Warner Lakes Redband

Some heritage trout can be caught roadside in heavily publicized areas, such as Eagle and Heenan lakes, while others require long road trips and plenty of hiking. Eagle Lake is probably the most popular spot to catch any of the heritage species. Many folks reading this article will have had success catching trout at Eagle Lake.

Eagle Lake South Basin, photo courtesy of Val Aubrey,

Due to low water levels in Pine Creek and the degradation of other spawning streams such as Papoose and Merrill creeks, survival of pure strain Eagle Lake trout (ELT) has become reliant on egg collection & hatcheries. It is currently listed as a species of special concern (for now) but the US Fish & Wildlife Service is reviewing the ELT status to determine if a threatened or endangered classification under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is warranted. Their determination has been delayed until September 2014 while plans to restore more flow to Pine Creek are allowed to complete. We can all hope these efforts are successful and the ELT does not receive an ESA listing. ELT are stocked throughout the state but only those caught from Eagle Lake qualify for the challenge.

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
Lahontan Cutthroat

Heenan Lake is another heavily visited heritage trout destination. Although it is not part of their original range, Lahontan cutthroat (LCT) caught from Heenan do qualify for the Trout Challenge. The Heenan Lake site was originally a spring fed creek and snowmelt marsh where the Washoe Indians camped seasonally. In 1924 the Heenan Lake dam was constructed by the Dangberg family. The first brood stock of Heenan Lake LCT originated from Blue Lakes. These LCT had been transplanted from the Carson River in 1864. Since the growth rate in nutrient poor Blue Lakes was pitiable, some of the fish were moved to Heenan in 1940. The water was found to be rich with food and the fish grew to astonishing sizes. But after some years of natural reproduction in Heenan, it was discovered that these fish were not a genetically pure strain – they had at some point interbred with introduced rainbow trout. So a replacement strain of native LCT was later introduced from Independence Lake. Eggs taken from Heenan Lake fish now provide a backup stock for Independence and can be used in the future for species recovery purposes. Heenan Lake cutthroat are also planted in other recreational lacustrine waters as well as being used for restoration efforts in native range fluvial headwaters.

Piaute Cutthroat Trout
Paiute Cutthroat, photo courtesy of Heritage Trout Challenge

Heenan Lake LCT are the only exception to the rule regarding catching native fish only from their historic drainage. All others must be caught within their native range. But fishing the native range of the Paiute cutthroat (PCT) is prohibited year-round. Paiute cutthroat can be legally caught from very secretive refuge streams, requiring extreme effort to experience. Refuge locations for any species exist purely to ensure pure-strain survival in case of a catastrophic failure within a respective native range. But PCT caught from these refuge locales don’t qualify for the challenge. Outside of an invitation to accompany biologists on an angler survey, there is no way to achieve the PCT illustration on a certificate.

Fish Rivers Guide Service, Jack Hahn, Trinity River Coastal Rainbow Steelhead, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil Akers
Coastal Rainbow Steelhead, photo courtesy of Fish Rivers Guide Service

So some areas are popular and information about them is readily available. Some are fairly easy to locate and catch. Others are extremely sensitive, facing big problems such as non-native species introductions, logging, grazing of riparian areas, erosion from wildfires, and heavy recreational usage. One particular redband strain survives in only a few very remote small streams, one of which disappears into a lava field after a few short miles of above ground meandering. In order to achieve some of these fish, prepare to explore some virtually untouched areas, where directions and orienteering are best described by stream crossings and cattle guards. Sometimes traversing extremely rough and often unmarked roads is required just to reach them. And once you arrive, stream access can be horrible. The sky can turn black with mosquitoes while bushwhacking through thick willows or wading a marsh. It’s not always a pleasant stroll through posy meadows!

Researching and hunting the most sensitive of these native trout is similar to finding many other natural secrets like archaeological sites or the bristlecone pines. For example, you can research the ancient bristlecone groves, purchase maps and guide books, and even visit these awesome trees. But knowing exactly which tree is Methuselah – the oldest living thing on earth – is a secret and is not publicized. The reasons for supressing information on the native trout, archaeological sites, and other secrets are all the same: protection from thugs and vandals. So nothing comes free and easy. Off-season study and poring over maps -- while nursing a respectable IPA or dark lager -- is half the fun.

In addition to studying and compiling the necessary research, there is the issue of timing. This is another reason for having a plan B where you have considered alternative waters for each trip. Seasonal events such as snowmelt in the early season and low-water situations in late season must be considered. Some conditions change on a daily or even hourly basis. Fish may be in an area for only a short time and for a very specific reason. The fish may not be there when you visit--they may be spooked or just not biting. Spending time out there is the only way to understand daily timing obstacles. You may find your target water milky, a rampaging tumult from a recent rain, or a complete muddy mess after being trampled by range cattle grazing the area. These and other issues occur regularly when you are pursuing native trout in their native ranges.
Private Property, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
Private property

Heavy regulations govern angling in many native trout waters -- artificials only, single barbless hooks, zero limit, etc. Prohibited areas and private property are some other challenges to consider. Thoroughly understand all rules and regulations before charging in gung ho and respect local private property. Neither the game warden nor the angry landowner will accept ignorance as an excuse. Fishing for the fluvial natives in thick streamside vegetation presents rude challenges and will test raw angling skills. Often going totally berserk when they are hooked, these trout can readily discard your barbless fly while impressing you with aggressive aerial acrobatics and tail-walks. Missing takes with embarrassing regularity humbles the most seasoned of fly anglers, causing bruised egos and feelings of bewilderment. But then you pause and soak in the moment, sensing the water running past your legs as you gaze at the romantic surroundings, then a chilling realization; landing fish is not the only reward for experiencing such stunning natural beauty.

Little Kern Golden, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
Little Kern Golden

Chances are you will not meet many people while pursuing some of these heritage trout in their remote historic drainages. But the people you do encounter are almost always engaging and will share your own interests. After all, to study and prep for days on end, spend tons of money on gas, endure butt-numbing road trips into hauntingly remote areas -- all for the chance of catching a 12-inch fish? We are all of a similar whacko genre. We are not normal. But we love conversing with others on our level about topics such as the many issues facing the Kern natives, stories of the native redband surviving the last ice age, and even discussions of a unique form of redband which may be a distinct species thriving in a small stream that is off limits to fishing & trespassing. There is never enough firewood for these campfire conversations. To delve deep into each heritage fishing adventure and write about the people I have encountered along the way is too overwhelming for a single magazine article. I seem to be a magnet for meeting up with strange folks in strange places.

I enjoyed the California Heritage Trout Challenge so much that I couldn’t stop with only the six species required for the certificate. I have now caught them all! Every first-time trip into a native trout’s habitat has provided me a lifetime memory. From the extreme remoteness and solace of the Warner Mountains, the moss and fern laden tributaries of redwood country, to the limpid waters and grandeur of the Golden Trout Wilderness -- all these left etched reflections of wonderment that I will cherish forever. But now, after experiencing the thrill of each and every California Heritage Trout, my infatuation and native trout wanderlust remain unfulfilled. There are still goals to set. On now to other states to catch and chronicle experiences with the native Apache, then the Bonneville, Greenback, Gila, Rio Grande, West Slope and Yellowstone cutthroat--all with their very own native story to tell. Seriously, these are not just any fish!

For additional information on the Heritage Trout Challenge visit these websites:

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.

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