By Craig Ballenger, CalTrout Fly Fishing Ambassador
California is known for its variety of trout species and classic trout streams. Once, its waters teemed with fabled bank-to-bank runs of salmon and steelhead. Following the gold rush, though, human endeavor chipped away at these streams until, by the mid-20th century, most had vanished.
What we take for granted about the quality of stream fishing here today is mostly a product of the second half of the 20th century, and owes much to the Wild Trout Waters designation that protects dozens of rivers and lakes throughout California - including every body of water featured in photographs on this page.
Thanks to the leadership of a nascent CalTrout–whose hard work transformed the ethos of wild trout management into official California state policy–these Wild Trout Waters stand a fighting chance at remaining strong fisheries for generations to come.
Following World War II, California anglers were bottle fed hatchery fish to the point where an increasing number of the public believed this was trout fishing. To this day, the peculiar policy of publishing in newspapers just where and on what day the current barrel full of fresh trout will be dumped in a stream persists. You are invited to follow the truck. And car loads of would-be trouters burst out toward the stream, hoping to tuck a limit of crafty planters in their creels.
Long before, though, fly fishing writers like Lee Wulff, during the 1920’s opined that a trout was too valuable to be caught once. By 1970, writer Joe Brooks committed a whole chapter to the subject of stocked vs wild trout. Yet aside from a few scattered voices, at this time there existed little concept of ‘wild trout fisheries’ among anglers. Of course, during the later 19th century, when there were few hatcheries, the concept of ‘wild trout’ would have seemed redundant as taking sand to a beach. Yet more than half a century’s worth of relentless destruction to the waterways of California had reached a saturation point. The only mitigation to anglers following the construction of each new dam was, at best, the feeble theory of building new hatcheries near the point on a stream where a ‘wild’ anadromous fishery had just received a state or federal God-like death knell.
During the 1960’s, though, came changing perceptions of conservation. The number of anglers was growing, and Hat Creek became a focal point of the application of fresh ideas. Timing is everything, as the saying goes, and here conditions and events combined to launch Hat Creek and its wild rainbow trout smack in the center stage of emerging reaction. These would rip this fishery from its provincial status and toss it not only before California, but the entire country as well. Hat Creek was about to become famous –so famous that the results of the “Hat Creek Demonstration Project” are now considered cornerstones of American conservation and cultural perception of public lands and resources.
Learn More: Moments That Write History #1: Hat Creek
Paul Needham, in his 1938 work Trout Streams noted, “[state trout hatcheries] have millions for hatching but not one cent for investigation.” Hatchery trout, in abundance, masked the reality that nearly all streams of consequence in the State of California had been fiddled with either directly or indirectly. Trout fishing had become so contrived that the historical craft of casting a fly and matching a hatch was on the verge of disappearing entirely.
The classic fly fishing author Roderick Haig Brown relentlessly described this destruction of habitat. He is considered by many to be the patron saint of the modern trout conservation movement. In a previously unpublished document (from a speech delivered to the fledgling conservation group California Trout in 1971), Haig-Brown summarized:
“…Principles of fresh water sport fishery that I strongly believe in are the only ones that can restore and preserve trout fishing opportunities of the quality that past generations of anglers knew and loved, and on which the traditions of the sport have been developed.
“These principles carry a much broader meaning in that they call for clean rivers with flow adequate to maintain the life within them and the beauty about them. This is of importance to all people everywhere, not merely anglers, and it reflects a determination on the part of a massive section of the public, especially the youthful public, to control and counteract the effects of industrial and population growth that have, for far too long, been allowed to create unnecessary and even wanton destruction of natural assets.”
As a kid reading Haig-Brown’s books, I pined to toss a fly in his home water of Campell River on the east shore of Vancouver Island. By the time I actually stood on its banks however, the river was gone; dammed nearly to its saltwater estuary.
But in California, as in other trouting States, bright voices were finally being heard. And capable of what writers are not: becoming organized.
Organized opposition to both habitat destruction and DFG’s credo of spending their budget monies on hatchery fish programs were about to receive unwelcome press. State and Federal agencies had marched unopposed across the canvas of California water for decades, and any other perspective was largely considered Un-American. The 19th century mentality of taming the West, though, was a dead horse. We had reached the Golden Gate; there was no more America to tame. ‘Westward Ho!’ began to assume a naïve, dated logic. The buffalo were gone. And the backlash regarding wild trout streams followed on the heel of ideas presented by such well known earlier writers as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and John Bouroughs.
Infant-like wild trout organizations recognized that they must change, as well. The previously unheard of ‘catch and release’ fishing concept blossomed. What kind of knucklehead would put back in the water a fish won by some minor feat of skill and ingenuity? It was a tough sell, though today, even bass tournament and saltwater anglers recognize the imperative of protecting their resource in this manner.
In 1971, CalTrout's early founders spearheaded a campaign to establish the Fish and Game Commission’s Wild Trout Program (now the Heritage and Wild Trout Program) to “protect and enhance quality trout fisheries sustained by natural reproduction”. The Commission promptly adopted a Wild Trout Policy calling for the identification and special management of at least 10 quality trout waters, including restoration plans and increased angling restrictions. Hat Creek was the state’s first designated Wild Trout Water, thus beginning a new era in fisheries management in California. The Wild Trout Program, operated by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), continued to add streams year by year. There are now 59 designated Heritage and Wild Trout Waters in California.
The mission of the Wild Trout Program (expanded in 1998 to become the Heritage and Wild Trout Program) is "to protect and enhance California’s heritage and wild trout resources, while providing opportunities for high-quality wild trout angling."
As the California Fish and Game Commission explains, "Habitat protection is of utmost importance for maintenance of wild trout populations. All necessary actions, consistent with State law, shall be taken to prevent adverse impact by land or water development projects affecting designated wild trout waters."
By definition, designated Wild Trout Waters must be open for public fishing access, and must "support wild trout populations of sufficient magnitude" for fishing. Only wild and semi-wild strains of hatchery fish may be planted in Wild Trout Waters, but "only if necessary to supplement natural trout reproduction."
Major goals of the Heritage and Wild Trout Program include:
In 1971, the concept of Wild Trout Lakes was also introduced. Martis Lake, near Truckee, became the state’s first Wild Trout Lake. Just as Hat Creek served as a model for the Wild Trout rivers, Martis Lake was a pilot for future lake management. Special regulations were imposed during a three-year study period, and in these three years, wild trout populations thrived and the fishing was deemed sensational. Soon, more lakes were added, joining the fifteen streams which formed the backbone of the nationally acclaimed Wild Trout Program.
See full list of Designated Heritage and Wild Trout Waters >>
Fifty years later, fly fishing for wild trout is an important part of the outdoor industry in our state, and we have the California Wild Trout Program (now the Heritage and Wild Trout Program) to thank for it. What has been accomplished, CalTrout co-founder Richard May reminds me, wasn’t easy:
- Richard May, CalTrout co-founder
Looming water issues in the state may never be resolved, but today, the scales are tipping. Our voice is being heard, because the issues we fight for make sense.
If we don’t do it, who will?
We’ve seen tremendous success over our first 50 years, but our work has only begun. Together, we can protect California's clean, cold water for generations to come.
For our Future. For California. Forever.