Hunting CALIFORNIA's Native Trout

I have long enjoyed sight fishing for wild trout in headwater streams. With a light, full flex rod in hand and the chosen dry fly tied to my tippet, I slowly walk parallel to the stream looking for feeding or holding trout. With my quarry spotted, I develop a plan of attack, surreptitiously move into position to make the cast, and then softly present my fly to the trout. With great eagerness, I await the trout's reaction.

I also enjoy learning about and fishing for native fish... whether for Lahtonan cutthroat trout in local waters or brown trout in headwaters of the Bregenzer Ach in Austria. A great way to learn about native fish is to take on native fish challenges, such as the California Heritage Trout Challenge and the Nevada Fish Slam.

In this article I cover my quest for the native trout of California.

The California Heritage Trout Challenge

The California Heritage Trout Challenge is an angler recognization program run by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The program was "designed to promote the ecological and aesthetic values of native trout and their habitats, encourage anglers to learn more about the state’s natural heritage, and build public support for native trout restoration efforts" [CDFW].

The qualifying native trout include three cutthroats (Oncorhynchus clarkii) and eight rainbows (Oncorhynchus mykiss).  The three cutthroats are the coastal cutthroat (O. c. clarkii), the Lahontan cutthroat (O. c. henshawi), and the Paiute cutthroat (O. c. seleniris). The eight rainbows include three redbands: the Goose Lake Redband (O. m. newberrii), the McCloud River redband (O. m. stonei), and the Warner Lakes redband (O. m. newberrii); all three fish of the golden trout complex: the California golden (O. m. aguabonita), the Little Kern golden (O. m. whitei), and the Kern River rainbow (O. m. gilberti); as well as the coastal rainbow (O. m. irideus) and the Eagle Lake rainbow (O. m. aquilarum).

The basic challenge is to catch six of the eleven trout native to California within their historic range. Upon submitting an application with photos, a personalized certificate featuring colorful illustrations of the six trout caught is awarded. The master challenge requires catching each of the eleven in their historic range.

Historic Range of the Native Trout

The historic range of a each trout is defined to include not only the waters they are endemic to but the compete drainage the trout's endemic waters are in. For instance, a Lahontan cutthroat trout caught in Kirman Lake qualify as Kirman Lake is within the Walker River drainage and the Lahontan cutthroat trout are endemic to the Walker River. However a Lahontan cutthroat trout caught at Crowley Lake would not qualify as Lahontan cutthroat trout are not endemic to it nor the Owens River.

My Approach to the Challenge

I decided early on that a basic challenge wasn't much of a challenge... I already had documented catches of coastal rainbows, Eagle Lake rainbows, and Lahontan cutthroats handy. I probably could catch 3 of the remaining 8 over a weekend if I put my mind to it. That seemed a bit to rushed for my liking so I would challenge myself to catch all eleven. I would take a leisurely approach to the master challenge, documenting each catch over multiple years.

The Paiute cutthroat trout presents a significant hurdle for anyone trying to complete the master challenge. Silver King Creek drainage above the confluence of Snodgrass Creek is closed to fishing in support of the Paiute recovery efforts. I won't be finishing the master challenge until it reopens.

I also decided that I'd target the trout using my favorite method: dry fly sight casting.

THE Hunt

Putting the Miles On

In the early spring of 2015, I was scheduled to volunteer at a Reel Recovery retreat on Hat Creek. The McCloud River is just a bit further north, close enough for a pre-retreat excursion. My plan was to head up a day in advance, leaving my home at o'dark thirty so I could arrive in the McCloud drainage by noon. I'd then checkout a few streams and hopefully check off the McCloud River redband trout.

It was a frustrating day. First, being in the early spring, the unpaved roads were a mess.  I didn't want to test my self-recovery skills so kept to reasonably firm roads. I did make it into one of the creeks on the southeast side of Mount Shasta that's known to hold McCloud redband trout. It had some decent water to fish, but access was quite painful due to heavy brush. I managed a few casts to the fish I didn't spook and even fooled a couple of them. But my sets were off. It just wasn't my day.

As the sun was setting, I decided I'd drive into town, grab something to eat, and think about the day to follow. There wasn't any eatery that appealed to me in the town of McCloud, so I drove into the town of Mount Shasta. As I was putting down a burger and a shake, a crazy idea popped into my head. I wasn't all that far from the coast... maybe I could pop over and catch a coastal cutthroat. I figured that if I caught one, I could avoid a longer drive later in my quest. Given that it was already dark, I might as might as well put in the miles now.

So I headed north, stopping at a rest area next to the Klamath River for some shut-eye. It wasn't terribly comfortable sleeping in the back of FJ Cruiser. I did get a couple of hours in. I then headed into Oregon and finally dropped into the Smith River drainage from Grants Pass. At dawn I arrived at the first tributary stream and, with just enough light to see my fly, I made my first cast. Wham! I had my first coastal cutthroat!

My frustrations of the day before were now just a distant memory. Over the next hour or so, I brought a half dozen or so to net. I was mighty pleased to have bagged the coastal cutthroat. But soon it was time to start head back.

I did have a bit of time to spare before I needed to be in Cassel and contemplated trying again to catch a McCloud redband. Instead, I decided to stop off at the Ted Fay Fly Shop in Dunsmuir to get some local advice and just to check out this local fly shop. I'm quite glad I did. They were very friendly and helpful. I bought some of shop-tied flies I would gift to the Reel Recovery participants.

On my way home later that week, I stopped at Pine Creek off of CA 44. Pine Creek is the main inlet stream of Eagle Lake. The perennial upper section, west of CA 44, flows year-round and primarily holds brook trout. I learned that CDFW occasionally stocks Eagle Lake trout into Pine Creek in hopes that a self-sustaining population can be reestablished in the creek. As I didn't have all that much time, I just stopped at the first spot that appealed to me. While prospecting I picked up a few brookies but no Eagle Lake trout. I'll be back!

The Warner Mountains

Over a year had past since I caught my coastal cutthroat... I was itching to get back after the California natives. We had just concluded our Memorial Day festivities and so waters east of US 395 in Modoc County were open to fishing. Hopefully the passes would be clear of snow.

As usual, I headed out at o'dark thirty and blasted up US 395; arriving at New Pine Creek at the Oregon border by mid morning! From there I was heading up and over to the Dismal Swamp in hopes of getting a Warner Lakes redband trout... or at least that was my plan. This day I would be testing my self-recovery skills. In attempting to cross one too many snow drifts, I had slide my FJ Cruiser off the road. Fortunately, there were plenty of fir trees to anchor my winch line too. I got myself back on the road. I made my way back down to New Pine Creek.

I decided I'd fish a few spots on the west slope of the Warner Mountains were I was bound to find some Goose Lake redband trout. In my first location, I walked the bank until I spotted my quarry. I ended up spooking the first one I spotted, but just upstream I saw another. I fooled it with my elk hair caddis! I caught a few more before deciding to continue my pursuit of the Warner Lakes redband.

I crossed over Fandango Pass to scout a couple streams on the east slope of the Warner Mountains near the Oregon border. They didn't look all that promising to me. I decided to drive into Oregon, make my way over to Dismal Creek, and then work my way upstream and back into California. But up reaching Dismal Creek, both my FJ Cruiser and I were running low on fuel.  So I darted into Lakeview, refueled my FJ Cruiser and I. I then headed back up to Dismal Creek and started navigating the roads upstream. I was less than 3 miles south of the border when my path was blocked by a tree over the road. I must have been the first person up that forest road this year. Checking my maps, I found a 4x4 trail that ran parallel to the forest road. With a little back tracking and use of 4 low, I detoured around the down tree and continued heading upstream.

Just after crossing into California the road entered an aspen grove and I was blocked again, this time by multiple down trees. But I was now in walking distance to Dismal Creek. I recalled their was a turnaround back at the border. I decided that would be a good place to camp as Dismal Creek was only 500 yards away.

The next morning I arose before dawn and hiked down to Dismal Creek. Though I saw a few fish in the beaver ponds near the border, the fish there weren't terribly interested in the offered flies. I fished my way upstream until I got to Dismal Swamp... without seeing a fish. Dismal Swamp was, well, quite a swamp as there was still plenty of snow about. As I explored the area, I spotted a fish. As this was the first fish I had seen since leaving the beaver ponds, I casted to it at distance. My presentation was great and I had my first Warner Lakes redband on the hook. But it also was my last for the day.

It was a long drive home. Considering I managed to document catches of both the Goose Lake redband and the Warner Lakes redband, it was quite worth it.

I note that I went back to Warner Mountains in the fall of 2019 as a day trip! I went directly up to Dismal Swamp and caught a few in the creek. Glad I did as I found a pretty nice specimen.

Return to Parts North

Another year, another trip to parts north. I detoured off my more direct route to fish the shoreline of Eagle Lake. I walked the shore sight casting to feeding fish and brought a few to net.

I then headed over to the McCloud River to see if we could get into some redbands on the main stem. This time I wouldn't be frustrated... nor would my fishing buddies. There were pleny of eager McCloud River redband trout.

There's Gold in them thar hills!

In the fall of 2017, I convinced my wife, Ursula, to explore the southern Sierra with me. She booked a few nights in a nice bed and breakfast near the Johnsondale Bridge over the north fork of the Kern River. While I would have to spend plenty of quality time with Ursula, I figured I'd have enough time to catch all three fish of the golden trout complex.

On our first morning we headed off to one of the easily accessed headwater creeks of the Little Kern River.  As we walked the stream with our dog, Tammy, I kept a look out for trout. I got a few Little Kern goldens to the net. That was enough. Time to check out a cool Sequoia grove.

That afternoon I stole away for a few hours or so to fish for Kern River rainbows above Johnsdale Bridge. I managed to land a couple of rainbows, but nothing all that special. They look like hatchery rainbow trout to me. I must simply have been far enough upstream.

I was subsequently advised that CDFW stocks the North Fork of Kern River rainbow trout between Lake Isabella and Johndale bridge and hence my catches count towards the challenge. I'll have to come back another time and fish for wilds in the headwaters.

The next day I had a bit of an off-roading adventure planned.  We headed over Sherman Pass and onto a 4x4 trail that took us to Monache Meadows on the South Fork of the Kern River. On approaching the river I spotted a fish hanging out in a pocket. I worked myself into casting position and presented a stimulator to him. He took it. But upon getting him to my net, my hopes for gold were dashed. It was a brown trout.

But we were here... we would make our way upstream, with me casting to any fish I spotted. I ended up hooking plenty of fish. Oddly, that first brown as the only brown I hooked that day. The rest were California golden trout. I've been told the muted coloring of my catches is due to the relatively low altitude at which they'd been caught. I think there's likely some hybridization at play as well.

Documenting the Lahontan Cutthroat

As I regularly fish for Lahontan cutthroat trout in headwater streams within their historic range, I got plenty of photos to choose from.

Documenting the Coastal Rainbow

Though I don't fish west slope headwater creeks all that frequently, I have plenty of photos of coastal rainbows caught in their historic range.

A steelhead to be.

Currrent status

As of the end of 2023, I've documented catches of 10 of the 11 of the California natives. While I wait for regulations on the Silver King to allow for a Paiute cutthroat hunt, I'm thinking of fishing for them outside of their historic range. I also want to return to some waters and seek out some better specimens. And I got a few other challenges to complete as well.

This article was authored by Kurt Zeilenga, current President of the High Sierra Fly Casters. If you have suggestions on how to improve this article, you may contact Kurt at

The High Sierra Fly Casters offers free mentoring to club members to help them complete challenges such as this.

Additional Reading