The McCloud has the reputation of being the most scenic trout river in California. After hearing this, I knew I had to dip a fly. My opportunity finally came on a business trip to California that forced me to spend the weekend.
After whining a little bit to the Basswife about the weekend separation to provide a good cover on my upcoming "sacrifice", I gleefully started my preparations (yes - she does not know how to turn on a computer and will never see this...). Since I had been stuck in California once before, I knew that the rivers out there demanded the big gun - for me, that was my 6 wt rod, the wading staff, and every nymph I had. In short, I stuffed my fly fishing life into a single huge suitcase. I gave it a heft and my instinct told me it was over the weight limit. Yep. Some of the stuff had to go in a backup suitcase as the airlines now charge for any suitcase weighing over 50 pounds.
Upon arrival in Oakland I had a moment of panic waiting for this treasure chest of fishing gear to roll into the baggage claim area. Thoughts of my Army training flitted through my mind - the entire command team does not fly on the same helicopter or ride in the same vehicle to protect the unit against disruption if they go down in a crash. I had done the same thing with my fishing treasures...
Finally, that critical suitcase tumbled into the carousel and I snagged it up with relief and ran for the rental car shuttle. The next five days were torture as I counted down the minutes until I could blaze out the door and head north to Redding. Yeah, yeah, we have to do a replan of the project...Yeah, Yeah, we need to get this work product or that one done...Yeah, Yeah, we need to brief so and so on whatisit... FINALLY, the appointed day and time finally came and after a "quick" five hour drive blazing up the stunningly boring I5, I pulled into the Travelodge in Dunsmuir, CA.
The next day found me on the road to the McCloud with a great guide - Steve Bertrand (email). It is pretty nasty once you get off the hardball. You have two choices - you can go to Ash Camp or you can go to Ah-Di-Na. When you come around the dam, you can turn off to Ah-Di-Na or continue to Ash Camp. Ash is definitely the easier drive; especially for a flatland car. The Ah-Di-Na road is very rough and it will add an hour to your trip. You have to go through Ah-Di-Na to get to the Nature Conservancy; which is a fairly famous place to fish. I just went to Ash Camp.
After bumping into the Camp area at the end of the road, I parked and walked to the river. I'm an upstream guy, so I naturally headed in that direction. This place is scenic! The water has a special hue to it as a result of the minerals that collect in the dam up above. It's a tailwater, so the water is fast and cold; scattering down drop after drop. In addition to working up the river, I could have walked across the footbridge and worked down towards the Conservancy by way of the gorge, but was waved off by Steve. He indicated that the gorge is "spot fishing". There is a trail to each hole that involves a vigorous walk and climb to get in and out. Since I did not want to spend the day here, I elected to just take the survey option and fish up from the Camp to get a sense for the water. The gorge was left for another day.
I was not disappointed. The water is clear, very cold and running deep on the day I was there. I could wade out from the bank to position myself, but you would need to be careful choosing crossing points. This river is fantastic. It's a relatively narrow run compared to the Upper Sacramento and even a little narrower than the Pit in this particular section, but what it lacked in width, it made up for in trout holding structure. There are huge boulders pushing out at random angles. All are seemingly placed to make the water fly around tight corners and into nice pools. What a great place for a nymph!
I worked copper johns in blue and red. Picked up some good fish and improved my technique under Steve's supervision. When you think of it, it is kind of a waste for a new fly guy to hit great water like this as it does require a bit of skill to flick the nymph into the right place. Somebody else might have gotten frustrated - not me. My resolution to complete the transition from spin to fly is absolute, so I regarded this as just part of the journey.
Remember to refer to my rating explanations - these are based on what I look for - so RED for Physical Fitness translates to easy physically - you do not need to be in shape to fish this section. I prefer terrain that is tough to get into and out of.
After working the section shown on the map, Steve took me up to the base of the dam where the tailwater violently shoots into the river and pointed out a few other places we could have gone if we had had the time.
One was to fish a huge pool at the base of the dam. Even though the pool is massive, it only has room for one guy to fish based on the access path. We peered over the cliff and saw another guy down there who did not seem to be having much luck. The other option on the upper end is to park just down from the pool and follow the set of stairs that have been carved into the canyon wall down to the river.
We did not have time to go there, but I would not have been a fan anyway. If I'm going to climb, I want to do it in a remote setting where the promise of low pressure provides the motivation - not right off the road at the most popular trout river in California.
Speaking of pressure, I did have the sense that this is a very popular destination. While we only saw a few other guys in the section we fished, it was late on a Saturday.
This is a physical river. It will require some effort and caution to get around. While you can work up the bank near Ash Camp without much problem, do not go anywhere else unless you can rely on your fitness to get you back out.
One final comment, Steve indicated that the area of the McCloud above the dam does not have the density of large fish that this section does. They stock up there and most of the fish are smaller. The Redband Trout are also up there in the higher elevations
Getting There: Go to the Fly Shop in Redding and pick up the map (copy shown below).