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Haunted Canyons, Beautiful Trout…

Indian massacres, settlers butchered, grizzly attacks and bloodthirsty highwaymen…

Growing up I’d heard the stories from the old timers that were born around the turn of the last century. In many cases, anecdotal history was passed down to the old timers from their fathers and grandfathers.

The stories detailed things like disembodied native voices singing near places were Yahi Indians that had been obliterated by settlers in the middle 1800’s and blood chilling moans near a spring in Battle Creek canyon where a trapper had been mauled by a grizzly and left for dead. Legend has it that the trapper lingered for several days before ultimately giving in to fever and infection.

Other stories talk about modern folks hiking or riding deep into the canyons and disappearing without a trace. Vegetation tangled gullies and ample caves in the lava rims give sanctuary to crooks and outlaws, in yesteryear and today. Bears, lions and rattlesnakes! Anything is possible in those canyons where few travel and cell phones seldom work.

“Fishing dry flies represents the ultimate in topwater action. Trout living in freestone streams are typically enthusiastic feeders, but you’ve still got to achieve a drag free drift and deliver a crisp hookset to draw strikes and hook fish,” says Cal Kellogg.
“Fishing dry flies represents the ultimate in topwater action. Trout living in freestone streams are typically enthusiastic feeders, but you’ve still got to achieve a drag free drift and deliver a crisp hookset to draw strikes and hook fish,” says Cal Kellogg.

My experiences in the basalt crowned canyons of eastern Tehama County haven’t been sinister in the least. On the contrary, some of my fondest memories come from chasing feisty trout and sleek bucks in drainages like Battle Creek, Mill Creek, Deer Creek and others. Yet based on more than two decades of research I’m intimately familiar with the history of the region and I can attest that if those canyons aren’t haunted they certainly should be!

My first experience trout fishing in the region dates back to the bygone ‘70’s on a stream named Nanny Creek. I was around 8 years old and my Uncle Bob had taken up fly fishing. This was a pretty alien concept to dad and I. Dad did his stream trout fishing with red salmon eggs and Super Dupers.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see the climatic event. My uncle, young and strong again, in his 30’s shoots the ivory colored line toward a partially submerge log. The dry fly, which looked like a little clump of hair, gently drifted with the current accompanied by some small spots of foam.

From whereabouts unseen, a trout came for the fly so hard that it shot right out of the water. Uncle Bob set the hook, but he was too slow. The trout spit the hook and was gone…Strike one Uncle Bob!

Bob’s trout got away, but I’d seen it and my brain kept reviewing the incident in slow motion. It was a brown trout about 11 inches long and it was beautiful. It’s back was covered with robust black spots. Its flanks were a rich shade of gold and I could even make out a couple of the brilliant red spots along the lateral line…That fish convinced me that one day I’d be a fly angler.

By the time I reached college I already had 5 years of fly fishing experience under my belt and I was tying upwards of 10,000 trout flies per year. Most of those flies were sold through the old iconic Castro Valley Sportsman’s Center at the top of “the strip” in Castro Valley, Ca.

It was during my late teens and early 20’s that I seriously fished eastern Tehama County with fly gear. I’ve fished most of the waters in that region that hold trout. I fished with my dad. I fished with my uncle and I fished alone.

I fished waters close to major roads and I hiked deep into the remotest country available on Battle Creek and other streams. It was an incredible time in my life and it was a period when I really grew as an angler.

This holdover rainbow, bolted from the depths of Deer Creek and slammed a No. 12 Humpy drifted along an undercut bank.
This holdover rainbow, bolted from the depths of Deer Creek and slammed a No. 12 Humpy drifted along an undercut bank.

Fast forward to present and I’m still fishing. Of course, writing for the Sniffer means that I’ve got to cover a wide swath of the Golden State angling scene. Most of the fishing I do these days requires conventional tackle, but every summer I make it a point to head back up to Tehama County for some dry fly fishing.

The trout you catch in the region’s freestone streams are never huge and anything wild that is over 12 inches is considered large. While oversize trout aren’t on the menu, rainbows, browns and brook trout are numerous. From around June 15 through the middle of October the colorful little trout will typically come to the surface and slam dry flies with enthusiasm. It’s topwater action and it’s darn fun!

Back in mid-July I headed up to Deer Creek for an afternoon and evening of fly fishing. I was already heading north to fish the Sacramento River that Monday with Bill Adelman, John Higley and guide Robert Weese, so I figured why not hit Deer Creek the day before?

When I left my house late on Sunday morning it was already 98 degrees and the air conditioner was out of commission in my truck. To make things worse I’d been pretty sick with a cold for nearly a week. By the time I hit Chico the thermometer was ready registering 104 and I’d developed a nasty infection in my left eye, no doubt a side effect of the cold.

Sweating and contemplating how I was going to fish with only one good eye I drove out of Chico on Highway 32 and headed into the hills. By the time I hit the timber things started to cool off and by the time I reached Deer Creek things were feeling a lot better.

I pulled off the road into a wide pullout above the creek. It was a likely looking area of pockets and short riffles punctuated by tongues of white water. The edges of the creek were rough and rocky and the big floods this winter had strewn the rocks with a huge volume of downed timber and wood.

I fished about a quarter mile stretch downstream from where I parked and I caught more than a dozen eager rainbows and browns on a No. 12 Elk Hair Caddis. With all the wood strewn about, walking the creek was tough. Feverish and with a drippy eye I decided I had nothing to prove. So I hiked back to the truck with the intention of driving up closer to the headwaters of the creek where the walking would be easier.

After a cold soda and a short drive I parked my truck in a pullout and scanned a section of gently sloping stream that looked perfect. Grabbing my gear, I made the short walk down to the stream and stepped into the knee deep water. By the time I’d covered 200 yards I caught 10 fish and missed at least another 10. In terms of species I pulled off a “hat trick”, landing browns, rainbows and a pair of brook trout.

The surprise of the evening came while fishing a glassy run next to an undercut bank. By this time I’d noticed some hatching mayflies, so I had a size 12 Humpy on the end of my leader.

I had just landed and released a 6 inch brown and expected to hook another when I laid my fly perfectly next to the grass overhanging the bank.

The brook trout that inhabit the streams of the northern Sierras and southern Cascades are seldom large, but they make up for their lack of size with incredible beauty. This hungry Deer Creek brook trout gobbled a dry fly with gusto!
The brook trout that inhabit the streams of the northern Sierras and southern Cascades are seldom large, but they make up for their lack of size with incredible beauty. This hungry Deer Creek brook trout gobbled a dry fly with gusto!

Sure enough a trout came up and slurped in the fly. Up went the rod tip, but wait…This fish had some weight to it. The rod curled downward toward the unseen trout as it rushed downstream.

The trout put up quite a fight and I was very curious about what it was. 25 years ago I’d caught a massive 22 inch brown in the stream and I was beginning to think I’d hooked another such fish, when a government issue planter rainbow boiled to the surface.

Clearly the trout had been in the stream for a while. It had avoided interactions with red eggs and Panther Martin Spinners and was now eating an “all natural organic diet”.

I carefully released the ex-planter and wished it well!

I could go on, but I won’t. On the day, I brought more than 30 trout to hand and all of them but one were wild and perfect. The stark terrain and beautiful trout of eastern Tehama County inspire me. Hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze in one more fishing trip to the area between the many saltwater adventures I’ve got slated before I slip into my annual frantic state of “deer hunting mania” in October!

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