A six hour drive is always a questionable endeavor for a weekend outing. All questions were put to rest as we came upon the glory of Mt. Shasta half covered in snow and glistening in the midday sun.
The drive to Sugar Creek Ranch starts getting good after you leave Redding headed north to Weed, Ca. Now there's a name whose source you wonder about and question if it predates the sixties. Its town sign announces "Weed like to Welcome You" with a hominess that is inconsistent with its imbalance of gas stations to stores: they are nearly equal. Of course they'd like to welcome you, they can't sell all that gas to just the locals.
As you turn off highway 5 toward Callahan (no gas stations), you start climbing a thousand foot grade that gives you the million dollar view of Mt. Shasta on every other turn. Cresting the hills and dipping down into the Scott Valley leads you through some of the most beautiful private land in California and you realize from the lack of traffic on the road that not many Californians get over this way.
Arriving at Sugar Creek Ranch is something shy of what you might be expecting of a world class fishery. The sign for the place is so small that you're thankful for the precise mileage directions that let you know that you're really here.
You feel like you've arrived at an abandoned gravel quarry. You're not far off in appearance, but very far off from the real story. Somewhere after gold was discovered here they got really serious about mining it and built one of the largest floating ore extraction machines of its kind. It looked like a large factory but was actually one huge machine. They mined for gold by crushing the rock much the way a rock quarry would do and they did it with intent. They covered enough surface area to leave rock piles that appear to be several miles wide and at least five miles long. The story is that the machine operated from the early thirties until sometime in the fifties, crushing every piece of rock it could get a hold of.
Now here's where it gets interesting. The remaining piles of rock were not exactly evenly distributed and much like when you dig a hole in the beach ten feet from the ocean, if you go below the water table it fills up with water. The resulting lakes formed by the areas that were lower than the water table of the nearby Scott River not only filled up with water but have the added advantage of constantly refreshing themselves by the water moving through via the underground water table at a rate similar to the river itself in temperature if not speed.
The result is TROUT water. Eight lakes in all, albeit size dictates that you more accurately term them ponds. In the larger ponds they stopped stocking them years ago and they are delightfully full of huge and wary trout. Mike Kalpin, the owner, has done some wonderful things here, from landscaping the edges of some of the lakes to educated and enlightened stocking. In the smaller ponds, Mike stocks them periodically with fish he raises, the smallest of which are two pound trout. As these grow and mature they react the way trout in wild do when hooked. Having an 18 inch fish take you out to your backing while heading halfway across the pond is all the convincing you need that these fish are every bit the equal in strength and agility to the native rainbows you encounter in the wild. I had one of the 20 inch rainbows that I caught come fully out of the water six times and cover a full 150 feet while doing it.
We had a pretty sizable group this trip as I organized it as an outing for the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club. I was worried that there might be too many of us to spread out nicely to the different lakes. That concern went away on the first day when only two of us were on one of the ponds and I found myself instead feeling guilty about catching 30 or 40 trout over 17 inches and being honestly concerned that others may not be having as good a time as we were. Conversations at dinner that evening allayed my fears of being the only one catching fish. It did however turn out that some had a tougher time with matching the hatch or just keeping some of these large fish hooked. One twenty seven inch hook nosed male rainbow was caught by someone half my age (Steve Tom) just before dinner that evening. Matt Huey, as usual, was having no trouble hooking great fish on the first day.
You get to learn a lot about landing large fish when you get as many opportunities to do it as you get here. The learning experience was different for everyone. Those of us who have fished for many years learned even more about the value of presentation and experimentation when clear water lets you witness your ninety percent rejection rate. Those that were newer to the sport had an opportunity, some for the first time, to constantly be dealing with stealth, hooking and landing large trout, and the reality of actually being worn out by the process of getting a large fish to hand.
Many techniques get to be polished when you have as many opportunities at large fish as is offered as Sugar Creek. One that I have had little opportunity to try other places, given that I'm mostly fishing fast streams is the multi fish competition approach. One of the reasons I caught more fish on some of the smaller ponds was leveraging the ability to see more than one fish at a time and placing casts that were ideally located exactly between two or even three fish. The resulting competition for food would often overshadow the otherwise extremely high rejection rate. Given the clear water it was easy to see fish turn and head for your fly only to reject it at the last moment. Given the size of these fish, the resulting push of water (read: wake) was enough to get your heart pounding and cause some to set so early there was no chance of having a fish on there. After some steady rejection I got more careful about placing the fly exactly between fish. The result was that the water would get disturbed by the close rejection of the first fish and generally prompted the second fish to be less picky or reduced his ability to perceive the fly in the same way as the first with amazing results. As this method proved itself over and over it proved to be one of the few ways to get past the disadvantage of not having the exact fly match and leveraging the fish's innate sense of food competition.
Again given the clear, still water, I got to see a rejection I had never seen or maybe just never noticed before. On small fast streams when I saw a fish miss a fly I thought that was exactly what I was seeing. At Sugar Creek, several times that weekend I got to see a fish coming at a fly facing directly toward me with his mouth opening just before the take. The surprise was the opportunity to see a rejection that I had never seen before where the fish went through the entire motion of opening the mouth, coming all the way to the surface, but turning his head at the last second so that he purposely didn't get the fly. From any other angle this would have looked like he just missed the fly or miscalculated. It was amazing to see that this was a purposeful rejection so late as to be a full rise.
Every day proved to be a different challenge. The large north lake has some of the largest trout, but proved to be some of the most difficult fishing, especially for those of us who insist on dry fly fishing at every opportunity. In these small lakes the fish tend to cruise around considerably and sight fishing was the only way to quickly improve your odds. On the second day when four of us were fishing Twin Deer, (the large north lake) there was not much apparently happening except at the inlet to this pool where some small (14-18 inch!) trout were watching for and eating nymphs drifting in. In search of bigger prey, I moved slowly around the lake until I would see a fish cruising the shores and then try to end up ahead of its path with casts designed to be just in it field of vision but not so close as to scare it off. The last minute rejection rate was high, but preceded with nervous excitement each time that I'd see the obvious interest indicated by the trout heading toward my fly. After a few of these, I finally noticed some white specks further out on the water that was either a very small white Mayfly or bits of a dandelion. When I finally saw a large trout dine on one of these, desperation drove me to digging for a small white Mayfly imitation. The general rules of order of importance of matching the hatch go something like this: Size, Shape, Color. I was in trouble. I didn't have anything close and considered just trying a pale morning dun following the "size, shape, color" and live with the fact that the color didn't match the very white flies I was seeing. But I spotted a white Whizz Kid in my box that we had actually tied up for pan fish that was about a size 12 when it looked like the flies on the water were about a size 18 or smaller. Now, loving the Whizz Kid as I do and never having caught anything (actually never having tried to) on a white one, I just couldn't pass up the chance. So, just as some of the guys were giving up and moving to the other lakes, I tossed my obviously oversized, non-Mayfly, but ever so correctly colored fly to this large trout out at the distance limits of my casting ability. He took it first cast and I was on to a twenty plus inch gorgeous rainbow.
It was the start of a beautiful day of fishing that ended in easily 20 fish over twenty inches in length, and progressed through as many different flies.