Crane Creek Fly Fishing

In a recent issue of Fly Fishing the writers talk about the McCloud River and the special place it has in angling history as one of the two original sources of rainbow trout stocked in all the streams where we now find them. Since then, trout in the McCloud have interbred with browns and hatchery cultured rainbows so it’s virtually certain the magnificent strain of original rainbow no longer exists in that river.

Of all the streams in the Midwest stocked from the McCloud, only a handful have self-sustaining populations. One of these is Crane Creek in southern Missouri. And there’s a good chance that the rainbows in Crane Creek are genetically pure McCloud trout. Since the rainbow fry were dumped in from railway cars in the 1880s, there’s no record of Crane Creek being stocked again… ever. If that’s so, then Crane Creek is one of only five or six places in the world where the pure strain still exists.

Crane Creek is one of a handful of streams that may still hold pure McCloud rainbows. Photo by Denis Hancock – used with permission.

Crane is a small Ozark town in rural Stone County where people eat breakfast at Gary and Jan’s Dairy Lane and read the Crane Chronicle-Stone County Republican. It’s pretty big news when a stranger’s in town, but if you speak softly and smile a lot, the people open up to you right away.

At the Dairy Lane you order breakfast by the number and it just comes… no dumb questions about whether the toast should be white or wheat or the eggs “over easy.” You get your temporary fishing license at the convenience store at the top of the hill, just after you cross the train tracks and the creek. The entire stream for several miles north and south of Crane is protected with “artificial lure, catch and release” regulations.

Water was low in late October; I was advised to spend my time on the lower section of the stream, north of town. From the Wire Road Conservation Area parking lot, you can fish downstream for about a mile and a half before you come to posted land. The land upstream of the bridge is also posted, but I’ve been told there’s a good chance the owner will grant access if you ask him; same with the posted land downstream.

There was no observable hatch occurring and only an occasional rising fish. I followed Charles Meck’s advice (Great Rivers – Great Hatches) and caught several 10 to 12 inch rainbows on prince nymphs (size 12 and 14) and a number of smaller fish on a tan caddis pattern.

There are larger fish in there though. I spent an hour trying to interest a twenty inch rainbow in a variety of attractive (I thought) flies, but he totally ignored me. A situation I am, sadly, not unfamiliar with.

The rainbows are truly adapted to the stream. Only when they move do you see a brief flash of silver. Not rolling the way shiners do, just gently undulating in the current and occasionally exposing a brilliant crimson-silver side to the careful observer.

If you judge great days of fishing by size or numbers, it certainly wasn’t. But with every fish I caught and released, I felt a tiny twinge of history. Those rainbows were, without a doubt, the most beautiful I’ve ever caught.

As I researched Crane Creek, I began to realize just how special this little stream, and the people who care for it, really are. There had to be a reason why the original McCloud rainbows survived and thrived in this tiny stream when they had perished in hundreds of others, kept viable in those streams only by repeated stockings of hatchery fish.

No article about Crane Creek would be complete without paying homage to a very special lady – Dorothy Leake. Dorothy’s father, visiting in 1920 from Oklahoma to see his first granddaughter, acquired a hundred and thirty acres of wildflower covered hills surrounding the headwaters of the Crane when Dorothy and her husband Harold were just starting to raise their family.

For over seventy years Dorothy waged a one-woman war against all who would pollute her pristine steam, organizing, protesting, and publishing. For Dorothy, pollution’s “permissible limit” was zero. Without her personal crusade, the McCloud trout would no longer be in Crane Creek. The lesson is obvious.