Unless you’ve fished in Alaska, Canada or Montana you’ve most likely never encountered the Arctic grayling -- especially not in California. It’s hard to imagine the “sailfish of the north” living in a state that’s known for things like 100-degree summer heat, Hollywood Boulevard, surfing and Silicon Valley.
But the fact of the matter is, there were catchable numbers of grayling in California until as recently as the 1990’s.
Back in the day, there was a pretty concerted effort to get grayling established in California waters, beginning around the turn of the century. According to the University of California, the first grayling were introduced to California waters in the early 1900’s from Montana and some accidentally ended up in the Upper Sacramento River. Over the years they were also tried in many locations, including Echo Lake in the Sierra Nevadas near Lake Tahoe, a couple lakes in Yosemite and the Cottonwood Creek drainage in San Diego County. San Diego grayling…now that one really sounds crazy!
By the mid 50’s it looked like the fish just wouldn’t take to their new environs, but then in 1969, a new strategy was developed. In attempt to provide anglers with more fishing opportunities, state biologists started planting grayling in high elevation lakes. Nevada County’s Bullpen Lake, Papoose Lake in Sierra County, Devil Lake in Amador County, Upper Virginia Lake in Alpine County, Fawn Lake in El Dorado County and Jim Lake in Placer County all got stocked.
Two years later, the program was expanded to 12 additional lakes – most north of Redding. The grayling stocking program in California continued until the mid 70’s, at which point 58 lakes had been planted. Sadly, the populations just never caught on in those waters and, with stocking discontinued, the state’s grayling started to slowly slip away.
And that was the end of the California grayling…or was it?
In 1980, it was determined that there was a self-sustaining population in Lobdell Lake, a small reservoir at 8,000 feet of elevation northeast of Bridgeport. The fish were also spawning in the lake’s main tributary, Desert Creek.
Lobdell produced some pretty good grayling fishing until sometime in the 1990’s. But now, it is said that the grayling are extinct in California. A few unconfirmed reports of them pop up from time to time in places like Jackson Meadows Reservoir and Bullpen Lake, but I’m pretty sure those are cases of mistaken identity – those fish are probably pike minnow.
I’m not sure what happened to Lobdell’s grayling but my best guess is they suffered from some low water years at the reservoir and were unable to reproduce. Too bad — it would be fun to go catch a few without having to travel north of the border.
Fishery management strategies these days in California are slanted toward returning genetically pure fish back to drainages that have been altered by humans for hundreds of years. In my opinion, it’s a pipe dream of some ivory tower fishery PhD’s. Because of that, fish like grayling will never see the light of day again in this state.
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