The Rainbows of Crane Creek

By Jim Auckley | January 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2000

Trout are not native to Missouri. In the latter part of the last century, fishing enthusiasts released all kinds of non-native fish in Missouri waters, including eight different species of trout and salmon. It was even hoped salmon might establish a spawning run on the Mississippi River. No thought was given to the fact that salmon and trout are creatures of the northern regions of the globe and require the cold water that goes with long winters and streams fed by slowly melting snow banks.

The colorful Crane Creek "McCloud strain" rainbows have a reputation for skittishness; they have persevered in the stream because they seek shelter at the first sign of an approaching predator, be it two-legged or four. The Conservation Department protects them with catch-and-release regulations-you can fish for them, but you must release them unharmed immediately once caught.

These fish provide a wonderful challenge for anglers willing to fish with artificial lures or flies and approach the stream with stealth. They are also a genetic reservoir should Missouri's trout hatcheries be decimated by calamity or disease. Even now, the McCloud fish are used to produce offspring for a "wild" trout section of another Missouri river. Biologists use sperm collected from a few of the Crane Creek fish in late November to fertilize eggs of the regular hatchery strain of fish, then stock the resulting offspring. As adults, fish bearing the McCloud genes should flourish and reproduce naturally.

The little town of Crane, near Aurora, southwest of Springfield, is off the beaten track. Wild trout fans all over Missouri cringed when Crane Creek was featured on a national cable television fishing show. The host even caught a large rainbow out of the little stream. Devotees imagined hordes of anglers descending on what many have felt is a well kept secret. But it didn't happen; if you fish Crane Creek, you are not likely to encounter many other anglers. Most of the fish are small, and catching them is tough. It's not fishing that appeals to a lot of people, even if it did show up on the sports network.

Wild trout have a special value to some anglers. The fish have crisp colors, clean fins and an overall sleek appearance. Knowing that they are stream-bred and have foraged on their own for every ounce of protein gives them a mystique all their own. They are strong fish, too, and put up a surprisingly tough battle on a light line. When it comes to flies and lures, they are often not particularly choosy. Getting close enough to present a fly or lure while going undetected is often the problem, as the fish will move into cover in a tangle of logs or sulk on the bottom of a deep pool if disturbed.

The wild trout in Crane Creek spawn when there is a sharp drop in the temperature of the water, from the 50-degree range into the 40-degree range. Females generally scoop a pocket out of the gravel, often in the shallow tail of a pool. Side-by-side, a male fertilizes the eggs as the female extrudes them into the nest or "redd." The female then uses her tail to stir up enough gravel to lightly cover the eggs. Walk along the edge of a wild trout stream in December or January and you can sometimes see round, clean spots in gravel shallows that mark the nests.

Wild trout fingerlings in Missouri hatch when water temperatures are low. They grow well at first, showing growth rates that compare favorably with fish in states where trout are native. But even water that comes out of springs at 55 degrees can easily go over 70 degrees during blazing Missouri summers.

That warm water makes life hard on a fish designed for colder climes, and the fish are lucky to maintain their body weight, much less glean enough food to continue growing to a larger size. The falling water levels caused by extended summer dry spells can force wild trout into diminishing pools of water, making them more susceptible to predators.

Chris Vitello is a fisheries regional supervisor with the Conservation Department. "A portion of Crane Creek is a losing stream," he says. A losing stream is one where the flow of water actually disappears underground. "I've seen trout crowded into a pool near this section of Crane Creek, but I've not seen that problem on other sections of the stream."

Vitello fishes the stream a half-dozen times a year and knows first-hand how spooky these bright little fish can be. He says the last known stocking of Crane Creek was in the late teens to 1920, and the fish have subsisted largely on their own since then.

Access to Crane Creek is generally good. The Conservation Department's Wire Road Conservation Area includes two portions of the stream, and part of it runs through a city park. Much of the stream, especially in the conservation area, is bordered by a lot of trees and grasses. These provide shade and cover for the fish, and the shade helps keep the water cool.

With all of the bank side vegetation it can be difficult to present a fly to a trout, but a wooded stream corridor with a narrow, shaded channel is what most healthy streams once looked like. "The Conservation Department has done a lot of tree planting along Crane Creek in the Wire Road Conservation Area," Vitello says, "and it has been quite successful. They have established a good corridor of trees along the stream." He adds that the Federation of Fly Fishers chapter from Springfield has conducted an annual litter and trash pick-up along the stream in the spring. "We have helped by providing bags. They pile it in one location and we haul it away."

Vitello says he is no expert angler, but he says the McCloud rainbows at Crane Creek are some of the spookiest fish he has angled for. "I always tell people it's a pretty area, and if you catch a fish it is a treat because they are so colorful, that you have a chance at a big fish and it's truly a wild fish... but they are difficult to catch. Conditions are tough. The creek is small, and casting is difficult."

Fishing is especially difficult when the water is low and gem clear. Anglers who regularly fish for Missouri's wild trout have learned to watch for weather conditions that put rain into the streams. Water levels for many Missouri streams are even available on the Internet, and a sudden rise in stream level can tip you it's time to go fishing. Try the Missouri Flyfishing..

"I think the fish tend to be a little less cautious when the water is up, is dingy or has some color to it," Vitello says. Wild trout that ordinarily hang under a root wad that is all but impenetrable to anglers may move out into more open water in search of food when the stream is up and running strong. Anglers stand a better chance of tackling a 15- or 18-inch fish under those conditions.

Vitello recalls meeting another fly angler on Crane Creek who traveled a lot-usually packing a fly rod-and fished widely. "He said he always wanted to fish Crane Creek. I explained to him how tight to cover those Crane Creek fish stick-big root wads, overhanging banks, that kind of thing-and he likened them, from my description and his fishing experience there, to brown trout more than rainbows. They don't hold at the bottom of the riffle and pick up critters. Instead they tend to be more cover oriented. They like to hide under things."

As fisheries supervisor for the region, Vitello and other fisheries specialists sometime sample the Crane Creek rainbows to see how the population is faring. He usually checks on the fish by snorkeling and counting them visually. He often snorkels in the fall, when the water is still quite clear and before it gets too cold. Vitello has heard of trout as large as six or eight pounds being caught in Crane Creek, but the largest he has handled himself was a 20-incher.

Crane Creek is one of seven streams the Conservation Department has designated as wild trout management areas. The others include Barren Fork, Blue Springs Creek, Mill Creek, Spring Creek and portions of the North Fork and Eleven Point rivers. These streams are a unique resource in a state that does not have naturally occurring trout.

If you want to try fishing for wild trout in Crane Creek, consider fishing upstream rather than downstream, forgo wading and try casting from the bank. And walk softly... these fish are as spooky as wild turkey gobblers. For a map of Crane Creek and Missouri's other wild trout streams and fishing regulations, write to Trout Map, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City MO 65102-0180.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer