Is a tiny stream in the Ozarks home to the storied McCloud River Redband Trout?
There is little doubt that the countryside in Stone County, Missouri, especially in the vicinity of the small town of Crane, is a wonderful example of beautiful Ozark scenery. The fact that a crystal clear, spring-fed creek flows through nearly 23 miles of this countryside is also indisputable. Whether this little gem of a stream is one of last bastions of the fabled McCloud River Redband trout is a subject that has been debated by experts and anglers for many years.
The McCloud River Redband trout is renowned in fishing history because it is believed to be the trout subspecies chosen for Federal hatchery-raised rainbow trout in the United States and elsewhere. They are a recent ancestor of the rainbow trout; therefore, any currently existing stocks represent an earlier, yet still existing, part of the evolutionary line. Could these primal trout exist in the Ozarks?
While trout are not native to Missouri, we know that the Missouri Fisheries Commission first stocked selected streams with McCloud Redband trout in 1880. Eggs were transported from California’s McCloud River egg-taking station to the fish hatchery in St. Joseph, Missouri, where they duly hatched into fingerlings ready for release into selected streams, Crane Creek included. By 1882, the Commission reported trout spawning in Crane Creek. The records are somewhat clouded as to whether Crane Creek was re-stocked in later years, although the current Missouri Department of Conservation believes the final stocking took place in 1920. The origins of the trout used for those later stockings is uncertain, although it is believed that later fish were more generally rainbow trout rather than the ancestral McClouds. The issue is further complicated because, in 1877, the California hatchery responsible for stocking the McCloud River began mixing coastal rainbow (steelhead) and Dolly Varden trout eggs with the McCloud trout eggs. So one would assume that after 1877, the fish from that hatchery could not be guaranteed to be genetically pure McCloud trout.
Crane Creek was probably chosen because of the railroad, the main form of transportation in the 1800s. Records show that tracks crossed the cold, clear creek by the time the Missouri Fisheries Commission began stocking rainbow trout. The area was already an established thoroughfare, with a leg of the Butterfield Overland Mail route passing through in the mid century. During the Civil War, Crane Creek was the site of an 1862 battle alongside the Old Wire Road, a telegraph line that followed the old Butterfield route between St Louis and Fort Smith.
Trout, being a cold-water fish, require a water temperature range of 40–70 degrees, although they favor temperatures of 55–65 degrees. Crane’s springs produce water from underground and release it at approximately 58 degrees, ideal for a trout stream. In addition, the numerous springs feed the stream after passage through limestone, increasing its pH level, thereby making it especially fertile and capable of producing prolific insect hatches.
Part of the debate of whether or not wild trout have survived over a century in Crane stems from the creek’s status as a “losing stream,” a phenomenon of karst topography. Limestone formations that lay under the Ozarks create a situation where stream water often disappears underground due to the soluble nature of the rock strata, only to reappear further down the watercourse. Many people who visit Crane Creek believe it has run dry, while a short walk downstream will reveal deep pools and running water. Despite the reduction in surface water, this phenomenon does provide a benefit because the stream is protected from the harsh Missouri summer heat, thus retaining that 58-degree temperature longer.
Even with the natural occurrences of low water, there still exists the threat of drought. In July 2012, all 114 counties in Missouri were declared “primary natural disaster areas” following the worst drought in 30 years. According to a Missouri Department of Conservation report, “numerous portions of the state experienced severe to extreme drought resulting low water conditions in many lakes and streams, including Crane Creek. Overall, the trout population fared well and appeared to be healthy despite the harsh conditions in 2012.” Even after such apparently disastrous situations, Crane Creek continues to provide a habitat for an introduced species of cold-water fish.
On top of contending with drought conditions, the resident trout of Crane Creek run the gauntlet of predators. Great blue herons are regular visitors to streams in Missouri, and fish account for the bulk of their diet. The river otter was reintroduced to Missouri in the 1980s and 90s and is a talented hunter, able to decimate a trout stream. Mink, aquatic members of the weasel family, can also be listed among the trout’s enemies. These creatures naturally take their toll on the fish stocks, but evidence shows that human predators can also be added to the list. Poaching is not uncommon on a stream so remote. Before their elevated status as a prized gamefish, locals once tossed trout onto the bank, believing them to be “trash fish,” as opposed to the preferred smallmouth bass.
Keepers of the Creek
The fish do have their guardians, and no article about Crane Creek would be complete without a mention of Ray Krouscup. A retired meat cutter who lived in the Crane area, Ray became the unofficial stream keeper of Crane Creek. He could be found regularly patrolling the stream, providing tips to anglers and “controlling” predators like river otters. Ray was particularly noticeable because he was always “packing” a .357 Magnum revolver and a couple of speed loaders on his hips. Even though this genial character unfortunately passed away in 2013 after 50 years of stream duty, his spirit lives on in the minds of the stream’s fishing fraternity.
In addition to those carrying on Ray’s memory, the stream receives help in the form of an annual cleanup from the Southwest Missouri Fly Fishers, the Springfield chapter of the Federation of Fly Fishers, every morning of Super Bowl Sunday. Streambank retention work is often undertaken by the Missouri Department of Conservation, who have a program of tree planting along the banks. Several private landowners are also known to have participated in riparian work, and one in particular has even written a book about his ownership of a section of the creek. A former fly fishing student of this writer decided that, having learned how cast, he would purchase a section of trout stream in addition to a fly rod! Willoughby Johnson’s adventures as a custodian of this wonderful creek can be gleaned from his book titled Crosscut Creek: A Year of Fly Fishing on an Ozark Trout Stream.
The Legend Lives On
Are the trout in Crane Creek genetically perfect McCloud River Redband trout? While many believe they are, the possibility of cross-breeding with other rainbows can’t be discounted. What is true is the stream has not been officially stocked since 1920 and trout still exist there after nearly a century. Therefore, the trout in Crane Creek should at least receive the classification of “wild trout,” and that in itself makes them gems in my book. And, like all wild trout, those in Crane Creek are brightly colored and have sharply defined fins with white edges, but the distinctive reddish band covering the lateral line suggests there may be at least a shred of truth in the legend.
So has this article induced the reader to visit this little bit of fishing folklore? The author apologizes if he has dispelled any of the myths or stories attached to the stream. That said, the records are not totally complete, so who knows? A little imagination may conjure up images of men wearing Northern Blue and Southern Grey, fighting along the old Wire Road as the fate of a Nation was decided. Or maybe an iron horse chugging along the Crane branch, stopping for a few moments atop the trestle while glistening little jewels were unceremoniously dumped into little old Crane Creek and into fishing folklore.