Directions

From Sacramento

From Sacramento drive north on Highway 99 to the town of Chico. Once reaching Chico, exit onto Hwy 32 toward Chester and proceed 40 miles east on Hwy 32 to the "Red Bridge." A small parking area is available on the north-side of the bridge (just after you cross the bridge).

 

Hiking Deer Creek Trail in Search of Spring Chinook

Deer Creek flows throught Lassen National Forest in California

A raven glides low overhead against the grey sky of morning. Rain forecast to start later today. I’ve wanted to bring my dog, Walker, on a camping and hiking trip. He learned “Up” command for jumping into the back of the Tundra just two days earlier. He’s a smart dog and loves to travel.

Fly Fishing Deer Creek in Lassen National Forest provides habitat to Spring run Chinook Salmon

I decided to take him to Deer Creek in Lassen National Forest. We found a level campsite (#20) at the far edge of the campground. Above the roar of the occasional truck on Highway 32, below the roar of Deer Creek in spring. Spring proved idea with few other campers, comfortable temperatures, dogwoods and wildflowers in full display, and a healthy forest of green oaks and pines.

Deer Creek flows throught Lassen National Forest in California

I returned after almost a decade to walk the trail down to the lower falls on Deer Creek. The trail is an easy hike of about three miles through forest and rough, volcanic hillsides. And in spring the trail is decorated with small flowers. The canyon served as hunting and fishing grounds for California’s “last” aboriginal – Ishi. He came to the water below lower falls in the spring to spear adult Chinook salmon. Known as “Spring-run” Chinook as they migrate upstream during the big flows of spring. Ishi and the last surviving members of his tribe are gone from Deer Creek. Are the Spring-run Chinook next?

Chinook salmon spawning migration underwater

The spring-run population in Deer Creek is one of only three or four remaining naturally spawning spring-run chinook populations in California which can be considered genetically intact and demographically viable (DFG 1990) -- two other such populations with the Central Valley drainage being in Mill and Butte Creeks.

Deer Creek Lower Falls flows fast in a steep canyon

In our best effort to help these fish against a rising tide of threats, both past and present, a bridge of sorts has been built at the lower falls. From the outside it resembles a cement bunker cover with an iron grate. It’s called a “fish ladder.” Pacific salmon are fierce, strong and determined to migrate upstream. All qualities humans like me admire in these creatures. But some things even a healthy and determined Chinook can’t overcome – including the lower falls on Deer Creek.

Deer Creek in California flows through the Ishi Wilderness

To literally level their playing field a fish ladder is constructed to one side of the waterfall. The ladder provides equal size steps that gradually reaching the water above the falls. The metal grates above the ladder keep these salmon from being poached. The fish ladder opens another larger world to Spring Chinook looking for large pools of cool snowmelt in Deer Creek. As the same pools of water downstream work under “normal” climate conditions, these new pools further upstream provide a much cooler refuge.

Deer Creek in California provides critical stream habitat to Spring Chinook salmon.

On this spring day the water in Deer Creek was simply cold in the 40°F range and flowing well at around 600 cfs. Looking in the fish ladder I fully expected to see a Chinook swimming her way up this modern conveyance. But this I realized, we are experiencing a normal spring day at Deer Creek.