Crane Creek’s Railroad Trout

McCloud River Strain Rainbow Trout in Missouri

On The Fly Freshwater

by Polly Dean

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs

September 2021

Deep in the southwest portion of Missouri, Crane Creek is a noteworthy stream, in great part because of its unique strain of trout and how they happened to arrive in this creek. Though described as a very small water by locals of the Show-Me State, I did a bit of research and had viewed a few photos of Crane Creek and had decided, that by Southern Appalachian Mountain standards, this was not an especially tight stream.

Crane Creek has some fairly wide open areas.

We had planned to end our Missouri fishing adventure on Crane Creek. It is a tributary of the James River and flows through the small town of Crane, in the middle of dairy farming country. We had been out exploring the various access points to the creek and arrived at our starting point a little late in the day.

The more I had read up on the water and its unique variety of rainbow trout, the more I was intrigued and looking forward to visiting this spring creek. I was even more excited when, while gearing up in the parking lot, we encountered a pair of anglers who were exiting the stream after completing their morning of fishing. One of them had an especially memorable day, having hooked, landed and released a 20-inch fish. As they excitedly told us about the catch, I was even more eager to get to the water and begin fishing.

That feeling was heightened another notch as we walked downstream, planning to then fish back up to our vehicle. At one point the pathway ran atop a high bank overlooking a deep pool with an undercut bank. As we none-too-subtly passed by, several trout were clearly visible heading for the safety of the undercut. A couple of them looked like they were pushing the size of the fish taken by our chance acquaintance from the parking lot!

Crane Creek holds a unique strain of fish, known as McCloud River rainbows. These trout have thrived here since put in this river in the late 1800s by a train crew. They carried the live fish from California’s McCloud River to Crane Creek where they were released. The men were workers of the Quail Spur Railroad Connector, a feeder rail of the Missouri-Pacific Railroad.

A McCloud River rainbow trout taken from Crane Creek.

Crane Creek is believed to be the only stream to have a thriving population of pure strain McCloud River rainbow trout. Since their arrival, there have been no stockings of hatchery-raised fish in these waters. These fish are truly wild and have reproduced on their own for nearly 150 years!

The creek is designated a Blue Ribbon Trout Area. Only flies and artificial lures are allowed on Crane Creek. Soft plastic baits, natural and scented baits are prohibited. Harvest is limited to one fish at least 18 inches in length. This is to maintain the maximum density of adult trout to create a better catch-and-release fishery. Occasional trophies are quite possible, as was the case with the young man we met in the parking lot earlier. Also remember that use of porous-soled waders or boots is prohibited in Missouri’s blue-ribbon waters.

Tips for success include being stealthy so as not to be seen first by the fish. This can be difficult. At one point, my fishing partner spotted a trout rising in a long slick run below a hairpin turn in the flow. He had to drop back downstream, cross and approach the run with a pair of tree trunks between him and the fish.

Peeking around the trees, he could clearly see the trout in the crystal flow and watched it rise a couple of times to gauge its primary feeding lane. Finally, still concealed behind the tree trunks, he dropped a Parachute Blue-Winged Olive on the surface in that lane. The trout darted up and greedily took the fly. 

Another factor in the fishing is the trout have plenty of places to hide. If at all possible, it is best to not wade, but cast from the bank. With the spring flow, it comes out of the ground at 55 degrees year-round. But in warmer months, it can heat up quickly, even too warm for good trout action. Fishing is more difficult when the water is low and clear. You will find the fish more cooperative when the water is a bit higher and slightly off color.

The hatches are varied and numerous. During the cold months, early in the year, midges are abundant, favoring the soft bottom. There are burrowing red-worm midges  and light green ones. Blue-winged olives are the first mayflies to hatch and may even show up as early as January. They are more plentiful in February and March and can continue into May, but will be larger species by then. Caddis show up in the spring and continue through summer. Green sedges and their larvae are plentiful as well as sculpin and terrestrials such as ants, beetles and hoppers. These are more plentiful in the summer. Trout in Crane can be selective, so realistic imitations are key.

There are three public access points for this stream, all of which are in the Wire Road Conservation Area and near the town of Crane. Upstream of the town, the largest portion of the conservation area runs from the stream’s headwater area where it is quite small, all the way down into a park area in town. That last stretch is on the west bank of Crane Creek.

On the east side of the stream just below the town and the State Route 265 bridge is the newest section of the conservation area. Here you find a parking area and a gated dirt road leading down to the water and paralleling it for a short way.

The lower access point to Crane Creek off Grisham Ford Road.

Finally, the area where we fished is located farther down the creek. Turning east off SR 265 onto Swinging Bridge Road brings you to Grisham Ford Road on the left. Turning onto that road, you quickly cross a bridge over the creek and the parking lot is on the right. From that parking lot a trail follows Crane Creek downstream.

Besides the area’s beauty and the challenges that this stream can present to anglers, it is a unique and interesting water. Crane Creek is worthy of its challenges and merits the respect and care it and its inhabitants deserve.

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