Casey Callison has gone flyfishing all over southern Missouri, but no place has a grip on him quite like Crane Creek, whose clear waters hide a local legend.
I stared into the bubbling water, fly rod in hand. I watched the squirrels bound between the tall oaks. I listened to the rhythm of the water as it poured over the shallow rocks. This was my favorite fishing spot. I’ve been fly fishing since I was 12, but it always feels like the first time at Crane Creek. The excitement built with every step and every fish that I saw darting around in the water. I sat, drawing from my instincts, trying to decide what fly was going to produce fish for me. I saw the quick flash of a rainbow trout dashing for cover. I pulled out my fly line and prepared to cast. The whole time staring into the water, searching for the treasure that was held in Crane Creek.
It seems that each small town in southwest Missouri has its own legend. Reeds Spring has the Spanish Caves where it is rumored the Spanish conquistadors came through and left treasure in the seventh cathedral room. Kirbyville has the Lost Treasure of Murder Rock, which tells of outlaw gang members burying silver and gold in a cave near Branson. In fact, most of the legends about small towns in southwest Missouri are about treasure. Most of the tales are exactly that: Tales. Legends. Falsifications and exaggerations built on minor historical events.
There is one tale that has its roots buried in Crane, Missouri, where evidence can be found if you know where to look. In Crane there’s a treasure that people dedicate their lives to finding, without regrets. If you frequent Crane Creek you’ll have days where no matter how far you walk, what tools you use, or your level of expertise, you come back with nothing. But there are days where everything comes together perfectly, and you find the treasure in abundance.
When you stop by Crane, the small town’s residents will light up if they get the chance to tell an outsider their legend. They probably won’t tell you how to find it — folks around there tend to be secretive about that — but they’ll tell you how their creek came to be stocked with the last pure strain of the McCloud River rainbow trout.
Legend has it that in the 1800s a railcar was carrying a load of rainbow trout from the McCloud River in California to the east coast. The train broke down on the tracks that ran through Crane. Panicked, the railway workers knew they had to get the trout to colder water or they would soon die, costing not only the company money, but also costing nature a very precious commodity. They decided to transport as many trout as possible to Crane Creek for their best chance of survival. It was at this point that the creek became home to a wild species of trout that anglers dedicate their lives to catching.
Now, some quick research will tell you that the Missouri Department of Conservation stocked this creek with the McClouds until the early 1920s. What is astonishing is that these trout have survived here since that time. Most rainbow trout’s ideal water temperature is between 45 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, but Crane Creek can exceed 70 degrees during the warmer parts of the Missouri summer. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, the McCloud rainbows have thrived in this small, too-warm creek, far from home, and they are some of the strongest, smartest fish that an angler may catch in their life.
The water is gin clear. Pin oak and silver maple trees hang over the water as if they are trying to get a view at what lies beneath its surface.
The legend of the McClouds and the actual creek are about the only exciting things to come out of Crane, apart from the summer Broiler Festival where you can enjoy local cooking and carnival rides that probably aren’t quite up to safety standards. You can drive through the town in a matter of minutes. There is a town square, a park that surrounds the creek, baseball fields, and some houses. It is about 30 minutes north, south, east, and west of nowhere. The only towns that are close are other small towns that also lack excitement, but don’t have the fishing to make up for it.
The water is gin clear. Pin oak and silver maple trees hang over the water as if they are trying to get a view at what lies beneath its surface. The creek, though small, acts as an artery to the woods and wildlife that call that section of the forest home. When you hike through the woods to your destination you will find deer, rabbits, and squirrels in abundance. It seems they, too, have an understanding of the magnificence that this water holds. There are moments where everything gives rise to bluff walls that line the water, which the trout use as a nice hiding spot to escape the heat or ambush their prey. If you look closely at the creek’s bed, you will find crawdads that blend into the white rocks surrounding them.
The water tells its own story. You can see trout hiding up under rock ledges or swimming swiftly along the bottom. Most of the time the creek is so narrow you can almost lay a nine foot fly rod across its width. Then there are times where it gets to be around 25 or 30 feet wide, depending on the rain and water depth. The clear water turns to a beautiful, dark blue as the bed of the creek drops and opens up into deep pools, the chests that hold the treasure that brought you therein the first place. These are the sights that make you forget that you actually have a small human population near you. You could swear that you are the only person in the entire world. All that is left is you, nature and trout.
To catch a fish out of Crane Creek is no easy task. It is said that if you can catch a McCloud rainbow you are a master of fly fishing, but if you catch a big McCloud rainbow, you’ve earned your Ph.D. The trout are smart, wily and spook very easily. You make one step that’s too loud, or one bad cast, and you can watch the trout flee for safety. At that point, you know that it’s time to move on to the next hole. I’ve never seen a body of water humble so many anglers in my life. Take the biggest talker at the fly shop, bring him to Crane, and watch him get skunked. Not only are the fish hard to catch, it is nearly impossible to get a good cast out, especially if you are fly fishing. The tangled branches of a river birch have claimed more of my flies than I could ever count.
I’m no stranger to catching fish or fishing in tough conditions. Fly fishing is the one thing that I always do when I have some free time. If I have a break between classes and work, I fly fish. If I have no plans on the weekend, I fly fish. The feeling of a fish pulsing on the end of the tippet or the satisfaction of fooling a cunning trout with a fly of my own creation consumes me.
Fly fishing is an art. It takes practice, it takes time, and it takes a lot of energy and observation. You have to see what the river is doing, what types of bugs are on the water, what type of bugs are in the water, you have to study everything about your surroundings so that you can make sure your presentation of the fly upstream of the targeted trout is perfect. The first thing I do at the river, every time, before I start to fish, is flip over a few rocks. That will tell you what types of bugs are hatching beneath the surface and what type of fly to use. If you don’t have that fly in your box, you can always tie one.
I have a small group of friends that think the same way that I do. Most of us have been good friends since high school and fly fishing has been a key factor in keeping us in touch since we graduated from Reeds Spring back in 2009. When we aren’t fishing, we are talking about fishing or flies that we tied. We tell stories and share all of our secret spots with each other. These are the friends that first taught me about Crane Creek.
The first trip to Crane was all I needed to understand its appeal. It was as if we were the first people to ever touch that section of the creek. There isn’t the destruction or degradation that you see in higher-traffic areas. I believe that if a local resident saw someone trashing the creek, they’d make someone clean their mess before they let them go. It was a warm summer day, but that didn’t stop us, or the trout, from being active. When I set the hook on my first trout there, I had no idea what type of fight I was in for. My rod shook and bent, as if being tested to its limit. My first fish was only about nine inches long, which is pretty average for that creek. When I pulled the trout from my net, I was awestruck. It was the most gorgeous fish I had ever caught. It was a deep green color on top, white on the bottom, with a solid red and pink stripe running along the middle. It had circles, like little bands, running down the length of the red stripe.
I have returned to the creek on countless occasions. Sometimes with friends, other times I go alone. I love the feeling of being there with nobody else around. Just me and God’s creations. I grew up going to church off and on, but my times at the creek are the deepest spiritual experiences I have.
Zac and I hopped into his early 2000’s Chevy Silverado and left Springfield at 6 a.m. to get an early start. It was early February, and had just snowed the day before, a high of 33 degrees. We got to the water at around 7 a.m., got on our waders, pieced together our fly rods, took a couple of swigs from the flask to stay warm, and then started trekking through the woods. We walked for about 20 minutes before we reached a spot in the creek we were happy with. We observed the bugs on the surface, flipped some rocks, and looked at the creek bed to see what the trout might be feeding on. Zac went with a smaller midge that represents a form of larva and I went with a wooly bugger, which looks like a smaller baitfish or a leech. I figure food wouldn’t come as easily in the winter, so a big fish would jump at the opportunity for a high-protein meal.
The overhanging trees were coated with white and there was a stillness in the air that only comes after a deep snow. You could see tracks where deer had moved through the night before. Zac drew my attention from the woods to show me a large trout that was cruising along the creek’s bed. He pulled line from his reel and made a cast at the passing fish. It went right past his midge without a second glance and continued upstream, out of view. We took turns spotting fish, letting the other make casts, and cursing at the trout that were too stubborn to even acknowledge our offering. We went the first half of our trip without a bite.
We hiked upstream, working our way back to Zac’s truck as we fished. We stopped to eat lunch, took a few more drinks of the whiskey, and then went back to the water to work our way farther downstream.
Usually at Crane you won’t see another person on the water, but we happened to run into someone packing up their gear for the day. Oddly enough, it was one of our friends and he was coming back from the direction we were headed. He said that he only had caught three small fish. Frustrated, we talked about what we should do. A few small fish were still better than none, so we fished on.
The woods opened up to a bluff wall that lined the opposite side of the creek. Icicles clung desperately to the edge, the sun glistened through them.
Due to the snow and the runoff, the water was higher than normal. There were times where wading was difficult because of the deep holes and swift current. The fishing was tough and we lost more flies in that short stretch than we had then entire day. The woods opened up to a bluff wall that lined the opposite side of the creek. Icicles clung desperately to the edge, the sun glistened through them. A sandbar created a peninsula with a run of water on the far side of the bar below the bluff, and another run right in front of us. The far side was deep enough that you couldn’t see anything, just a deep, haunting blue. The sound of water running from the nearby hills bubbling into the creek was the only noise. Zac drifted his midge through three times with no luck.
The run along the bluff was a textbook hole. There had to be a fish in there somewhere. I cast my line, let it drift absentmindedly while talking with Zac about what we should do with the rest of our day. As I looked back at the water I noticed my fly line jumped, and then dove straight down. I set the hook.
My rod bent furiously as the trout peeled line away from my hands. I couldn’t see the fish. The drag on my reel was being tested to its limit, screaming furiously as the click and pawl reel sang its fight song. I danced with the trout, careful to avoid breaking my light fly line. The trout came close enough to the water’s surface that we saw its massive sides flash a display of green and pink.
“Holy shit. That’s the biggest fish I’ve ever seen here,” Zac said, trying to keep his cool so I wouldn’t try to overdo it and lose the fish.
At this point, Zac was my “net man,” the one to net the fish I was fighting. The only problem was we didn’t have a net with us. He was going to have to try to grab this strong, elusive fish with only his hands without letting it get off of the hook.
The fish made a few strong runs. I chased after it in the creek so it wouldn’t get too far away and tangle itself on a downed tree or get away somehow. I pulled it to the surface, only for it to bolt away. After five minutes of this fish running me back and forth along the bluff, I got him to a point where Zac could grab him. The exhausted fish let itself get dragged right toward Zac.
The trout caught a second wind once it saw Zac. It streaked back to life and swam right through Zac’s legs causing my fly line to get tangled up on his waders. Zac was too deep into the creek to move very gracefully.
“Zac! Get out of the way of that fish!”
“You son of a bitch! You’re staying on there,” Zac commanded the trout as he maneuvered around the fly line, navigating the rocky creek bed. Luckily, Zac was able to free the line from his legs without causing any problems.
After a few additional minutes of fighting the behemoth I was able to get him to shore. As soon as I saw Zac had a firm hold, I threw my rod down in excitement and screamed. My hands trembled as I went to grab the fish from Zac. The hook fell out of the fish’s mouth as soon as I touched it. I sat and stared at the fish in disbelief.
“Dude, you better get him back in the water. You’ve had him out for a while now,” Zac said as he put his hand on my shoulder, bringing me back to reality.
The 22 inch trout dwarfed the biggest fish I had seen out of the creek, which was 18 inches. Due to the natural spawning season, the colors on the trout were deeper than usual. The pink stripe along its side was almost red. His jaw was bent up and scarred on the bottom from fighting with other fish, claiming his territory for the spawn. I was in awe.
After a few pictures I released the trout back, watched him swim lazily back to the depths, and disappear. Many people have fished Crane Creek their entire lives looking for the treasure like that without finding it. I sat on the bank thinking about that fish. Other towns may have their legends, but I held proof of Crane Creek’s in my hands, and I let it go.
All photos copyright Casey Callison, 2020
If you enjoyed The Treasure Inside Crane Creek, you’ll find more great reads in our collection of Statesider original stories.