Chances are, your favorite California sportfish is probably a foreigner. An outsider. An import. Yep, the fact is the majority of the freshwater fish we enjoy chasing here aren’t native to the state.
Some exotics were experiments, others illegal introductions. People who had moved West and missed fishing for their favorite species brought in many varieties of gamefish from the East Coast or Great Lakes. Others still were moved into California to provide new fishing opportunities or to control baitfish populations.
It’s all pretty interesting stuff, so let’s take a look at some of our most beloved fish and trace their origins.
Per capita, probably the most popular fish in California, largemouth bass didn’t swim in the state’s waters until 1891. According to California Department of Fish & Game records, the initial largemouth were Northern strain fish that originated from Quincy, Illinois and were released into Lake Cuyamaca in San Diego County.
The more popular and larger Florida strain largemouth made their first appearance in 1959 and the rest, as they say is history. Nobody could have imagined 50 years ago what an industry would spring up around those Floridas!
Smallies and Spotted Bass
Smallmouth bass were actually the first black bass to hit California, planted in the Napa River in 1874. Those first smallies made the trip West all the way from New York’s Lake Champlain. Alabama spotted bass (actually Northern spotted bass) came late to the party and were first introduced to the state in 1974.
Brown trout are true exotics that aren’t native to the United States, let alone California. The first successful introduction of brownies to the U.S. occurred in Michigan’s Pere Marquette River in 1883 with fish of German origin.
From there, they slowly made their way out West and records indicate that 1893 was the year brown trout first showed in California’s waters, though it is unclear in which watershed they were originally planted. In the ensuing years, browns have spread to just about every corner of the state and have been able to reach some pretty impressive sizes in their new digs– the state record is just south of 30 pounds.
Just as salmon are interwoven in the Pacific Northwest’s heritage, striped bass are very much near and dear to the hearts of folks living in the Sacramento Delta and San Francisco Bay areas. In these parts, it feels like stripers have been around forever – but they, too, are a non-native invasive species.
According to Handbook of Freshwater Fishery Biology (Kenneth Dixon Carlander), 135 yearling striped bass from the Neversink River in New Jersey were dumped into the Sacramento River in 1879. Two years later, another 300 yearlings from Jersey’s Shrewsbury River were released into San Francisco Bay. Apparently, the stripers found California quite to their liking, and by 1900, a commercial fishery was established.
Today, fish from those original plants have been seen as far north as British Columbia, with spawning populations ranging from Central California up to the Umpqua River in Oregon.
As was the case with stripers, home-sick East Coasters transplanted their favorite food fish, the American shad, to the waters of the Golden State in 1871. According to The Ecology of Marine Fishes (Allen, Pondella, Horn), between 1871 and 1881, an additional 800,000 shad fry from New York State were shipped out to the west coast and released into the Sacramento River, where they flourished.
The West Coast’s first commercial shad fishery kicked in 1879 and now the fish have spread as far north as the Columbia River, which is now hosts the world’s largest run of American shad.
The lake trout or “mackinaw” is yet another in a long list of fish from the Great Lakes region that was brought out West. Lakers were initially introduced into Lake Tahoe in1886, and they, along with several other species of introduced fish, spelled the end for the basin’s native trout, the Lahontan cutthroat.
Macks require deep, cold lakes and have been planted in several throughout Northern California, including Donner, Fallen Leaf, Stampede, Sly Park, Oroville and others. The main fisheries occur these days on the first two.
Catfish made their first trip to California’s waters in 1874, when three bullhead species from the Mississippi River drainage were set free by the California Fish Commission in the San Joaquin River near Stockton.
In Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of California, Samuel M. McGinnis and Doris Alcorn state that it took only that one planting to get the fish established throughout the Central Valley, Klamath Basin, southern coastal streams and many other waters.
From there, several other varieties of cats were planted over the years, including channel, yellow, flathead and blue cats and they are, as a whole, doing extremely well now throughout the state — from stunted bullheads in High Sierra lakes to blues over 100 pounds in lowland reservoirs.
The catfish family’s great tolerance for low dissolved oxygen levels, warm water and high carbon dioxide levels allows them to thrive in many urban waters from which the native species have long since disappeared.
The landlocked little cousin of the sockeye salmon is currently enjoying a surge in popularity in California and is getting stocked into more waters each year. The koke’s rise to glory here comes from humble beginnings, however.
Kokanee were first brought to the state from Idaho in 1941 but didn’t really get a toehold until fry from British Columbia were let go in Lake Shasta in 1951. Now there are self-sustaining populations in several waters and groups like Project Kokanee and Kokanee Power raise money each year to raise and release them in lakes where spawning doesn’t occur.
Even the fish you probably cut your teeth on as a youngster aren’t California natives. Bluegill, black and white crappie, and several other varieties of panfish have been trickling in from their original homes in the southern and central portions of the country since at least 1891.
Other notable non-natives
Some other gamefish we have here that aren’t true Californians include brook trout, yellow perch, white bass, redear sunfish, green sunfish, carp and the (hopefully) recently eradicated northern pike.
So, just exactly which sportfish are native to the state? A good question, especially when you look at the above list of out-of-towners. In freshwater, the list is relatively short. King and coho salmon are indigenous – and there is research that suggests that isolated populations of pink and chum salmon also historically called Northern California home. In fact, to this day, there may even be a tiny remnant population of spawning pinks in the Garcia River. Rainbow trout, coastal cutthroat trout and steelhead are also original Golden State residents. And who could forget the golden trout?
While conventional wisdom says all char like brook trout and mackinaw are non-native, we actually had indigenous bull trout (dolly varden) in the McCoud River watershed until the 1970’s. Unfortunately, dams, water diversions, competition with exotics, habitat loss and all the other usual suspects caused California’s only native char to go extinct and efforts to reintroduce them from Oregon stocks have failed.
Green and white sturgeon are also on the list of locals, as are mountain whitefish, Sacramento perch and a whole host of others that don’t fall into the gamefish category.