Stakeout at Battle Creek

Lower Battle Creek as it would appear during the fall salmon run. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan.

Stakeout at Battle Creek

Lower Battle Creek as it would appear during the fall salmon run. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan.

Lower Battle Creek as it would appear during the fall salmon run. All photos, unless otherwise noted, by author.

This is an excerpt from “Stakeout at Battle Creek,” a chapter in my recently released sequel, The Game Warden’s Son.

I’m sometimes asked if I had any favorite places to work during my twenty-one years supervising the warden force in western Shasta County. Lower Battle Creek immediately comes to mind—from the mouth, where Battle Creek flows into the Sacramento River, to the barrier weir at Coleman National Fish Hatchery.

Fall-run Chinook salmon attempting to navigate the Coleman National Fish Hatchery weir. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan

Fall-run Chinook salmon attempting to navigate the Coleman National Fish Hatchery weir.

Every fall, from mid-September to early November, this three-mile stretch of Battle Creek would come alive with fall-run Chinook salmon. Right behind the salmon were the poachers—some by day and some by night—with fist-sized snag hooks, dip nets, spears, gaffs, and pitchforks. Many’s the year we had to practically stand guard on this extraordinary stream and its anadromous visitors.

Spawning male Chinook salmon in lower Battle Creek during annual fall run. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan.

Spawning male Chinook salmon in lower Battle Creek during annual fall run.

I often parked my patrol truck and hiked the trails and footpaths running the length of lower Battle Creek, many of them created by decades of illegal activity. Quietly passing through this riparian paradise, I was in constant awe of the giant native sycamores and majestic valley oaks that grew along the shoreline. Every break in the vegetation offered a window to Battle Creek itself—its reflective surface decorated with brilliant fall colors, its gravel bottom excavated with salmon redds laden with fish eggs, its waters alive with the sights and sounds of salmon splashing their way upstream.

Giant native sycamores adorn the trails and footpaths of the lower Battle Creek riparian zone. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan.

Giant native sycamores adorn the trails and footpaths of the lower Battle Creek riparian zone.

Although I was involved in countless salmon-related investigations on lower Battle Creek, two nights in late October 1986 will remain fixed in my mind forever.

Pair of Chinook salmon in riffle downstream from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery weir. Many salmon are in advanced stages of decomposition by the time they reach their spawning waters in Battle Creek. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan.

Pair of Chinook salmon in riffle downstream from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery weir. Many salmon are in advanced stages of decomposition by the time they reach their spawning waters in Battle Creek.

It all started early one morning with a phone call from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery. Warden Merton Hatcher, a tall gray-haired veteran who had worked Battle Creek and the surrounding area for many years, answered the phone in the squad room at the Redding Fish and Game office.

“Fish and Game. Warden Hatcher.”

“Mert, this is Jack, down at Coleman Hatchery.”

“Hey, Jack, how’s it going?”

“Somebody snuck into the hatchery late last night. From the looks of all the eggs scattered around, they took several salmon.”

“Where exactly did you find the eggs, Jack?”

“All over the rocks and up the bank, at the southwest side of the barrier weir.”

“Thanks for the call, Jack. We’ll be right out.” 

Coleman National Fish Hatchery as viewed from my lofty stakeout site above the metal gate. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan.

Coleman National Fish Hatchery as viewed from my lofty stakeout site above the metal gate.

I happened to be in the squad room when Warden Hatcher took the call, so he and I responded and began examining the evidence. As the hatchery employee had described, bright red salmon eggs were scattered in the rocks and up the bank, immediately south of the hatchery’s entry pond and egg-collecting station.

“These guys couldn’t have been too smart,” I said. “They left a trail for us to follow.”

“A trail?” said Hatcher.

“Yeah, look at this.” I began walking from the hatchery’s southwest boundary, following fish eggs as I went.

“Maybe it was a bear,” joked one of the hatchery employees.

“Bears don’t wear tennis shoes,” I replied. “Looks like we have at least two culprits. See, there’s a couple eggs over there, a few more here, and six or seven up ahead. You can even see impressions in the dirt where they dragged a bag or a fish across the ground.”

***

With most of the Coleman Hatchery employees living in government housing on the hatchery grounds, Hatcher and I figured the poachers were slipping in after midnight, when everyone was asleep. We decided to pull an all-night stakeout, beginning that same evening.

Warden Hatcher dropped me off at the metal gate about 11:00 p.m. Equipped with a flashlight, a handheld radio, binoculars, and a warm coat, I quickly climbed the steep hillside north of Coleman Fish Hatchery Road. Hatcher continued toward the fish hatchery, where he would hide his patrol vehicle and wait for any signs of activity.

Just for the fun of it, I had Kathy photograph me at my October 1986 stakeout site overlooking the metal gate and fish hatchery. Photo by Kathy Callan.

Just for the fun of it, I had Kathy photograph me at my October 1986 stakeout site overlooking the metal gate and fish hatchery.

Plodding up the hillside through the poison oak, buckbrush, blue oaks, and dry grass, I reached a clearing fifty yards above the valley floor. From my lofty lookout, I could see the streetlights at Coleman National Fish Hatchery, a half mile to the east. Directly below me were the road, the metal gate, and a well-worn trail leading across an open field to Battle Creek—all of which were barely visible under a waning gibbous moon.

The metal gate climbed by salmon poachers on that eventful night in October 1986. At the time of the all-night stakeout, blackberry brambles prevented passage on either side of the gate. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan

The metal gate climbed by salmon poachers on that eventful night in October 1986. At the time of the all-night stakeout, blackberry brambles prevented passage on either side of the gate.

With my flashlight turned off and my size-eleven Hi-Tech boots braced against a half-buried lava rock, I leaned back against the steep hillside and stared into the darkness for the next six hours. . . .

The sun was just coming up when I spotted something prancing across the open field in my direction. . . .

View from my lookout post above the metal gate. The field between the metal gate and Battle Creek has been converted to wetlands. The trail along the far edge of the pond leads to Coleman National Fish Hatchery, where salmon poachers conducted their clandestine business on that eventful night in October 1986. Photo by Author Steven T. Callan.

View from my lookout post above the metal gate. The field between the metal gate and Battle Creek has been converted to wetlands. The trail along the far edge of the pond leads to Coleman National Fish Hatchery, where salmon poachers conducted their clandestine business on that eventful night in October 1986.

I’ll be signing copies of THE GAME WARDEN’S SON at the Redding Costco on Saturday, April 2 (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.), and at the Chico Costco on Saturday, April 16 (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.). Kathy and I would love to see you there!    

Steve
Steven Callan
2 Comments
  • Avatar
    Greg Gallinger
    Reply

    I grew up in Anderson and enjoyed fishing that stretch of Battle creek when I WAS a kid.At 12 years old my buddies and I would ride our bicycles from town all the way out to Govers ranch and fish till early afternoon.What a beautiful place to grow up as a kid.I just recently did some work at Govers and all the memories popped up .I’m looking forward to your book and might be able to see you on 4-2-16.Good luck with your book sales.

    March 29, 2016 at 7:15 pm

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