We stood in the 50-degree water casting into the flow as dapples of sun fought through the clouds and lit up the river.
I enjoy fishing more for the beauty of the battleground than for the snaring of fish, but I expected the McCloud to produce. Renowned among California anglers for its robust wild rainbow trout, the McCloud holds distinction as the first U.S. river to export its stock. Pioneering anglers took fish eggs from here in 1874 and planted them in rivers around the country. Eventually McCloud trout eggs were shipped to streams in Argentina, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Shortly before lunch, we were fishing the upper McCloud, above the second of the river's three scenic waterfalls, when a fish nailed my fly. The reel whined as the trout took out line. He tired quickly and I led him -- a 12-inch wild rainbow with a brilliant pink flank and speckles on its back -- to Eng's waiting hands.
We drove an hour through foothills to the more remote lower McCloud, where the water runs wider. The road took us past McCloud Lake, with aqua hues courtesy of the glacial melt from Mount Shasta.
The lower McCloud is publicly accessible only through land owned by the Nature Conservancy and fishing is limited to 10 people at a time (the access tags, available on a first-come basis, hang on a board at the trail head). We took two tags and hiked a half-mile downriver.
Eng was helping me untangle a fly from a tree (don't ask) when Cathleen yelled. We turned to see her rod bent to the water as a radiant rainbow flashed above the river. The 14-inch fish leapt twice more, dancing on the river, before she brought it in.
The speed limit in Mendocino Village is 25 mph, but you won't want to go that fast. As I downshifted off of Highway 1, my first impulse was to get out and walk. The seaside village of gardened homes, weathered Victorian storefronts, cafes and inns sits on a gentle slope surrounded on three sides by rocky bluffs bridled with footpaths and wildflowers. Mendocino is a three-hour shot north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but it seems a continent away from the bustle of the Bay Area.
Mendocino Bay opens to the south, and behind it, lumpy coastal hills and the faint ribbon of the highway fade in the mist. Hippies, former and nouveau, amble the streets along with tourists who come here mostly for the slow pace (there is no cell phone reception), the phenomenal scenery and the offbeat smattering of stores and excellent restaurants. The bluffs are part of Headlands State Park, one of 12 protected areas within a 12-mile radius of Mendocino. We had put Mendocino on this itinerary almost exclusively due to these undeveloped playgrounds, and I saw us jumping from the car, lacing up our hiking boots and skipping into the wilderness.
But as we stepped out of the car at the Agate Cove Inn, a collection of quaint duplex cottages overlooking the ocean, with an explosively colorful flower garden and a bench under a big cypress tree, I thought, "Or we could sit here all day, drinking wine and counting waves."
The sedentary leisure, however, would wait. We headed to Russian Gulch State Park, one mile north, and jogged into the loamy hills. The rolling trail paralleled a creek, taking us past a 36-foot waterfall, through a canopy of massive redwoods and back down toward the coast. We ran and walked for an hour without seeing another person.