Paynes Creek

Paynes Creek

Pulled over on the side of CA 5, about 30 minutes from the Mt. Lassen volcanic foothills town of Red Bluff on a beautiful sunny morning next to endless miles of agricultural land on both sides, I patiently awaited the return from the highway patrolman. He had signaled me off the road just minutes ago, as I was admittedly pushing my standard Ford Transit van to the extent of it’s factory capacity, going the high 90s in a 70 zone. And, even though I was amidst a pack of truckers and various flatbed service vehicles doing the same, it was obvious that my custom glossy black van had been culled from the pack as a soft little target for the officer’s morning financial quota. 

Sitting there, the patrolman asked to see my ID and upon a quick glance further inquired if my address on it was current. I nodded, and he pressed with an audible frigid sense of authority, “Is that correct?,” and so I responded with an equivocating officiality, “Yes sir!” 

This was a very different part of California than the bastion of unpoliced liberalism and bad behavior that is the current depressed city of San Francisco, my beloved home, and where I was coming from this pristine California morning. I felt, at this particular moment, like Kevin Bacon in that pullover scene from Footloose - a City kid getting a dose of the local law. “I just want to dance, for fuck’s sake!”, I am saying in my head as this officer retreated into his pimped out CHPmobile. The reality is that I don’t dance. But god dammit, I could. Maybe. If I wanted to. I am, on another level, really passionate about fish. That is, after all, why I find myself up here on this Monday morning, to get trout from the Mt. Lassen Trout Farm. And doesn’t that count for something? Apparently, what it counts for is 235 dollars in bail money to the Colusa County Sheriff’s department.  

That was precisely my introduction to Red Bluff, and the region surrounding Mt. Lassen, signaling to me, as I made my way into town, pink citation in hand, that I was definitely not in Kansas, or more pointedly, San Francisco County, anymore. Yet, all of this felt strangely familiar, as some sort of bizarre California Valley conjuring trick that was irrilly parallel to my own upbringing at the crossroads of suburban Minneapolis and rural Southern Minnesota, where agricultural community values intersect with relatively progressive social norms, and bizarre colloquial expressions like: Uff da, Darn tootin! And, For Pete’s Sake!

But what about the trout, Peter? Ahhhhh, yes, the trout. This entry is about trout. And about Katie Harris, the queen of farmed trout. Let’s be clear about that. This lady means business. You betcha.  

Later that morning, Katie met me in front of the small processing plant in Red Bluff, where the trout from the various farms operated by Mt. Lassen Trout Farm, are processed for sale to restaurants and the food service industry. With reddish blond hair, and all of the seriousness of a Western town lawman (or woman) masked only by her everymoment outdoors sunshades, Katie habitually sports jeans and hiking boots (what we in the City might call “outdoor shoes”), and has an all around wholesome look to her, not unlike the ass-kicking actress Jessica Chastain (future Hollywood adaption will likely revolve around a storyline where the Red Bluff native discovers that a corrupt Sacramento politician is caught in a scandal that compromises Mt. Lassen's valuable mineral reserves in lithium ion that have been benchmarked for the ambitions of a wealthy electric car tycoon who is trading his corporate profits for a wanton program of interstellar travel? ). In totality, she exudes an aura of “do not mess with this bitch”, which comes, probably, with the responsibility and weight of having the whole company on her shoulders.

We started the tour, headed to Paynes Creek, a small township about 10 miles from Red Bluff, site of the first official trout farm, and also where they have a hatchery for young spawn, taking them from the size of a pinhead to the state of maturity where they will be safe in the open streams of the vast mountain spring networks that creep out of the mountain. The flat plains that mirage the landscape endlessly around Lassen, are suddenly broken by the subtle inclusion of rolling hills of golden grass, pockmarked with black and red volcanic rocks as far as the eye can see - permanent remnant of the turn of the 19th century eruption that rained down rocks over the land at a mind blowing trajectory. I didn't even know CA had volcanos in its past. Evidently, in light of this happening, agricultural development in this region is a weighty clearing challenge, so the natural businesses in the vicinity are lumber and mining. Hunting and fishing would be the logical pastimes of the population in these parts for obvious reasons, and that is likely where the impetus for a trout hatchery came to be. 

Katie explains to me that in the 1940s, Hoppy Brown had started the trout hatchery in Paynes Creek as a way to stock the rivers and streams in the area for recreational fishing. Hoppy was the pioneer in the wilderness, but when Phil Mackey, a feverishly energetic high school kid from Red Bluff tried out the farm as a Summer job, the trajectory changed forever. For some more background context, Phil Mackey is Katie’s father (Katie Mackey Harris), and it was under his inspired direction, that the Mt. Lassen Trout Farm expanded it’s operations to various holdings within the region, capitalizing on the cold mountain springs as the ideal environment to practice this form of aquaculture. Mt. Lassen has been the largest trout farm in the state of California for decades, and is arguably the most sustainably operated trout farm in the country, producing fish of unsurpassed quality and excellence. 

As I take in the beauty of this region while Katie drives me to some of Lassen’s holdings in the East, she fills in the back story of how Phil discovered the farm sites by helicopter surveillance, establishing extensions where nature had provided clues to success in the form of cold mountain water. It takes a couple of hours to traverse these parts, crossing over the foot of the mountain, one is off the grid here with no cell reception, vast forests of Doug Fir as dense as a brick wall, with the occasional passings of camper trucks or 18 wheelers hauling redwood stacked like matchsticks in a pile. 

This place is remote and fiercely independent, producing the hardiest and ingenious folk, which is clearly the impression I am getting from Katie as she tells me about her own upbringing here on the ranch. As a young sprat, she would help out on the farm, cleaning up the work spaces and tool sheds, while surveilling the Team. From highschool, a softball scholarship landed her in Oregon, where she got a degree in education, and then taught at schools for a decade before becoming a mother. When she decided, later in life, to come back to work at the farm with her father, she already knew the ropes; this was her childhood after all. The farm - her playground. The Team - her family. I believe she would defend all of it to the bitter end, if there were one, because that’s just rooted in her.

Back to business. On an annual basis, millions of pounds of beautiful rainbow brook trout are produced at Mt. Lassen. On a weekly basis, thousands of pounds of the mature live fish are carted off in water filled tanks on trucks to the lakes and river estuaries around the state. In fact, 80% of production is allocated to recreational fishing, an activity supported by both the state of California, and independent businesses. The other 20% goes to restaurants and food service industries, like fish purveyors, hotel chains, and large production commercial kitchens - and me.

Since this first visit to Mt. Lassen, more than a year ago, our restaurant has established a unique relationship with this aquaculture farm. As Katie tells me later, I am amongst less than a handful of culinary professionals who has actually cared enough to visit the farm in person, and furthermore, I am now committed to sourcing our fish directly from the farm - which means I drive there to pick it up when we need it. Exceptionally weird behavior in their eyes, I am sure, but perhaps, I hope, also somewhat endearing? In the process, I have come to know Katie as a person, which is meaningful to me as it helps me understand more about the fish her company produces, the issues affecting them in the greater context of the environment, and what will come next as the farm evolves. 

Katie recently told me about their extension in bringing sturgeon to the farm for caviar production, we have talked about how some day they may even have smoked trout roe finished and packaged in-house, in addition to a range of caviar roes, as well as smoked sturgeon and smoked trout. These are complicated processes that take FDA approval and years of planning, but time is the mother of invention, and good things demand patience. The reward, from my perspective, will definitely be worth the wait, and in the meantime I will continue to build on my relationship with Katie as I see in her a partner of similar values, though admittedly from a very different background and global perspective. The fish, metaphorically, and in the culminating remarks of this sincere and random entry, like Kevin Bacon’s belief in the sanctity of dance, bring us all together in the end towards the altruistic cause of "better". 

So, does anyone else want to dance? Let's do it for the fish, guys. I will be waiting with my busted up VW and vintage maroon tuxedo when you're ready. You betcha!

Peter J Hemsley 

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