Willow Creek Ranch
Photo © Lorissa Soriano
Willow Creek Ranch is a very unique "surf and turf" feeding company located in the beautiful little town of Likely in the most northeastern county of California. This ranch is truly one of a kind. They raise both cattle and sturgeon.
Willow Creek Ranch is one of the fastest growing and the largest producers of ranch raised caviar in the world. It was established in 1991and is owned and operated by Pearce Flournoy. Willow Creek Ranch was homesteaded by the Flournoy Family in 1871. They raised beef for many decades. In the late 1980s the economy changed, and the cattle business wasn’t as cost effective as it had been in the past.
In 1989, Modoc County Farm Advisor Bob Savage was working on an Aqua Culture project with the University of California,Davis. His hope was that this project would help develop alternative ways ranchers could diversify and create an additional product utilizing their natural resources.
Pearce took advantage of this opportunity and began construction on a special project. Because a large portion of the land at Willow Creek Ranch has natural hot springs, Pearce decided to utilize these natural resources and create all organic sturgeon tanks.
There are 9 tanks, 3 concrete, 6 metal, and 3 naturally spring fed ponds. The warm water flows out of the hillside and through a pipe that feeds into and fills the tanks. These tanks are terraced so the natural flow of gravity fills each tank into another. The way the tanks are positioned when the water flows into each tank creates oxygen for the fish. The amount of oxygen in the water can be critical so a constant flow has to be maintained in order for the fish to survive. The movement of the water flowing from pond to pond and the motion of the large fish as they swim around the tanks creates a natural flow which in turn creates oxygen.
These sturgeon are grown and are raised for the purpose of producing caviar. The white female (paladin) sturgeon is the only fish of its kind in the world that produces caviar. All other species of sturgeon produce roe. White Sturgeon can live to be more than 100 years old. The rate of growth is dependent on water temperature.
Since the water temperature has an effect on the growth rate of these prehistoric fish, the tanks and ponds have to maintain a temperature of 63-68 degrees Fahrenheit. In this area the outdoor temperatures can get below freezing. However these ponds retain the warmth of the water throughout the winter and the fish continue to grow during cold weather conditions.
Typically, these fish can reach six feet long at around 6 - 8 years of age.
White Sturgeon are anadromous meaning they spawn in fresh water and migrate to salt water to mature. It is the largest freshwater fish in North America and is the third largest species of sturgeon, after the Beluga and the Kaluga. The white sturgeon is known to reach a maximum size of 1,798 lbs. and up to 20.1 ft. long. The white sturgeon has a slender, long body, head and mouth. This fish has no scales; instead it has large boney scutes that serve as a form of armor. There are 11–14 dorsel scutes, all anterior to the dorsal fin, and 38–48 lateral scutes and 9–12 ventral scutes on each side. The dorsal color of a White Sturgeon is gray, pale olive, or gray-brown. The fins are a dusky, opaque gray. The underside is a clean white. It has four barbels, used for sensing food, near its huge toothless mouth. Sturgeons are classified as a boney fish, but actually are more cartilaginous than boney, their internal bone structure being more like a shark. Sturgeon have changed very little since they first appeared, over 175 million years ago and thus have the appearance of a very ancient fish.
According to Pearce these fish can behave strangely at times. When the moon comes up or goes down they act crazy and start swimming around the tank and banging against the sides. Normally they are very docile creatures and quite fun to watch. These fish are extremely intelligent, in fact their feeder has a rod that hangs down into the water. When they are hungry they just push the rod and the feed goes down into the water. There is also a pecking order and a leader is recognized as the “Big Fish” of the pond, so to speak.
The fish are raised at the ranch until they are between the age of 6 - 8 years or to term then they are sent to a facility in Elk Grove until they're ready to process. Sturgeon can produce up to 10% of its body weight in caviar.
These ponds are very special in that everything has been created and cultivated naturally. Pearce is also a wonderful and entertaining host as was his family for generations. The Sturgeon ponds are open for tours at $5.00 per person, it is best to call ahead to make sure someone is there.
Hours Open: Call to arrange a tour.
Seasons Open: Open all year weather permitting. Call ahead.
Price Style for this Establishment: $5.00 per person
This is not an ADA accessible place.