Earth Quotes: Dick Roraback’s ‘In Search of the L.A. River’


Once electric Red Cars delivered passengers all over L.A., which is celebrated in this riverly mural.(Barbara Burns)

Once electric Red Cars delivered passengers all over L.A., which is celebrated in this riverly mural. (Barbara Burns)

Back in the day, Dick Roraback represented the journalist I wanted to become: after being graduated from The Sorbonne, he’d worked on the Herald Tribune in Paris (While on assignment in Africa, he’d somehow bamboozled the desk into publishing his story with the byline “By Ghana Rehah,” which got him suspended.); he was worldly, snide, grouchy, looked very old, and ripped through my fledgling restaurant reviews in a torrent of computer red ink. He seemed to me a refugee on the Los Angeles Times copy desk, a bit of the lion in winter. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to be like him — bold, intelligent and brash, thumbing his nose at the world and having a great time doing it.

I did wonder how this talented writer landed on the copy desk, reading the works of others, but no longer producing himself. Maybe “be brash in moderation,” I thought to myself.

By the time he’d again taken up ink and plume, I’d moved across town to become the travel editor for the Herald Examiner, and I didn’t read his series “In Search of the L.A. River,” published between 1985 and 1986.

In a recent paper entitled “Writing a river: how journalism helped restore the Los Angeles River,” academic Tilly Hinton argues a strong case for Roraback’s contribution to raising awareness about the river, and how this awareness helped to create the political will for change. She credits him alongside poet and FOLAR founder Lewis MacAdams as two pillars of the event.

I think Roraback would feel peeved to think of himself as a pillar of anything, and from what I’ve read MacAdams was none too pleased with the snarky tone Roraback used in his pieces. (For that matter, MacAdams also seems a wholly unlikely pillar, yet that he is, with a recent riverside plaque to prove it.)

For the series, which began at the river’s mouth in Long Beach and moved up to the headwaters, Roraback invented a character named “The Explorer.” At one point, The Explorer visited a man who kept an aquarium of fish captured from the river:

“Up in Atwater Glen on the other side of the channel, Tom Babel, manager of the riverside Port of Call apartments, allows as his community is a peaceful enough place to live –”You just gotta watch your back.” Just north, it seems, is “Toonerville, where anything goes.”

Even so, Babel likes living by the river, though he keeps his RV primed for a quick exit. “There’s been occasions when the rain got heavy and the river got two feet from the top of the bank,” he says. “I’d already started packing my important papers in the RV, ready to head for the high ground. . . . “

Larry Wickline, Babel’s stepson, takes a kinder view of riparian life.

“After the rains,” he says, “there’s rainbow trout this big! Keepers! You get catfish, carp, crayfish. Come up to my apartment. I have something to show you.”

Indeed he does. In Wickline’s flat is an illuminated fish tank holding an amazing variety of fish — gold, brown, white — all taken, he says, from the Los Angeles River.

“Good fishing when the river comes up,” Wickline says, “Except sometimes you can’t take a step for all those tiny snakes.

“It’s not so much the snakes, though, as the gangs. I wouldn’t go down there without a gun. At night, I wouldn’t go down there at all. . . . “

What I find particularly interesting about this passage is that, if true, rainbow trout were still in the river in the mid-80s, contrary to everything I’ve read about their disappearance from the river decades earlier.

The series certainly sparked interesting letters, including this one from Gene Lippert of Hacienda Heights:

“Just a note of appreciation for all the hard work Dick Roraback put in to bring us his fascinating story of the present Los Angeles River (‘In Search of the L.A. River,’ an occasional series.) I am following his tale with great interest.

“You see I lived my Tom Sawyer youth on the Los Angeles River in the area of the Imperial Highway bridge. That was before the ‘big paving extravaganza.’ We skinny-dipped in the pools, caught crawdads by the dozen and boiled them in an old can filled with river water and a dash of vinegar. We always kept supplies such as salt, pepper, coffee, cigarette butts (good for a couple of more puffs) in tin cans buried in the river bank. Small-sized trout were plentiful and easy to catch on a bent pin (had to jerk the fish out of the water and onto the bank the first time he nibbled or away went your bait). We slept overnight in the river bed most of the summers (dry, clean white sand). We were almost ridden over by a bunch of horses one night while sleeping. We had made camp in weeds four or five feet high and the fire had gone out.

“One time we stole redwood from an irrigation flume and built a boat. We got our caulking by digging the tar from between the expansion joints in Imperial Highway and melting it over a bonfire. The boat was a bust — it kept tipping over.”

So now I find Dick’s shadow once again moving across my writing life. Sometimes unlikely people follow you through time in the most unexpected ways.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

San Diego’s Carp Throw Down gets a new champ


NEXT! Two-time Carp Throw Down champ David Wratchford congratulates this year's winner in the wading division, Amy Barder McMahon.

NEXT! Two-time Carp Throw Down champ David Wratchford congratulates this year’s winner in the wading division, Amy Barder McMahon.

San Diego’s third annual Carp Throw Down is in the books with the team of John Hendrickson and Dustin Sergent snagging both first place in the boat division, as well as most fish caught, with three carp and two catfish.

“Like always, it’s fishing—you never know what the insect, weather, and water conditions are going to be until you get out there,” organizer The Fly Shop’s Matthew Austin said. “The competitors who succeeded all came in with a plan of attack, adapted, and persevered.”

Difficult fishing conditions made for little top-water action, but Amy McMahon made the best of it, to take first place in the wading division with a 23-inch carp, dethroning two-time wading division champ David Wratchford.

“Little did I know when I set out to start the hunting expedition that I would be one of only two waders to bring one in,” McMahon said. “I was fishing with some very skilled fishermen with amazing long distance casting skills so I felt very humbled to have won. ‘Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then’ is an expression that comes to mind as I think about my success in bringing one in.”

Other winners included:

Biggest trash fish, a 19-inch Channel Cat, Jason Tinling
Biggest carp, 27 5/6 inches, Jake Ness
Second Place Boat, 24 1/3 inches and and 27 5/6 inches, Jake Ness and Chuck Griffin
Second Place Wade, 18 inches, Dylan Moore

Prizes are listed at: http://www.theflystop.com/blog, and you can check out other happenings at The Fly Shop, http://www.theflystop.com/san-diego-fly-fishing-guide-shop-charter.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

LARFF passes 50,000 mark


imageFour years ago, this blog started out as an experiment, really, and it’s hit this landmark today. Through it, I’ve learned a lot about the politics of the city I love, made lots of new friends, been skunked and humbled more times than I can count, and occasionally watched as my fly line exploded down the river.

And, today’s my birthday!

So, thank you all. I really appreciate your contributions and readership. Best birthday present a guy could have.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

New So.Cal. Steelhead book hits the heart of the matter


The first book published by Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach details the struggles of the endangered Southern California Steelhead. (With permission, Aquarium of the Pacific)

The first book published by Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach details the struggles of the endangered Southern California Steelhead. (With permission, Aquarium of the Pacific)

If you think you’ve finished your summer reading list, stop! Consider one more book, please.

“Against the Current, The Unlikely Story of the Southern California Steelhead” could not, in truth, be a more unlikely tale. Author John G. Tomlinson Jr. takes the reader on an environmental roller coaster ride that matches our region’s boom-or-bust water supply, and throws in plenty of human Greek drama.

What just over a 100 years ago was a region so pristine that Easterners came here to mend their health, through hunting, fishing and soaking up the sunshine, quickly turned into what we have today. As someone who has lived here for over 30 years with no plans of leaving, I’m not complaining, but when you read this book and realize what it once was — especially if you enjoy fly fishing the San Gabes — well, get our your handkerchief.

Sob.

One fact to prime the tears: In the early 1900s, the then-equivalent of the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife set the limit of fish taken at … 100. If you’ve ever put boots to dirt and fly to water in our mountains, this should give you a chill. Guests at the local fishing camps regularly hauled in lots of rainbows, and, yes, steelhead. And they hauled, and they hauled and they hauled. Think buffalo in the plains states.

How we got from those abundant fishy beginnings to where we are today is a story of good intentions gone to greed, it’s about that simple.

As for the steelhead once again taking center stage as we enter the Great Los Angeles River Rebuilding, well, this magnificent creature needs our help to get off the endangered species list.

This chart of the comparative rainfall might not look great during our record-breaking drought, but in earlier times, it was a draw for those looking to escape bad weather and regain their health. (With permission, Aquarium of the Pacific)

This chart of the comparative rainfall might not look great during our record-breaking drought, but in earlier times, it was a draw for those looking to escape bad weather and regain their health. (With permission, Aquarium of the Pacific)

When Congress approves the billion bucks for a river makeover early next year, I hope every politician, every engineer and every investor gets a copy of this book. They should look up the section on one Henry O’Melveny, lawyer, fishing advocate, Creel Club founder, ice plant owner and, sadly, leader of the pack that done the natural inhabitants of our erratic rivers and streams in. Indeed, he is a figure as defining of Greek tragedy as Oedipus or Agamemnon.

Fast forward to today, and a mayor who is bringing in major bucks from Washington for the river as well as public transportation. I hope that Eric Garcetti reads this slim volume. It is the most compelling work to date on why the natural habitat can’t take a backseat to our own urban comfort zone. That story already happened.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Record drought conditions make trouting tough in the San Gabes


CRAFTY CATCH: Under these drought conditions, it takes skill as well as stealth to land one of these jewels. (Jim Burns)

CRAFTY CATCH: Under these drought conditions, it takes skill as well as stealth to land one of these jewels. (Jim Burns)

One of the great things about fishing an area over a long period of time is that you can really get to know the water. You know that 50 paces up, there’s a great little hole, or you remember the one waterfall that always seems to have a trout underneath it. When my son and I hit a new river or stream, we always expect the worst, then, if it’s a good day, we get super-stoked about the results. That’s one reason a guide can charge you $400 for a day out in his neck of the woods … it is, after all, his neck of the woods, and so the thinking goes, you can slap water for the cost of a few flies, or get into the fish with expert advice.

There are sections of the San Gabriel Mountains where I feel at least close to being an expert, simply because I’ve spent so much time tramping and casting. But, that said, I hadn’t returned to one of my favorite loops in about a year because fishermen had busied themselves strip-mining out all of the fish. Remember, the fish you find on the West Fork, the East Fork, Chantry Flats and behind JPL are natives, not plants, as stocking stopped many years ago. Why we don’t have signs in multiple languages to leave the fish where they are — catch and release — is not only important, but key to their survival.

That much time certainly had passed between my last adventure and Sunday. Swarms of people exiting the parking lot really turn me off, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them stayed on the beaten path, while Will and I were able to disappear into some of the lesser-known canyon folds. Our canyons, folks, are a beautiful gift to behold.

Will was testing a new rod, a 3 weight, 4 section, with a sweet fast action.

We didn’t know what to expect from news reports, but also from a phone call to a ranger who said, “Well, you do know there’s a drought on.” Would there be any fish at all? After all, we’d canvassed parts of California’s Golden Trout Wilderness in which healthy streams disappear during summer trout conditions.

Alas, we did see an old favorite pool now choked with algae, water looking barely breathable for the trout who had come back from that strip-mining last year. There were small and wary.

We moved on to another pool, one in which two aggressive males spared with each other. The first time I saw that kind of movement, I mistook it for spawning; it’s more like Irish brawling. Needless to say, when this kind of action is happening, the fish are much more interested in kicking some ass than taking your fly.

Next pool: looked pretty dead, but with a decent amount of water still there, but the color was dark and off-putting, and tree branch sat ready to snag any carelessly thrown fly.

But, as I answered the inevitable question — “Are there fish in there?” — for the sixth time, I heard, “Dad,” with an intonation I’ve learned over these many years. Fish on.

Will had mined a pool in one of those beautiful creases, the kind that makes you forget you are so close to city lights. That trout was a beaut, snagged on a Parachute Adams, very dry.

“Good fish,” we both remarked and did a little laughing and whooping as well, enough so I’m sure the hikers thought there must be a constant stream of gorgeous trout just waiting behind every rock.

“Good luck rod,” we both agreed, and I’m sure it will be, just as soon as Mother Nature blesses us with the water we so badly need.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Two L.A. River rec. zones open for summer splashing


PADDLE UP: The L.A. Conservation Corps guides a group through still waters and overhanging willows. (Jim Burns)

PADDLE UP: The L.A. Conservation Corps guides a group through still waters and overhanging willows. (Jim Burns)

Fly-fishers, grab your egg patterns.
Kayakers, adjust your life vests.
Birders, shine your binocular lenses.

because …

once again water recreation is going live in the Glendale Narrows in Elysian Valley and in a portion of the Sepulveda Basin. Hats off to councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority and the U.S. Army Corps for keeping it afloat (haha) this year.

The dets for May 26 through Sept. 1, sunrise to sunset:

GA-RUMP: So is this a Western Toad or a Western Spadefoot Toad? (Jim Burns)

GA-RUMP: So is this a Western Toad or a Western Spadefoot Toad? (Jim Burns)

– Flyfishing/traditional fishing are both super-fun, and don’t forget to bring your kids along. You will need a fishing license for each rod, but it’s well worth the money. Remember this is the only time of the year that you can legally fish the river. Check out this story I wrote for KCET for details.
Tickets to explore one and a half miles of the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area with LA River Expeditions go on sale tomorrow at noon. I donned a life vest a couple of years back and had a blast.
– In Glendale Narrow, rent a kayak at Marsh Park through L.A. River Kayaks. Or paddle through our very own rapids with L.A. River Kayak Safari by booking here.

See you on the river, Jim Burns