The Sweet Spot: Flickin’ dries on the West Fork

Maybe it was reading a hopeful headline in the Pasadena Star News, “San Gabriel River gets good grade despite signs of stress,” penned by our buddy Steve Scauzillo, that got me back to the West Fork. Even though the water lies a mere 25 miles from my house, I rarely find myself there. I think I got scared off by a lawsuit that stopped the Dept. of Fish and Game from stocking it some years back.

Licensed to fish: In 1929, wasn't there a Depression going on, just like this one? (Courtesy Drexel Grapevine Antiques)

Anyway, kicking around online, I found this document from DFG in 2008:

“The West Fork of the San Gabriel River supports the most important coldwater fishery

in Los Angeles County. It sustains a catch and release and special-regulations-only

fishery in the upper section and a put-and-take fishery in the lower portion. It also is

home to the federally threatened Santa Ana sucker, two fish species of special concern

(speckled dace and the arroyo chub) and a population of western pond turtles (also a

special concern species).

The fisheries habitat provided by the West Fork of the San Gabriel River has been

degraded by flood control activities, overuse by the recreating public and major

wildfires.”

Not sure about the stocking lawsuit, but this pretty much sums it up. Traveling up Highway 39 from Azusa, you’ll spot the parking lot. There are actually two, the lower favored by fly fishers and mountain bikers. For those unfamiliar with the water, it’s catch and release only, past the second bridge, about two miles from the parking lot up the paved service road toward Cogswell Dam, which rules the top of the water, about six miles up.

The first mile or so spells summer fun for lots of kids and their parents, who splash away the heat in the river’s pools and eddies. It’s noisy and very urban, with occasional graffiti and homies. There’s also a very low consciousness about garbage, even with a huge dumpster right there. If you go, be a nice person, pitch in and pull out what others toss.

First spot to try is Bear Creek, one mile up. It can be fun, as can the rest of the sections, past the fishing ramps for our disabled brethren that lie farther up.

The flow was fast and springlike, except directly after the second bridge, which sputtered like typical hot, lackluster water. Small black flies were annoying as hell, a trademark of West Fork in summer. The trout were taking small dries such as Parachute Adams, as well as small nymphs, like a prince, or yummy midges, like the zebra. Don’t expect bigger trout, but also don’t expect to catch only minnows. Little browns are in there. Bring your lightest, shortest rod, some 7x tippet, bug spray, a decent hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a bike, if you’ve got one. The best part of the West Fork may just be the glide down after a day’s fishing. You’ll hardly touch the pedals.

Anyway, the point of this rambling entry really has little to do with fishing, but rather with antique fishing licenses. As I wrapped up the day near Bear Creek, a fully outfitted fly fisher appeared who I thought might be a ranger. He gave me the Emporer’s sign, and I signed back, “thumbs up,” and suggested he come down to the water to work a pool.

His name was Steve, I think, and he hailed from Simi Valley. He comes every week to the West Fork. As we talked about the heartbreak of Mammoth Lakes— a fishery that many will agree seems to decline a bit more every year — I noticed his many fishing licenses, mostly from back East. Looking more closely, I noticed most of the dates were from the middle of the last century.

Antique fishing licenses! Because I’ve lived a sheltered life, I’d never seen one of these before, and now I absolutely must start collecting. More snooping on the Web revealed Drexel Grapevine Antiques, in Valdese, N.C. Like everyone who’s ever read the Curtis Creek Manifesto knows, one of the best parts of fly fishing is in the characters you meet along the water.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

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