Reading through “Life in the Open” on this rainy SoCal afternoon makes me wish I’d lived at the turn of last century. I’d trade my IPhone 6 Plus for a 100-trout day in the mountains some 20 minutes from my house. That was not an unusual catch in 1906 when outdoorsman extraordinaire Charles F. Holder wrote about all manner of fishing and hunting, right here.
Between the drought and our recent depressing search for Arroyo Seco trout, I needed to remind myself that this region has always thrived on cycles, that boom or bust goes beyond the local economy straight to nature.
A memorable Holder quote, written about our spring:
“On the mountain slopes the green heteromeles are spangled with white blossoms and the sage-covered mesa waves in masses of gray and green spires. Along the foothills a little wash is covered with wild roses that are now in bloom, filling the air with fragrance. The Arroyo Seco, the San Gabriel, the Santa Ana and the Los Angeles rivers have in the centre of the gravelly waste a silvery stream of water; and so by many tokens the angler in Southern California knows that winter has waned, and April, the month of anglers, when the rod may be plied,has come.
“If the winter has been very rainy, if 30 or 40 inches have fallen, about the annual
fall of New York, the canon streams will be running full, and the angler will have to
wait for the falling of the waters, but if the fall has been normal (18 or 20 inches),
good sport may be had in all the streams from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.”
The very good news for LA River carpers is that the fish are positioning themselves in the Glendale Narrows for the spring spawn. Lots of large brooders, up to 10 pounds, are getting ready to put on the show of the year. Fishing prespawn pays big dividends, so don’t miss it. Once the actual spawn hits, you can pretty much feggitaboutit, as they’ve got more important things than eating on their minds.
Bradley John Monsma’s “The Sepse Wild” ponders all of the good stuff about being outdoors — land, creatures and water — in such a way that you find yourself dreaming of exactly when you can adventure in his footsteps. In this book, written in 2004, he traces the history of what he terms “Southern California’s last free river,” an area north of Ojai and Fillmore that includes the 80-plus-square-mile Sespe Condor Sanctuary.
According to the Sespe Fly Fishers, the long drought has made the area unfishable for the past three seasons.
Here, Monsma remembers some of his thoughts during church in Los Angeles:
“In this place, in the company of people diverse in every way imaginable, in the heart of a city occasionally torn by natural disasters, police corruption and racial tension, I found myself thinking of salmon. Over and over, salmon would swim up the stream of my consciousness and spawn thoughts of themselves. I would will chinook smolts safely downstream through the turbines of hydroelectric dams. In the ocean, I would evade orcas, sea lions and fishermen.
“I would imagine the cold mountain headwaters calling us home, and with the rest I would strain against the current over fish ladders and waterfalls and through too-warm reservoirs infused with the chemicals of farms and factories. For years, I filled Sunday silences with prayers for fish. This was the closest thing to a spiritual discipline I’ve ever been able to maintain, other than walking or paddling.”
For months, Jim Burns, Roderick Spilman, and I had talked about going to the Upper Arroyo Seco to cast a fly and see if any rainbow trout had survived the devastation of the Station Fire of 2009. We had spoken with Tim Brick of the Arroyo Seco Foundation and he expressed interest in any rainbow trout sightings within the Arroyo Seco system.
After a couple of significant rain events, our schedules magically aligned, and we scheduled a date certain for our expedition.
On Saturday, we arrived at Switzer in the San Gabriel Mountains at around 10:30 in the morning. A heavy mist hung in the air and the threat of rain was imminent. My son, Ansel (12), joined us for the adventure.
Jim was armed with a nice 3-wt. fiberglass fly rod, Roderick had his trusty 3 wt., and Ansel and I had taken our 4 foot, 2 inch Redington Form game rods — novelty practice rods that actually work great in tight quarters. We also had a small pair of scissors and a container in which to keep any DNA samples we might collect.
As we walked, a thick, wet mist bathed us in dew, and we wondered if we had been unwise to leave the rain ponchos in the Jeep. Sometimes at home or even hiking, my kids and I practice casting for fun and accuracy. I cast for a while as I hiked –- sans fly. As I hiked and cast, I imagined the river as it was –- the Arroyo Seco before the fire.
Ever since I can remember, I have lived near the lower reaches of the Arroyo Seco and hiked its many trails and canyons. Even today I live off of the Millard tributary. I have fond memories of stalking rising trout since the days of my youth. I would pack a lunch, grab my 3 wt. fly rod, my mountain bike, and head out for a day on the river. I always brought a supply of barbless Elk Hair Caddis and Griffith’s Gnats, my go-to flies for the system.
The Arroyo Seco was rarely large water, and remained a skinny stream most of the year. During periods of high rain, the river would rise dramatically, but usually there were times and places where the river would retreat underground, only to re-emerge. I welcomed the wildness of the forest, and listened to the wind in the trees and the gurgling of the brook.
Sometimes, I would see brightly shining trout circling each other around the red submerged roots, so entranced in their mating dance they would not notice me. Occasionally, a trout would break the mirror stillness of a nice pool. These were wary fish and the larger ones generally took up residence in bridge pools, large undercuts, the dam pool, or sometimes, small, yet deep, pocket pools.
This was really fishy water from the headwaters of the Arroyo Seco below Red Box, down to the lower portion of the Arroyo Seco above JPL. I had a chance to fly-fish many sections of the Arroyo Seco, or to spy a trout holding in the stream as I shot by on a mountain bike. It is amazing to think that before the Devil’s Gate and Brown Mountain Dams, large steelhead even swam in these tributaries.
At first we talked and laughed happily, enthralled at the excitement of our quest and the impending discovery of large holdout rainbow trout. As we walked, our gaze trained on the river. Not a single pool to be seen. All features of the river have been erased. Tons and tons of sand and pebbles filled the area that had once provided great habitat for fish.
Saturday, the stream was a rapid, narrow band of water that descended in a straight line toward the sea. As we walked on, our spirits remained up, but short pockets of silence punctuated our hike. I think during these times, we each may have contemplated the reality that there were likely no fish in this part of the system. We stopped atop the falls and ate our sandwiches, trail mix and tangerines. Roderick went on a quick, exploratory scouting mission to ensure that we were not missing any incredible pools just beyond the next bend. He returned a while later with the news that the creek looked the same beyond the falls.
After lunch, we packed up our trash and headed back to the waiting Jeep. As we approached the car, we agreed to salvage the rest of the day by wetting a line on the L.A. River. After all, I had found a promising new spot I wanted to check out.
Although this expedition had not turned up any rainbow trout, we had enjoyed a fun adventure and still remain hopeful they may exist somewhere in the Arroyo Seco system. It is incredible how much devastation the Station Fire and the record rainfall that followed it did to the Arroyo Seco system. Massive walls of mud, burned logs and debris made their way down the river, destroying everything in their path. While there is a certain resilience in nature, it would appear some things cannot undo themselves … at least for the time being.
Yet, I fervently hope that there, unseen by us, among submerged twigs and rocks, swim the next generation of rainbow trout – waiting for the protective embrace of dusk to emerge for their nightly insect feast.
L.A. transportation projects are the big winners in President Obama’s budget, while the L.A. River is left out, according to today’s piece in the Los Angeles Times. The article quotes Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) saying that the “president provided no support for widening and restoring the Los Angeles River.”
Meanwhile, tomorrow a diverse group will speak to a joint U.S. House and Senate hearing about the current effort to restore parts of the Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a rule to restore protections to small streams and wetlands that contribute to drinking water. You can read more about “Waters of the United States” here.
According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, 2 million miles of streams are without guaranteed protection from pollution, and those streams, in turn, provide drinking, swimming and fishing water to one in three Americans.