Winter fly fishing rocks in the San Gabriels

Note: I wanted to bring back this post from 2012. With all the rain we’re getting, maybe fly fishing will return to what it was in the San Gabriel Mountains before the drought and the Station Fire. Winter’s always a good time to dream about the next cast. 

The canyons are full of quiet, beautiful, "fishy" spots. (Jim Burns)

The canyons are full of quiet, beautiful, “fishy” spots. (Jim Burns)

Brrr, it’s cold out there, and even colder in the many fishable canyons of So. Cal’s San Gabriel mountains. Here’s how to have some fun:

1. Play hooky any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Skip Friday and forgettabout the weekend. There are always several thousand people who have the same idea at the same time. Crowds = lousy fishing.

2. Dress warmly in layers. Long underwear is a blessing this time of year.

3. Take it easy on the way down. Watch for gravel, sand and rocks that might give way. They will. Count on it.

4. Start with dries and move to nymphs. I know what you’re thinking: no hatch = no surface action. You might be surprised. Of the 10 fish I caught on my recent canyon adventure, two were on dries. Pick the usual suspects. Parachute Adams and his friends.

5. When you do reach into your fly box for a nymph, give that beadhead yellow sallie a try. I know it’s an underused Stone Fly, but the other eight fish I caught were all on this fly. Must be the legs.

This little rainbow got snapped quickly and then went back in the frigid stream water. (Jim Burns)

This little rainbow got snapped quickly and then went back in the frigid stream water. (Jim Burns)

6. Smaller is better. Even with all of our rain, flows are down. Size 14-16 or above, please.

7. Pack a lunch and extra water.

8. Bring a friend, someone who will make you laugh at some of those tiny trout you’re bound to hook.

9. Don’t wear hiking boots on slippery rocks. Just because the water’s cold, any rock in the water is still as slippery as it is in summer.

10. Turn your cellphone off. Keep your camera on. I know, you’re saying that there’s no service up there anyway. True, but it’s the principle.

11. Post your pics, so we can all see how good you look grippin’ ‘n’ grinnin’.

12. Keep an extra water and energy snack in the car.

Baker’s dozen: Get down. Get tired. Get silly. Get grateful. Repeat.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

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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

Winter fly fishing rocks in the San Gabriels

Brrr, it’s cold out there, and even colder in the many fishable canyons of So. Cal’s San Gabriel mountains. Here’s how to have some fun:

1. Play hooky any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Skip Friday and forgettabout the weekend. There are always several thousand people who have the same idea at the same time. Crowds = lousy fishing.

2. Dress warmly in layers. Long underwear is a blessing this time of year.

3. Take it easy on the way down. Watch for gravel, sand and rocks that might give way. They will. Count on it.

4. Start with dries and move to nymphs. I know what you’re thinking: no hatch = no surface action. You might be surprised. Of the 10 fish I caught on my recent canyon adventure, two were on dries. Pick the usual suspects. Parachute Adams and his friends.

5. When you do reach into your fly box for a nymph, give that beadhead yellow sallie a try. I know it’s an underused Stone Fly, but the other eight fish I caught were all on this fly. Must be the legs.

6. Smaller is better. Even with all of our rain, flows are down. Size 14-16 or above, please.

7. Pack a lunch and extra water.

8. Bring a friend, someone who will make you laugh at some of those tiny trout you’re bound to hook.

9. Don’t wear hiking boots on slippery rocks. Just because the water’s cold, any rock in the water is still as slippery as it is in summer.

10. Turn your cellphone off. Keep your camera on. I know, you’re saying that there’s no service up there anyway. True, but it’s the principle.

11. Post your pics, so we can all see how good you look grippin’ ‘n’ grinnin’.

12. Keep an extra water and energy snack in the car.

Baker’s dozen: Get down. Get tired. Get silly. Get grateful. Repeat.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Name this butterfly …

Please, name that butterfly! (Jim Burns)

Springtime has definitely hit the San Gabriel Mountains. Monday (the best time to fly fish to avoid the weekend rush) walking down to and around my favorite canyon, there were critters aplenty. A 4-foot-long Striped Racer slithered just in front of my booted feet, giving me a good scare; what I think was an Eastern Fox squirrel jumped onto a thick tree trunk to inspect me (He found me lacking …); and I spotted a pair of what I believe were Yellow Warblers, mistaking their coloring and size for distant Monarch butterflies appearing and disappearing in the forest canopy.

A fellow hiker cautioned me in the tree shadows: “Look,” she said, “can you believe it?” And there on the ground were a half-dozen or more of this butterfly. But, the question is, what’s it’s name? My handy Pocket Naturalist Guide (which you can get at the Audubon Center at Debs Park) lists the distinctive orange Monarch, the Painted Lady, The Cloudless Sulphur and three others, but none has those amazing horns. If you know what it is, please post the answer.

Meanwhile, for fishing our streams, stick with dries only, and tie on some stealthy 7x tippet to your light leader. Any lighter-weight rod will do, but if you’ve got a 2, 3, or 4 in your arsenal, take it. Also 9 foot is a bit much for our water, with its tight canyons and brush. Eight foot, six inches or shorter is a better choice.

Rainbows and browns were going nuts on just about everything I threw in. Keep the sizes small, 16 or better, but I’ll tell you it’s

This brown got fooled by a lot of elk hair caddis on a size 14 hook. (Jim Burns)

amazing to see a small fish latch on to a fly half its size when you toss a 10 or bigger! Ants are everywhere, so casting a parachute ant should bring good results. Unfortunately, the annoying small black flies have made a comeback, and I spotted a hatch of something tiny and gray-mosquito-colored coming off the water as well, so dark colors are a good bet.  Also, pale or light green are perennial favorite colors. And you won’t catch just minnows. There are plenty of bigger fish in our mountains. Please ALWAYS release the fish you catch in areas that won’t be stocked. These are naturals and once they’re gone, so will be our opportunity to enjoy this beautiful resource.

See you on the water, Jim Burns

Pack trash out … all the way out

ImageTramping through the San Gabriels today with my son was a wonder: we caught 16 trout, rainbows and browns, in a half-day’s work. I even foul-hooked a rainbow, which is certainly nothing to brag about, but was fun all the same.

But the point of this post is, please, don’t trash the wilderness. I walked through some brush, only to be snagged by old line that someone had left carelessly near a stream. Attached to it was an old-school wet fly, around a No. 4, so I guess I’m a fly richer, but that could have also tagged me in the eye. Not cool.

I also found a discarded spinning reel (!), more line at another part of the stream, and a Sports Chalet receipt that didn’t looked great against the wildflowers. I mean, come on, if we want to keep our resouces safe and sacred, we can’t treat them like a public toilet.

Remember: pack it in, pack it out.

And, if you are fishing in areas that don’t get stocked, please release your catch. One hole I’ve fished for many seasons with success contained only two small trout. I doubt that my other friends fell prey to cranes or other feathered pros. If you take out the fish, they are gone, Period. Once the fish are gone, what’s the point of our sport?

Sorry for the rant, but as you prepare to get out there for a fantastic season of fly fishing, let’s respect what we have. Please repost.

See you on the river, Jim Burns