West Fork S.O.S.: Comment period extended to Nov. 1, 2016

On a whim, I visited the West Fork very recently. The sun was hot in the mid-morning sky; a group of local teens pulled up alongside the parked mighty Prius and one asked me if I ‘biked much?” I said no, which is true, because I almost never take that rickety garage-sale contraption out of my garage, unless it’s to come here.

The rust on the chain tells the tale and could have answered the lad’s question before I ever did.

In the few hours I spent in the catch/release section, above the second bridge, two marvelous items happened: I spotted a pair of young foxes, and I caught a small trout on a size 16 hi-viz Parachute Adams after about 10 minutes casting to a shadowy hole.

Upon my return, I told my incredulous son I’d hooked up. I beamed, even as he questioned, “But, isn’t that pretty bad? Didn’t we used to hook up at least a dozen times up there.”

Yes, Will, yes, we did.

And that’s why I hope everyone who reads this will click this link and let the powers that be at the Angeles National Forest know your thoughts, for ANF is seeking public comments on a “Need to Change” analysis for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. Trout Unlimited has launched a campaign to get fishers to comment before the comment period ends July 27.

Why is there a “need to change” recreational policies on the West Fork?  As the advocacy website Friends of the River explains the 44 miles of stream within the national monument are designated a “wild & scenic river.”

“The West, North and East Forks .. drain the largest watershed in the mountain range and provide thirsty downstream residents with clean drinking water. The West Fork National Scenic Bikeway Trail provides easy access to one of the few catch and release trout streams (bold added) in the region, while the upper West Fork is traversed by the Gabrieleno National Recreation Trail. The East Fork provides trail access to the Sheep Mountain Wilderness.”

As it stands, when you come upon the survey box at the beginning of the West Fork’s c/r area, it makes even the most obstinately optimistic fishers scratch their heads. I mean what kind of comment does a thinking person leave?

“Dear Ranger,

Fishing has plummeted on this wild & scenic river to levels probably never seen before. Help.

Sincerely,

A very concerned citizen and angler”

I’m not sure if the well-intentioned West Fork San Gabriel River Conservancy is still functioning, but much of its website dates to early 2014.

Anyway, to bone up on the problems this area faces from our 4 million brethren, there’s a load of information and reporting on the Internet, which means at least some of it is actually true.

The best way to refresh your political ire is to visit, yourself, put your $5-a-day Adventure Pass on your dashboard, bring your $47.01 valid fishing license, a few flies and a 2 weight. Grease up the chain on your aging bike, ride past the swimmers to the second bridge, and angle. This area is our area, and it is in desperate need of attention. At least, that’s what I’m writing to ANF.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

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Spring signals tentative rebirth of So. Cal’s beloved West Fork

By Steve Kuchenski
Guest Contributor

YES! Trout are back, albeit in smaller numbers, on the West Fork. (Steve Kuchenski)

YES! Trout are back, albeit in smaller numbers, on the West Fork. (Steve Kuchenski)

So, I decided to ride my bike up near the base of Cogswell Dam yesterday, just to scout out conditions. As you can see from this YouTube link, the West Fork is as challenging as it is beautiful!

The late morning started out with hazy sun, and by the time I started fishing at 10:30, it was cloudy and cool. I didn’t see any major hatch, though at some places there were plenty of black gnats that were fascinated with my sunglasses. The water upstream seemed slightly cloudy, and the riverbed is still dark (and slippery!)from last fall’s leaf liter, so it is nearly impossible to see the dark shadows of fish amid all the protective structure.

At one pool, I saw no signs of feeding or other activity. I tried various drys and midges without any response,

BUGGY spring comes to the West Fork. (Steve Kuchenski)

BUGGY spring comes to the West Fork. (Steve Kuchenski)

but I’ve been told that when nothing else seems to be happening, try a woolly bugger. This approach was immediately rewarded with four-five flashes, each probably between 5-to-8 inches long. I don’t have any significant experience stripping WBs, so it took me awhile to get the hang of it, but eventually this 6-inch rainbow totally gulped the WB.

I stopped at several other pools, riffles and plunges along the way. I saw one fish flip out of the water, but never landed

WITH proper care, this little guy will grow up to make us all proud. (Steve Kuchenski)

WITH proper care, this little guy will grow up to make us all proud. (Steve Kuchenski)

anything after that, despite drifting multiple flies and midges. There were stoneflies, ants and other terrestrials out in force, but the fish remained hunkered down, and I don’t know if it was due to the low pressure of the impending storm, or the lack of a hatch, or just my own technique.

You have to bring your best game to the West Fork. I think it’s good that we’ll each spend a concentrated effort on individual segments of the river: It will give us a chance to see what works best for any given riffle or pool.

And, in any case, it will be a beautiful day.

Dark thoughts gather about the San Gabriel’s West Fork

WEST FORK: Even as new signage and a bridge go up, the fly fishing has gone way down.. (Jim Burns)

WEST FORK: Even as new signage and a bridge go up, the fly fishing has gone way down.. (Jim Burns)

UPDATE: This post is more than four years old, but continues to get traffic, so I wanted to give readers the lowdown, as of mid-July, 2017.  California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife recruited members of the Pasadena Casting Club and other groups to fish, snorkel and help access the health of the stream. The result: encouraging. Ten anglers caught 60 fish in five hours, all rainbows, ranging from under six to more than 13 inches. Two years ago, a similar study found only 20 fish. Our beloved West Fork is going in the right direction once again.

There’s no doubt that fly fishing is very much akin to love — true love, of course — and that possibly as writer Thomas Wolfe once lamented, “you can’t go home again.” Maybe all of that’s overstating the case, but a recent return trip to the West Fork left me wringing my hands.

Here’s how my day went, after some two years of staying away.

— Had Wednesday off … a near perfect weekday to go fishing

— Weather was perfect, in the 80s

— Found a spot in the lower parking area. That never happens

— Stoked

— Enjoy new signage for Cogswell Dam on locked gate

— Decide to hitch when a Prius driver opened the locked gate. She initially stopped, got spooked and waved as she accelerated past me

— Spot new, unfinished bridge to upper parking lot. Frown. Good roads make bad fishing

— Resumed enjoying day, trying to spot fish in the put-and-take area. Can’t see any trout

— Met a friendly dog named Crazy, or some such. He followed me up the canyon, much to owner’s chagrin

— Patient owner walked all the way back to get Crazy. Crazy followed me again. Owner carried Crazy off toward car

— Truck passed me on the road. Wonder how many people have a key to that damned gate?

And so some dark clouds began trying to intrude on my happy day off. At the first bridge, I saw two small trout, doing their round-and-round dance in the water, which I mistakenly called a mating ritual in these pages. Ready to thread up my ancient Orvis No. 2, 6-foot rod, I realized I’d torn the loop off the fly line on my last adventure. Darn. Time for a barrel knot between the 7x, 12 foot tippet (length not smart for this water …), and how do you tie a barrel knot again? Oh yeah, that’s how you do it.

— Fish gone

— Spied the trail up Bear Creek. Took it

— Caught one fingerling trout

— Wonder at the beauty of this (for me) discovery. Splendid to be alive

— Where were the fish? Waterbugs fooled me, as they looked like rises from a distance

— Made acquaintance of nice duck couple. They also wondered where the fish were

After what seemed like forever, even in this California canyon paradise, finally I spotted tiny fish rising. I rested on a boulder by the water and thought “tiny fish beat no fish,” so I threaded a tiny dry something, but to no avail. Then, a miniscule wired midge under a small yellow sallie nymph. Nada. Yes, there were plenty of tug, tug, tugs, but that was it.

— Exasperated, took closer look at fish. Whoa. These weren’t trout, but arroyo chub (I think)

Arroyo Chub are little guys that love to patrol their lanes. (Courtesy Sierra Club)

Arroyo Chub are little guys that love to patrol their lanes. (Courtesy Sierra Club)

— Had a grand time, out of myself, like being a kid, forgot the world, gloomy thoughts. Note to self: Must take wife picnicking here

— Headed back to road. Got decent pull at the Bear Creek pool that is fished by everyone and his mom, aunt, uncle, frenemy and others

Then, I saw three trucks parked right there, right by the side of the road, on the two sides of the road, actually

— Fly fisher having no luck at all by bridge

— Walking, hope to meet Crazy again

— Older gentleman in Long Beach Fly Fishing Club shirt, driving truck, asked me, “If I took ’em all out?” I say “no”

— Fight off gloomy thoughts like why do any of us think we can fish in the first place

— Start car with half-smile on my face. Was expecting full smile

And there you have it. This area needs help, folks. It is so achingly beautiful, yet at the same time so neglected by the thoughtless weekend crowds, the swimming, the fishing pressure, the easy access, the environmental lawsuits, the lack of any official presence … what else? I know for certain, I’ll not follow Wolfe’s advice. I’ll brave the traffic and maybe even Crazy to fish the catch-and-release section upriver one more time.

But, unfortunately, I’m not hopeful.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Which is your fav, the West or East Fork of the San Gabriel River?

Got Fish? You want to have caught plenty before filling out the survey. (Jim Burns)

Spurred on by an article in the current California Fly Fisher magazine, I spent most of Friday hiking and fishing on the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Richard Alden Bean’s enticing article made me do it.

“The East Fork is a truly wild river in its upper sections and has recently been added to both the Wild Trout Program and the Heritage Trout Program of the California Department of Fish and Game,” he wrote.

This was good news, if for no other reason than I’ve got a golden trout and squat else toward my plaque. As the DFG website says, “By catching six different forms of California native trout from their historic drainages and photographing these fish you can receive a colorful, personalized certificate featuring the art of renowned fish illustrator Joseph Tomelleri.”  Your specific prey, according to Bean, is the coastal rainbow trout.

But …

First off, I loathe Friday, Saturday and Sunday fishing in the San Gabes, because what you end up with is people, people and more people. You’ve got your hikers, your waders, your drinkers; you’ve got your families with young children and water-wading dogs trying to help a fisherman by pointing at the one fish in the pool before pawing at the splash. I mean I’m very happy all sorts of different folks use the water on the weekends … just not so happy to be confined to using it with them, due to that little thing called making money (Remember the adage, “You’ve either got time, or money.”).

Long story short, I got Friday-skunked on the East Fork, and it’s never a fun feeling. As I tramped out near dusk, I vowed to come back soonest, but I wonder if readers of this blog wouldn’t share some inspiration in the meantime.

Which is your favorite fork?

Don't you just hate getting skunked? (Jim Burns)

Do you prefer the West with its accessible bike path and easy downhill ride back to the parking lot? Its fishable access ramps?

Or, do you like the East Fork, known for its pack-station appeal, and winding path to the fabled “Bridge to Nowhere”?

See you on the river, Jim Burns