No steelhead in L.A. River’s mouth not the whole story

Twenty-five-inch steelhead trout caught in the Los Angeles River near Glendale, in January, 1940. (Courtesy family of Dr. Charles L. Hogue)
Twenty-five-inch steelhead trout caught in the Los Angeles River near Glendale, in January, 1940. (Courtesy family of Dr. Charles L. Hogue)
Every so often, news stories come along that seem to tell the story, but, when enveloped in a larger context, turn out to be a shadow of the actual truth. Reading yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, old school (in paper!), I found environmental writer Louis Sahagun’s “Searching for the elusive steelhead trout,” to be in need of context and rebuttal.

Those newshounds among you know that Vox, formed by some former Washington Post staffers, thrives on its policy of “understanding the news.” Context in this digital age is king.

If I’d never fly-fished or reported on the L.A. River, I would have read Sahagun’s piece and asked “Why would anyone attempt a fish study in this toxic waste water?” and probably had a very good laugh at the photograph of the fool from Trout Unlimited with a sock attached to his line, and snickered at the abandoned shopping cart shot.

But, as it stands, I have a platform to cry foul on this piece. I started lariverflyfishing some four years ago with the tagline “fishing for carp, waiting for steelhead,” and have amassed over 1,000 followers and 46,000-plus hits as of this writing.

For those of you who actually do enjoy recreational fishing in Glendale Narrows, you know this story doesn’t begin to tell the broader context of our river.

And for those of you who participated in the latest clean-up efforts, you know that if Friends of the Los Angeles River, the organization that has organized clean-ups for the past 25 years, had gotten a piece of this area, the junk would have been removed.

FOLAR released “State of the River: The Fish Study” six years ago. This singular Los Angeles River study combed four areas for fish, a Glendale site, Newell site, Figueroa site and a Riverside site. The seine nets captured carp, tilapia and sunfish in significant numbers. Because of this study I realized an LARFF contributor had really caught a legend when he recently captured a largemouth bass, because only one appeared in the study, as compared to nearly 250 tilapia.

The most telling lack of context in the Times piece is not mentioning that this study was funded to complete the work begun in 2008. As the study says:

“These coastal and estuarine species will not be

A steelhead rendered on the Guardians of the River gate. Once these oceangoing trout ran up the river. Time for them to return.
A steelhead rendered on the Guardians of the River gate. Once these oceangoing trout ran up the river. Time for them to return.

discussed further here, but will be present and of
concern when work extends to the lower Los Angeles
River. It is becoming increasingly apparent also that
coastal lagoons in and near the mouths of central
and Southern California rivers are very important to
at least one of the two anadramous species known
to have occurred in the Los Angeles River system,
steelhead trout. Thus, they are also important to their
ability to return, spawn, and establish a population.”

A piece that continues to get hits on LARFF is one I originally wrote for California Fly Fisherman magazine. Although events have moved forward significantly since I penned “Will steelhead ever return to the L.A. River” in 2012, most of it remains sound, including this quote from the river’s noted poet:

“Maybe next time they rechannelize it, they do it to the specifications of the steelhead,” mused Lewis MacAdams. “Have a panel of steelhead, fins up, fins down. Let the steelhead decide the shape of the channel. I’ve always felt that what we were doing was calling things home. You know, ‘it’s OK to come back’. There is something to that.”

See you on the river, Jim Burns

6 thoughts on “No steelhead in L.A. River’s mouth not the whole story”

  1. So, is there a study of restoring the estuarine habitat of the LA River to complement the other sections? It seems that if steelhead were somehow able to repopulate the river it would be a quick pass through the warm water to achieve cold head water gravel. I can only wish you the best from here.


    1. You’d think so, wouldn’t you, Gregg. But the fact is that the major restoration push is on seven miles just north of downtown, which is probably 20 or so from Long Beach. They’ve found steelhead landlocked in the San Gabriel Mountains, but the way it currently stands, there will never be a clear access to the ocean, which is a shame. Spot on about the quick pass through that warm water.

  2. Robert here, and I am the person that you characterized as a fool from LA Times article. Don’t know you personally, and I haven’t seen you at any of our countless meetings promoting steelhead habitat improvements, but I can guarantee you we have a number of dedicated volunteers who have spent countless hours for the benefit of our local salmonids. Would be nice to get proper respect from those of like mind, since we get plenty of guff from City Councils, water districts, and bloggers.

    I’d like to invite you to one of our monthly meetings; go to our website at for the date (second Monday of every month) and map to the location. You’ll then be able to provide facts rather than opinions to your readers. There are steelhead running up Malibu Creek, Topanga Creek, Ballona Creek, Coyote Creek (trib to SG river), San Juan Creek, Trabuco Creek, Santa Margarita River, the San Luis Rey, etc. We can provide documentation on these and also better inform you about steelhead migration patterns that would allow a run up the LA River.

    Hope to see you there!

    1. Hello, Robert, and welcome to LARFF.

      A careful reading of the piece would reveal that, indeed, I don’t think you’re a fool at all. Rather, my commentary is based on the graphical choices that the LAT used to characterize the river. When I read the LAT piece, I actually commented to my wife that this was a sorry way to portray anyone dedicated enough to be volunteering to find steelhead in the river, especially given the difficult conditions on that day. When you talk about not receiving “proper respect from those of like mind,” I’m not at all sure how you could read that into what I wrote. Mine was a defense of the river that I love. I’m sorry that you read it as a hostile comment, for that was not at all my intent.

      I’m also a bit concerned that you are mixing up fact and opinion journalism. This piece is very clearly my own opinion on the LAT article. That’s what it is meant to be. If you peruse the site, you’ll find lots of articles that are staaight news pieces.

      That said, thanks for the invitation. I do appreciate it, as well as the valuable work Trout Unlimited does all over the country. — Jim

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