It’s another typical summer in the West, too many fires, too little water. Pasadena wants to squeeze the tap further on the Arroyo Seco trickle, and my son wonders if the Oregon wildfires will cancel my fly-fishing trip to the Owyhee River. I wonder as well. Only last summer, after all, I wrote the last piece on fishing the West Fork in the San Gabriel Mountains for California Fly Fisher magazine, before the whole area went up in smoke. The day it published I got emails from two friends saying that the Bobcat Fire was out of control and probably started near Cogswell Dam at the top of the West Fork. Anyone who fishes, bikes or enjoys a hot-day dip mourns its loss and looks forward to the area’s reopening next year.
Depressing, that’s what our new normal can be. Depressing and scary, yet few positives come from pessimism, or the claustrophobia that spirals inward from tightly wound negative thoughts. There’s a difference between being a Pollyanna and a realist. That difference is continuing to make whatever difference you can in a difficult world.
With those revolving thoughts circling my head, I knew it was time to visit the LA with my friend, Bob Blankenship, and spend a few carefree hours at a new spot casting for green sunfish. With every year that passes, I feel more joyful about our own misunderstood water: for me, it is a Tide-scented symbol of hope, full of unlikely adventures and positive experiences. For me, it is a place of camaraderie and proof that a simple life far outshines one full of glitz, glamour and complications. It is Los Angeles in all of its complications: fame is here, as is homelessness; some fish for fun, while others fish for a meal. The LA winds through cities without a care to the ocean, beckoning steelhead to come home. And someday they will.
We walked for a bit, then went our separate ways, Bob’s two dogs, Pepper and Ozzie, keeping us company. At one point, Bob shouted as he pointed across the bank, to a shaded spot, “Los Angeles River Bear!” and sure enough Ozzie’s thick black coat looked like one, his gleaming brown eyes catching the afternoon’s intense sunlight. But mostly we fished in silence, absorbing the sweet nature of the place left forgotten for so long.
Bob quickly hooked and released a sunfish, but it was not my day, or my couple of hours. The skunk was on. A group of kayakers kept their distance as I cast across the water to a likely spot. It was a tough technical cast, just long enough to flummox a decent roll cast, and just a narrow-enough target that the weeds and tree stump were ready to help you remember good casting takes more practice than you’ve been putting in. I came away empty as we signaled to the kayakers in their goofy hats and sunglasses to come though. Few things can be as optimistic as kayaking our river.
As we walked toward the bridge, I noticed crazy water action and began reassembling my short glass rod. So much action it seemed like rain drops from a cloudless opal sky. I could feel the fish fever rising in me, as I balanced on rocks, trying to avoid the mud and yuck to get close enough to those raindrops.
A quick cast — nothing.
Another — same result.
A third — no takers.
And then it began to dawn these weren’t fish, but something else living in that backwater pond away from the LA’s main flow. As I got nearer to the water, the raindrops began to pause and I could also feel the life we have all forgotten about in our rush to live. But … what the hell was it?
Time for a net, so back to the car I double-timed in excitement. Within minutes, Bob and I tried to capture one of these creatures to get a better look than what the quarter-second cornea blips offered. We thought we saw — frogs, and they seemed to have red legs, which could mean a hidden cache of the species whose endangered status has vexed many a Cali fly fisher, from the West Fork, to Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, the short story from over a century ago. (No fly fishing involved …).
After awhile, it was obvious two grown men were being outfoxed by some quick critters, and as Bob vowed to return the next afternoon with a bigger net, three white Great Egrets moved swiftly, yet awkwardly, to our spot. It was amusing to watch these awesome fishers’ beak-stabs miss again and again. Our underwater friends were fast elusive.
The next afternoon, Bob and Karen Barnett succeeded in netting some, and we texted excitedly about what might be. The cellphone shots showed fat tadpoles, some forming into greenish amphibians, but were those legs red? We fretted, well, as least as much as you can fret on a text — if not the red-legged than what?
Somehow the images Bob send me, biologist and friend Rosi Dagit and several other biologists for identification got into my dreams. Counterbalancing the thoughts of finding a hidden cache of a species that has rapidly disappeared in 21st Century California were disturbing images of amphibians with awful deformities, too many legs, some, another head. After all, Frogtown, a.k.a. Elysian Park, got its name from small toads that were everywhere — sidewalks, car windshields, doorsteps, until disappearing in the mid-’80s. I woke up startled the way a bad dream startles you awake, now dreading what the experts might tell us. Nothing left to do but have a morning cup of tea and wait.
And that answer wasn’t long in coming — bullfrogs, that was the expert consensus. Not the hoped for endangered California Red-Legged Frog; nor the amphibian deformities caused worldwide by contaminants and parasites. These were bullfrogs, the eight-inch stuff of boyhood dreams. These were bullfrogs, who seemingly against all odds in L.A., were coming up for air, just like raindrops.
See you on the river, Jim Burns