Tag: Los Angeles Times

LA Times: A hiker’s heartbreak on returning to L.A.’s fire-ravaged mountains

The closure is over, with some restrictions, but the damage from the Bobcat Fire won’t be for years to come. If you have any fly-fishing stories from the West or East forks of the San Gabriel, please email them to me for posting. I haven’t been able to return to the West Fork quite yet … .

Imagine if, every so often, a cataclysmic storm washed away a mile of beach. One year, the Santa Monica Pier — gone. Five or 10 years later, the cliffs overlooking Lunada Bay fall into the ocean. The scale of our climate emergency would be achingly clear to the legions of Angelenos who treasure our coast.

Something similar is happening in our mountains, where massive firestorms year after year are turning shaded trails into ashen hellscapes, permanently altering forests that have adapted over thousands of years to survive fire, but not this kind of fire. A few weeks ago, I got my first intimate glimpse of this destruction on a trail that opened to hikers April 1, following a 16-month closure by the U.S. Forest Service after the last fire.

I’m talking not about the Sierra Nevada and its giant sequoia groves — though the destruction there is grave — but rather the humble San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, right on our doorstep. These mountains, which top out at more than 11,000 feet, make people who live in Los Angeles and love to hike in thin air extremely lucky folks.

We hikers are a cheerful bunch. But the sense lately that our forests have been pushed beyond their ability to recover has turned many into anxiety-stricken doomsayers, ever worried that the next cloud of smoke rising over the mountains on a hot, windy day means the fire has finally come for their spot.

And the last fire did indeed come for my spot — or I should say our spot, since it was a place I enjoyed with my three young children only months before the Bobcat fire stripped it of its foliage. That fire, from September to December 2020, scorched roughly 115,000 acres; it was the second-largest wildfire on record in Los Angeles County, occurring only 11 years after the 2009 Station fire, which burned more than 160,000 acres (about the size of the city of Chicago). In fact, some areas of the forest were still recovering from the Station fire when the Bobcat fire devastated them again.

Now, I know burns are often beneficial to forests, but what came through much of the trail I hiked two weeks ago, high in the San Gabriels off Angeles Crest Highway, was cataclysmic. The dense forest was reduced to burned trunks that from a distance looked like blackened toothpicks. The nearby highway, once hidden from view by healthy trees, was almost always visible, as if to remind hikers of the fossil-fuel consumption driving this destruction.

Still, about halfway into the hike, there were signs of survival and renewal. An area that I feared had been damaged looked almost unscathed. Other hikers were enjoying this section of the trail, perhaps thankful as I was. This contrast — between being utterly unprepared for the destruction I saw and pleasantly surprised by what remained — prompted me to check in with an expert about this forest and these mountains, just to see if I was being alarmist.

“Sadly, no,” said Alan Coles, a 30-year U.S. Forest Service volunteer who spends most of his weekends working on public trails. “Because it’s the plants that adapt to the climate, not the climate that adapts to the plants.”

I knew of Coles from his letters to The Times about forest management and his contributions to an online trail guide. He has scouted some of the areas hit particularly hard by the Bobcat fire, working with trail restoration crews to allow for safe public access to the forest in time for the April 1 reopening (parts of the Bobcat fire burn area remain closed). He told me the area I saw, about 6,700 feet in elevation, was hit hard, so the pines and firs there were almost completely killed off, leaving little chance of recovery.

Over the coming years, he said, the dead trees will fall, probably to be replaced by lower-lying chaparral. He pointed out places where this is already happening, in areas burned by the 2009 Station fire and previous disasters. Throw in global warming and the droughts and wildfires to come that will surpass what we can imagine now, and it’s hard to imagine future wanderers enjoying the generous tree canopies that shade our mountain climbs on sunny days.

My conversation with Coles felt at times like an impromptu grief counseling session. We traded stories of places permanently changed, animals and plants disappearing from the forest, and our experiences with the dreaded poodle dog bush (it’s a “fire follower” growing everywhere now, and under no circumstances should you touch it).

With much of the Bobcat fire burn area reopened and the summer hiking season about the begin, Coles and other trail workers want visitors to understand the forest is still in recovery: So stay on the trail, pack out trash, keep dogs leashed and — for the love of God — avoid starting the next fire.

As we were leaving the San Gabriels recently, I told my three children to look around and try to imprint on their memories what they were experiencing at that moment — the smells, the breeze, the rocky ridgeline trapping the last rays of daylight. Remember it, because every visit to the mountains could be your final goodbye to the forest you know.

— Paul Thornton, Los Angeles Times Letters Editor

During the pandemic, the river calls to a new generation of fishers

FIRST FISH on the LA River for L.A. Times reporter Lila Seidman. We had a blast on the water. (Courtesy Lila Seidman)


From the Los Angeles Times: Despite its concrete casing, installed in the late 1930s to rein in once-frequent flooding, signs of the natural river persist. Besides birds of many feathers, it’s home to beefy carp, small-mouth bass, tilapia and — once upon a time — steelhead trout. If you tilt your gaze in just the right way, away from the overpasses and concrete shores, it could be Georgia.

There are grander digs to fish — rushing rivers with glittering trout in Mammoth Lakes and Kern County — but they lack one of the L.A. River’s greatest strengths: convenience.

Read the whole story here (paywall). 

Quick mends: Will El Nino be able to flush fish invaders from LA River?

Keith Mosier nabs his first L.A. River carp. Oh, yeah! (Ken Lindsay)

A straight flush? That’s the topic environmental writer Louis Sahagun ponders in today’s LA Times, and the hypothesis being tested in this recent citizen science event: Can nonnative species survive in So Cal’s boom-or-bust water cycles?

For those of us who enjoy fishing them, the answer is “sure, hope so!” But as many of you can attest, the bass, also a nonnative, went away for many months following last winter’s storms.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

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

Quick Mends: Army Corps levels 43 acres of Sepulveda Basin habitat

This fly-fisherman just about set the river on fire! Maybe we should send this snap to "Ghost Hunters."
This fly-fisherman is staking carp, a non-native species of the Los Angeles River. Would all carp be killed in the river once reconstruction begins?

I was shocked to read this story in the Los Angeles Times today that begins: “An area that just a week ago was lush habitat on the Sepulveda Basin’s wild side, home to one of the most diverse bird populations in Southern California, has been reduced to dirt and broken limbs — by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

Read the entire story by Louis Sahagun here.

With the public comment period for the long-awaited ARBOR study coming up this spring, the Corps may have a public relations nightmare on its hands. In this historic moment, the pubic will weigh in on which of four alternative reconstruction plans makes the most sense. That plan will then be sent to Washington for approval and funding. Make no mistake, the river will be changed, no matter which plan moves forward. The Corps and the city of Los Angeles are partners in the redevelopment.

As one highly placed city official emailed me recently (in other words, before this happened), “Remember that the fundamental purpose of the Study is to improve the ecosystem values in the LA River — and that means riparian habitat that is good for wildlife, including fish species.”

Just last week, I walked part of the river with a Corps biologist, who told me that she studied maps from the late 1800s to see which plants were prevalent along the river during that time. Re-establishing those plants along the river will undoubtedly be part of all four alternatives.

Up until this happened, Sepulveda Basin was the beautiful place where environmentalists, river advocates, Los Angeles and the Corps had found common ground.  But with the Audubon Society calling for an investigation into the loss of habitat for 250 species of birds, as well as mammals, reptiles and fish, my guess would be the trust the Corps has been building within the community has been sheared by their bulldozer’s edge. Developing.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Quick Mends: San Gabriel River faces increased human pressures

Could this sign soon include “national recreation area”? (Courtesy Forest Camping)

The only time I’ve been up to the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, I got the last parking spot, passed by a pretty rough crew, and — most importantly — got skunked. The last part is why I haven’t been back.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Louis Sahagun pens a remarkably scary portrait of a river that’s facing real problems, both from budget cuts that make law enforcement difficult and from the interests of competing groups.

What I found telling is that of the players Sahagun interviewed, not one was a fly fisherman. Believe me, we’re out there in the Sab Gabes, but I think word is out that the East Fork needs some serious work before it once again becomes a local fishing destination.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

The DWP needs to do more on the lower Owens

The Lower Owens River Project is all explained on these nifty signs, but that doesn’t help your cast through the tules. (Jim Burns)

Stoked by a warm-water fishing article that recently appeared in Cal Fly Fisher mag, my son and I stopped in Lone Pine over the weekend to check out the lower Owens. After all, I’d fished the ponds behind Bishop for bass and panfish, and this piece sang the praises of throwing a bass bug into the river’s hot summer waters.

After a two-minute ride from town we found, yes, more water flowed; the weather was unseasonably hot as blazes; and we did spot a good-sized bass near a bank.

But now for that all-important cast … bonk. Only the croak of an insistent bull frog kept us smiling.

The looming LORP problem for the fly fisherman remains terrible access. If you’re a tule, you’re really a happy camper surrounded by lots of your tule friends, but if you’re struggling through them, fly rod in hand, feet in the muck leading to where you might find the river’s edge, it’s just not so good. Casting? No way. The only casts we got in were right next to the road.

Last summer, reporter Louis Sagahun from the Los Angeles Times penned:

“The largest river restoration ever attempted in the West — intended to support a cornucopia of wildlife and outdoor activities — has left a 62-mile stretch of the Lower Owens so overrun with cattails, cane and bulrushes that it may take decades to bring them under control.”

Kind of gives a new meaning to “out in the tules,” doesn’t it? (Jim Burns)

He was writing about the Lower Owens River Project, LORP for short, that began about six years ago when L.A. Department of Water and Power began putting more water into the river that it had diverted to Los Angeles Aqueduct since 1913.

It’s a shame to have the restoration project in full swing, as evidenced by the nifty explanatory signage about the project and a new, shiny access gate, and not be able to fish. Anybody got a lawn mover?

I’d skip this one until there’s a solution, possibly like the disabled fishing platform on the ponds outside Bishop.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Quick Mends: Say goodbye to the Adventure Pass

Could this sign soon include "national recreation area"? (Courtesy Forest Camping)

Darn, you must be saying to yourself, I loved paying $30 a year for the right to park my car on public lands to go fishing. Well, according to this article in the Los Angeles Times, the unpopular fee is about to join such other relics of the past as the Edsel, 8-track tape players and  the same newspaper’s Food section (Today was its last issue …).

In other words, California fly fishing just got a little bit less expensive!

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Habitat pits ranchers against Golden Trout in the Eastern Sierra

Golden Trout: The state fish is small, but beautiful (Courtesy Guy Jeans).

Last summer, a friend and I caught dozens, and dozens, and dozens of Golden Trout, all in one glorious day. Some days on the water produce memories akin to what used to be called a “Polaroid moment,” living for a long while in one’s memory. That was one of those days, when the weather is perfect, the company, just right, and the fishing, downright fantastic.

So it was with keen interest I read Louis Sahagun’s recent piece in the Los Angeles Times about ranchers rights within the Golden Trout Wilderness and the fate of our state fish. The  GTW is a massive 300,000-acre area that sits on the Kern Plateau and is accessible from at least three directions. On its eastern edge from Lone Pine, off Hwy. 395; from the south, accessible from the Sequoia National Park around Mineral King, itself a 30-plus mile adventure on a one-lane, dead-end road; or going north from Kernville.

Remarkably, three of the trout native to the state’s waters are within the area. Besides the California Golden (technically known as the Golden Trout Creek golden trout), there’s also the Little Kern Golden Trout and Kern River Rainbow.

“Common names abound for the golden trout of the Kern River drainage,” writes Robert J. Behnke in his authoritative “Trout and Salmon of North America.”  “This can be confusing because they tend to either pinpoint a fish to a particular stream, such as ‘Volcano Creek golden trout,’ or encompass a diversity of forms under one name, such as ‘California golden trout.’ The dozen or so common names for what are really two subspecies (aguabonita and whitei) of rainbow trout reflects the passion that so many have for this pair of jewel-like fish.”

The goldens my friend and I were stalking end up on many a fly-fisher’s bucket list for good reason: their jewel-like beauty. And, although they were once transported to Cottonwood Lakes, then to Arizona and beyond, the only place they naturally occur is right here, where they evolved in isolation from other trout

Size does matter, of course, but a 10-inch fish here is a monster, with the average running around 5-to-7 inches. They are a feast for the eye, with two red stripes, one on the belly, the other along the lateral line, running to the mouth and under the gill.  Also, look for large black spots – up to 10 – that run laterally as well. Put these together with a predominately yellow-gold color and there’s little reason for their cousins to enter the beauty contest.

This general description will also come in handy when trying to decided if you’ve landed a pure golden or a hybrid, created through breeding with hatchery rainbows. Remember, these very distinct markings mean you’ve got a golden in your net.

David Lentz, who is California Department of Fish and Game’s native trout conservation coordinator, said that the small size is because of 140 years of habitat degradation. “Continued livestock use results in shallower, wider, warmer water,” he said. Waters in their natural state would be both narrower and deeper, which, in turn, would mean fewer goldens that were bigger. The largest section of interconnected meadows for grazing lies in the South Fork of the Kern area. Sections are now being rested for eight-to-nine years at a time to regain this natural habitat. Some environmentalists have argued that the best way to prevent lifestock from grazing in the upper South Fork watershed is to get goldens listed on the Endangered Species Act, according to Behnke.

Meanwhile, you can volunteer for hands on projects to restore this fragile habitat through the Golden Trout Project.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Quick Mends: (legally) kayaking the Los Angeles River

What a difference a year makes!

Last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency declared all 51 miles of the river navigable. This summer … well, it looks as if beginning July 8 for 50 bucks a person you’ll be able to kayak three miles of the rio through the idyllic Sepulveda Basin. For the full scoop, read Louis Sahagun’s piece in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Sign of the times: Kayaking could be coming to a river near you. (Jim Burns)

First off, this pilot program must win the approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Next,the Los Angeles Conservations Corps and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority will partner up to offer these wet-n-wild trips. Details to follow.

A shout out to George Wolfe, who was willing to break the law to get this rolling. Another shout-out to Councilperson Ed Reyes, a champion of the river. And to the many, many others (blogger Joe Linton comes to mind) who have pushed, cajoled, persuaded, informed, and insisted that the Los Angeles River must be transformed from a concrete channel to a natural river, for the people’s use and enjoyment.

See you on the river, Jim Burns