Tag: San Gabriel Mountains

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

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

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

Wild trout spawn in the San Gabriel Mountains

Yesterday was a great day to fish for trout in So. Cal., but I wasn’t expecting to see this mating dance. In fact, I’ve never seen this behavior before in our local watershed. At first, I thought that maybe a snake had taken a fish, and was rolling over and over to try to get it swallowed. Then, as the action came nearer to me, I was astonished to find the commotion was a pair of amorous native trout.  Watching this miracle of nature make me want to redouble my own personal efforts to protect this region, and to restore it to what it once was. Take a look for yourself. (Be sure to hit “full screen” so that you can see the fish all the way through.)

See you on the river, Jim Burns

San Gabriel Mountains inch closer to national park service protection

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

UPDATE: President Obama created the newest national monument on Oct. 10, 2014, by setting aside 346,000 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Los Angeles’s natural resources have been on fire lately, with a burn that isn’t whipped up from a blistering fall Santa Ana. In June, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership chose the L.A. River as one of seven polluted city waterways to clean up, then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed a pilot kayak and canoe program on the river in August. And now the National Park Service is determining whether our own San Gabes might be suitable for a national recreation area.

According to its website, “The National Park Service (NPS) prepared the Draft San Gabriel Mountains and Watershed Special Resource Study to determine whether all or part of the study area is significant, suitable, and feasible for designation as a unit of the national park system. Congress authorized this study in 2003.

“The study area covers approximately 700,000 acres of land in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan region, including urban communities, local and regional parks and open space, and 415,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest.”

While stopping short of recommending national park protection, the NPS suggests four alternatives:

— expand the current Angeles National Forest to include the area

— turn the vast watershed into a national recreation area

— partner with other agencies to create something else

— or don’t budge.

In our era of downsized America, don’t think the last option might not appeal. After all, California is in the midst of closing 70 state parks to save money, and the national park system remains woefully underfunded. The department’s annual budget is $2.9 billion and includes some 28,000 full-time employees and over 2 million volunteers. President George Bush campaigned on a promise to wipe out an estimated $5 billion backlog in park maintenance projects, which had swelled to $9 billion by 2009, according to CNN, and was reduced by $1 billion through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds.

Michael Kellett, director of the New National Parks Project, told the liberal website Remapping Debate that he would like to see more federal land be made into national parks and be brought under the umbrella of NPS protection, a change he thinks might actually save the tax payers money.

Lovin’ the East Fork of the San Gabriel River at sunset (Jim Burns)

“What is missing from the conversation of the costs of new parks,” he said, “is that we are already paying to manage these lands and that it would probably be cheaper to make them national parks,” because many places adjacent to parks or that could be potential parks are already federally owned. Many are national forests, which are owned by the public but are logged, mined, or otherwise used by private business for small fees. The government maintains the roads and infrastructure of these areas and charges businesses for a permit to used the lands.

In her story, KPCC reporter Kitty Felde tells us that at least two major dems are on board:

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said she was “pleased the National Park Service is taking the next step toward preserving the unique natural resources of the San Gabriel Mountains and Puente Hills,” while Democratic Rep. Judy Chu said she was, “glad to see that the study has incorporated many of the comments voiced by the public, local stakeholders, and members of Congress.”

So … why don’t you get your opinion on the record? The public comment period kicks off at the El Monte Senior Center (odd place for a kick off …) Saturday, Oct. 29, and runs through mid-December.

See you on the river, Jim Burns