If there’s one waterway that encompasses the struggles of nature in this post-modern age, it’s the West Fork of the San Gabriel. While it provides a respite from our metropolis, as a place to learn and practice fly fishing, ride a bike as far up the canyon as you can, or just hang out wondering what the hatch is, you can feel the magic, a renewal that goes deeper than natural beauty, radiating from the land itself.
I used to take my now-grown son here, pulling him along on his inlines behind my old bike. I’ve had my heart soar with uplift current-riding red tail hawks, had it broken by endless amounts of trash left by the careless, had it lifted again by volunteers who worked tirelessly to save the remaining fish after the devastating Bobcat Fire. This is the place I come to mend my broken heart, a place to gather strength and hope for the future.
So on this Earth Day, I offer a video from the intrepid Steve Kuchensky shot on April 15. Steve reports water temperature was 56 degrees. The silt is gone; the mud is gone and that beautiful water flows like no other! Meanwhile, CJ Vapenik, talked with an angler who caught a trout on a dry. We love to stretch the truth on the water, but this truth is gold. A guy caught a fish on a dry while he was wading on the West Fork in 2023!
Ever since the Bobcat Fire razed our beloved West Fork of the San Gabriel, I’ve dreaded going back to take a look and cast a line. I remember taking my son roller blading here when he was around 8 years old. Now 38, that’s been a long time. The place for me was one of contradictions: like the Wild & Scenic designation, while tons of weekend trash overwhelmed the streams’ skeleton staff; or the designation as endangered for the Yellow-Legged frog that ended stocking of the West Fork, which continued to wow fishers such as myself in years to come — without stocking. Of the picture of a supposed steelhead caught above the dam that set off a stir among biologists and enthusiasts alike, only to later be categorized as another rainbow.
Through it all, I loved the West Fork and all the good times it brought into my life.
So, it was with some trepidation that I inflated the tires on the used Schwinn my wife bought me pre-pandemic specifically to visit the WF, oil its rusty chain, brush off its leaves and cobwebs and load it into my go-to adventure car, the 2005 Prius. My heart felt unsettled as I drove to get my $3 cup at Starbucks (actually a mere $2.80 if you bring your own mug …), and followed my familiar route, exiting the 210 at what was once the Miller Brewery exit, heading up the canyon.
I nodded my head as I passed my friend Analiza’s house, thought about the time I had dinner with a woman who I actually think was possessed at El Encanto, heard the words of another friend, Bernard, as he told me about pulling a giant from the lower river. It was like that driving all the way up — the blissful insistency of one’s own memories from a long life.
I almost turned off at the East Fork to avoid having to see what I didn’t want to see. Earlier pictures from braver souls showed a moonscape, where once thick, native trees had shaded much of the seven-plus miles of bike path to the Cogswell Dam. But, I persevered and pulled into the oddly quiet parking lot. Also, odd was the fact that I passed some three Highway Patrol cruisers at the bike lane’s entrance, and a fourth at the top end of the parking lot. Never in all the years of my visits had I seen cops there, nor received a ticket for forgetting to put my ancient Adventure Pass on my dash board. This was new.
As I looked closer, I saw why — several pieces of heavy equipment working hard, making noise, lumbering their way, foot by foot, up the canyon road.
But I thought “what the hell?” as I unloaded the bike and put on my sling, full of lunch, water, and a mix of dries and nymphs. “Maybe I can just stay casual and glide on by them.”
I was reminded on the clipboard scene in Michael Keaton’s journalist thriller, “The Paper,” in which he declares “Henry: A clipboard and a confident wave will get you into any building in the world!”
Of course, as I approached the gate and the oddly dressed big fella in the old car by the gate, I didn’t have a clip board, only a 4 weight Winston Ibis.
As he lumbered out of his car staring at me, I finally asked, “Can I help you?”
To which he replied, “No, I can help you.”
And he dropped the bomb, the one that let me off the hook of actually seeing what had become of my — our — beloved West Fork.
“It is closed for repairs to the dam.”
“Probably three to four months.”
He still eyed me with suspicion, and I returned the favor. After all the pats, I didn’t expect a guy dressed in old clothes, exiting a beater to be the security guard. But …
Then, I remember: when this closure began I’d run an incorrect headline a thoughtful reader caught. I’d written the WF would be closed on weekends and open on weekdays. It was the other way around. And … this was Tuesday.
Glumly I rode back to the car, stopping to watch all the grunting machinery do whatever they were all doing. But unlike watching big dump trucks and towering cranes gleefully as a kid, instead I felt the weight of loss once again on my shoulders.
To cheer myself up, I decided to drive north to Crystal Lake. In all those years, I’d never driven past the West Fork parking lot! I drove past the North Fork, and, as the elevation steadily climbed from 2,000 to 3,000 feet and beyond, tight valleys filled with the fall colors of yellow, auburn and burnished brown. And the chill was on, beautiful, just the right amount of cool on this cloudless afternoon.
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.
UPDATE: The bike path will remain closed to the public on weekdays through December, 2023.
ARCADIA, Calif.— One of Angeles National Forest’s roads in the Upper San Gabriel River watershed—West Fork Road or National Forest System Road No. 2N25—will be temporarily closed to all recreationists on weekdays only (except on Federal holidays) for public safety from April 1 through Dec. 1 in both 2022 and 2023. This road closure is requested by Los Angeles County Public Works for sediment removal operations.
The goal is to remove up to 2 million cubic yards of sediment that has accumulated in the Cogswell Reservoir because of the Station Fire of 2009 and the Bobcat Fire of 2020. (Sediment has accumulated because fire burns away vegetation and leaves little to hold soil and rocks in place.)
Project work includes unclogging inlets/outlets and excavating and transporting sediment from the reservoir via heavy construction equipment to the adjacent sediment placement site. This sediment removal work provides vital flood control capacity to protect downstream communities.
Those of a certain age will remember Porky Pig’s sign off, “ba-dee, ba-dee, ba-dee, that’s all folks,” as the 2021 fishing season ends on many of our rivers today. And if you remember the joys of Porky Pig and his friends Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and hapless Elmer Fudd, you probably hope for another year, instead of taking it for granted. I certainly know I do.
If 2020 was our COVID year, 2021 has been all about reentry, and it’s hard to figure. Everybody seems to be mad and raging about something. I have opinions, but my posts, all 635 of them, are not political here on LA River. I just began my 11th year, which is hard to believe.
Also, as readers have noticed, I don’t write nearly as much as I used to. I’ve trimmed back on traditional print as well, so you won’t see my byline in California Fly Fisher, but I’ll continue for Fallon’s Angler. At this point in my life, I get to be choosy.
Back to the year. From Western press reports, I expected overrun river conditions along the likely suspects, where new anglers would resemble a herd of raging bulls in Pamplona. Heat, passion and too much flask time can lead to inconsideration for your fellow anglers. So can just plain etiquette ignorance. One of the beautiful things about fly fishing is how much respect we have for each other on the water, as well as for fish and their habitats. Let’s not lose that beautiful part of our sport as our numbers increase. “Share the water.”
I still mourn the loss of the West Fork of the San Gabriel because of the Bobcat Fire, which, as it turns out, is irreplaceable as a beauty spot within a short drive from L.A. that had lots of small rainbows, a bike lane, shade and happy times. When it will actually return to those conditions, is anyone’s guess, but the stream is slated to reopen April 1, 2022. I hope that date isn’t another sign of things to come.
I was lucky enough to fish the nearest good water from L.A., the Kern, in winter and spring with no other anglers in sight on the 20-Mile Stretch. I went out with Rob Buehler of Buehler Brothers fame, on each occasion. Great guide and great guy.
Spring became summer with the drought tightening a dry, dusty grip across the West. Did you know Elko, Nevada, still has a fly shop and a weekly fishing column? The columnist and shop owner, Joe Doucette, even calls you back when you’re trying to find a spot to catch a Bonneville Cutthroat Trout in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. For lots of reasons, that didn’t happen (yet), but my chats with Joe led me to a beaver pond in Nevada’s Ruby Range, full of small, radiant cutties. My wife and I missed a mountain lake, but even with a sky dirty gray from persistent Western wildfires, those small fish were a wonder to behold.
Next, I skipped Idaho’s Henry’s Fork out of agoraphobia, and instead went desert fishing on the awesome Owyhee River in Oregon at the Idaho border. Andrew Catt and I left Boise at 4:30 in the morning to beat the unrelenting summer heat. After an hour’s drive, we found very cold water and very active browns, even as the temperature soared into the high 90s.
The end of the season found me on the Western side of the Sierra last month with Trout Unlimited South Coast friends and new friends. The water levels at Edison and Henderson were heart-bracingly low, as was the drive into the back country through acres and acres of Camp Fire burn. We’d cancelled our trip with Jimmie Morales last year because of COVID, so it was pretty amazing to have Pat from Seattle, Jack, the nomad, and Rocky from Texas come join in. Several of our group without all-wheel drive vehicles got snowed in and had to spend an extra day. (Some have all the luck … .)
As for the LA River, it continues to be the source of crazy stories, like the one my friend, Bob, told me recently about the opera singer who enjoys the same carp honey hole. Only in LA, right? Earlier in the year, Bob and I couldn’t figure out what the mysterious raindrops in a forlorn pond were all about, until with a net he and his fiancée, Karen, discovered lots of large bullfrog tadpoles coming up for air. At first, I was madly casting to them, thinking they were blue sunfish rises!
So, readers, my fishy advice? Enjoy getting outdoors; enjoy the camaraderie of those of like mind; put yourself on a social media diet; show the ones you love how much you actually do love them and keep a little in reserve for those who come off cranky, but probably just need a hug. Keep it light and easy streamside, our refuge. This year I fished with guys who have wildly different political views from mine, and guess what – we all enjoyed each other’s much-needed company.
What will next year bring us all? As Porky Pig might stutter, “Stay tuned, folks … .”
Update: March 30, 2022 — The official response is the West Fork will remain closed indefinitely. The unofficial intel is the four disabled fishing ramps are submerged in mud and debris, and unusable at this time. Crews will be working to clear these areas as well as the bike path to Cogswell Dam. At some point, the area will reopen during weekends, but be closed during weekdays. Stay tuned.
Letter to the Editor from California Fly Fisher: I much appreciated Jim Burns’s story on the West Fork of the San Gabriel, which did a good job of capturing the character of a place that I have been visiting for decades. (“The West Fork of the San Gabriel,” September/October 2020.) Unfortunately, shortly after the issue came out, much of that river’s watershed was reduced to charcoal and ash by the Bobcat Fire.
By the way, readers of Cal Fly Fisher might like to know that the Oct. 13 issue of the Los Angeles Times has a great article on the ecological devastation wrought by the fire, and it noted that the river also faces additional harm from mud flows when the rains of winter arrive. That’s a helluva one-two punch against this little fishery. Only time will tell whether it has been KOed for keeps — Fred Martinez, Los Angeles.
Thanks for the props. I loved the West Fork, as I can tell you did. I thought you would appreciate this update from John Clearwater, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service:
In the course of four major fires we lost 23-percent, or nearly a quarter, of the Angeles this year. To include some of our most beautiful areas. It’s been a tough, heartbreaking year.
Regarding the closure of the West Fork, the Bobcat Fire closure area extends to April 1, 2022. I don’t anticipate that the West Fork will reopen much sooner than that.
I was in there a few weeks ago with LA Times reporter, Louis Sahagun. The area is near the origin site for the Bobcat Fire, and one of the areas that was most impacted by the Fire.
Unfortunately, much of it now looking like an ashen lunar landscape. It was clearly once a mountain paradise. Now it’s heartbreaking to see. This winter I suspect the road may disappear in a number of places due to the lack of vegetation and likelihood of runoff coming down the mountainsides. During my time in there recently we encountered a number of rock slides breaking loose, rolling off the cliff tops and impacting onto the roadway, with rocks varying in size from that of a baseball to a soccer ball. Any of which would have been fatal if it had struck someone on the head.
Regardless, there is much work that will be required in the West Fork for public safety, forest recovery and habitat protection.
As for plans for the trout in the West Fork, I’ve spoken with the District Ranger team and they said the California Department of Fish & Wildlife is planning to soon relocate a number of trout from the West Fork to other areas of the San Gabriel river. They could not provide a lot of details.
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?
Fishing has plummeted on this wild & scenic river to levels probably never seen before. Help.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
— 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)
— 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.