In the world of L.A. urban fishing, the Glendale Narrows portion of the Los Angeles River is frequently and favorably mentioned. And, indeed, today it is a pretty awesome place to get in some local brown-lining.
Forty years ago though, if you said you were going to fish or especially fly fish on the L.A. River, my school chums and I would have probably called you the “Spanglish” equivalent of a hick or an idiot and might even have thrown a few rocks at you if we saw you doing so.
Not that fish weren’t found there — to the contrary, my friends and I spent huge chunks of our summers and many of our weekend hours yanking hand-sized goldfish and catfish out of the various pools and pocket waters using home-made nets and traps we carted down there on our Stingray bicycles.
Likewise, while it is not uncommon today to see a guy wearing a pair of waders while plying the middle reaches of the Narrows, back then it was black canvas and white rubber Chuck Taylors and jeans for everything – hiking, biking, fishing, fighting, football, baseball, basketball, rock-hopping, school, weddings, funerals – everything. You would have definitely caught a portion of grief if you had shown up in rubber pants in those days. Forget about roughing up the Simms Freestones in polluted urban waters, we worried about the “tenderizing” our backsides would get if we couldn’t get our shoes to dry out by the time we got home.
Yeah, things down in the River were a lot different back then.
That’s why it has been such a blast to reconnect with the River through our urban fly ventures. Being able to pass on long forgotten secrets of the river to my fishin’ buddy, Sean (aka the young guy) and re-discover old stomping grounds and stretches of water I used to know the way some guys know the route from couch to kitchen, has been good for the soul.
I’m thrilled at the way the River has matured (recovered is probably a better term). The height and health of the trees, the clarity of the water, the number of bird species and the quantity of catchable fish are all signs of a thriving ecosystem … yet, there is one thought that keeps jumping around in the back of my mind after each visit to the Narrows…
Back in the day, tens of thousands of toads inhabited the River. They were everywhere. They even made annual mass migrations into the surrounding neighborhoods that became the stuff of legend. I can remember one hot summer night when the street literally undulated in the fading light of dusk as an army of toads made their way up from the River – I couldn’t sleep for a week.
Toads where so common that the section of the River tucked between the Golden State Freeway and the old Taylor Rail Yard was, and still is, known locally as “Frogtown”. There is even an art festival known as the Frogtown Art Walk that draws its name from that little piece of SoCal natural history.
It used to be virtually impossible to go down to the River and not see toads. Nowadays, I rarely see them.
Not that I mind all that much.
Truth be told, toads kinda give me the Willys. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a trained biologist. I understand the vital role they play in the balance of things and how they eat insects and such and how they in turn are an important food source for fish and birds. I know that they serve as indicator species – canaries in the global coal mine. I know all that stuff.
It’s just that I have much stronger, visceral memories of unexpectedly stepping on them in the wet grass at twilight and of them jumping out of the dog’s water bowl as I walked by in the dark and of riding my bike into a massive swarm of toadlettes in my haste to get home before my curfew and wiping out as though I had hit a patch of black ice. (If you think parents make a stink over soggy Converses, try ‘splainin’ away “toad kill” all over your good school clothes.)
Some folks speculate that improved water flow and quality have made it less favorable for tadpoles. Others issue dire warnings about climate change and eco-altering toxins. Could be. The water flow is definitely faster than I remember and some of the old familiar rock hops across the River are now partially submerged. There are definitely fewer stagnant pools where tens of thousands of tadpoles used to congregate. Not sure about the toxins theory either. The water sure seems cleaner now. Way more fish live in the River than in times past and I don’t encounter the dreaded Black Ooze nearly as often as I used to. Sure seems to be a lot more birds living down there now too, even some of the supposedly fragile species. I just don’t really know where all the toads went.
I do know that me and the River have this forty year plus history goin’ on and toads or no toads, it’s been a wild ride.
I love this addiction, called urban fly fishin’.
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