Searching for steelhead and the past in Malibu Creek

Special to The Times

A red-tailed hawk is perched high in the bare upper branch of a eucalyptus tree. With a view from the valley to the sea and all the creatures great and small along Malibu Creek, it broadcasts a high, trilling call. And then, impossibly, like a Cessna harassing a P51 Mustang, a crow swoops down, circles it and knocks it from its perch.

Stranger things no doubt have happened here in the Santa Monica Mountains — all within about 200 yards of Britney Spears' house near Serra Retreat and across the water from James Cameron's place.

But I doubt if any stalkarazzi lurking in the brush for that money shot of a pregnant pop star would have been interested in this aerial scene.

Crows chasing hawks is just part of the nature along Malibu Creek in the last couple of miles from Rindge Dam to the ocean.

The January monsoon roared Malibu Creek like it hadn't roared in a hundred years, and today it is a hard walk — either through thick brush, homeless camps and rattlesnake covens along either bank or through the creek itself, swampy and thick with green muck that hides boulders and holes and threatens ankles at every step.

Were there any fish in there? That was the question, which could not really be answered because any kind of fishing is illegal in Malibu Creek.

So equipped with good wading boots — but without a pole or a box of flies — I walked from the sea to the dam, from a hot spring afternoon into that magic hour when Malibu's light transforms from harsh overhead glare to a cool, shadowy slant that brings out coastal desert colors.

So, again, were there any fish in there? Any devout fly-fisherman driving across the Malibu Creek bridge or along Malibu Canyon has to wonder. Malibu Creek looks promising, and then there are stories of what it once was: an epic little steelhead river that would entice Spencer Tracy to halt production of shows when the fish were moving. But those days are long gone, slowly ended by the Rindge Dam that was built in 1926 and limited the steelhead run to the last two miles of the creek.

Steelhead are like movie stars. They like space and privacy, and they will swim from the mouth of the Columbia to Idaho and back to get it. The Rindge Dam has silted in over the decades, and the lower part of Malibu Creek has been grassed, trashed, populated and polluted. Steelhead are very rare now. Shopping carts aren't.

Malibu Creek has echoes of other places. The upper stretch — from Malibu Creek State Park to Highway 101 — could stand in for the Gallatin Gateway in Montana if shot from the right angle, and like the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz, it once was a proud steelhead river. Today it is a nature walk that leads you under the gaze of lavish houses worth tens of millions of dollars, a little like Warm Springs in Sun Valley, Idaho.

This May, all the elements were in place: The creek was flowing along nicely, there were bugs and more bugs swarming the air and hopping on the water. A lot of the creek was bouldered and mossy, but there were decent stretches of semi-fast water and chest-deep pools where it was easy to imagine big rainbows and steelhead hiding out. But not a sign of a fish, any fish, anywhere.

It was a hard slog up to the Rindge Dam and back, sometimes forcing me to follow horse trails or go inland, up and around, but there too are surprises, like a grove of golden-orange poppies that looked as if they'd come from some garish movie set.

After several hours of poking and doubling back, ankles threatened by slippery rocks and rattlesnakes, I reached the dam. The water was deep and cool, but something stopped me from diving in. The whole stretch just looked and felt toxic. Malibu Creek has been trashed by man and nature. With enough money, the whole habitat could be restored. It's easy to picture a nice river path, with bicyclists and dreamers from Malibu Lagoon and upstream.

After several hours, I was walking over the bridge back to Cross Creek — pants soaked, sweaty, feeling like a homeless person — when all of a sudden there were rises and plops up the creek, and something big moved through the water, pushing a bow wake in front of it.

From the bridge I saw two schools of good-sized fish banging around in the lagoon: six in one and five in the other. They were 6 or 7 pounds each, they looked kind of like steelhead and moved kind of like steelhead ….

But, no, they were striped mullet, ocean fish trapped in the Malibu Lagoon by the tide, now sealed there, maybe for the summer, strangers in a strange land.

Ben Marcus is a former editor of Surfer magazine.

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