Reports of monster fish in the L.A. River? Get reel

Times Staff Writer

Here’s a question that has probably been bugging you: which is smarter -- a Times City Hall reporter with a few hundred bucks’ worth of fishing equipment or a carp living in the Los Angeles River?

For those who haven’t yet figured out the answer, we’ll get to it in a moment. Keep in mind that carp are notorious bottom-dwelling fish that reputedly will eat anything. No similarities to reporters whatsoever!

Let’s start at the beginning. Once upon a time, the Los Angeles River looked like a river and not something that happened after a drunken night at a concrete pourers’ convention.

Back then a variety of fish lived in the river. They included lampreys, southern steelhead trout, the Santa Ana sucker and a variety of other less-glamorous species.


After several deadly floods, the river was channelized in the 1930s and ‘40s, and most of the natives are believed to have disappeared. But the river still had plenty of water year-round -- most of it releases from sewage treatment plants -- and people began dumping fish into it.

Over the last several decades, about 45 species of fish have been seen in the river at one time or another, according to several scientific surveys done since the 1980s. They include species such as catfish, bluegills and goldfish.

Then came the events of three weeks ago when hundreds of carp in the Glendale Narrows were seen thrashing about in the river -- apparently they were spawning. The narrows are the three-mile stretch of the river north of downtown Los Angeles in which the bottom was never paved because of a high water table. As a result, it kind of looks like a river.

This column’s curiosity was sufficiently piqued, and Shelly Backlar, executive director of Friends of the Los Angeles River, suggested talking to Carmelo Gaeta, an Atwater Village native who recently moved back to town and has become thoroughly obsessed with carp fishing in the Los Angeles River.

“There are some monsters in there,” Gaeta said Thursday morning as we trooped down to the river near the Hyperion Bridge for a hopeful catch-and-release session with Mr. Carp ...

Do the carp glow, have three eyes or look like extras from “Jurassic Park”?

No, said Gaeta, though he added that he tries not to touch them when releasing them. He also had a bottle of hand sanitizer in his backpack.

Still, there’s nothing like proof. In that vein, Gaeta brought along white bread as bait, this column brought a $300 Orvis fly rod, a spin rod and a fresh Egg McMuffin from a nearby McDonald’s.

How could a carp resist that?

About 15 minutes into the fishing episode, there was a big splash a few feet from the river bank and Gaeta’s rod suddenly bent sharply. He had one on the line, but it got unhooked.

Meanwhile, the Egg McMuffin was drawing no interest. Nor did switching to the fly rod and insect imitators help. After about an hour, however, several carp literally began jumping out of the water, as if they thought they were trout.

“This is the longest I’ve ever been down here without catching a fish,” Gaeta said as a coffee mug gently drifted by in the river.

Then, a few minutes later, he added: “I can’t believe you haven’t gotten a bite yet.”

And so it went.

Sabrina Drill, a natural resources advisor from UC Davis, had joined us and said she wasn’t surprised that the river was filled with fish.

Her theory is that the Glendale Narrows area benefited from the 2004-05 big rains that washed additional boulders down from the mountains. Those big rocks create pools, riffles and runs -- habitats that are good for fish.

“I’ve spent many years walking along streams -- some in pretty polluted areas,” Drill said, “and I’ve seen a lot of fish species that are really tough, and they do survive.”

So a bottom-feeding carp is smarter than the reporter?

Next question.

What else can someone see down at the river?

All sorts of interesting things. A few weeks ago, for example, Gaeta saw a man walking around with a VCR. Hmm.

On the nature side of things, there is no shortage of birds.

In the space of a couple of hours Thursday, we saw a variety of ducks, geese (including an Egyptian goose), swallows, red-winged blackbirds, stilts and a couple of red-tailed hawks.

In the water, we saw one engine transmission, two grocery carts, a bike, a kite, a green magic marker, a bottle of auto wax, a pile of bricks, what appeared to be a child’s desk from school, and enough plastic containers to fill a dump truck.

The good news: The sloping concrete walls along the river make it easy to cast a fly rod. No annoying trees to get stuck on!

More good news: There is something very cool about casting into the river in full view of northbound motorists on the Golden State Freeway.

And what does Gaeta think about his new hobby?

That angling can be the river’s salvation.

“I’m convinced throughout the year the fish inhabit the river in every nook and cranny,” he said. “And the more people down there fishing, the better.”

In his view, fishing would be a great way to build a constituency for the city’s massive, multibillion-dollar plan to revitalize the river in coming years.

Part of that plan, by the way, is to bring people closer to the river.

“If you’re an angler, you care about the environment, you care about the water that the fish are in, and you want them to be there the next time you fish,” Gaeta said. “But a lot of people still have the attitude it’s only a flood-control channel -- not a river -- and that mind-set has to change.”

Just to throw an idea out there, Gaeta and this column are both of the opinion that the Department of Fish and Game should plant the river with trout to see whether they can survive.

The bet here is they would; there is enough water, habitat and shade. Maybe with more cleanup efforts, the city of Los Angeles could one day boast of a state-designated wild trout stream in the Glendale Narrows.

Far-fetched? Yep, particularly in the City of Low Expectations. But nature is a funny thing.

Right when you think you’ve got it whipped, back it comes and bites you in the tushie.

In the meantime, Friends of the L.A. River is going to conduct another fish survey this summer, and this column can’t wait to see what they find out.

Next week: It’s 1962 all over again.