“It’s my new therapy,” Bryant Recinos says before raising his fishing rod and whipping a hook tipped with a single corn kernel — plunk! — into the swirling blue-brown water of the Los Angeles River on an early Saturday evening.
Recinos, 24, exudes calm and patience. At the beginning of the shutdown, he bought his first fishing rod and other gear, and started coming to Elysian Valley’s verdant stretch of the 51-mile river a couple of times a week.
Despite its concrete casing, installed in the late 1930s to rein in once-frequent flooding, signs of the natural river persist. Besides birds of many feathers, it’s home to beefy carp, small-mouth bass, tilapia and — once upon a time — steelhead trout. If you tilt your gaze in just the right way, away from the overpasses and concrete shores, it could be Georgia.
There are grander digs to fish — rushing rivers with glittering trout in Mammoth Lakes and Kern County — but they lack one of the L.A. River’s greatest strengths: convenience. It takes less than 20 minutes for Recinos to trek from his Glendale home to his preferred spot under the 2 Freeway.
Recinos says he knows the world is a mess. “But for like two to three hours a day, I just don’t want to hear about it.”
Early in the pandemic, mass closures and fear of the coronavirus drove people to at-home hobbies, like gardening, working puzzles, baking and pouring one too many quarantinis. Just as Los Angeles began reopening, an alarming spike in virus cases and hospitalizations sent the city — and much of the state — back to an approximation of Square One.
After being inside for so long, “even the trees look cute,” said Summer Yang, of the San Gabriel Valley. It was her first time at the river, and she looked on cheerfully as her fiancé and some friends collected crayfish in a white bucket.
Some, like Recinos, have found fishing the L.A. River to be a peaceful respite from COVID-19, political and social turmoil and malaise of all flavors. Even those who have been fishing the river for years say it’s a new experience amid the new normal.
The Reyes family
Destiny Reyes, 13, asks my colleague and I if we want a sizable carp. Maybe she pities us. We’re both new to fishing and haven’t caught a thing for hours. We open a plastic bag and she drops it in, still wriggling.
We first met Reyes on the river several days before, along with her dad, Omar, and brother, Daniel. It was Daniel’s 7th birthday, and the three were spending quality time fishing together, as they do two to three times a week.
Omar Reyes, who lives in Culver City with his family, said he had long resisted his brother’s invitations to fish. Less than four months ago, he relented. Now — pardon the pun — he’s hooked.
“It takes everything away from you — all the problems, all the stress,” said Reyes. “And especially with this pandemic, it’s so nice to forget for a little bit.”
Long after last light, Maggie Harris is dragging a net into the shallow murk under a pedestrian bridge connecting Silver Lake and Atwater Village. She shines a small light onto a crawfish lounging underwater — then another here, there, everywhere. Her son learned all about the small lobster-like creatures in summer school, and they’re here to observe them doing their thing in the wild.
Echo Park resident Harris has long fished the river, and other nearby urban oases, but quarantine has emphasized the practice’s quietude.
“With everything going on — it’s not going too far away from home, but, you know, we still get a little bit away from each other,” Harris says.
Kyle Ng and Tucker Phillips
In pre-COVID times, Kyle Ng and Tucker Phillips, two friends in their early 30s, would likely be at the climbing gym on a Tuesday evening.
But with gyms closed again and outdoor spots jam-packed by like-minded folks, they’re turning to a new hobby.
It’s Phillips’ first time fishing in 10 years — and the first time he’s gone fishing at the L.A. River. Muscles remember, though: He ties a hook on his line and readies his equipment.
It might be nice to go somewhere more challenging at some point, but “this is a perfect place to practice because there’s not a lot of trees to get your line snagged on and — actually, I’m not too sure. I haven’t fished it yet. I don’t know if I’m just going to be catching trash all day.”
Although Ng fishes with some frequency in other parts of the city, he recently discovered fly fishing: “This is a new venture for us.”
Karen Barnett, Bob Blankenship and Jim Burns
Karen Barnett, a member of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, is catching tiny fish after tiny fish after tiny fish. She has tapped into a veritable wellspring of baby bluegill, recognizable by a shimmering splash of its eponymous color on its cheek.
Robert Blankenship and Jim Burns, her fiancé and friend, respectively, walk over to see what the commotion is about. The two have been squishing through river muck — with mud-covered toes and a rotten-egg odor to prove it — to seek out the “big fish.” Nothing substantial is biting this morning.
Blankenship, chapter president of Trout Unlimited, a conservation group, got Barnett into fishing her river-next-door a few years ago. Burns, a teacher who runs a blog about fly fishing on the L.A. River, met Blankenship virtually in 2014. He was commenting on a 2014 photo of Blankenship in the Los Angeles Times accidentally hooking a sock while seeking out the elusive steelhead trout, which once populated the river but hasn’t been seen there since 1948. Blankenship initially bristled at what he perceived as criticism of his fishing skills. They’ve been friends ever since.
“The good part of what we’ve experienced is the possibility to get outside and how to maybe slow down and take advantage of what we have in Los Angeles. And one of the things that we have is the Los Angeles River,” Burns says. “For me, that’s a big upside of this whole terrible crisis.”
As a seafood warehouse worker, 27-year-old Alex Mendoza is regularly inundated with fish from China, Peru, Ecuador “and all parts of the world.” He processes and distributes the bounty from nearby ports and helps ship the products locally and throughout the country.
So it’s perhaps a little surprising that the South Los Angeles resident spends his leisure time with fish too. About twice a month, Mendoza comes out to find peace of mind — and maybe a carp or two.
On a recent Saturday evening, with daylight fading, Mendoza has yet to snag a fish. But he’s content passing the time with a friend, who sits next to him on a concrete slab.
“This is a nice distraction for me,” he says. “I spend so much time just stuck at home during these times thinking about the bills and the virus. It’s really stressful.”
Chow down or throw ’em back?
Not a single person interviewed said they would eat a fish out of the river, except Michael Atkins, communications and impact manager with the nonprofit Friends of the L.A. River. “I’m interested to try it, under the right circumstance, but I don’t think anyone would officially advise it,” Atkins said. Most people queried said they catch-and-release or offer the fish to those who live in nearby homeless encampments.
How to fish the L.A. River legally
Get a sport fishing license: It is required for anglers over the age of 16.
Cost: About $50 for an annual license. About $16 for a one-day license.
Where to buy: Annual and short-term licenses can be purchased online, through an authorized agent (including some bait shops and outdoor retail stores), or at one of the CDFW sales offices.
The river was designed to collect runoff from a 900-square-mile watershed, meaning the fish essentially swim in whatever comes in from our streets, rooftops and driveways. Still, the water quality is “actually pretty good,” said Sabrina Drill, an expert in urban ecology and aquatic invasive species, last year. A 2007 toxicity study found all the fish were under the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s limit for several contaminants, including mercury and PCB.
With no particular toxins or explicit danger, it’s the unknowns that make fisherfolk wary, according to Atkins. But for the brave or culinarily brazen, Night + Market chef-owner Kris Yenbamroong has developed a Los Angeles River carp larb recipe, a hyper-local version of a traditional Thai meat salad.
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