Fish in the Los Angeles River

October 28, 2008 § 29 Comments

Fisherman showing off carp caught in L.A. River in Elysian Valley 2006

Fisherman Displaying Carp Caught in the Los Angeles River (Elysian Valley 2006)

If you spend time along the Los Angeles River, sometimes, usually at the periphery of your vision, you’ll notice seeming incongruous splashes in still waters. You may wonder – was that a fish that just jumped or am I imagining things? You’re not imagining things, there are actually lots of fish in the Los Angeles River. Not as many and not the same kinds as have been there historically, but still plenty, and seeming more lately than in the recent past. In this blog entry, Creek Freak will school you on a bit of the river’s fishy history, and cast our nets into its waters today.

Let’s start way back with the fossil record as uncovered by researchers at the La Brea Tar Pits. Three fish species have been documented there: Oncorhynchus mykiss (steelhead/rainbow trout), Gila orcutti (arroyo chub), and Gasterosteus aculeatus (three spined stickleback.) Fossil evidence and trapped samples also show many amphibians and freshwater invertebrates, including the extinct river shrimp mentioned in a previous post.

Archduke Ludwig Louis Salvator, in his 1877 Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies, notes the following tantalizing fish: “the salmon, Quinnat salmon (Salmo quinnat), abundant between November and June; two kinds of trout, the brook trout (Salar iridea); and the salmon trout (Ptychocheilus grandis).” These names, based on an internet search, are today known as the king salmon, rainbow trout, and Sacramento pikeminnow. Neither the pikeminnow nor the king salmon have been verified by other sources. However, an errant chinook was observed several years ago making its way up Ballona Creek – historically a distributary of the Los Angeles River. Perhaps he wasn’t errant, but a homecoming descendant of Salvator’s Quinnat salmon?

According to Blake Gumprecht’s The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death and Possible Re-Birth (p.26), historically at least seven species of native fish were common in the river: southern steelhead, Pacific lamprey, Pacific brook lamprey, arroyo chub, unarmored three-spine stickleback, Santa Ana sucker and Santa Ana speckled dace. All of these species are gone from the river today (though a couple persist in some tributaries.) The Pacific brook lamprey is extinct. The steelhead, stickleback and speckled dace are officially endangered species; the sucker and Pacific lamprey probably should be. Of the historic fish species, the Arroyo chub are perhaps doing best, though in a small portion of their historic range. Reintroduction of the arroyo chub was the focus of Pasadena’s recent habitat restoration efforts on a soft-bottom stretch of the Arroyo Seco – a tributary of the Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times 14 November 1937

Los Angeles Times 14 November 1937

Now and then in early- to mid- 20th-century accounts, there are reports of fish in the river; here are a few examples from the Los Angeles Times. In an August 5th 1923 article Drain Pipe Ike Waltons, the Times reported a “Mexican youth” fishing with a screen having caught “a number of carp and one large flat mud fish” in the Los Angeles River bed. On November 14th 1937 an article Extra! Three-Pound Bass Caught in Los Angeles River tells the story of Justo Najjora who went to the Los Angeles River for sand, but brought along a net to catch some crayfish and ended up catching a 3-pound bass. A March 1st 1940 article Jail Trusty Catches Fish — Yes, in Los Angeles River told (in demeaning language) about an imprisoned Native American named William Greyfox who bare-handedly caught a 25-inch 6-pound steelhead. Pity Poor Fish in LA River (March 11 1941) questions whether Fish & Game trucks need to be brought in to save steelhead in the river. A March 31st 1941 article Cycling Couple Catch Fish in Hands in Los Angeles River tells of a couple (Mr. and Mrs. Ernest L. Shockley of Glendale) who were bicycling along the river and caught a 10-inch steelhead near Los Feliz Boulevard.

Unfortunately the general tone of these articles is one of great surprise to find that there are actually (gasp!) fish in the river. Given the long history of Los Angeles River fish, it seems a bit strange to us that reporters would expect not to find fish there – though, at the time, the river was very degraded and considered a dumping ground in many areas.

In 1993, the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum (NHM) produced a report on the biota of the Los Angeles River (not currently available on-line, but available at the downtown Los Angeles library.) The report includes a section entitled The Past and Present Freshwater Fish Fauna of the Los Angeles River: With Particular Reference to the Area of Griffith Park by Camm C. Swift and Jeffrey Seigel. This excellent report appears to be where Gumprecht got most of his information on fish history. The historic accounts include plenty of important details: migration throughout parts of the river by season and by age of the fish species, habitat requirements for spawning, and details of historic accounts where fish species were sighted and collected. The report included a series of four fish sampling events from May 1991 to January 1992 at various sites in the river stretch near Griffith Park. Fishes collected were: more than 1100 mosquitofish, about 70 fathead minnow, 19 tilapia, 10-12 carp, and 1 goldfish.

The 1.5-2.5 inch long Mosquitofish, the most common fish found in the Los Angeles River (image public domain via wikimedia)

In recent years, the most common fish in the Los Angeles River is the mosquitofish. Pictured is the female mosquitofish, which grows to approximately 2.5 inches in length. (image public domain via wikimedia)

Anecdotally, since around 2004 or so, it seems that fish are easier to spot in the river. In the Glendale Narrows and the Sepulveda Basin, there are plenty of people fishing, and it’s not uncommon to see the dark silhouettes of fish moving through the waters. One of the most reliable spots for this is looking off the downstream end of the Burbank Boulevard Bridge. There are a few on-line videos showing this (relatively-polished and amateur.)

FoLAR's 2008 Fish Study

FoLAR 2008 Fish Study

In September 2008, the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) published their second State of the River Report entitled The Fish Study. FoLAR collected fish samples at four sites in the Glendale Narrows and found results similar to the 1993 NHM study. Sampling each site twice in August and September 2007, they caught 1214 individual fish. The take included 668 mosquitofish, 271 tilapia, 92 green sunfish, 83 fathead minnow, 58 carp, 24 black bullhead, 7 Amazon sailfin catfish and 1 largemouth bass.

Given that many of the fish caught are eaten, the FoLAR study also assayed fish samples to test for toxicity. The FoLAR report found relatively safe low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. PCBs were highest in carp (9.4 to 16.3 parts per billion) though still below the California Office of Environmental Heath Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) advisory level (21 parts per billion) for folks eating fish three times a week. Mercury was highest in sunfish (20-50 parts per billion) though also below the OEHHA advisory level (70 parts per billion) for folks eating fish three times a week. Higher levels are likely to accumulate in older larger fish. The study states that its sample may not be sufficient to be conclusive (most of the carp analyzed weren’t mature enough or large enough to accumulate lots of toxins,) but overall it doesn’t look too bad. Cooking tips suggest that it’s safer to eat the fillet than to make stews or soups (as chemicals can concentrate in the head and guts.) Copies of the report are available from FoLAR.

There are quite a few places to fish along the river. The most popular fishing spots are the deeper ponding areas in Elysian Valley: immediately downstream from the 2 Freeway (around the end of Ripple Place) and around the ends of Shoredale Avenue and Harwood Street. Fishermen informally interviewed use tortillas or canned corn for bait.

It’s encouraging that there are lots of fish in the river. Why should we have have expected anything else? Even these non-native fish support other species, including osprey. But before you liberate your goldfish (or other aquatic pets) in the river, please consider that introducing non-natives can have a terrible effect on the native populations of fish and amphibians. They are especially notorious for eating the eggs and young of our native frogs!

Fish are a critically important indicator of stream health. Restoring steelhead runs can’t be done by restoring just the main channel though just one city, but will require a watershed approach, with continuous functional streambed habitat restoration from the mouth to mountainside tributaries. Parks along the top of the river (take your pick) are good. Side stream habitat restoration projects (including along the Lower Arroyo Seco in Pasadena and along the Tujunga Wash just north of Valley College) are even better… but we’re going to need to get into the channel bottom and remove some concrete for us to restore fish habitat.

Lewis MacAdams is fond of saying that we’ll know that our job is done when the steelhead return to the Los Angeles River. They’re endangered, but there are a few of them out in the ocean today, testing the Los Angeles’ waters now and then, waiting for us to do our part to heal our streams and welcome them back to waterways they’ve inhabited for millennia.

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§ 29 Responses to Fish in the Los Angeles River

  • Andy Lipkis says:

    Fancy hooking this blog. I was just riding my bike along Ballona Creek and saw some fish jumping. Getting down to the water line for a closer look I saw hundreds, yes hundreds of fish pointed upstream…all of them 18-24 inches long. There were two types…one with a light-colored arrow-shaped tail and one that looked gray, very much like the photos of the steelhead that were spotted in Ballona by Culver High back in March. Checking with the Ballona Watershed folks: Jim Donovan (NPS), Sean Bergquist SMBRP) and Brad Henderson (DFG) they seemed to think the first fish was probably striped mullet. They all looked like they were wanting and waiting to spawn. And I had a thought about fishing, but quickly dashed it as potentially inappropriate and of course toxic. So glad to see your report of the report of the relatively low levels of contaminants in the fish caught in the LA River. So, maybe we should have a go at wrangling a 2 footer in Del Rey. Mostly kidding…but a nice fantasy.

  • I enjoyed this post and linked to it. When I was a kid in the 70’s we used to play in the river (over by the Arroyo Seco stables). I remember that there were times when you would find schools of tiny fish. I don’t know if they were the arroyo chub or not.

  • I should also add that last year I went over to Debs park and saw several carp (I think) in the lake. Unfortunately they were close to the banks dying. Might have been rotting vegetation had reduced their oxygen.

  • kenny says:

    who would of thought.. i thought there was only trash and murals in there

  • iluvs2fish says:

    i went to the la river fishing and caught about 10 good size carp my couzin went 3 days ago and caught 1

  • W says:

    Enjoyed the information provided in this blog post. I was wondering if there are still crayfish to be found in the river and if it is allowed to fish them.

    • Joe Linton says:

      Plenty of crayfish in the Glendale Narrows, and probably also the Sepulveda Basin. While it may not be legal to fish for them, currently there’s nobody enforcing any restrictions.

  • gary ross says:

    Joe:

    Thanks for rescuing me yesterday on the LA RIver. I would have walked my bike for miles without your help… And I now know how to patch a tube!

    The best way to say thank you would be to make a donation. Could you send me some info and I would be glad to “pay it forward” thanks again for you help.

    gary ross

  • Jeffrey Sloman says:

    I was just walking to Starbucks from my friends house today 4/23/2011 2:35pm. I seen two guys fishing bellow the Willow Overpass in Long Beach. They had caught what looked to be a large bass and several carp. Just amazing what you can see around town if you pay attention.

  • Matt Horns says:

    Many of us have worked for many years bringing native fish back to our streams. I am heartened by my experiences conducting snorkel surveys in several streams near Los Angeles where native steelhead and arroyo chub still thrive. Native resident rainbows (or planted trout/native hybrids) hopefully still inhabit some of LA River’s headwater streams in the San Gabriel Mountains. Strays from other coastal streams most likely venture up LA River at times. A large steelhead strayed up Ballona Creek a few years ago. When we get LA River back in shape, neigboring populations of rainbow/steelhead will eventually repopulate here.

  • Camille says:

    I went down to Atwater Village today but I could not find how you get down to fish in the LA River. WHere do you park? And how do you get down there?

  • Marilyn Mehlmauer says:

    Go to Oros St and sniff around. Beautiful bike path along the river and most of it’s length has easy access to the river itself. Great walk. What a find.

  • G-Pa says:

    I came across this website, just days ago. I was completly leveled. I lived in Highland Park from 1957 to 63. I used to play in the L.A. river, and Arryo Seco park area. I spent many a day with friends, combing the riverbed. Now live in Washigton state, and have been a steelhead fisherman for over thirty yrs. I would never in my wildest dreams believed this story. One question? Has any study be done by the fish/wildlife. Thanks for such a great website and the story!

  • A friend of mine grew up in what is now the eastern portion of Calabasas along the upper Los Angeles River. A major perennial spring very close to what is now the intersection of Valley Circle Drive and Calabasas Road (it’s still there next to a gazebo in a small public park) feeds the river so that this reach has flow all year. His Grandfather told him all about how as a kid he went down to the river any time he could and caught wild native rainbow trout.

  • Jeff says:

    I’m from Illinois and we feel the same way about the Chicago River: but there are fish in it and some pretty nice onesw. Don’t think I would eat them but they are fun to catch. But so are Tarpon and we don’t eat them and toxins are not the problem. We do eat Lake Michigan Salmon and there are some mercury issues.

  • Andy Herrera says:

    could you give me an address that’s closest to where i good fishing spot is? I’m using the bus.

    • Joe Linton says:

      There aren’t a lot of addresses that correspond to spots on the river. The closest good sized intersection served by transit would be Fletcher Drive and Riverside Drive. From there, walk northeast on Fletcher to the river, then upstream or downstream to the better fishing spots.

      • Andy Herrera says:

        thanks i mapped it and found and address with a bus stop about a 5 min walk from the river on fletcher.

  • Fishing is a wonderful method of maximising the use of of free time, why not try it?

  • Asha says:

    i love fishing

  • [...] flowing through much of its length. It is no longer a significant municipal water source, its seven native fish species are gone, and it supports little natural wildlife. Meanwhile, the communities surrounding the [...]

  • SSGT. Nathan L. Holt Sr.(U.S.Army) says:

    I would like to go to the la river to fish for some catfish. Question: where at the lake do you go to fish for them? Question: what type of baite do you use to fish for them?. Question: what would be the best location and time to fish for them and where at the river do you go to try?: Question: A. can you eat them? B. is there a fee to fish the river?
    please let me know
    Thanks

    • Andy Herrera says:

      Hey Ssgt,

      I heard the cats are in the river area closest to Griffith Park, I would not suggest eating anything out of the local waters.

      Andy

    • FISH GUTS says:

      YOU can use any type of catfish bait they sell at the store I have used hot dogs and that worked well. as for time any is good and yes you can eat them. Does anyone here flyfish the river and what kind of flies do you use.

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