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To Fish or Not to Fish in the L.A. River

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"To fish or not to fish?" to paraphrase Shakespeare, is no longer the question, at least in the Los Angeles River Pilot Recreational Zone. But those without a license might want to think twice before wetting a line.

In a grand urban experiment spearheaded by outgoing L.A. Councilman Ed Reyes, two-and-a-half miles of soft-bottomed river, from Fletcher Drive south to Egret Park, recently opened for a summer of recreation. It's the first time in 70 years that Angelenos can legally fish, kayak, bird watch and do just about everything except swim in its treated, Tide-scented waters.

From the iconic 25-inch "last steelhead" caught by Dr. Charles L. Hogue near Glendale in 1940, to numerous tales of carping, which include everything from fly fishing, catch and release, to clubbing, catch and keep, the river is no stranger to piscatorial pursuits. Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) commissioned the only fish study ever done on the river. Of the 1,200 fish caught, mosquito fish and tilapia were the most abundant, but fishermen come here to catch carp, which have gone from trash fish to game fish during the last 20 years.

Author Kirk Deeter's new book, "The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp," shows that enthusiasm among the well-heeled for catching carp on the fly is growing, earning carp the moniker of "golden bonefish," after the slim, but muscular prized fighter from Belize and the Bahamas. Orvis, the high-end company based in Vermont, has a store in Pasadena where fishing rods routinely sell for over $600. That's a far cry from the price of a traditional rod and reel, which Wal-Mart hawks online for $22.

Now, the recreation program governance has brought with it signage to this long-neglected area, patrols, courtesy of the quasi-governmental Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority, and general oversight from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Golden Bonefish (a.k.a. carp) caught in the L.A. River | Photo: Jim Burns
Golden Bonefish (a.k.a. carp) caught in the L.A. River | Photo: Jim Burns

It's important to remember that prior to Memorial Day, it was illegal to even stand in the river, much less to fish it. Now, according to fish and wildlife code, anyone 16 years of age or older, must possess a fishing license while plying the waters, yet, for years, there's been a subculture of renegade L.A. River fisherman who knew that they'd never get checked, and had little incentive to purchase a license.

With the river's new-found visibility and fragile respectability come the mixed blessing of law and order, and, well, fishing licenses. But the transition may be difficult.

"I'd say 75 percent or better don't have a fishing license," said David Wratchford, a well-known and well-regarded fly-fisherman on the Southern California scene, who has fished the river for around seven years. "According to the DFG, there's no law against fishing down there. Even for the city, there was never a law against it. The law was against being on the river bottom."

Grove Pashley, co-owner of the new L.A. River Kayak Safari company, echoes the sans fishing license sentiment. When he recently asked a group if they had the required licenses, they said "yes, we've got them," but he didn't necessarily believe them.

"I live right next to the river and there's a deep hole in front of me for bait fisherman. Typically, they use flour tortilla. I see people catching fish, some throw them back. They asked me to warm up some of their flour tortillas for them."

"I asked about the required licenses," he continued, "They say 'yes, we've got them.' But do I believe it, no."

The river across from MetroLink's Taylor Yards is isolated, and, until a few weeks ago, mostly visited by locals. It's also a lower income area in which paying $46 for a yearly resident license would probably pose a challenge, according to Pashley who also sits on the Elysian Park Neighborhood Council.

"We are patrolling far more than promised. We are there for some period of time every day, and there nearly all the time on weekends, MRCA Chief Operations Officer Walt Young said.

Of course, now it's difficult to tell if a fisherman actually has a license, since the DFG dropped the requirement to display it above the waist in March, 2010. A reporter asked a bait fisherman in the area if he'd paid the $45.93 for a license.

"Forty-six dollars, even more. How about $51? I got the ocean stamp as well, even though I never go to the ocean," he said, digging into his wallet to show off his license.

But nowadays Wratchford would have to amend that statement to there was no law. Now in the rec zone, if you don't have a license and you're stopped by a ranger, it's going to cost you.

Fishing in the L.A. River | Photo: KCET Departures
Fishing in the L.A. River | Photo: KCET Departures   

"With the new regulations, people don't have to display their license, therefore, we have to ask to see it, which we do when we see them fishing," MRCA Chief Ranger Fernando Gomez said.

By way of comparison, DFW officers contacted more than 3,000 anglers while patrolling the local waterways in Inyo and Mono counties during this year's trout season opener in late April. Over the opening weekend, 17 officers issued 60 citations, 43 warnings and made one arrest, according to the department's news blog. The article went on to say that besides fishing without a license, the violations included over-limits of trout, fishing closed waters, use of prohibited gear and bait, fishing out of season, angling in a hatchery, snagging, boating without a fire extinguisher, no life jackets, boating under the influence, excessive speed and the use of multiple poles.

Mathematically, that reduces to a 3 percent or less offense rate.

Still, if an angler gets caught, that angler's going to pay.

"A $46 investment can save you a ticket of $500 or more," said Andrew Hughan, a department public information office.

Hughan went on to explain that the published maximum fine for failing to have a fishing license is $380, but what has happened in the past several years is local jurisdictions are adding additional court costs and fees on top of the state published fees that drive the fines substantially higher. Apparently, that's exactly what's happening on the river where the DFW is imposing a fine of $491, according to Gomez. He said that that he hasn't issued any tickets yet.

The highest fine he remembered? About $900.

Trending the number of licenses sold in Los Angeles County over the years is an interesting exercise. A steady decline began in the early '90s, from 99,037 in 1992 and bottomed out at 62,009 in 2002. That number more than doubled to 121, 936 last year. If you multiply the 2012 total by the basic license fee, the income is over $5.5 million. When an angler purchases a sport fishing license the money goes into the Fish and Game Preservation Fund. License fees fuel many DFW activities, including stocking fish, an activity that doesn't happen in the Los Angeles River.

The state does offer several ways to pay less for a license, although the requirements are restrictive. For example, if you are a resident, over age 65 and make $854.40 or less per year, you can qualify for a license that costs $6.95. Disabled veterans and those recovering from a serious injury are also eligible for a discounted fee.

If nothing else, the DFW allows two free fishing days each year, but only one, July 6, will do you any good. The other, September 7, falls after the recreation zone closes on Labor Day.

Jim Burns writes the blog

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