Where to Get Hooked On SoCal’s Historic Fishing Industry

No matter whether you’re at the sea, in the mountains, or along a river, stream or creek, you’ve got some water wherever you are in Southern California.

It may appear to be dry as a bone — but even in the desert, there are watery wonders to be found.

And where there’s water in SoCal (sometimes only found in man-made reservoirs or lakes), you’re likely to find some fish ready to be caught.

That is, if you’ve got the right equipment and a patient disposition.

Whether the catch of the day occurs naturally in our seaways or is “planted” — as they are in the Owens, Kern and Santa Ana Rivers as well as Big Bear, Castaic and Echo Park Lakes — both fish and fishing hold a significant place in the historical development of the entire state of Califor-ni-ay.

Having survived drought, parasitic infections, infighting over water supply, invasive species and other seemingly insurmountable obstacles, here are the five best places to explore the history of hatching and catching fish over the last 100 years (and more).

1. The Tuna Club of Avalon, Catalina Island

The Tuna Club is widely considered the birthplace of the sport of big game fishing — thanks to its founder, Dr. Charles Frederick Holder, catching a 183-pound bluefin tuna off these island shores in 1898. Its first headquarters, however, wasn’t built until 1906 — and burned down in 1915. Its replacement is now a national landmark, having stood in Avalon Bay for over a century. At present, though, the only way to get past the front door of the two-story, New England-style clubhouse is to buy a ticket for its annual open house, a fundraiser for the Catalina Island Museum. But even one-time guests must adhere to the club’s strict code of conduct, which forbid smoking and enforce minimum requirements for dress for both men and women, depending on time of day.

The rest of the year, the club welcomes members only — and it has strict guidelines for admitting new members. For example, you must be sponsored by, at minimum, a current associate member; and for an associate member to sponsor a new membership application, they must be able to catch a certain type of fish of a certain minimum weight. But big game isn’t abundant in the waters surrounding Avalon as it used to be, so membership remains small and exclusive, with some associate members trying to earn voting rights for years. In addition to its namesake tuna, members of The Tuna Club also angle for marlin and broadbill swordfish, often employing more traditional methods of reeling them in — even with antique equipment — rather than embracing modern technologies. Since its inception, the club has stressed both conservationist ethics and standards of sportsmanship — something that attracted such famous members as Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, General Patton and Presidents Hoover and Cleveland.

The Tuna Club of Avalon | Sandi Hemmerlein

Sandi Hemmerlein

The Tuna Club of Avalon | Sandi Hemmerlein

Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, Independence

The Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery was one of the first of its kind when it was established in 1917 to raise trout (even the rare golden trout!) under the jurisdiction of the California State Fish and Game Commission. Although you won’t find any fish currently being farmed at this century-old facility (and not since 2008), history is alive and well on the property, which is open as a tourist attraction and a special event venue.

Now, visitors can admire its picturesque, turn-of-the-last-century architecture (elaborate compared to other state-run fisheries) and view its interpretive displays and historical artifacts (like the original blueprints for the hatchery) on a self-guided or docent-led tour. And there are live fish, too — rainbow and golden trout — that you can feed with a quarter’s worth of food from an onsite vending machine. Bring some extra cash to make an optional donation or to pick up some unique, locally-made souvenirs at the gift shop. Conservation-minded visitors can also attend the hatchery’s fundraiser dinner, every year in August.

Trout at Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery | Denise Flynn/Flickr

Trout at Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery. | Denise Flynn/Flickr/Creative Commons License

3. Hot Creek Hatchery, Mammoth Lakes

You might not think that hot springs, geothermal energy and fish would necessarily go together — but it turns out that it’s perfect for trout, which need water a bit warmer than what the Eastern Sierra snowmelt can usually provide, especially at over 7,000 feet in elevation. At Hot Creek, you’ll find not just rainbow trout thriving there, but also a subspecies of rainbow trout known as Eagle Lake trout, German brown trout and Lahontan cutthroat trout, a California Heritage Species.

With operations dating back to 1928, Hot Creek also works with the nearby state-run Fish Springs Hatchery in Big Pine — but because of an invasion of New Zealand Mud Snails in 2006, it can now only plant fish in local waters that are already populated with NZMS. Operations here are still big enough, though, for the hatchery to welcome visitors every day from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., pending seasonal road closures for snow or inclement weather. You can also visit during its free, family-friendly Trout Fest – an annual event at the hatchery in late June since 2013.

4. Fillmore Trout Hatchery, Fillmore

As many of the Fish & Wildlife-managed ones still do, this Ventura County fish hatchery raises — or “farms” — trout eggs to become fully-formed fish that will be released into SoCal waterways where they don’t occur naturally. Located on a former citrus grove in the Santa Clara River Valley, south of Los Padres National Forest, it gets its warm water from local springs and underground wells —  at 60 degrees, it’s reportedly the perfect temperature for raising trout (similar to the water temperatures found at Hot Creek). It became a state hatchery back in 1942, when it was focused more on largemouth bass — though trout has been the focus of the hatchery since the early 1950s.

The Fillmore Trout Hatchery is open all year and welcomes visitors for self-guided tours every day from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Look for the sign off the south side of Highway 126, just east of the town center of Fillmore, that points you to make a sharp turn down Fish Hatchery Road. There, you’ll see two species of trout being raised: rainbow trout (a favorite among SoCal’s recreational anglers) and German brown trout (native to Eastern Europe). If you’d like to feed the fish, food is available for purchase with small coins. And if you’re feeling peckish yourself, make some time to swing by Bennett’s Honey Farm to taste its many varieties of Topanga Quality Honey and pick up some honey and bee pollen-related snacks, just five miles east and across Highway 126.

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5. Whitewater Preserve, Whitewater

Surrounded by the San Gorgonio Wilderness, where Highway 62 meets the 10, you’ll find an interesting former trout farm that The Wildlands Conservancy is trying to bring back to wilderness. Having already demolished several neglected homes and other structures, some stone foundations behind private fencing along the right side of the road can still be seen as you approach the entrance. There, you’ll find a ranger station and concrete pools filled with numbingly cold water — a real novelty for the desert, especially since chlorinated pool water there tends to be as warm as bathwater.

Beyond the old ponds, there’s a loop trail you can follow that intersects and/or coincides with the Pacific Crest Trail and the California Riding and Hiking Trail, taking you up on a ridge above the former fishery and giving you a great view of this vast expanse of dry river valley, just north of Palm Springs and down the Morongo Grade from Joshua Tree. This preserve largely consists of dried up waterways, but the Whitewater River has a dry river that's still running as a pretty active, decent stream. "Crossing the river" — something you have to do to follow the stone-lined trail — consists of rock-hopping and walking across a tiny, wood-slat footbridge. The plentiful water supply means flooding can be an issue during summer monsoon season and with winter rains, but that also means you’ll have a good chance of spotting some nice wildflowers in the spring. Check the website for details on the BLM’s annual fire closure and other weather advisories.

Whitewater Preserve | Sandi Hemmerlein

Sandi Hemmerlein

Whitewater Preserve | Sandi Hemmerlein

Sandi Hemmerlein

Top image: Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery can be seen in the background. Photo circa 1916. | California Department of Fish and Wildlife/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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