(NOTE: This article originally ran in the April 2009 issue of Salmon Trout Steelheader Magazine)
Rush hour traffic is at a standstill on the graffiti-caked overpass 40 feet above our heads. Impatient commuters lay on their horns and bang on their steering wheels like caged monkeys as we hike towards the river. I step over a used rubber glove and then crouch down at the water’s edge near a soiled diaper. I try not to touch the water for fear of contracting some sort of unspeakable disease. A yellow Prestone jug floats by and almost looks as if it’s glowing in the low evening sun.
“Ain’t she beautiful, bro?” my guide asks with a huge grin.
This is definitely not my idea of paradise, but when my spinner gets crushed on the first cast and line starts ripping off my reel at an alarming rate, I start to reconsider. But let me back up here…
A steelheader at heart
Action move star Jack Damon has been a steelhead fanatic as long as he can remember. Growing up on a small farm near Sweet Home, Oregon, he spent his youth chasing sea-run rainbows on the south Santiam River and, when the anadramous fish weren’t around, he harassed the resident trout of the Calapooia as much as possible.
That all ended, of course, when he got a bit part in 1988’s Alien Autopsy IV: “The Revenge.” From those humble beginnings, Damon had a meteoric ride to B-movie stardom and now has 31 feature films to his credit. While he’s never been nominated for any sort of acting award (“Dude, not even close,” as he likes to say), Damon is one of the wealthiest and most recognized actors in Tinsel Town thanks to a long string of cult hits like The Bludgeoner, Blades of Mass Destruction, Killer Crustacean Home Invasion, Implements of Doom 3 and the whole Toxic Parasite trilogy. Even straight-to-video titles such as Neck Deep and Return of the Titanic have netted him millions.
Despite his best intentions to get out of LA, Damon’s torrid work schedule over the past 20 plus years has kept him from his true love — steelhead fishing. As sort of a coping mechanism, he often takes extended lunch breaks from film shoots and heads east out of Hollywood in his black Viper on Los Feliz Blvd. to the only moving water he knows of in the area – the Los Angeles River near Griffith Park.
“I’m a steelheader at heart, bro, and sometimes I just need to be around water to think,” says Damon. “While the LA River is pretty much a thrashed concrete ditch, that Los Feliz stretch actually has some sand and gravel in it and some trees. Yea, man, some riffles and pools, too. I’d sit there and just totally zone out and imagine big steelies moving up through the small rapids and into the tail outs and flats. It was a way to get my mind to chill, ya know?”
Fishing the LA
And then a funny thing happened – Damon decided to go fishing on the LA River.
“It was a couple of winters back, after a pretty good rain in the LA Basin and I drove over the river and saw that it was all chocolate and blown out,” he says. “I didn’t think too much of it until I drove over a bridge a few days later and saw that the river was coming into shape. Though the poor LA is just a concrete ditch anymore, something from back in the day just clicked inside of me, dude, and I got a total rush seeing that the river was fishable. There was some sort of primal pull on my soul and I knew what I had to do. I went home and grabbed a rod.”
To his great surprise, Damon caught a wild 14-inch steelhead on his first outing, the significance of which was much greater than its length.
“That was one misty-eyed moment for me, bro,” he says. “I mean, to catch anything outta that rat-infested trash dump in the middle of this concrete jungle was a win – and then for it to be a steelhead…I was kinda like whoa!”
Of course, that one halfpounder was all the inspiration Damon needed and from then on, he fished the LA River whenever he could. Unfortunately, it was a very dry winter and the LA never got another good bump in flows. The only other grab he got that year was from a one-eyed carp that had some sort of road rash-looking sores on it.
Last Thanksgiving however, a big storm pounded Southern California and transformed the trickle into a torrent. Two days later, the river dropped into shape (from “sewer brown to dishwater” as he says) and Damon called in sick to the set of his current film, Dawn of the Iguana. Tossing a spinner that afternoon around the mouth of the Verdugo Wash yielded five grabs, of which he landed 2. One steelie was a blushed up 6-pound buck that must have been hanging around for a while in Long Beach Harbor before the rains hit and the other was a gorgeous 8-pound chrome hen that he hooked behind an old washing machine.
Needless to say, Damon was overjoyed with his new little discovery. He fished hard for the next few days and landed 9 steelhead to 10 pounds before the river got too low again. Another shot of rain just before Christmas brought some more fish into the system and he found ever better action, hooking 21 steelhead and landing 17 of them over a 4-day span.
“I got pretty nutty over the whole thing, man,” he says. “And now I feel like I’ve got ‘er pretty dialed.”
And that’s where I come into the picture. Damon, who is a regular reader of this fine publication, emailed me a couple photos and asked if I’d like to come down a do a story. Damon would pick me up at LAX and said I could crash at his Malibu mansion (Jessica Alba lives next door!). In the interest of full disclosure here, I wasn’t too excited about traveling to go fish in a concrete ditch, but the opportunity to hang with a guy I’ve been such a big fan of for years was something I wasn’t going to pass up. I mean, in my office I still have a movie poster from The King of Swing, which has a photo of Damon taking a Louisville Slugger to an army of Zombies.
The only catch, he said, was I’d have to be willing to drop everything when he called and get to LA in a hurry. Just before dawn on Jan. 17, I got the call.
“You’d better get on a jet ASAP, bro,” Damon said. “It’s raining hard and I think it’s about to go off!”
Unfortunately, I had a prior commitment and couldn’t get down to LA for several days. Of course I missed what Damon called “the most epic, beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, dude,” in which he described fishing over a steady, three-hour stream of V-wakes pushing upriver just below the Broadway Street Viaduct. He caught fish until his arms were sore and found good numbers of fresh steelies the following three days.
By the time I got there, the river was a mere trickle and Damon wasn’t too sure how it would fish.
So that leads us to where this whole thing began, me still feeling a bit like a kook – despite the photographic evidence and excited phone calls from Damon — with an expensive GLoomis in hand, sliding down the concrete wall of the LA River to cast into a giant drainage ditch for…steelhead?
None of it really makes any sense, but there’s no denying that I’ve got a hot 7-pound fish on that’s cartwheeling all over the place. The fight lasts a few minutes and then we part ways prematurely when the fish wraps me up in a Ralph’s shopping cart and pops the 10-pound mono.
“Now you feel me?” Damon asks “You pickin’ up what I’ve been throwing down?” and gives me a fist pump. “Tie on a new spinner and get back in the water, bro! Let’s see if there are anymore fish in there…yeehaw!”
I do as instructed and get walloped three cranks into my very next cast. This time, I keep the fish away from the derelict cart and eventually land him, a slightly dark 5-pound buck. That’s all for the “Traffic Hole” as we dub the spot and then we hop back in Damon’s Hummer and head upriver to the next spot.
On the drive, the movie star fills me in on his master plan.
“This whole acting thing…I’ve pretty much been there, done that,” he says. “I mean, how many more aliens and bad guys can I blow away? I’m about done with it all, bro, and am ready to move on – unless of course, I could do some sort of dramatic role opposite Meryl Streep. That would be the icing on the career, ya know? Anyway, I’d like to bust outta this town and buy a big ranch along a river in the Northwest and spend the rest of my days steelhead fishing, but it’s not to be. I’ve got a family now and they’re pretty involved in the community. My kids are auditioning for High School Musical 12 and my wife’s go a new exercise DVD out, so I’m kinda stuck. So, I’ve been thinking…”
That’s when he lays out his idea of starting Los Angeles River Outfitters Guide Service on me. He’d start with walk-in trips, but is pretty sure that he’s found a couple places along the river to drop in a drift boat – or maybe even a small sled — and just needs to follow up with some city official buddies of his to make sure it would be legal. His smoking hot bikini model wife would run the shuttle, which, I had to admit was a nice touch.
Since he doesn’t need the money, Damon would guide only when the river was in what he called “The Zone.”
“Dude, I’ve been studying this thing hard for awhile now,” he says. “It took a lot of work, but I think I have it all pretty wired. The LA is just like any other creek, you gotta get to know all her moods and understand what the fish do under any and all conditions.”
The key to the whole deal, of course is rain. The river flows year-round now below the Sepulveda Basin, where the Department of Water and Power releases 50 to 75 million gallons of reclaimed water daily, but it takes a good storm to get the fish up the river. Luckily, LA is so paved over that it only takes about a half-inch to trigger an anadramous migration.
“You can wait a long time for a storm in this town, man,” says Damon. “But when you get one from late November on, you’re going to get a quick, intense shot of fish.”
Damon has had the most success in the middle to upper reaches of the river, from approximately the Fourth Street Bridge up to Sepulveda Basin, with the mouth of the Arroyo Seco, the Los Feliz section and just below Sepulveda Dam being his money spots. In low water, however, he’ll drop down lower and fish near the Rio Hondo and Compton Creek, which is our next destination.
That spot is too shallow and void of fish and I’m actually kinda glad to get out of there as the spot is presided over by a series of storm drains painted like giant cat faces. The caps on the ends of the pipes have a round, feline-like shape to them and the two triangular hinges on the tops look very much like ears. I have to admit the cats are more interesting than the normal graffiti on the LA’s banks, but for some reason they’re kinda creeping me out.
I get another strong grab at our next spot, in a small bucket behind one of the 7th Street bridge pillars, but I cracker that one off. It’s getting late and Damon has one more spot in mind. We get back in his rig and drive through a dense industrial area and park behind a warehouse. A hole in a razor wire-tipped chain link fence gives us access to the river and we carefully slide down the concrete walls to the water’s edge.
This stretch of river is particularly…um…urbanized. I wade out past a soggy roll of toilet paper, a half submerged boom box, a few tires, a 5-gallon bucket and a rusted out BMX bike frame. As aesthetically unappealing as the spot is, the fish are here – laying in a non-descript flat that appears to only be a couple feet deep. Damon gets a slashing strike on his first cast and I snag up on what appears to be a transmission off a 1976 Ford El Camino.
In the last half hour of the day, we catch five beautiful steelhead from the LA River and then call it quits. I have to say that the fishing was actually very good – and I missed the peak a few days prior. When the river is “in,” just coming off a winter rain it can be…well…let me have Damon tell ya…
“Dude, I kid you not – I think the LA’s got some of the best hidden steelhead fishing you’ll ever see,” he says. “Forget the Cowlitz, the Wilson, Skeena and the Klamath…LA’s where it’s at, bro!”
Next time you’re down in LA and want to try a little steelhead fishing, give Damon’s Los Angeles River Outfitters Guide Service a call at (310) APRIL-FOOLS
Okay, I guess I had better put this disclaimer in here, based on the number of emails I’ve been getting. You missed one valuable piece of information in this article…in fact, it’s in the paragraph above: THIS IS AN APRIL FOOL’S GAG!!