Jim Edmondson began fly fishing in 1981 to relax from his hectic construction business in Temple City.
Like other anglers, Edmondson knew the West Fork of the San Gabriel River was a good place to learn the difficult sport. Trout had thrived in the rocky stream for hundreds of years under the dense canopy of willows and alders, vegetation that ensured a steady insect supply for the fish.
But all of that changed in April, 1982, when the best wild trout stream in the Los Angeles area was destroyed. Tons of silt were accidentally flushed into the stream when a valve being repaired at Cogswell Dam by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works jammed.
When the valve was finally shut, most of the 24,000 wild trout that lived in the six-mile-long stream in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Azusa were displaced or killed and the stream's life-sustaining gravel beds and plants were buried under 200,000 cubic yards of silt.
As it turned out, the West Fork transformed Edmondson into a skilled fly fisherman and a sportsman more interested in conservation than what he catches.
By August, 1983, Edmondson had become the driving force behind a sizable volunteer effort responsible for the West Fork's continuing restoration and was well on his way to becoming a leader in the fight to protect the 18,500 miles of California streams populated by naturally reproducing trout.
Known as an intense and ambitious man, the 37-year-old California native "felt there was more to life than putting in 50 hours a week" as a commercial and residential building contractor. "I'm not opposed to the economic benefits," he said, but he wasn't finding it as rewarding as he had hoped it would be.
Trades Business Worries
He has not given up his business, but now as an officer of three fly fishing and conservation groups, Edmondson, who has no children, finds that he has traded his business worries for the growing responsibilities of conservation that take him all over the state.
"Perhaps I've attacked conservation the way I attacked business," he said. "I'm interested in results and achievements."
Although he hasn't run from controversy, conservationists and state wildlife officials say Edmondson has distinguished himself more as a researcher, an organizer and a diplomat.
In the West Fork, he rallied the Pasadena Casting Club, which he serves as conservation chairman, behind a three-year restoration project that depended upon hundreds of volunteers working in cooperation with county, state and federal agencies. Native weeds, grasses and about 1,100 willows and alders were transplanted and tons of gravel were hauled in to reconstruct vital West Fork spawning areas.
Officials of the county and the state Department of Fish and Game have asked Edmondson to serve on a panel to administer a $250,000 trust fund being established by the county to pay for future restoration work on the West Fork.
In the Eastern Sierra, he persuaded officials of Fish and Game and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which have often been adversaries, to work together to extend the spawning habitat of brown trout.
He and members of the casting club also have provided valuable data on the health of trout populations in the Eastern Sierra. And Edmondson said he has put two years of planning into organizing a biological census of a Southern California stream believed to be a spawning run for the ocean- going steelhead trout.
His leadership in these areas has earned him the respect of both fly fishermen and high-level state officials in Sacramento.
Has Won Respect
"He's one of the very top people I have to deal with," said Bob Fletcher, who as deputy Fish and Game director is the agency's second in command. "I have the utmost respect for him and his professional approach to what many times are controversial and multifaceted issues."
Said Jim Solomon, a Santa Monica fly fisherman: "If someone were to say what he's done in the West Fork and in (the Eastern Sierra), people would say that's impossible, but he's the guy that's done it. In conservation, you're not going to find a better guy."
Solomon said that Edmondson often claims he cannot fish or tie flies well. But he is good at both, Solomon said. "He is just trying to make a point. For him, it's more important to fight for the cause of the rivers and the fish than to indulge his ego in fly fishing."
But if the West Fork's destruction helped Edmondson appreciate the stream's value to fly fishing, it was another incident that crystallized his vision of the sport.
During a solo expedition up one of the narrow, fern-covered canyons that empty into the West Fork, the lanky Edmondson stumbled upon what he says is a little known refuge of the stream's ancestral trout population.
Found a Deep Pool
About a mile up the canyon's dry, rocky wash, he came upon a deep pool, startling into flight the dark, racing shadows of adult rainbow trout.