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Driven by a dream that the one that got away may be coming back, volunteers comb Malibu Creek in search of the steelhead trout. : A FISH STORY?

June 01, 1986|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

One sunny March afternoon, five college students driving home from the beach decided on a whim to touch up their tans. They pulled over to the side of Malibu Canyon Road, along a deserted stretch in the Santa Monica Mountains, and set their sand chairs out in a row.

They were not expecting company. But soon a middle-aged man in khaki shorts and a matching long-sleeved shirt emerged from the canyon depths. He pushed his sweaty blond hair away from his spectacles and strode toward the old gray convertible he had left by the roadside more than four hours before.

The college students stared in silence. Then one spied the man's rod and reel. "Hey," the young man hollered, "what kind of fish were you going for down there?"

Giles Manwaring looked straight at his questioner.

"Bass," he lied.

Manwaring had good reason to keep his secret. If word got out too soon, he was certain, it would set off a stampede to the clear, rocky stream that winds along the canyon bottom.

The truth: The state strongly suspects that Malibu Creek is home to the nation's southernmost run of the legendary steelhead trout.

Manwaring, a 47-year-old building contractor, was an eager recruit in the effort to find out for sure. The prospect of local steelhead, which grow more than twice as large as ordinary trout, has dazzled dozens of volunteers since the beginning of the year. They spent more than three months walking the creek's banks, wading its waters and even scuba diving; state biologists are continuing the quest in Malibu and San Diego labs.

Excitement is high among those who fish for sport. If the steelhead are running in Malibu Creek, a prized northern giant is available in the Los Angeles Basin, where freshwater fishermen far outnumber any kind of freshwater fish.

Curiosity is strong among wildlife experts, too. If steelhead are running in Malibu Creek, they wonder why the fish returned to an urban, southern setting where the species died out long ago. They wonder if a resurgence here means the steelhead population, which has declined statewide, is strong enough to stage a comeback--to adapt, with a little help, to a changed environment shaped by modern industry.

To anglers and biologists alike, the steelhead is a magnificent and mysterious fish. It begins life as a rounded, dark rainbow stream trout, slims to a cigar shape and turns bright silver, then transforms its kidneys to adapt to salt water and heads for the open sea.

Like the salmon, which is hundreds of times more common, the steelhead trout generally returns to its native creek to spawn in an annual run. Unlike salmon, the steelhead often survives the grueling reproduction process to stay in the stream for a few months. The hardy steelhead may then swim out to the ocean again, where it gorges on a rich diet of shrimp and smaller fish. When it comes back to its creek to spawn once more, it can weigh anywhere from 6 to 32 pounds.

The steelhead's tremendous size and notorious strength offer the ultimate challenge to freshwater fishermen. Every spawning season, legions of anglers spend hundreds of dollars apiece to travel to the steelhead's haunts in northern California--especially on the Klamath, Smith and Trinity rivers--and in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Scores leave having tasted the tender meat of campfire-cooked

steelhead (after snapping a souvenir photo first). Scores more go home having failed, but even they have memories of the duels they have fought, watching their prey in the translucent waters, the steelhead watching right back.

"It's a red-meat fish," said John Schubert, former conservation chairman of the 350-member Sierra Pacific Flyfishers, an angling group based in Van Nuys. "Red-meat fish makes a fisherman's blood churn up."

In centuries past, nearly every Southern California river boasted an annual steelhead spawning run. But since 1900, the taming of the land has killed off runs in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. Dams blocked the steelhead's way to the coolest areas, where the fish spawn. Smooth concrete channels replaced the gravelly stream beds where the eggs are hidden. Runoff from construction and farm fields polluted the waters. Springs were choked off and creek beds dried up.

The last steelhead run in the urbanized south, researchers thought, was at San Juan Creek, in Orange County, in 1969.

Sewage Plant the Key

"It would be an amazing thing to see steelhead back in this concrete jungle," said Dave Drake, a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game whose territory includes Los Angeles and Orange counties, along with western Riverside County.

Ironically, the steelhead may have been lured to this single southern spot in Malibu by a sewage treatment plant--a symbol of the technology and development blamed for wiping out the steelhead in the first place.

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