For more than a century, Southern California fishermen have been hooking trout in the San Gabriel River. The Pasadena Bait Club was the most prominent of several early fishing camps catering to those looking for camaraderie, rustic accommodations and good fishing.
Downriver, the San Gabriel (along with its sister streams the Santa Ana and the Los Angeles) is best known for depositing the alluvium that now covers the surface of the Los Angeles Basin.
Upriver, the San Gabriel has two major forks, each with a claim to fame. East Fork is known for its gold, West Fork for its trout.
The 1890s were a particularly grand time to cast a line. But while most anglers caught no more than the limit (50!), others were greedy and some even used dynamite to "fish" for trout. California Gov. Henry H. Markham was hardly an example of the conservation-minded sportsman; he once landed 98 fish in six hours on the West Fork.
Eventually, the California Department of Fish and Game stepped in to enforce limits and replenish the West Fork with fingerlings and trout brought in from Lake Tahoe.
Today, West Fork--its course determined by one of Southern California's most significant faults, the San Gabriel--is one of the best fishing rivers in Southern California. Most of the West Fork has been set aside as a wild trout preserve.
Fishing is of the "catch and release" variety. Barbless hooks must be used and the daily limit is zero. Fishing for keeps is permitted along a portion of the West Fork--the first 1 1/2-mile stretch of river reached by trail from Highway 39.
West Fork, as trout habitat, is still recovering from the desilting of Cogswell Dam, which lies upriver. Some years ago, during less enlightened times, Cogswell Dam was cleaned out and tons of silt were dumped into West Fork, wiping out most of the fish population.
The river can be reached from a couple of different directions, but most fishermen, as well as hikers and bicyclists, join the West Fork National Scenic Trail that departs from Highway 39. The trail is actually an asphalt road built at the same time as Cogswell Dam. Closed to vehicle traffic, the road is popular with hikers, joggers and mountain bicyclists.
West Fork Trail meanders seven miles with the river to Glenn Camp. (The road continues another 1 1/2 miles past Glenn Camp to Cogswell Reservoir, which is closed to the public, and connects with Forest Service fire roads heading west.) Hikers can travel the entire way to Glenn Camp or stop at a picnic or fishing spot anywhere they choose.
Directions to trailhead: Weekend and holiday visitors to the popular San Gabriel Canyon area must obtain a parking permit ($3 a day) for parking along Highway 39, as far as the Crystal Lake turnoff.
You can get a permit from the Forest Service San Gabriel Entrance Station, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; early risers can buy their permits at Daily Donuts or Circle Mobile Mart on Azusa Avenue in Azusa. These businesses are open 24 hours.
From the Foothill Freeway (210) in Azusa, exit on Azusa Avenue (Highway 39) and drive north. Fourteen miles later, and half a mile past the Forest Service's San Gabriel Canyon Off Road Vehicle Area and Rincon Station, look for a parking lot and locked gate on your left. Signed West Fork National Scenic Trail is the asphalt road descending into the canyon.
The hike: Walk past the locked gate and down the road into the canyon. On the weekends, you'll have plenty of company along the first mile of trail. Most of these canyon visitors will be toting coolers, lawn chairs and fishing poles.
After a mile there is a flat area, the site of the Pasadena Bait Club. The fishermen's headquarters burned in 1924, and the ruins washed away during the flood of 1938.
The path intersects the unsigned Bear Creek Trail that leads north into the San Gabriel Wilderness. Pioneers had many an encounter with grizzlies along this creek, hence the name. After another half-mile, the trail again crosses the river and enters the designated wild trout preserve.
Upriver, the road, which climbs very slowly but steadily, leads past many tranquil oak- and sycamore-shaded pools.
Seven miles from the trailhead is Glenn Camp, set on a shady flat right by the river. It's a peaceful place with half-a-dozen tables that invite a picnic.
West Fork National Scenic Trail
* Where: West Fork San Gabriel River, Angeles National Forest.
* Length: 14 miles round trip, shorter trips possible.
* Terrain: River canyon.
* Highlights: Trout fishing, picnicking.
* Precautions: Trail busy on weekends, popular with cyclists. Bring drinking water.
* For more information: Weekdays, call the Angeles National Forest Glendora Ranger Station at (818) 335-1251. Weekends, call the San Gabriel Entrance Station at (818) 969-1012.