THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF TROUT IN Southern California streams: Those that just spurted from the pipe of a hatchery truck and those that someone caught and left behind. That's why members of the Sierra Pacific Flyfishers are less than pleased when some bonehead shows up at their beloved Piru Creek with a mesh hammock and uses it -- yes, it happens -- to net as many trout as will fit into a cooler.
The Sierra Pacific crew has a certain affinity for Piru Creek, the club's adopted "home fishing waters." Piru, a tiny stream in the Los Padres National Forest, just off Interstate 5 north of Santa Clarita, has water year-round and hosts a population of wild trout, including some 18-inch behemoths. This is for one reason only: Fly-fishing aficionados leave them there. Hence the true fly-fisher's credo: Catch the fish, admire the fish, maybe even take a picture. But don't put the fish in the frying pan.
"With wild fish, you want to preserve the [genetic] strains," says John Stevenson, the Sierra Pacific club's conservation director. "You don't do that by taking them home and eating them."
The term "catch and release" was coined by master fly fisherman Lee Wulff in the late 1930s. "A good gamefish is too valuable to be caught only once," said Wulff, who died in 1991. The catch-and-release program began in earnest in California about 30 years ago, when a handful of Bay Area angling cronies decided to do something about the decline in trophy trout in the state. Trout populations in many streams were being hammered by the masses, and few fish lived long enough to grow to a respectable size.
Today, nudged by such conservation groups as California Trout, the California Department of Fish and Game designates stretches of some streams as catch-and-release and/or "wild trout" waters, meaning anglers must return every fish they hook -- or, in some places, may keep one or two. About 1,100 of the state's 20,000 miles of streams are protected under the program, and serious fly-fishers usually practice catch and release everywhere they cast. Is the catch-and-release gospel working in this arid basin? "Absolutely," says Jim Edmonson, California Trout's conservation director. "The quality of fishing in these streams is high compared to other areas where catch and release is not in place." The Sierra Pacific's Stevenson credits catch and release as the reason, for instance, that little Piru Creek boasts a few trout the size of which most people figure they'll have to schlep to Idaho or Alaska to hook.
Setting a hooked trout free is not enough to keep it in the game, though. These creatures are slimy for a reason. Their skin is delicate, and touching it can kill them. So it's important to try to dislodge the hook -- barbless of course -- while the trout's in the water. If you must handle the creature, wet your hands thoroughly first and, after unhooking it, rock it gently in the current to make sure it's ready to swim. Another advantage to adopting the catch-and-release credo: Unlike waters that close with fishing season, catch-and-release streams are open year-round.
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Here are some fine local catch-and-release streams (with special regulations on certain stretches). Forest Service maps are recommended, and the Forest Service requires a $5 daily Adventure Pass.
Bear Creek: This creek in the San Bernardino National Forest plunges from below the dam that forms Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains and flows to the Santa Ana River. Only artificial bait with barbless hooks may be used, and there's a two-fish limit. No fish under 8 inches may be taken. Access the creek from hiking trails off Route 18 between Snow Valley and Big Bear Lake, or from Route 38, near Seven Oaks (high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles recommended).
Deep Creek: This creek, also in the San Bernardino National Forest, is inhabited by wild trout. It's catch and release from the creek's headwaters in Little Green Valley to the confluence of Willow Creek. No bait allowed, barbless hooks are required, and there's a two-fish limit. Minimum keeper size is 8 inches. From the north end of Lake Arrowhead, take the road to Cedar Glen, then Hook Creek Road to the forest entrance. Park beyond Splinter's Cabin and hike to the creek.
Piru Creek: Catch-and-release area goes from the bridge below Pyramid Lake to the falls about half a mile above the old Highway 99 bridge in the Los Padres National Forest. No bait, barbless hooks required and all fish caught must be released. Take the Templin Highway-Old Road exit off Interstate 5.
Sespe Creek: Above Alder Creek confluence in the Los Padres National Forest; no bait, barbless hooks; no fish may be kept. From Highway 33, turn east on Rose Valley Road and go about seven miles to Lion Campground. Hike downstream.
West Fork of the San Gabriel River: No fish may be kept. Park about a quarter of a mile past the Rincon Ranger Station in the Angeles National Forest, off Highway 39. The catch-and-release section is accessible only by foot or bicycle along the West Fork National Scenic Bikeway running eight miles upstream toward Cogswell Reservoir, beginning after the second bridge.
SNAPSHOT: Must-have flies
By the end of summer, most aquatic insect hatches have petered out, water levels have fallen and smart anglers are casting smaller flies and making sure they ride low in the water -- by trimming their hackle, if that's what it takes.
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