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Scouting for trout

Will steelhead ever return to local streams? Conservationists believe so, as they scour pools and search for ways to bring the endangered gamefish back.

November 08, 2005|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

DEEP in the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness near San Clemente, the rocky floor of Cold Spring Creek is the only path through a jungle of chaparral. Poison oak covers the banks, blackberry vines form trip wires, Africanized honeybees buzz around.

The creek bed steepens, and for a trio of conservationists negotiating precipitous dry cascades and dense vegetation, it feels more like rock climbing than hiking.

"Rattlesnake!" Michael Hazzard yells, as the snake, just a few feet away, crosses the path, rustling fallen leaves before it disappears into a crevice.

"Close one," says Ed Schlegel, who steps over it. "I didn't even see it."

Hazzard, 48, a Trout Unlimited official, orders his tiny column of bushwhackers to take a five-minute break. Sweat beads on his forehead as he gulps from a bottle of lemon-lime Gatorade. It's 93 degrees and this is no ordinary fishing trip.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Steelhead trout -- A map with an article in Tuesday's Outdoors section about steelhead trout showed a location that was labeled as Mission Viejo. It should have been labeled as the Cow Camp at Rancho Mission Viejo.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 15, 2005 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Steelhead trout -- A map of steelhead trout habitat in last week's Outdoors section incorrectly identified a landmark as Mission Viejo. The map showed the Cow Camp at Rancho Mission Viejo.

Hazzard; Schlegel, a 63-year-old member of the Surfrider Foundation; and Mike McDermott, 56, a U.S. Forest Service volunteer, are on their way to Devil Canyon, a remote and jagged gorge on the northeast border of Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. It is one of three weekend expeditions this summer by crews searching for the nearly extinct southern steelhead trout -- a game fish once so plentiful in local rivers and streams the daily limit was 50.

A steelhead was last discovered in Devil Canyon in December 2003, when a California biologist found a lone adult that survived three years of drought swimming in a quiet pool. Budget cuts at the state Department of Fish and Game force the agency to rely increasingly on volunteers in the search for the fish.

"These guys are hard-core. They are my eyes and ears. We'd have a hard time doing the job without them," says Department of Fish and Game biologist Tim Hovey, who also ventured into the wilderness on a summer trip with biologists John O'Brien and Jim Asmus.

Anglers prize steelhead for their beauty, power and meat; catching one is considered the apex of freshwater fishing. Yet so few southern steelhead remain that the federal government declared the fish, found along the Southern California coast, an endangered species in 1997.

"The first time you hook one up, it's lightning striking your pole," says Jim Edmondson, conservation director of California Trout. "They are tenacious, spirited fish. They refuse to give up. It's an experience you carry for the rest of your life."

The trekkers are not trying to catch steelhead. They carry no rods and reels. Instead, they lug snorkel and dive gear through the brush, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fish in a pool or riffle to show it has a toehold in the southernmost extent of its range. There hasn't been a confirmed sighting in these waters since 2003.

"You really got to believe to do this work," says Hazzard, who has made scores of trips into the backcountry in search of the legendary fish. "The exciting thing about being there is you just don't know where they are. You could walk around a corner and jackpot."

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Reason for hope

HAZZARD is upbeat because San Mateo Creek burst the sand berm at the Trestles surf spot during last winter's rains, opening a path for fish migrating from the ocean. There were unconfirmed reports of steelhead at the river mouth. Some might have made it to Devil Canyon to spawn -- a swim of eight miles or more.

Like salmon, steelhead hatch and grow in freshwater, migrate to the ocean and return to streams and rivers to spawn. Unlike salmon, they don't die afterward. They look like rainbow, grow 30 inches long or more with silver sides and dark blue-gray backs. The southern species of the fish is so hardy that some people say it can live under a yucca tree.

For the men seeking the fish, the journey into Devil Canyon begins in late summer with a three-hour drive over Ortega Highway in south Orange County and dirt roads winding through the Cleveland National Forest. They spent the night under oaks at vacant Cold Spring Ranch, where Hazzard prepares breakfast on a propane stove: scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit and coffee. The aromas fill the air.

"It's going to be 100 degrees today," Hazzard says, handing out bananas. "You're going to need the potassium. Don't forget to drink lots of water."

Hazzard, a stocky man from San Juan Capistrano with neatly trimmed brown hair, is a part-time carpet cleaner and full-time environmentalist. He became interested in steelhead in 1999, after Toby Shackelford, a classmate at Saddleback College, caught one on San Mateo Creek, half a mile from the ocean.

It was the first confirmed steelhead on the stream in more than 50 years, a catch that led to sightings of more than 40 fish in the creek.

"I was immediately taken by this," says Hazzard, who fished on the Kern River as a youth in Bakersfield. "I had no idea trout were here or how bountiful San Mateo Creek used to be."

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