Is re-introducing steelhead trout into the Arroyo Seco another fish tale?

The list of humans who made Pasadena famous starts with the Tongva, the native people who settled near the Arroyo Seco, followed by your Eatons, Wilsons, Huntingtons, Greenes, etc.

As for the animal that put the city on the map, the answer may surprise you.

Many say that creature was the Southern California Steelhead, a salmon-like species that between 1850 and 1940, attracted fisherman from across the country to the San Gabriel, Los Angeles and Arroyo Seco rivers. 

But the installation of dams and other flood control devices prevented the fish from swimming upstream to spawn, severely curtailing the population to about 500 today and landing it on the endangered species list.



The great fishing era of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Mountains ended and was forgotten for decades — until now, as efforts to restore the fish to local rivers and streams are making headway.

Since the year 2000, historians, biologists, nonprofit groups and government agencies have focused efforts on saving the endangered fish. Scientists are studying restoration of fresh water habitats and removal of impediments that would enable a replanting in local streams, in particular, the 22-mile Arroyo Seco that winds through the Angeles National Forest, West Pasadena, La Canada Flintridge and South Pasadena until it joins the L.A. River.



“It is no minor undertaking,” began Tom Tomlinson, a fish historian and Sierra Madre resident, while standing in the Arroyo Seco beneath the concrete arches of the 134 Freeway bridge. “In fact, re-introducing steelhead trout to this watershed for that pinnacle fish would tell you that this stream has been made safe for what (19th century fisherman and naturalist) George Frederick Holder called the magnificent fish.”




The indigenous Oncorhynchus mykiss became as famous as Pasadena’s healing climate to Holder, who came to the region in 1885 to be cured of a lung ailment. After he and others, including Charles Fletcher Lummis, a journalist and preservationist whose landmark house still stands on the bank of the Arroyo Seco, wrote about the steelhead trout in national magazines, anglers from the United States and the world came west to cast their rods in the streams of what was then called the Sierra Madre Mountains.



According to fishing lore, at Switzer’s resort off Angeles Crest Highway, three fishermen caught 340 trout in a single day. 

But after the glorious fishing era the fish gradually began to disappear through overfishing and concretization of the rivers, including construction of the first dam in Los Angeles County, Devil’s Gate Dam in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco.

The mark of civilization prevented the intrepid fish from returning upstream to reproduce or swimming back down to the ocean to fatten up, dooming them to eventual extinction. Until revitalization plans began in the next century.

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