In some ways, describing this scene feels like describing a coho run in the Pacific Northwest. A dozen or so fish in the 20-inch range are staging at the head of a deep pool, gathering strength before attempting passage upstream. Once rested and ready, they launch themselves up the falls, into the swift, shallow run above. A fly fisherman quietly wades into position at the heart of the pool below and spots a lone, cruising fish working a feeding lane like a policeman on a beat. The fisherman is a skilled angler and times his cast perfectly so that the fly drops just upstream from his target. With an almost imperceptible flare of its gills, the fish inhales the offering, and the line goes tight. The fight lasts several minutes until, finally, the fish comes to the net. After a few photos, it’s released into a gentle current.
But this is not the Pacific Northwest or Alaska, and these fish are not migratory salmonids. Over the din of traffic from the 710 Freeway above, the angler, Fernando Vazquez, points out another Cyprinus carpio—or common carp—cruising upstream. He peels line off his reel for another cast and wades a few steps deeper into the Los Angeles River.
“The people who fly fish the LA River, they’re all hard-core fly fishermen—to be down there, to even know about it, and to want to go after these fish.”
Few Angelinos are aware that prior to the 1930s, the LA River was home to native rainbow trout and seasonal runs of steelhead and Chinook salmon. The Los Angeles River was, in fact, a trout stream. Then, in 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers began a nearly 20-year process of channelizing the river, encasing its banks in concrete in an effort to control flooding. Today, the concrete canyon of the LA River is not the idyllic, catalog-ready backdrop that comes to mind when most people think of fly fishing. When the water is low, it makes a great location for Hollywood car chase scenes, but it’s not a typical destination for the average fly angler. Luckily, the community of misfit fisher-folk who call the LA River their home waters is anything but average.
“It’s the punk rock of fly fishing,” says Lauren Mollica, a cabinetmaker and former professional skateboarder who fishes the river regularly. “The people who fly fish the LA River, they’re all hard-core fly fishermen—to be down there, to even know about it, and to want to go after these fish.” Mollica’s girlfriend had grown up in a fly fishing family in Telluride, Colorado, and she bought Lauren her first fly rod. “At first I was like, ‘Oh, these are for trout. You go up into the mountains to fish in some pretty place,’” she recalls. “But I learned that there were carp right here and that they were really fun to get on the fly. I started hunting them, figuring it out. I was down there all the time. I didn’t catch one for maybe two months—once I did though, I was obsessed. I thought, ‘I live ten minutes from this river. I can do this every day.’”
Carp fly fishing has grown in popularity precisely because of that proximity, according to Wayne Boon, the founder and president of the American Carp Society. Boon says they’ve seen an upward trend in urban carp fly fishing over the past 15 years, as fly fishermen look for angling options closer to home. Folks are busier than ever, with less vacation time,” Boon says. “They’re looking for fishing opportunities nearby, for a quick after work or morning session. Carp, like humans, are blessed with an ability to survive in all kinds of conditions.”
“I do all kinds of freshwater fly fishing,” Vazquez says. “Carp are the most challenging and the most rewarding. There’s always something new to learn.”
Introduced from Europe in the mid-1800s as a sport fish and food source, the common carp can now be found in every state but Alaska, which means the average American lives within a short drive of carp water. Though often maligned as a destructive invasive species or simply dismissed as “trash fish,” carp have earned a reputation among anglers as one of the hardest-fighting fish, pound-for-pound, swimming in North America. They are also famously challenging, spooking easily at the slightest shadow or ripple on the water.
Boon sums up the allure of carp in two words: “Brains and brawn.”
“Common carp are one of the smartest fish swimming,” he says. “Once hooked, their power will amaze you.”
Back in Long Beach, Vazquez has spent the past several hours stalking the banks of a favorite stretch, sight casting to feeding carp to no avail. But it’s that challenge that brings him back. “I do all kinds of freshwater fly fishing,” Vazquez says. “Carp are the most challenging and the most rewarding. There’s always something new to learn.”
With the rise of social media, fly fishing has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, with an entirely new type of angler—one that defies “type” altogether. Anglers like Vazquez, a heavy metal and craft beer enthusiast who was born in Pasadena, raised in Mexico, and is now studying industrial design at ArtCenter College of Design. Or like Mollica, a carpenter and ex-skateboarder who learned to fly fish from her girlfriend and who’s now teaching her own mother how to catch carp on the fly. They’re serious anglers who aren’t content to limit their time on the water to the occasional vacation in trout country. They’re seeking out—and pioneering—new fly fishing experiences in the places where they live and work.
“That’s what’s cool about what we do,” says Mollica. “It’s in the gnarliest of places. Most of the LA River is just a concrete drainage ditch. We’re stepping over shopping carts to get to these little pockets where the fish are sitting.”