It’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when the Los Angeles River was wild and free flowing, flanked by thick forests of reeds and full of rainbow trout – instead of being blanketed in concrete and sandwiched between swollen highways and train tracks.
Centuries ago, in areas that are now the backs of trading centers and housing estates, the Tongva natives lived in villages along the river and relied on fishing for food. After the arrival of Spanish settlers in 1781, the population increased along the banks of the river, which served as the main source of water for the Pueblo de los Ángeles.
The rains often turned the river’s flow from a trickle to a torrent in just a few hours, making flooding a recurring problem. Following a catastrophic flood in 1938 that destroyed thousands of homes and killed nearly 100 people, the Army Corps of Engineers decided the best course was to channel 278 miles of the river and its tributaries – y including the 51 mile stretch from Canoga Park to Long Beach — with concrete embankments.
Today, the waterway looks more like an oversized storm sewer than a river, with just a slow trickle of water flowing down the center of the concrete-lined canal. The images it conjures up for most people are the sets featured in scenes from famous movies, like “Grease” or “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
But tucked away in a small corner of Los Angeles, below the intersection of two freeways, is a neighborhood known as Frogtown – complete with a lush little section of the Los Angeles River.
This pocket, called Glendale Narrows, never had its bottom paved, allowing trees and river plants to continue to grow in its center where the water flows.
Like the coyotes that live among the houses and vacant lots of the nearby hills, many waterfowl and fish have made this section of the river their home. Although hardly reminiscent of the wild river of earlier centuries, this section of the river today feels like a natural respite from the surrounding urban environment, although there appears to be an equal amount of trash and vegetation.
I found myself spending a lot of time in this section of the river last winter during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The wintry light and the yellowing leaves of the trees made me feel like I was spending time somewhere completely outside of Los Angeles, when in reality I was only a few miles from my apartment.
Along the river, people were cycling, walking, roller-skating, bird-watching, meeting friends. But I found myself more intrigued by people fishing. In this unexpected environment of concrete, buzzing traffic and litter, the act of fishing seemed almost defiant: a quiet outdoor activity against the backdrop of highway overpasses.
At the recommendation of an angler I met, I expanded my scope to also include a few local parks: Echo Park Lake, Hollenbeck Park, and Lincoln Park, each containing popular lakes for city fishing. Over the next three months, I would spend three or four afternoons a week photographing, alternating between the four locations.
There were many days when all I found was scraps: a tackle box left by a tree, a tangled fishing line, a few dead fish. The other days, I found a person fishing. The best days, I found a few.
With the pandemic raging and everything about city life so chaotic, there was something almost meditative about spending that time outside and seeing other people doing much the same thing – just hanging out, try to catch a fish or two.
One afternoon, looking over the Fletcher Drive bridge, overlooking the mid-Los Angeles River, I saw a man perfecting his fly casting. Another day I spent hours talking with a fisherman who used hot dogs as bait and played heavy metal radio while casting – because he thought the fish liked it.
The images of outdoor sports presented to us in magazines and advertisements often depict remote wilderness and highly technical sportsmen with expensive brand name equipment – things beyond the reach of the average person.
In town, however, the fishermen I encountered along the river were locals from nearby neighborhoods, people living just around the corner. Often they walked there. They came to spend a few hours by the water, most often after work or on a day off.
Fishing along the river was not part of a grand adventure, and that was the point. It’s just a little respite, a break from the daily grind.
Madeleine Tolle is an editorial photographer based in Los Angeles. You can follow his work on instagram and Twitter.