Can San Lorenzo River Steelhead Survive a Tiramisu of Tyrannies: Time, Climate Change, Heroin Needles, Overpopulation and the New Undead?

Fifties fishermen above the Laurel Street bridge, angling for what was still a very healthy run of steelhead trour. Photo ?????

Fifties fishermen above the Laurel Street bridge, angling for what was still a very healthy run of steelhead trour. Photo ?????

 “And the story is told about a river that flowed made me sad to think it was dead.”

From a song popular during a time when the San Lorenzo River still had fish in it.

Vampires are so hot right now, but think back to those ever-pale, never-dying vampires in The Lost Boys (1987) lead by bottle-blonde Kiefer Sutherland (channeling Billy Idol). They’re sexy, they’re deadly, they’re hot blooded - tempting and taunting the mortal Michael, swinging under a foggy train bridge in “Santa Carla.” As a rumbling train menaces the menacing vamps - they squeak and squawk at Michael to hang with them - so to speak. Teetering between cold human mortality and hot vampire immortality, Michael lets go, taking a symbolic drop of faith into a new, eternal, bloody life: “Never grow old, never die.”

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HOT! But the fiction of that Lost Boys train bridge in “Santa Carla” in reality is the 115-year-old train trestle over the troubled waters of the San Lorenzo - the river that runs through Santa Cruz, and forms a boundary between the surf-arbitrary designations of “midtown” and “the west side.” The trestle bridge connects Seabright to the Boardwalk with 300 feet of wood, steel, creosote, asbestos and other early 20th Century toxicities, anchored on two concrete supports about 30 miles from the San Lorenzo source in Castle Rock State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and about a thousand feet from where those waters flow into the Monterey Bay.

Fly Fish Journal - Trestle from above - nice.jpg


Those menacing trains don’t rumble over the trestle very often, but the bridge provides a pedestrian walkway that overlooks the estuary of the San Lorenzo River, a changeable body of water that warps and woofs with tides, seasons, sandbars, swell, heavy equipment, floods, droughts, sewage spills, civic needs - little kids making dams. There was a time in (my) recent memory when this estuary was loaded with salmonids - fresh out of the salty Pacific blue and into the brack - shake, shake shaking off the relentless ocean perils of sharks and orcas and ravenous pinnipeds, but now facing a different threat: humans in boots and boats using a wide variety of weaponry to claim them - dynamite, spears, salmon eggs, lures, flies. 

All those silvery, strong fish holding in the estuary, waiting for rain, with one thing on their minds - swimming hard upstream to get some!!!

There was a time when the San Lorenzo estuary was like the waiting room in a bordello for steelhead, coho salmon and other anadromous fish - a time when the San Lorenzo was famed around the city, the county, the state, the country and even the world as the fourth-best sport fishing river in California, and the finest south of the Golden Gate. 

From the Gold Rush circa 1848 to just before the Silicon Rush circa Y2K, the San Lorenzo was renowned as home and habitat to tens of thousands of healthy, vital steelhead and coho salmon. 

Healthy fish population =  healthy river. But that was then and this is now, and well into the Silicon Rush of the 21st Century, the fish population is coughing up blood - growing old and dying, ceasing to exist, unwell and perilously close to no more, threatened by a tiramisu of tyrannies: over development, overpopulation, overfishing, water diversion, water pollution, climate change and an ever-increasing, more toxic and worrisome population of drugged-out, thieving homeless vagabonds - the new undead of Santa Carla - who live along the river and infest it with flotsam, jetsam and detritus human and inhuman: feces, needles, paper and plastic. Yuck. 

Home is not as sweet as home once was.

Fishing the Buckeye Hole in the shadow of the modern Warriors basketball stadium in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo: Georgina Johnson.

Fishing the Buckeye Hole in the shadow of the modern Warriors basketball stadium in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo: Georgina Johnson.


Wikipedia, that internationally famous resource for fishing information, claims:

The San Lorenzo River was once one of the most popular steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) rivers on the Central Coast of California. 

Reliable historic records from 1915 describe that in addition to "quinnat"(chinook salmon) (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and "silver" (coho salmon) that occasional "humpback" (pink salmon) (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) and "dog" (chum salmon) (Oncorhynchus keta) used the San Lorenzo River.

Approximately 26 miles (42 km) of the San Lorenzo River, and at least nine of its major tributaries, support steelhead. Historically, the San Lorenzo River supported the largest coho salmon and steelhead fishery south of San Francisco Bay, and the fourth largest steelhead fishery in the State of California. In 1960, it was estimated that there were more than 30,000 fish living in this river, but a decade later the population had been reduced to 1,000. 

Is that so... What caused that decline of population in 10 years - from the year I was born to the time I was walking over that trestle with a seven-foot Haut surfboard? What is the population now? And what was the San Lorenzo like after the Gold Rush and into the early 1900s, when the river was less-touched and more-pristine, and regularly stocked? 

Unlike the Lost Boys, the steelhead of the San Lorenzo are not immortal. Steelhead are incredibly strong - they can swim from the mouth of the Columbia to well up in the Rockies and back to sea - but they are also fragile. They can survive a hundred perils at sea, but if you toxify their fresh-water cribs too much, they decline - rapidly.

What would it take to bring them back? To restore to its former glory the best steelhead river south of the Golden Gate?

Fly Fish Journal - San Lorenzo historic steelhead nice.jpg


Way back when, in nineteen seventy two, I was a fresh-faced, eager, wide-eyed boy transplant from the Valley, moved by divorce and an adventurous, VW-driving, semi-hippie mom from Santa Clara to Santa Cruz. Kinda like Buck in Call of the World, and very much like The Lost Boys’ Michael Emerson and his younger brother Sam (except my younger brother was named Michael and I was the older brother) we were displaced from a solid, stable happy 60s home in the Santa Clara Valley and moved over the mountains and far away to Santa Cruz - to a whole new society. 

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From the late 1970s and into the 1980s I had a hot dog wagon on the beach between the Harbor and the Rivermouth called Surfer Dog. Neil Young played with a local band called Ducks and lived on the hill above Surfer Dog - we could hear him playing his guitar in the evening. 

The San Lorenzo River and the estuary and the rivermouth and the sandbar was the center of the universe in many ways - for surfing and fishing. If you grew up in midtown Santa Cruz the Rivermouth was always on your mind. 

Even now, when it rains, wherever I am in the world, I get that twitch: more more more! Because rain meant fish moving upriver and sand moving down. Steelhead and barrels. Rivermouth. Photo: Ben Marcus.

Oh yeah. Rain! Rain! Rain, baby. Photo stolen from Santa Cruz Waves.

Oh yeah. Rain! Rain! Rain, baby. Photo stolen from Santa Cruz Waves.

Divorce and broken homes have driven more than a few depressed kids to find solace in the secrets of the sea (See: Kelly Slater, Miki Dora, Lisa Andersen, Layne Beachley), and I was one of them. Mom bought a house on Plum and Owen in the Seabright area - aka mid-town - for maybe 25 G’s (geez!) - a house that is now worth a million and a half and maybe more. Mom had a touch of Madame Winchester and couldn’t stop renovating, so she employed Dennis T - a surfer who listened to KFAT relentlessly and relentlessly smoked Camel Unfiltereds and had the hacking death-cough to go with it. Dennis surfed the Yacht Harbor and the Rivermouth in the winter, and the Lane and up the coast the rest of time. 

Moi with my beloved seven-foot Haut and my beloved Hang 10 shirt with my beloved brother Michael on the steps of our beloved house on Plum and Owen in the Seabright area of Santa Cruz. (Beloved bad wetsuit not shown)Photo: Mom.

Moi with my beloved seven-foot Haut and my beloved Hang 10 shirt with my beloved brother Michael on the steps of our beloved house on Plum and Owen in the Seabright area of Santa Cruz. (Beloved bad wetsuit not shown)Photo: Mom.

Dennis didn’t promise “Never grow old, never die!” when he gave me a shaggy old two-tone 7’ Haut Surfboard. Being a green kid from the Valley - as Valley as Valley could be - I bought a bad wetsuit, the wrong wetsuit, a quarter-inch diving long john with a purple spring suit over that, from O'Neill Surf Shop at the yacht harbor. A neoprene Hazmat suit, but I was transmogrified by surfing. I was gone, and that was that: “See you mom. Love you. Goin’ surfin’. Won’t be home for dinner - for the next 10 years.” 

And like Michael in The Lost Boys, I was indoctrinated into a whole new world. A luscious world. All of a sudden, I was a surf vampire - mesmerized and hopelessly intoxicated by the feels and smells and challenges and emotions of the ocean, and surfing, and cold water and Santa Cruz in the 1970s.

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Every possible day I would walk from Plum and Owen to Cowells, serenaded by Steely Dan and Maria Muldaur and Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt and Elton John and all the rock and soul hits of the late 60s and early 70s. I used to walk over that bridge every possible day: Looking left where the river and the ocean flowed together at the San Lorenzo River Mouth, gauging the swell angle and the wind and the tide and factoring that complex equation into what would be happening within the shelter of Cowells Beach - beginner Valhalla. The place to be.


This was 47 years ago but seems like a blink of an eye,  back to a time when that walk over the San Lorenzo would sometimes pass over an estuary chockablock full of salmonids. Like B52s over Tokyo, healthy heaps of large, healthy, energized fish, swimming in lazy formation in the lagoon, between the mountains and the deep blue sea, acclimating and waiting for something to happen - waiting for rain.

(I’ve seen the same deal on the middle fork of the Smith River, in that big pool just below the Nels Christensen Bridge. When the steelhead are moving, that pool is loaded with B52s. Nice to see a semi-wild California coastal river still chockablock with salmonids. Keep it to yourself, but the Smith is holding.)

As a mid-town surfer it was easy to feel an affinity with the steelhead, as we also went back and forth from land to sea to land and we also prayed for rain - because when enough rain fell, a sandbar formed at the rivermouth and created a beautiful little wave that shape-shifted with the tides and currents and sometimes broke all winter - or even into the summer like the El Nino sandbar of 1982. Even to this day, no matter where I am, when it starts raining, a little part of my brain prays for “More! More! More!” because more rain means more sand moving downriver and out to sea, and more fish moving out of the sea and upriver.


When I wasn’t learning to surf I was learning to fish. The San Lorenzo is where I first learned how not to catch steelhead. 

As mentioned in other articles in Fly Fish Journal, I am a shitty steelhead fisherman.

I even joined SSA: “My name is Ben Marcus and I am a shitty steelhead fisherman.” There, I said it.

I have fruitlessly flogged famous waters from the Klamath to the Kispiox and all the way to Pennsylvania and Alaska for steelhead and in all that time and millions of casts I have managed to hook exactly one - on the Kispiox circa 2000. I was so shocked to have a steelhead on I went reaching for my camera and managed to break the borrowed fly rod of a Swedish guy who was part of a Viking crew invading northern BC.


And all of that fruitless flogging began in the San Lorenzo River in the 1970s. I tried. I had a go. When the wind, tide and swell were no bueno for surfing (or I was grounded by my not-hippie-enough mom for bad grades), I stood under The Lost Boys Bridge with a 70s-vintage seven weight Fenwick rod (that I still have.) As wrong as that ¼” diving long john/spring suit strait jacket combo was for surfing, for steelhead that was probably the wrong rod, the wrong reel, the wrong line, the wrong leader, the wrong knots, the wrong flies, the wrong approach, the wrong everything.

But I tried. On the San Lorenzo, usually poking around the estuary under the trestle, but sometimes driving far up into the mountains to hike into holes I had heard about and read about.

But in all that time - nada, rien, zilch, bupkis. I saw them: hiding along the cracks under the bridge, and in spots like the Buckeye Hole. They were in there - and they were lovely - but I wasn’t fooling them. The steelhead population of the San Lorenzo has never had nothing to fear from me, but other forces and factors have reduced that population from the thriving bomber squadrons of the early 1970s, to whatever it is now. 

I don’t like dead rivers. Malibu Creek is pretty close to a dead river. San Mateo Creek that runs down to the Trestles surf spot is pretty close to a dead river. That river that runs along the road to the airport in Sao Paulo is the deadest river I’ve ever seen, and the Tijuana River where it runs down to the ocean at the very southern part of California is a dead river - toxified and hopeless. 

Dead rivers are sad.

A couple of local rascals with a healthy San Lorenzo steelhead. Photo: Thomas Hogye.

A couple of local rascals with a healthy San Lorenzo steelhead. Photo: Thomas Hogye.


Is the San Lorenzo River dead? When I walk over it now and think back to 1972, it seems that way. It looks that way. It feels that way. Where once there were squadrons of fish holding in large numbers, now there are odd squads of fish - two and four and six, maybe - furtively swimming out of the sea, over the sandbar and along a deadly gauntlet of unshooable (by law) pinnipeds trying to eat them at the mouth. The fish that make it hold in holes under the trestle, at the Buckeye Hole and other redoubts - looking as nervous and sketchy as the homeless meth heads also hiding out along the river.But all of that aside, I still wonder and worry about the Lost Boys of the San Lorenzo.  At what point were they full strength, and where did they go?

Anyone who knows and loves California wonders what their part of California was like when it was pristine, or close to it. Poking and prodding into history, many stories are told about a river that flowed. Using online archives and plugging in the word “steelhead,” it’s possible to get an idea of what the San Lorenzo was like in its heyday, and how the river has been shaped and warped by those tyrannies of population, water consumption, pollution, conservation and other goods, bads and uglies.


Again with the Wikipedia: 

“The first European land exploration of Alta California, the Spanish Portolà expedition, gave the river its name when it passed through the area on its way north, camping near the west bank on October 17, 1769. Franciscan missionary Juan Crespi, traveling with the expedition, noted in his diary that, "Not far from the sea we came to a large river...It is one of the largest that we have met with on the journey...This river was named San Lorenzo." "Not far from the sea" indicates that the party probably crossed the river at one of what later became the commonly used fords. The fords, in turn, became the locations for the first two bridges across the river - at today's Water Street and Soquel Avenue.”

So the Portola expedition named it and claimed it way back when, in seventeen sixty nine, but there is no mention of the fish population. Having been to Alaska and all through BC ad the Yukon a couple times and witnessed with my own two eyes how nature mutates when it’s left alone, it’s not hard to imagine the newly-minted San Lorenzo when it was pristine and most likely one silver streak of salmonids from the estuary to the source. Maybe they crossed the river along the backs of all those fish crammed together.

Hope so.


From 1542 and well into the 1800s, the Spanish and the Mexicans spent a couple of centuries poking and probing Alta California - mostly looking for gold to steal - but they missed it by that much: Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848 but the war with Mexico ended 10 days later with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico signed over most of the southwest for $15 million - the equivalent of $450 million now but still a bargain - and then the Gold Rush broke a couple months later - after California was safely under the wing of Uncle Sam.

Mexico could only shake their heads and mumble “Aye caramba!” and make that Lurch noise as 750,000 pounds of gold - worth the equivalent of $10 billion dollars - flowed out of the hills and into the red, white and blue in less than 10 years.

Missed it by that much.

Some of that gold capital flowed south to Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay - which was then, as it is now, one of the most sunny, fertile, nature-blessed places to live in California and the world - between the mountains and the deep blue sea, where redwoods and palm trees live together in perfect harmony.


The first sawmills in Santa Cruz pre-date the Gold Rush, but the pace picked up after 1849 with the influx of people, need and capital. According to NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region’s The History of Salmon 2.0, these sawmills - and other practices - began to sully and silt up the San Lorenzo before and after the Gold Rush:

A common practice in the 19th century was to dump the waste into the same stream that powered the mill. As early as 1867, The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that, “the sawmills on the Pescadero have . . . injured the fishing, from the sawdust running down the creek.” Four years later, an article in the same newspaper described how the “impact of sawmills on trout fishing was always a matter of contention in the communities along the streams flowing out of the redwood-covered canyons of the Santa Cruz Mountains.” 


The second most significant event in California history - after the Gold Rush, historically and chronologically - was the coming of the railroad. Spurred by the Gold Rush and the reports of abundant, most-excellent soil and weather and just about everything else that humans crave, the population of California mutated with folks going west to grow with the country. The train minimized a hundred-day ordeal around the Horn by ship and/or a hundred-day ordeal across the plains in wagon trains to an eight-day joyride through the heart of the wild west. San Francisco by 1869 and then Los Angeles and Santa Cruz the same year - 1876.  The train made it to Santa Cruz to expedite movement of machinery in and lumber and lime out, but the train also brought folks to fish the abundance of the Monterey Bay - from rockfish to salmon - and also the river that ran through it.


According to NOAA:

It is impossible to know exactly how much impact commercial and recreational fishing had on salmon populations in that era. The popularity of fishing is evidenced by this account: “(w)hen the railroad reached Santa Cruz in 1876, it was the river as much as the beach that drew tourists. Santa Cruz promoted itself as a ‘sportsmen's paradise,’ with most hotels only two blocks from the river. Hotels and downtown campgrounds saw a business boom each year at the start of fishing season” (Gibson 1994). There were no limits or fishing regulations in those days. Fish were caught with hooks, nets, pitchforks, fish wheels, even dynamite. 

In the San Lorenzo River (Santa Cruz County), “railroad workers . . . while building the South Pacific Coast Railroad in the late 1870s, often used explosives to ‘fish.’” (Lydon 2003). 

Santa Cruz circa 1885, around the time when the Hawaiian princes surfed the San Lorenzo Rivermouth. Image from the Honeyman Archive.

Santa Cruz circa 1885, around the time when the Hawaiian princes surfed the San Lorenzo Rivermouth. Image from the Honeyman Archive.


The first mention of “steelhead” in The Santa Cruz Sentinel was in the December 4, 1885 edition - same year the Hawaiian princes went surfin’ - and began a debate over whether steelhead were salmon or a trout:

The question whether the "steelhead' belongs to the salmon or the trout family will soon be settled in court. Dr. David Starr Jordan, the renowned piscatorial expert, now at the head of the Stanford Jr. University, has declared that these fish belong to the trout family, but the fishermen, not those who fish for sport, but those who catch fish for a living, have decided that the steelhead is a salmon.

Yes those who fished for a livin’ decided the steelhead was a salmon, so they didn’t have to throw them back. A few weeks later, at the end of the month and the end of the year, Judge Low came to a no decision:

An Unsolved Problem. San Francisco, Dec. 31. Judge Low this morning held that the scientific distinction between steelhead salmon and steelhead trout was too fine for the law to recognize, and so dismissed the case against A. Pardini, arrested recently by Fish Commissioner Babcock. Pardini was arrested for unlawfully exposing trout for sale. He defended himself on the ground that the fish were steelhead salmon, and not trout. Experts from Stanford University testified that the fish were trout, but Judge Low had a doubt in his mind which he resolved in favor of the defendant.

Whether the steelhead was a salmon or a trout, they were good sport and good eatin’ and for the rest of the 19th Century and into the 20th, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and other local papers covered the steelhead fishery in great detail.

Way back when, in 1905, there was concern about sections of the San Lorenzo being privatized, excluding the public from access to the river and the fish now thriving in it. 

On August 3, 1905, the Santa Cruz Sentinel published an article from a concerned citizen titled:  OBJECT TO RESERVED WATERS OWNERS IN SANTA CRUZ CO. WHO RESERVE FISHING WATERS ARE IN DISFAVOR which expressed concern that,the owners of land through which flow many inviting trout streams in Santa Cruz Co., are attempting to preserve or contemplating preserving those streams for their own personal enjoyment.”

This letter was concerned about stretches of river being roped off for private use, but also expressed hope that a new hatchery at Brookdale would keep the population alive and kicking. 

(One of the fondest memories of my Santa Clara Valley childhood livin’ was a Christmas spent at the Brookdale Lodge when my parents were together and we were still a happy 60s family. The restaurant at the Brookdale Lodge had a creek running through it, which was the absolute coolest thing in the world at that time.)


Ed. Western Graphic: The anglers of San Francisco will, In the near future, find the streams of Santa Cruz Co. ideal for fishing. Last week I spent a couple of days at Brookdale, a beautiful spot in the heart of the redwoods. Brookdale is a comparatively new resort, and the genial proprietor, Judge Logan, tells me that he can not accommodate with cottages his many guests. 


Ground was broken for the hatchery last February and today a suitable and commodious building marks the spot. In the hatchery at present are 800,000 rainbow and steelhead fry, all lively and healthy and growing under the most suitable surroundings. (Next spring several ponds will be added to the plant and the hatchery people will then be in a position to plentifully supply every river and creek in Santa Cruz Co.) 


The Southern Pacific Co., I am told, is largely Interested in this enterprise in a financial way, which will be appreciated by anglers in general.


The threats to San Lorenzo steelhead and salmon were countered by concerned sportsmen/environmentalists who took it upon themselves to stock the river with fresh eggs - adding to that first hatchery at Brookdale.

According to History of Salmon 2.0: 

Beginning around 1906, the San Lorenzo River was stocked with coho salmon and steelhead (Becker and Reining 2007). It was common practice in those days to plant fry (fish a few months old or less), which have a much lower rate of survival than larger, year-old smolts. Hatcheries also used eggs from watersheds as far away as Oregon and Washington, and the young fish were not genetically adapted to the waters into which they were released (Bjorkstedt et al. 2005). However, in general, coho salmon planting was “infrequent before 1929” (Spence et al. 2005) and for many reasons, planting hatchery fish probably had little to no effect on wild coho before the midtwentieth century.

Stocking the San Lorenzo with fresh fry for future generations was taken so seriously, on February 18, 1906 The Santa Cruz Sentinel did the math relating weight to quantity in a story called HOW FISH EGGS ARE COUNTED

“By careful counting it has been ascertained that the average ounce of salmon or steelhead spawn contains 220 eggs. Therefore, by simply multiplying the number of ounces of eggs taken from the fish, or a number of fish, by 220, gives altogether accurate results.  Two fish were taken in the Soquel Creek recently from which 86 ounces of eggs were taken. This number of ounces multiplied by 220, gave the product of the two fish at 18,920 eggs, or 9,460 for each fish. Pretty good ratio of increase that even if only one-half are propagated and raised. But the hatchery results are much better than that, as something like 80 or 90 per cent are hatched and raised, when taken for hatchery purposes.”

And all that egg cultivating and laying and hatching seemed to be working - by land and sea. 

Going back to the 70s and 80s there were fishermen at the base of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf casting into swirling bait balls of anchovies and pulling out steelhead who hadn’t yet moved into the river - a weird way to catch a steelhead, but still a way. (A way of catching steelhead I also failed at.)


But apparently catching steelhead while they were all at sea is nothing new. On December 2, 1908, The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported: BIG STEELHEAD CAUGHT OFF SHORE

Tuesday was the Game Warden's day. 
Mr. Welch was In great luck. 

While fishing In the bay off Capitola, not more than 300 yards from shore, he hooked a steelhead that weighed 7 ½ pounds. The fish fought for his life, but the spoon bait was too much for him. The Game Warden was proud of his catch. He also hooked a silver salmon weighing 2 1/2 pounds. Recently there have been caught in the bay a number of salmon of a variety not known, but which it is thought are from the Brookdale Fish Hatchery. Some of the fish were sent back to the hatchery for examination by Prof. Gilbert, the fish expert of Stanford University. 

A citizen escapes the pressures of 1915 Santa Cruz with some quiet time on the San Lorenzo River. Photo courtesy The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Thanks to Marla Novo.

A citizen escapes the pressures of 1915 Santa Cruz with some quiet time on the San Lorenzo River. Photo courtesy The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Thanks to Marla Novo.


California boomed in the 1920s, along with the rest of the country. Outsiders were attracted by the weather, the wealth, Hollywood and even fishing, according to History of Salmon 2.0

By the 1920s, California’s salmon and steelhead streams had earned worldwide acclaim, and the “economic value of the sport fishery exceeded commercial fishing by two-to-one” (Lufkin 1991). Special trains brought anglers from the San Francisco Bay Area to fish for adult coho salmon in Lagunitas Creek (Brown and Moyle 1991). By one account, “the San Lorenzo River became the number one fishing river in northern California, and remained so for half a century.” At the same time, the advent of the automobile granted fishermen ready access to once remote streams. Soon after, the Great Depression saw a resurgence of subsistence fishing as people fell on hard times. 

During the Depression, the fish populations in the San Lorenzo were thriving, even if the people on land were not. Some were fishing for sport, others were fishing to eat. 



Ask anyone who was around in 1941, and they will tell you how dramatically and quickly American life - and particularly Californian life - changed after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Californians feared - for good reason - the Japanese Navy was just going to appear on the horizon and so all focus was on the war, and protecting the shores. Recreations like surfing and fishing took a backseat to war, but did continue at a depressed pace.

 The Santa Cruz Sentinel was reporting on steelhead season nearly every day through November and December of 1941, and then there is a significant gap of 12 days between December 5 and December 17.

 And then this:


Steelhead Are Still Drawing Card Locally Despite war, blackouts, rain, muddy water and a perennial lack of fish, Santa Cruz' piscatorial army of steelhead anglers continue to whip the pools of the San Lorenzo for finny gamesters who like the navy seem to have important business at sea. The largest crowd of rod and feelers of the season, braving a freezing temperature ranged the river from the tannery to Boulder Creek last Sunday. Parking space for cars along the drive above the gorge was almost at a premium. Fishing results were far from encouraging for the rank and file of sportsmen. It is safe to estimate that not more than a dozen legitimate steelhead were caught. There are few holes above the city limits where spinner addicts can operate to advantage. Popularity of the neighborhood fronting the rivermouth still draws the faithful to its sand and mud banks. Since the opening day, catches at this point have been on the decline. Veteran "prophets" predict a turn for the better should be in the offing within a few weeks. But good or bad, the San Lorenzo will never lack for fishing gentry. 



Over the years I’ve interviewed a lot of famous surfers who were born in the 1930s and 1940s, and they all agree that the best time to be a surfer in California and Hawaii were the 1950s: The Golden Years, according to Miki Dora, a famous/infamous surfer who made a name for himself at Malibu out of the 1950s and into the 1960s - until Gidget and the Beach Boys and surf music and surf culture inspired the hordes to overrun the place.

Apparently that was also true of fishing in the coastal rivers of California. The 50s were also the Golden Years and the San Lorenzo was the goldenest river at the end of the rainbow: 

In places, coho salmon were still abundant. Hal Janssen, who grew up on Alameda Creek on San Francisco Bay in the 1950s, has spent a lifetime on the central coast, fishing “300 days a year . . . for thirty-five, forty years.” Hal called the fifties “an amazing time to live.” Speaking of coho salmon, he recalls the abundance of coho salmon in Big River, Ten Mile River and other coastal streams. “Huge schools and schools of them in California in the fifties and sixties in the San Lorenzo River and Pescadero” he has said (Janssen 2008). 


Old-timers - which is to say anyone who fished the San Lorenzo before 1972 - talk about those 50s heydays and how much better the river looked then. And fished then. The face of the lower river - and the nature of the entire river - was changed by El Nino-ish floods in the middle 50s:

Attempts at flood control were made in response to these events. On the lower San Lorenzo River in the City of Santa Cruz, the river was leveed for flood control and “all riverside forests were stripped and the river was straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers.” These actions “transformed the river from a tree-lined and very scenic part of town, to a sterile drainage ditch. The siltation of the channel and the lack of deep water pools of water, coupled with low summer flows and a lack of shade . . . decimated fish populations.” Where before, “trout and salmon had been routinely caught in the city,” now “the river was barren of most wildlife,” and “the fish populations declined” (McMahon 1997). Today, although the San Lorenzo River runs right through the center of the City of Santa Cruz, most buildings face away from the river, no restaurants over look its banks, and it is generally viewed as more of a nuisance than an attribute.

Fly Fish Journal - Lost Boys - Casting by basketball far  - Georgia Johnson IMG_0475 (1).jpg


If buildings were now facing the river and restaurants overlooked the banks, what would they see?  During the winter of 2018/2019, I borrowed a fancy electric bicycle from Colin Brown esq, a surfer/attorney who lives in Santa Cruz with his doctor wife Susanne and their two environmentally-interested daughters. 

Riding around Santa Cruz kinda felt like that long-ago episode of The Outer Limits, where an entire neighborhood is cut out and transported to another planet - where everything is different. 

That is how Santa Cruz feels now, for someone lucky enough to have kinda grown up there in the 1970s. It boils down to The Four Ms: Millionaires, meth, Mexicans and millennials.  Too prosperous on one end, not prosperous enough on the other. Silicon Rush gazillionaires are going door to door along Pleasure Point, offering cash money millions for houses overlooking the water. 

The Surf Ghetto Formerly Known as Pleasure Point I have redubbed Pleasure Point Dume - because a 600 square foot surf bungalow now goes for a million bucks. 

Some of my friends never left Santa Cruz, and a lot of my surfer friends who bought their houses for $50,000 in the 1970s are now accidental millionaires - and they are shocked. Delighted.

The Santa Cruz that was a cheap little hippie surfer town is no more. Just like the Gold Rushers of 1848, the Silicon Rushers of the 21st Century are finding the fertile, sunny nooks and crannies of Santa Cruz to be irresistible, and they are flooding over Highway 17, buying up everything they can, and changing the look and feel of Santa Cruz.

Homes for millions of dollars, but no homes for thousands of homeless. Santa Cruz is turning into Rio de Janeiro.

This is what I saw and felt and remembered while riding a bike around Santa Cruz around Christmas of 2018 - 47 years after walking across The Lost Boys bridge, with Elton and Joni and Steely Dan in one ear, and the ocean roaring in the other. The winter sea and surf and land and light show was as spectacular as ever - the Monterey Bay is physically blessed and casts those blessing on Santa Cruz - but the vibe on land was too different.

It was interesting and weird and sad and beautiful to ride that fancy bike around Santa Cruz. Walking it across The Lost Boys trestle, I looked out to sea for a Rivermouth sandbar that had kinda formed in all the drought-breaking rain of 2018/2019 and then down into the San Lorenzo estuary - looking for fish. 

Saw more drowned shopping carts then furtive fish, even in the cracks and holes along the east bank of the San Lorenzo, where I used to see fish in the past - hiding out in the cracks and crannies, looking as nervous and sketchy as the homeless people who now line the river heading upstream.

I didn’t go look at the Buckeye Hole, over toward the Boardwalk. The river just looked dead and felt dead and that did not improve the mood.

I was listening to Pandora’s 70s Hits on my smartphone, but the fates didn’t synchronize with what I was seeing and feeling, so that line from Horse With No Name didn’t bubble from the Internet into my ears: “And the story is told, about a river that flowed made me sad to think it was dead.” 

I don’t like dead rivers and wonder if there is any chance the San Lorenzo could be brought back to life, protected, restocked, as it had been for more than a hundred years, going back to the Gold Rush.

Thomas Wolfe summed it up pretty good in 1940:

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

Or as Heraclitus (535 – c. 475 BCE) said before him:

No man ever steps in the same river twice.


Bill “Stretch” Rydell on the Slings and Arrows of Fishing the San Lorenzo


Injured and nearly killed to death in a sailboarding accident in the late 1980s, Bill “Stretch” Riedel lost most of the use of his right arm. You’d think that would make surfing and surfboard shaping and steelhead fishing nigh impossible. But Stretch has kept on keeping on. He is a renowned surfboard shaper and has fished around Santa Cruz and California and the West going back to the 20th Century and has thoughts on the rise and fall of steelhead in the San Lorenzo.

How far back do you go, fishing the San Lorenzo?

Started in 1992 about three years after the accident.

Do you remember the time when the river was full of fish, like I recollect from the early 1970s?

Nope, I was a diehard in the 90’s. Fished good and bad conditions. Won some lost some.

What are your favorite places to fish? In the estuary, or up along the river?

Below Henry Cowell up Highway 9.

What was your best time fishing the San Lorenzo? Biggest fish? Most fish in a day?

Best day (1996) was up in the park, three fish. All chrome bright. Biggest one 10 pounds.

Do you still fish the San Lorenzo? I think you can still pull fish out of there, but it's not easy - not that steelhead are ever easy.

Stopped fishing the San Lorenzo due to not being able to fish alone. Anywhere I would fish locals would follow: Human Fish finder for others. Now I prefer a secret spot in Oregon.

Have you given up on the San Lorenzo because it's a sad river and you don’t want to flog a dead horse?

I’m sure there are still fish. I just don't want to fish with the random mass.

Was there a period when you saw the San Lorenzo decline rapidly? 

Cyclical, goes up and goes down. Just depends on the water. 

Do you think the San Lorenzo is RIP-finished, or could he see it coming back to its glory days?

No, last year gave us a glimpse of the possibility of having great water conditions. The river will adapt in the next few years and it should be a steelhead rush. Plus we have a seal problem. Seal population is protected and has first dibs on all fish

What are the other California rivers that you like to fish - near and far?

Sacramento in Redding is a favorite. Lower Klamath. Favorite places obviously Alaska. 


(291 words, probably not necessary, 6-2019)


The First Surfers in Santa Cruz.


The San Lorenzo River is also renowned in the surfing world. In 1885, three homesick Hawaiian princes cast off their woolen uniforms from a military school in San Mateo, escaped to the coast, somehow fashioned 100-pound, 15-foot traditional Hawaiian olo surfboards from local redwood, and were seen “surf swimming” at the surf spot now known and loved as Rivermouth - the first recorded instance of surfing in California. Every winter, Santa Cruz surfers pray for rain which pushes sand down river and out to sea and forms a sandbar which creates a beloved wave. Not every winter, but some winters and in fact the final helicopter shot over the credits of The Lost Boys rises up to show that beloved sandbar as it appeared in 1987 - a year of heavy rains and great surf.)


Sunday afternoon at the beach was one of the liveliest of the season. It was warm, very warm, but tempered by a breeze, which made the heat endurable and kept people good-natured.

The breakers at the mouth of the river were very fine and here occurred the very primest of fun, at least, so said those who were ‘in the swim.’”

As many as 30 or 40 swimmers were out in the water with them, “dashing and tossing, and plunging through the breakers, going out only to be tossed back apparently at the will of the waves and making some nervous onlookers feel sure that they were about to be dashed against the rocks.”

“The young Hawaiian princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands.