A fisherman at Echo Park Lake
Photo by Jonathan Brown

Fishing at Echo Park Lake: Finding Solitude in the Urban Outdoors

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They cast their lines to catch trout, bass, bluegill and a quiet moment in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles.

Sunlight. Water fountain. Elote.

You walk with a coffee and you see them. They stand at the edge of the murky Echo Park Lake covered in lotus flowers — the fishermen.

The predominant question, what are they doing? Well, we see what they’re doing, but what are they catching?

“Largemouth bass. Trout. Bluegill. Redear sunfish,” barks a grisly white man accompanied by a woman sitting on a deck chair at the north entrance of the park, near the cafe. The man had just pulled a three-pound trout out of the water. “Biggest fish I’ve seen out here is a seven-pound bass, but they’re bullies,” he says. “They eat anything, so they don’t populate the lake with them too much.”

“They” being the Fish and Wildlife Commission of Los Angeles County.

After ogling glistening scales, the grisly man proceeds to swiftly chuck the newly-caught trout back into the lake to swim away amidst various items floating by the shoreline — an empty soda can, a red credit card and something that looks like a diaper. It is a polarizing display of green beauty and weary human ignorance.

He is one of the few men fishing today; there are no women. “My wife likes to golf,” chuckles Joe Cantrell, another man sporting a fishing rod standing near the tall grass.

  • A fisherman at Echo Park Lake
  • A fisherman at Echo Park Lake
  • A fisherman and his son at Echo Park Lake
  • A fisherman at Echo Park Lake

The fishermen of Echo Park Lake. Photos by Jonathan Brown.

Cantrell’s face is mottled with dingy hairs. He’s decked out to the nines in gear that looks normally reserved for serious fishing on the high seas: reflective sunglasses, a big round cap and a few fishing rods in some Gatling gun contraption. He casts his line out far into the water like a pro. Effortlessly, the ten-pound line glides glacier slow from oxygen to H20, out near the island reserved for the birds only. At the edge of his line is a turquoise rubber frog, which he glides with patient skill over the top of the water’s skin, awaiting a bite.

The fishermen around the lake seem like stand-ins for a display of human possibility. Is this what it is now? Urban fishing? Akin to glamping? Nature not quite raped to the hilt. We dream of organic living amidst the smog and auditory madness of the metropolitan city — finding a pocket of meditative serenity? If you prick up your ears and cup your hands around the sides of your eyes and look deep enough maybe you’ll be in Montana on a backcountry road.

“I get to be alone, really, that’s all,” says Steve Echevarria, a young fellow born and raised in Boyle Heights. Today he’s bundled up beneath a thick G-Shock and Dodgers hat. “I’ve seen this lake empty. I’ve seen it full. I’m glad they’ve decided to clean it up. You can catch carp and catfish in MacArthur Park Lake, but there’s something magical about it here I’ve been coming since I was a kid.”

  • Colorful tackle used by a fisherman at Echo Park Lake

Tools of the trade. Photos by Jonathan Brown.

There is a father laughing with his son at the other end of the water. The father’s eyes are bleary; the boy is beatific, one of those pure moments of adolescence — the boy’s bait is being gnawed on by four turtles, red-eared slider turtles, to be exact.

“I’m making sure he doesn’t hurt the things,” the father says, pointing to the clumsy and hard-shelled creatures.

Mariachi music billows up. The barbecues are fired up.

It’s Saturday morning and beers are cracked open early, but there is no schedule to follow here. “I come in the morning, afternoon, night. Doesn’t matter. There are always guys out here,” Echevarria says, staring at his line that disappears into the lead-dark blue. “There isn’t really a collective or crew or anything, but sometimes we gather around and share photos on our phones and tell stories, then we drift away.”

Back to whence? Hovels with photos of Echo Park bass on the walls? Trophies of splashing prizes?

  • A fisherman at Echo Park Lake

The old pros know where to cast their lines. Photo by Jonathan Brown.

Into the mist of the fountain. Reminiscent of that scene in “Chinatown.” The paddle boats are out and people are smiling. Gay. It’s sweet. Southern California’s answer to Central Park and Strawberry Fields. The ultimate summer story. Picnics on the sloping grass. Grey. Green. Helicopters among crows and pigeons. Iced drinks. Joints surreptitiously or not-so-surreptitiously lit.

Different spots around the lake are occupied. No rhyme nor reason demarcates someone’s geographical choice, save the fisherman’s personal touch and feeling.

“You just start to know the lake,” an old man with no teeth relays. “You feel it. You know where it’s deep and where it’s shallow. When they spawn — like right now — they are deep. You have to tease them. Bring ‘em up to bite and protect their nest.”

The recent rains have made the lake lusher. The birds are darting onto patches of floating lilies. The mother geese are walking, leading troves of dripping-wet goslings. Ducks dive headfirst into the lake for sustenance.

  • Echo Park Lake
  • Turtles at Echo Park Lake
  • Ducks foraging for food at Echo Park Lake

Echo Park Lake and its urbanite fauna. Photos by Jonathan Brown.

Just over there is downtown Los Angeles, spires of commerce and capitalism. Beyond that are Hollywood backlots and fake saloons. Then comes the ocean, the true and biggest wonder.

But here, on the banks of Sunset Boulevard, we find a weird oasis. Occupied by the fishermen of Echo Park Lake, ghosts of peace and possibility, lines cast out as far as their hearts desire, ever reminding us that the respite of nature is closer than we may imagine. Thank God.

Los Angeleno