John Vonderlin: How did the fish get into tiny Purissima Creek anyway?

Story/Photos John Vonderlin
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[Image: Town of Purisima (also spelled Purissima), circa 1870s.] purissima10

Hi June,
I think you’ll find this an interesting addition to the handful of excellent stories you have posted on HMB concerning Purisima (Purissima). This is an article from “The San Francisco Call,” of April 12, 1900.

Legislation on Fishing in San Mateo
Necessity of Closing Streams Another Month Questioned

On the last day of March, in an article on the trout streams of California the fishing expert of “The Call” commented adversely on the action of the Supervisors of San Mateo in passing an ordinance closing the fishing season until May 1. It was held that as all the fish have spawned by April 1 the closing of the season will be but of little benefit. As none of the adjoining counties have such a law, confusion to the anglers is sure to develop. The editor of “The Coast Advocate” of Halfmoon bay (sic) comes valiantly to the aid of the Superviors. (sic) Unfortunately, for him his argument is weak, as his various premises are not accurate.

The controversy was submitted by The Call to John P. Babcock, chief deputy of the California State Fish Commission and an authority on the game and food fish of the coast. Mr. Babcock supports unqualifiedly the statements of The Call in an interesting communication. He says:

The Coast Advocate is in error in saying that the “Purissima Creek is the most important trout stream in San Mateo County, and that it is not surpassed as a fishing ground by any stream in California.” The Purissima Creek does not compare favorably as a fishing stream with the San Gregoria, (sic) the Pescadero, or Butana, (sic) or their main tributaries.

The fish in the Purissima are numerous, but small. An eight-inch fish is a big one in that stream, and one of ten inches a “whale.”

The Purissima, however, is one of the best known streams in San Mateo County. The wayside inn established some forty years ago by Richard Dougherty upon its bank near its mouth gave it its reputation. “The Purissima House” has no equal of a stopping place on the coast, but it was “Dick’s” care for travelers and his wife’s cooking that made it so attractive. The fishing for small fish was good. They were of fine flavor and Mrs. Dougherty knew just how to cook them and just what to serve with them. Any one who was so fortunate as to eat a meal prepared by Mrs. Dougherty talked of its excellence for days after.

As time went by it was noised about that you must have fished the Purissima to know the real joy of angling, so that at any time in the early part of the season you were sure to find congenial sports there, and even though there were no fish over eight inches in length your catch from the Purissima, you came home,  well convinced that fish do not contribute all of “fishing.” It is curious how the fish did get into the Purissima and how they maintain themselves there, for they cannot enter from the sea, and up to the time of Dick Doughtery’s death a few years ago as far is known the stream was not stocked with fish from any other water. Yet year after year fish continued to multiply and furnish creel after creel of small trout to the anglers who visited its water. As to the spawning period of the fish in the Purissima the writer is not as well informed, but they “do not entirely cease spawning until after May 1 and not a third have completed their work by April 1st” as the Coast Advocate says. The wonder of them maintaining themselves in such a limited water course is more the mystery.

In all the thirty odd years Dougherty lived there the stream was fished each year by hundreds. When a stream will stand such a strain for such a length of time one may well believe that Dick was right when he said, “You can’t fish ’em all out.”

So far as the writer knows the spawning season of the trout in the Purissima does not differ materially from those other streams in the county, namely, December to April. There may be a few who have not deposited their spawn by April 1, but they are the exception. The embryo of the next season’s spawn is large enough in April to be noticeable. This is true ever of trout that have just spawned.

If the present close season was observed there would be no necessity for a longer season in San Mateo county. It is commonly stated that little or no attention was paid to the closed season this year in San Mateo. It is even stated on April 1 there was a well-beaten track on both sides of San Gregorio and Pescadero Creeks. If the peace officers and Supervisors of San Mateo County would take steps to enforce the closed season under State law it would be of more benefit to the streams and the anglers who go there.


While I’ve been unable to locate any further information about “The Purissima House” or Mr. and Mrs. Dougherty,  I believe I have a reasonable answer to how the fish got in the creek. The answer is glaciers. The present sea level that makes the Purisima Falls an obstacle to fish wishing to return to ancestral spawning grounds from the ocean, has only existed for a blink of an eye in geologic terms. As you can see from this map I’ve attached 91 that even ten thousand years ago the sea level was still about 100 feet lower then it is now with the shoreline several miles west of where it is now.  The Falls themselves were still covered with softer rock and soil that was washed away by waves as the waters rose to their present level. My guess it was probably only in the last five thousand and possibly much more recently that the falls became an impassable obstacle to the returning fish. It might even have been in just the last thousand years, after the sea level became stabilized, that the forces of erosion, both the stream’s flow lowering the creekbed’s level and the receding coastline caused by the unrelenting pounding of waves, created this wonderful waterfall and gave the stay at home trout genetic dominion over this watershed.

My understanding is that the Cowell/Purisima Trail won’t be open until Spring because of the need to build three substantial bridges, but you can check out this area and the progress they’d made as of Oct by checking out California Coastal Records Project (CCRP) Pictures # 20080795 (Cowell Beach Access Point) south to #200809829 (Poppy Point viewing area)   CCRP has recently added two series of looking-straight-down high altitude photos, of which Picture #199300128008 is of the Falls and the nearby area, which certainly must include the site of “The Purissima House,” that the Doughertys made famous. My guess is the bare brown oval just above the Falls was the site, but that’s just because I would have put it there if I was building it. Enjoy. John


Hi June,
This is a Screengrab of  California Coastal Records Project (CCRP) Picture #199300128008 11that I added a P to indicate where I think “The Purissima House” was. This leveled spot with the to-die-for view, is somewhat lower then the surrounding land, giving it some shelter from the wind, easy gravity flow water to it and the sound of the stream and falls nearby to soothe you. With all the land on the flat above I can’t think of any other good reason they would have bothered to level this tiny, isolated patch otherwise. Enjoy. John