In This Play, Audience is Hooked When Fly Ends Up in the Drink

Times Staff Writer

Big Trout is at the bottom of the stream, 22 inches of speckled sinew and nerve, heading into the chilly current.

"Instinct tells him to stay down there, under a bank near the bottom," said Bruce King. "That's the safest spot. Coming up to the surface would put him in danger from osprey or eagles. The epitome of fly fishing is to get the big ones to come up anyway."

King is one of 15 fly-casting experts assembled by the Pasadena Casting Club for its 38th annual fly-tying course. They're a sharp-eyed bunch: hunch players with an eye for detail, masters of deception who can fool a wily old fish with some bits of feather and yarn.

For the fly fisher, trickery is everything, says King, a slim, blond man with an outdoorsman's way of carefully scanning the scene in front of him. Like most veteran fly fishers, King is mildly disdainful of bait fishing. "The fish isn't smart enough to realize that he's taking a hook," he said. "You're not tricking him. It's just food."

Fashioning Flies by Hand

King, a dental technician from Glendale, and some of his colleagues brought their fly-tying equipment to the Eaton Canyon Center in Pasadena earlier this month for an orientation session before the six-week course. Arrayed before them on tables, like the esoteric materials of Indian medicine men, are pelts of dyed feathers (called "chicken necks"), tufts of fur, bits of chenille, spools of colored thread, lead wire and tools.

They fashion their furry little flies precisely, with the darting, quicksilver movements of surgeons tying sutures. Douglas Ewing, a Pasadena architect and fly-fishing fanatic, is making one he calls the "egg-sucking woolly bugger": a length of black feathers and yarn with a little knot of orange chenille at the head.

"It's supposed to look like a minnow that's just picked up a salmon egg," said Ewing, deftly winding thread around a tiny hook. "The trout looks at it and thinks he can get his two favorite foods at one time--minnow and salmon egg. I first heard about it in Alaska. It just knocks them dead up there."

The fisherman's challenge, of course, is to use a lifetime's accumulation of knowledge and lore to outsmart the fish.

"Anyone can throw a worm on a hook into the water," said Keith Cramoline, a novice fly caster from Tujunga, who signed up for the course. "This is more of an art."

Big Fish Feed on Bottom

The beginners huddle around King, Ewing and the rest of the instructors to hear their reflections on fish psychology. King keeps going back longingly to that 22-inch rainbow trout, leaning into the current, waiting to be caught.

"Eighty percent of his feeding is on the bottom," said King. "The big fish establish feeding lanes, places where a lot of food just comes drifting by. The fish who come to the surface are usually the smaller ones, who can't compete on the bottom."

How do you lure the big one out of what King calls his "safety zone"? The beginner goes after him with dry flies, insect-like lures that alight temptingly on the surface.

"You just watch the fish come up and take the fly," said Joyce Merigold, president of the Pasadena club. "It's like nothing else, especially if you've tied the fly yourself. It makes children of men. I've seen gals cry--we tend to show a little less restraint than men. The men say, 'Oh, there's another one,' but they're going through the same thing we are."

But the old hands, who seem to have an instinctive need to add to the sporting challenge by making things especially difficult for themselves, go after the big ones in their lairs. Using wet flies, or "nymphs," which look like recently hatched insects, the experienced fly casters try to float temptation below the surface of the water, right past Old Man Trout's nose.

The nymph often lacks the feathery, eye-catching look of the dry fly, but it catches just as many fish, King says. He holds up a brown speck of a fly, a "hare's-ear nymph," which he says "has probably caught more fish than any other fly in the world."

The challenge of wet-fly fishing is that you're fishing blind, he says. Only instinct and experience can tell you when to "place" the hook, pulling the line at precisely the right moment to embed it in the fish's lip. "You don't see the fish," King said. "You have an indicator on your line. Cast upstream and let it drift through. When you get a bump-bump-bump, lift up the tip of your rod, and there will be a fish."

But it's not enough to be able to plop a half-inch fly right next to a leaf floating 80 feet from the river bank or to be able to tie a fly that has all the alluring heft of a newly hatched mayfly, experienced fly fishers say. You have to keep an eye on the sun, matching your selection of flies to the daily cycle of insect procreation.

"You have to emulate the movement of the natural food source," said Ewing. That can mean imitating with feathers, fur and yarn anything from the larval stages of insect life, embedded at the bottom, to the fully developed insect, struggling at the surface to take flight in the afternoon sun, Ewing explains.

The fish's appetite is as changeable as the weather or the time of day, he says. The trick is to know what your prey is eating at any given moment. "A natural nymph starts at the bottom of the stream, breaking loose from the rocks and working its way toward the surface," said Ewing. "As soon as it reaches the surface, wings pop out and it starts to struggle."

Veteran fly fishers study the water, trying to match the color and form of insect life with their flies. "It can get very technical," said Ewing. "That's another thing I like about fly fishing."

If fly casters are disdainful of bait fishers, they are positively scornful of what they call "meat fishers." "There are just so many people fishing in the streams that there aren't enough fish," King said. "A lot of people pack them into their freezers and end up throwing them away a year later."

Most members of the 40-year-old Pasadena Casting Club, one of the oldest such clubs in the nation, fish with hooks without barbs, since they do less damage to the fish (and make it harder to catch). Unless they're fishing for their dinner, they throw their catches back.

"A wild trout is just too valuable to catch one time," contended Ross Merigold, Joyce's brother and co-chairman of the fly-tying course. "Some of these trout you're catching are 5 or 6 years old. To see them just pulled out of the stream and that's the end of them? Wow."

"When you play golf, you don't eat your golf balls," added King.

Club members are sensitive to charges that they are "elitists," plying the streams of luxury vacation destinations with thousands of dollars in high-tech equipment. The club, which has more than 350 members, has adopted the west fork of the San Gabriel River as a special project, cleaning its banks, putting down gravel spawning beds and keeping track of the stream's wild trout population.

"It's a wild trout stream only 40 minutes from downtown L. A.," marveled Ross Merigold.

Club members insist that expensive equipment isn't a necessity. "I was fishing in Baja California once," said King, who frequently takes his fly-casting skills to salt water, "and I lent my good rod to a friend. I ended up fishing with a rod I bought for $6 at a garage sale, with a $5 reel, and I caught 13 dorado. I had just as much fun as anyone who spent $400 for an outfit."

Tying your own flies, he added, can reduce the cost of a fly from the $1.25 to $2 that they cost in tackle shops to as low as 7 cents.

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