Under-Exploited Art : Devotees of Saltwater Fly-Fishing Are Hooked on Challenges It Brings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brian Buaas of El Toro knows what to expect whenever he pulls out his fly-fishing gear on a sportfishing party boat.

"People look at you funny," he says. "But when you start catching more fish than they are, they start paying attention.

"I've won jackpots on party boats. I've caught barracuda or bonito when the only way you could catch them was on a fly. They wouldn't eat bait, they wouldn't take plastics or iron, but they would take the flies."

Often, when that happens, the other anglers end up borrowing Buaas' equipment and, whoops-- there's another boatload of converts.

Saltwater fly-fishing isn't new, but it is under-exploited. Lefty Kreh and Stu Apte, two of the pioneers from the 1940s, were featured at the fourth annual Fly Fishing Fair at Bob Marriott's store in Fullerton last weekend, as they are featured in "Saltwater Fly Fishing Magic," a 156-page collection of color photos on the subject compiled by Neal and Linda Rogers of Butte, Mont.

Kreh, who has fly-fished for freshwater and saltwater species all over the world, states in the book's introduction: "I know one thing for certain: You simply have to be a better (fly) fisherman to be successful in saltwater."

Saltwater fly-fishing requires "speed and accuracy in the wind," Kreh said. And, as any Marylander like Lefty knows, "God don't let you fish in saltwater very seldom when there ain't no wind.

"(Also,) if you're in a trout stream, you can see brown trout rising and go over and get a net, then see what kind of drift's in the water column or what's hatching and go back and pick out the right fly. But if you're standing on a platform (fishing in saltwater) and here comes a tarpon or a bonefish, probably the greatest luxury you have is a minute, and a lot of times it's 10 or 15 seconds. . . . "

"Or less," Apte interjected.

"Or less," Kreh agreed.

Added Apte: "The difference in trout fishing and in saltwater fly-fishing (is), if you put that trout down (in a non-biting mood) you can sit down and have a sandwich and relax and that fish is still going to be there and you're going to have another shot at him later. But if you cast a fly to a tarpon out on the flats and it's a bad cast and you spook him, you can be out there every day the rest of your life and probably never see that fish again.

"It's like bird hunting with a single-shot shotgun: You get one shot."

But if you're lucky enough to have a fish take your fly, well. . . .

"Once you've hooked most trout, the fight's over," Kreh said. "In saltwater, that's when your trouble starts.

"You are fighting bigger, stronger, faster fish, plus, you are fishing in pristine environments most of the time--beautiful blue ocean or green (coastal tropical) flats."

It's an appealing and challenging change of pace for fly anglers bored with their limited routines but who still want the satisfaction, Apte said, of "catching a fish on your terms."

Said Kreh: "They've fished Hot Creek for years and years and they've gone to Montana. There are new frontiers. We fished in New Guinea last year and were told that nobody had ever thrown a fly or fishing plug into those waters."

Kreh told a typical tale of one fly angler he took on his first saltwater trip.

"This guy is a competent fisherman, but here comes a pod of tarpon, five to six feet long, and the guy never even makes a cast. He just stands there, absolutely transfixed that something with a mouth as big as a water bucket is coming at him, and he's got a fly rod."

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Many saltwater fly records are up for grabs. Last year, reel maker Steve Abel organized the first trip into Mexican waters to target records. His group claimed four, and last July a similar trip established some more.

Apte holds four saltwater fly records, including the two oldest: a 58-pound dolphin in 1964 and a 136-pound sailfish in 1965, both caught on a 12-pound tippet and both larger than any of the species caught with lighter or heavier tippets.

It might be said that Apte wrote the book on saltwater fly-fishing, "Fishing in the Florida Keys," first published in 1976. But the book is incomplete.

"I don't tell everything, you know," he said, smiling. "People always want to know black and white when it comes to fishing. Maybe 20% is, and all the rest of it is gray variables. The people that get up at seminars and tell them exactly how to do it are so full of . . ., which is one of the reasons I don't like to do seminars."

Apte fished the flats with Ted Williams, whose obsession with fishing matched his zest for hitting a baseball.

"Ted and I started fishing together back in the '40s," Apte said.

Like Williams, Apte became a combat pilot and later flew for Pan-Am, but between wars and baseball seasons they fished. By today's standards, the equipment was primitive. There weren't even many saltwater flies. Apte tied his own and sold them to tackle stores.

"They were just simple bucktails," he said. "By calling them 'bonefish flies,' I got a good price.

"I was using a level-line reel and a three-piece bamboo rod. All of a sudden in the past three years, fly reels have come out of the sky like birds."

For freshwater fishing, a fly reel is essentially a place to store extra line. But in saltwater fishing, the quality is critical.

"A bonefish is going to run 150, 200 yards if he's a reasonable fish," Apte said. "A permit's going to maybe go more. I was Joe Brooks' guide in 1961 when he got the 148 1/2-pound tarpon (a world record since broken). That fish covered four miles during the fight . . . pulled me out of the boat twice when I gaffed it.

"Out on the Pacific side, a wahoo eats you up. He'll cover 300 yards so fast you don't have time to do anything. If you have any drag on that reel, he's busted off."

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Southern California opportunities are abundant.

"We've got a great local (saltwater fly) fishery," said Nick Curcione, who teaches the art. "I've been fishing King Harbor for over 30 years. It's probably the greatest bonito fishery in the world. I use eight- or nine-weight outfits and fast-sinking shooting heads, (which are used for) the majority of our fishing in Southern California and Mexico. Even when you see the fish breaking on the surface, most of it is sub-surface."

Curcione has two tippet-class world records for calico (kelp) bass, a local species that the International Game Fish Assn. recognized this year. Nobody has claimed a fly record for broadbill swordfish, and IGFA listings for most species of sharks are blank, although Abel holds those for makos with any tippet, 72 pounds 8 ounces, and blues on 16-pound tippet, 140 pounds.

"We have a good offshore shark fishery," Curcione said. "I caught the third mako ever taken on a fly rod right out of my home waters of Redondo Beach.

"Inside King Harbor at different times, you can take not only bonito but barracuda and skipjack, or you can use the same setup and catch bass from the rocks. The local surf, I won a perch derby once when I was the only guy fly fishing out of 200 entries--2 pounds 14 ounces."

Danny Kadota, who represents a tackle manufacturer, said the surge in saltwater fly-fishing has helped business.

"It's virtually the only new area of growth we have in this industry," Kadota said. "Most fishermen may take bonito and barracuda for granted, but those are ideal fish for fly-fishermen. There's so much we have here in Southern California that we're missing out on. Guys like Nick have been promoting it for years, but it's just starting to catch on.

"It's a different attitude. After running a (commercial sportfishing) boat for 15 years, the things that stick in my mind aren't the 100-pound-plus bigeyes or whatever, but catching a little football tuna on four-pound ultra-light line or on a fly. We have so many fishermen that have graduated to a certain level of expertise, it offers them a new challenge."

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A saltwater fly-fishing class with Nick Curcione is scheduled Dec. 4-5. Details: (714) 525-1827. For information on saltwater fly-fishing trips locally and at Cabo San Lucas: (800) 535-6633. King Harbor information: (310) 374-9858.

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