It's Not One of Those Things Done on the Fly

"In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." --Norman Maclean, "A River Runs Through It"

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"That damned movie," grumbles Darwin Atkin, a fly fisher from Porterville, in his curmudgeonly best. Yet one senses he's not all that upset about the film that's brought droves of converts to his sport.

True, some Western fishing holes are now knee-deep in people, and people pollute. Still, Atkin is here in Long Beach, at the Southwest Council, Federation of Fly Fishers show, waxing poetic about his sport.

Fly fishing isn't about Friday fish fry. It's about casting out a line just so, in a great, graceful arc. About tying a fly that fools a fish.

As we circle the exhibit hall, show chairman Bob Montgomery, a graphic designer from Fontana, explains: "Most of us start spin fishing or bait fishing, get bored and try fly fishing." Before you can say striped bass, "You're hopelessly addicted."

The level of surrender varies. Some just fish. Some tie their own flies. Others tie their flies and make their rods. Montgomery calls it an addiction that "can adjust to any income level."

Graphite rods and good reels can cost $500 a piece. A fly can be bought for $1.25--or $600. The latter, explains Atkin, "will never, ever see the water," but will wind up on the wall of a collector who's "never seen an Atlantic Salmon in their life."

Atkin, a UC Riverside citrus researcher, and Chuck Echer, a researcher at Lawrence-Berkeley Lab, are revered by fly-tiers as winners of the Buz Buszek Memorial Award, the Heisman Trophy of fly tying.

In the old days, Echer would bring home bushels of bass. "They'd get freezer burn for two or three years and then even the cats wouldn't eat them." These days he prefers to "kiss the fish" and toss it back: "You can go down to the Safeway and buy dead fish."

Catch-and-release fishing, with barbless hooks, is what's it's about today. Those hooks also prove handy, Echer observes, "if you're unfortunate enough to hook yourself."

Fly fishing, which started in Victorian England, has spread worldwide. The U.S. federation claims 130,000 fly fishers, among them a small, but growing, number of women.

One veteran is Maggie Merriman, an instructor who divides her time between Huntington Beach and West Yellowstone. "For years," she recalls, "I had to wear men's waders." Now, with more spouses as fishing partners, they make them for women.

When we catch up with Merriman, she's casting into a shallow 100-foot-long plastic pool in mid-hall, showing how to avoid knots and tangles and keep the landing so smooth it won't spook all the fish away.

Mike Mumford of Ridgecrest introduces himself as the new president of the Southwest Council and soon we're talking about trout stocking, which the state Department of Fish and Game has had to resume after a 10-year hiatus. (Of California's 50 trout fishing waters, 35 are designated catch-and-release by Fish and Game, which defines it as keep two, put the rest back).

Truthfully, Mumford says, it's not quite sporting. "The wild trout tends to be smarter."

Meanwhile, Hal Janssen of Santa Rosa is onstage in the video fly-tying theater. He's saying straight off that his flies aren't works of art, but they catch fish. He has no time for museum-piece creations that would tempt only "some suicidal fish."

To a hook held by a vise he ties tufts of marabou. In minutes, he's made something that looks like a leech, swims like a leech and will hoodwink a hungry trout.

When all's said, there's this about fly fishing: It's not about sitting in a boat waiting for a bite. The fly fisher makes it happen.

As Norman Maclean, minister's son, says: He and his brother were left to assume "that all first class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen."

A Patent Interest in Old Inventions

Dan Greene surveys his toys. Here's a Rube Goldberg-ish contraption patented in 1874 as the first security alarm. "Looks like something I would have built when I was a kid messing around in wood shop."

Here's the working model for the first mechanical washing machine, powered by rubber belts. "The woman just had to get it started and push it once in a while."

Over here's a sawdust conveyor, "The kind of invention Henry Ford looked at and said, 'Ah, an assembly line.' "

Here's the first refrigerator condenser (1866). "This guy devastated an entire industry"--ice.

After five years of haunting auctions and antique shops, Greene, who lives in Sherman Oaks, has 27 of these models. To know just what he has is to know a bit of the history of the U.S. Patent Office.

Established in 1790, it was rather loosely regulated and, by the mid-1830s, found itself patenting willy-nilly already existing inventions. Fearing lawsuits, it ruled that inventors must henceforth submit working models.

Fifty years later, buried under about 250,000 models, the agency dropped that requirement. The models were stored, forgotten, in a barn in Upstate New York until 1908, when Congress gave the OK to sell them.

Private collectors, foundations and museums, including the Smithsonian, snapped up some. Others remained stored. In the '70s, some entrepreneurs formed Mom's Apple Pie Co., hoping to market thousands.

"It's embarrassing to me as American--they actually tried to sell these at department stores. But nobody knew what they were."

No one knows how many survive. Greene thinks some have left the country and probably "a lot of guys have one on their mantle."

His are mostly home improvement inventions. (He is, after all, CEO of the N.E.C. Group, which produces the L.A. Home Remodeling and Decorating Show). He'll be exhibiting them for the first time at the annual show, Friday through Sunday at the Convention Center.

There's the first steam iron, the first gizmo for opening or closing a window from inside. There's something the inventor simply called "Preventing Chimneys From Smoking."

He intends to learn all about his inventors. Did they get rich? Get ripped off and die broke? He surmises they were "somewhat witty and whimsical" and, as an incurable gadgeteer, he likes that.

Greene won't put a price on his collection, and he won't sell. That would be "like selling the Lincoln Memorial." (Understand that he's the kind of guy who drives a Cadillac, not a fancy foreign car. On principle.)

By taking his models to home shows, he hopes to encourage 20th-Century Americans to "think about being inventive and creative."

At 38, Greene is certainly creative, having parlayed a college job demonstrating pots and pans at state fairs into a home show empire.

And someday, he vows, "I'm going to invent something."

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This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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