Hooked for Life : Fly-fishing--and teaching it--is Neal Taylor's passion. But his obsession is the environment.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's something ironic about the fact that one of the country's best-known fishermen would no more kill a fish than quit fishing altogether.

But when Neal Taylor removes the hook from the mouth of the fish he has just caught, he does so with the precision of a surgeon. Before returning the fish to the stream, Taylor holds it beneath the water and gently strokes it to get the oxygen recirculating.

It's hard to believe that someone so big could care so much for something so small. But seeing his look of pleasure as the fish struggles to life and disappears into the river, it becomes obvious that Taylor's husky 6-foot-1 stature belies an underlying tenderness.

To his students, who line the river banks clad in waders and fishing hats, Taylor is a bit of an enigma: a bumbling Jonathan Winters look-alike who takes rod in hand and suddenly becomes a backwoods Baryshnikov.

"The best thing you can have in your tackle box is Neal Taylor's phone number," says student Quint Kuhl of Westlake Village. "Neal Taylor is No. 2 to God."

Taylor, 62, of Santa Barbara, is a passionate environmentalist who has hobnobbed with Presidents, movie stars and other world-class anglers. He's an extraordinary teacher who can move his students to tears or crack them up with goofy jokes.

Above all, he is driven by the belief that nature inspires us to be better people, so we had darn well better respect it.

"Children are our greatest resource," Taylor says. "If we don't leave the land we are enjoying clean and pristine for them, we're not doing our job."

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An uncomplicated man who generally prefers a hug to a handshake, Taylor is driven to distraction by the smallest aspect of nature. Where most people may look at a burr and decide its only function is to stick in a dog's paw, Taylor sees a seed that walks.

Likewise, a heap of trash on the shore may be a normal part of the landscape to some, but to Taylor it's "Canneous discardis," that none-too-rare species of garbage that's strangling our environment.

Taylor's appreciation for nature's details grew out of his love for fly-fishing, which he developed for primarily one reason.

"I wanted to be good at something my dad enjoyed," says the California native, who grew up in Summerland, along the Santa Ynez River. He began as a questionable student. Once, he reared the rod back, then came forward with a cast and masterfully hooked his father in the back of the head.

"My dad said I'd better learn to cast if I wanted to fish with him."

So he became more determined, honing his skills so well that he has won first place in 202 of 203 fly-casting competitions--and earned his father's respect.

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Taylor's reputation rests as much on his showmanship as on his technical skills. Over the years, this reputation has garnered the attention of three Presidents.

He has instructed Ronald and Nancy Reagan and tutored Jimmy Carter. Dearest of all to his heart, he once spent four days in Colorado fishing with then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"I felt like I had known him all my life. Something happens to you on the stream and you see the inner depths of the person you're fishing with."

The notion that natural surroundings evoke a person's spirit is one of Taylor's guiding principles and has powered him to such accomplishments as:

* Serving as technical adviser on the set of the 1963 movie "Man's Favorite Sport," starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss.

* Leading demonstrations for Pepsi's Sports Advisory Staff, with such well-known athletes as Billie Jean King and Jerry West.

* Teaming with former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton for an episode of TV's "Best of the West."

Despite--or perhaps because of--these achievements, there was a time when Taylor lost sight of the most important things in his life: fishing and family. Somewhere along the line, he decided his life just wasn't flashy enough. So in the early '80s, after his father died, "I decided it was time to start making big money," he says dryly.

He left his wife's family business in printing and publishing and became a sales manager for a large firm in Downtown Los Angeles. The job required long hours, frequent travel, and time away from his family and his beloved fishing.

One night he came home from a trip and found the house empty. Gone were the furniture and his two sons and his daughter. The divorce knocked him senseless.

"You could say I had got my head down and my tail end up," he recalls. "I forgot the important things and I vowed never to get married again. It hurt too much."

Fortunately, Taylor broke that vow. Because it is Linda, his wife of five years, to whom he credits his renewed happiness and, consequently, his rekindled appreciation for the world around him.

Taylor has taught "The Sport and Science of Fly-Fishing" for 14 years at UCLA, Cal State Bakersfield, Moorpark College and other schools. He also conducts camps on fly-fishing throughout the country and gives frequent demonstrations.

"The students are wild about him," says Karen Prinzmetal of UCLA Extension. "We would love it if he could teach more."

In class, Taylor enlists the help of longtime fishing buddy Clif Wilkins. Their repartee sets a playful tone.

Taylor encourages his students to trek to the Owens River, where they get a close-up look at his prowess. For Cherie Dalton of Pacific Palisades, Taylor's class "put the finishing touches on 30 years of learning how to fish."

She is as impressed by Taylor's knowledge and enthusiasm as by his mastery of the rod. But she'll never forget one offhand display of his phenomenal skill.

One day after a class, Dalton, her two sons and their two dogs remained behind to trade fishing stories with Taylor. All of a sudden, Taylor grabbed a rod and cast its hookless line into the mouth of a barking dog--40 feet away.

"Everything went into slow motion and then Neal gently popped the line into the dog's mouth between barks. He wasn't even using his own rod."

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Taylor believes that having the technical skills and catching the fish are two different things altogether--and the most important thing is the environment.

He prefers to think of fishing as experiencing the outdoors. Expensive equipment, a perfect cast and catching the limit don't mean anything if you can't appreciate and respect the environment. Even better is to share it with someone.

For Taylor, it's about taking 15 minutes to land a fish but an hour to revive and release it. It's about returning fish to the streams of the Santa Barbara back country because they are simply too beautiful to kill. It's being there when one of his students makes a first catch. And it's proudly telling anyone who will listen that his 2-year-old granddaughter wants her Papa Neal to teach her how to fish.

"I try to teach people to look at nature with their eyes but to see it with their hearts," Taylor says.

As a naturalist at Lake Cachuma, nestled deep in the Santa Ynez Valley, Taylor has this opportunity every day as he wows visitors with his rhapsodies on the beauties and treacheries of nature.

Says Supt. Ron Place: "Neal has done an awful lot for this park, mostly because of his knowledge on the nature hikes and the boat tours. The people who come up here really like him."

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On a recent Saturday morning, as a cold wind blows off the lake, Taylor walks up to a boy in the crowd waiting to board the boat and shows him the missing end of a finger, which he lost many years ago while making a fishing rod.

"You know how I lost this finger?" Taylor asks.

The little boy's eyes open wide as saucers. He shakes his head.

"From doing like this," Taylor says, lifting his finger to his nose. "A booger ate it off."

For a second the boy appears to oscillate between tears and laughter. But Taylor is laughing, and in moments the boy, along with everyone else, joins in.

Once on the boat, Taylor, in rapid fire, begins naming the dozens of birds in and around the water. Although he has no degree in science, he is a self-taught expert in biology and ornithology.

When he runs out of birds, he moves on to the trees, shrubs, deer and mountain lion. After that he imparts his vast knowledge of the Chumash, who once made the area their home.

Suddenly, he jumps up excitedly, hollering, "OK, folks, we've got ourselves a bald eagle." His enthusiasm is contagious. Everyone pulls out binoculars and rushes to the side as Taylor expertly maneuvers the boat for a closer look.

When the eagle comes into full view, resting majestically on the tallest branches of an oak, Taylor appears to be seeing the bird for the first time. Though he has observed hundreds of eagles, he has never lost the reverence.

It was on Lake Cachuma that Taylor's two worlds--fisherman and naturalist--fused in a remarkable way. One day he noticed a plastic milk crate lying on the bottom. He watched, fascinated, as a small fish escaped a much larger predator by swimming into one of the holes in the crate that was too small for its attacker.

Taylor had long realized the need to protect small fish in lakes like Cachuma. But he knew that he'd have to find a way to do it that wouldn't affect the water quality.

Based on this observation, Taylor developed a fish habitat by stringing six crates in a circle and weighting them at the bottom of the lake. His invention is now used all over North America.

"Fishing and observing the environment has given me a deep sense of responsibility. It has allowed me to take a closer look at myself," says Taylor, smiling wistfully at the horizon. "But there is so much I have yet to learn."

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