Spirits Soar as Fishing Lines Fly

Times Staff Writer

On Fullerton’s Orangethorpe Avenue -- a cement sea of fast food, tattoo parlors and bars blasting ranchera music -- a fly-fishing school sticks out like a goldfish in a gutter.

Even though it’s run by Bob Marriott’s Flyfishing Shop, which bills itself as the world’s largest such store, a passerby might well doubt the quality of fishing lessons taught in a strip mall.

Entering the pawn shop-sized, wood-paneled room doesn’t ease the misgivings.

Despite fish-related memorabilia, including a 3-foot-tall bust of an open-mouthed tarpon in a corner, it’s impossible to forget that one is indoors and about to learn a sport that for all intents and purposes requires water.


“True, there’s nowhere to fish right around here,” says General Manager Kevin Bell. “But there’s a lot of fly fishermen. And it’s centrally located.”

It’s quintessential Southern California: Build near two freeways and customers will come.

The beginner class is given every Saturday by one of the shop’s four licensed instructors. A recent class provided a fairly accurate window on the kinds of people aspiring to “A River Runs Through It” glory: five older folks, including two women, and two middle-aged men.

Cheerily gulping down coffee before class started at 8 a.m., they enthused about how fly-fishing would be a relaxing way to commune with nature.

“I’m more fond of being where fish are than actually fishing,” said Mike Hammer, 65, of Fullerton. Like most of the others, Hammer started fishing as a child and wanted to try a new method. His wife gave him the $100 class when he retired.

Linda Trowbridge of Anaheim wanted a sport that would carry her into retirement. “I’ve got my camper, truck and Harley trailer. All I’m missing is the fly-fishing lessons,” she said. She bit her lip, then added: “I’ve never fished.”

“That’s all right,” instructor Chris Justino deadpanned reassuringly. “Neither have I.”

During the first half of the class, Justino muscled through four hours’ worth of somewhat dry material with nary a yawn from his audience.


Justino, a lanky 38-year-old in a green polo shirt and khakis who looks a decade younger, showed as much as he told, distributing a fly to each student and urging them to stroke the shiny black metal reels and flimsy Dacron fishing line.

Peering at the flies, most resembling pinkie nail-sized hooks wearing black legwarmers, the students found it hard to believe that these would trick any fish into thinking they were insects.

Even those with keen eyesight were flummoxed by the class’ first activity: knot-tying. Justino moved around the room, demonstrating the movements needed to create perfection loops and double surgeons’ knots. First they worked with the slippery Dacron, then with shoelaces.

“Why didn’t we start with the shoelaces first?” muttered grocery store manager Jim Silverwood, 55, of Canyon Lake. He frowned as he pulled and prodded the laces. “I think I must be knot-challenged. My fingers are too fat for the other stuff.”


A glance at the solitary anglers and placid water pictured on posters around the room reminded him why he was there.

“When you look at those pictures, the tranquillity is just stunning,” he said. “The sport is so complicated it’s like you can’t think about anything else while you’re doing it. That will be so relaxing.”

Seasoned spinning-reel angler Linda DeFields, 59, a retired schoolteacher from Cypress, quickly gave up on knot-tying -- not in deference to poor vision but to her 2-inch nails.

“You’re going to have to get rid of those if you want to get into this sport,” Justino said.


“No, no,” DeFields said before undoing a few dozen years’ of women’s rights. “That’s what I have a husband for.”

During lunch, some students made their first forays into the shop -- 7,000 square feet of fly-fishing fantasy.

With a working knowledge of the sport, it thrilled rather than overwhelmed them to see the rows of fuzzy flies and rods standing together like shiny black stalks of wheat.

They held on to that eagerness for the class’ second half: casting at a nearby pond.


Despite the fresh, balmy air and the excitement of being near water, even the casting could have been done back at the school, Justino said.

The half-dozen store customers test-driving rods in the parking lot proved as much.

“All an angler needs is the equivalent of a driving range,” he said. “Where you get good at casting is in a back alley or in your frontyard. You don’t need water for that.”

Ducks scattered and families gaped as the class trooped in and started catapulting lines into the water at Ralph B. Clark Regional Park in Buena Park, three miles from the school. Justino moved among his students, guiding their arms through the motions.


“It’s hard to have the patience to get that rhythm right away,” Chuck Wagner, 60, of Newport Beach said forlornly as Justino deftly zipped his line in all directions, flicking droplets of water as he cast. “He makes it look so easy.”

DeFields, a blue hat studded with fishing flies shielding her eyes, quickly picked up the technique. Her line sailed smoothly through the air, whistling slightly as it flew.

She plans to drag her kids’ old wading pool into her backyard and practice there. She knows it’s a little silly, but just having some water around makes the experience a shade more realistic.

“I can already tell that fly-fishing will keep me busy,” she said. “I’m not going to get bored easily doing this.”