In the strike zone

Fly boy
Steve Lopez learns the art of fly fishing.

Windows | Real

Times Staff Writer

Work, as the bumper sticker says, is for people who don’t know how to fish. So why was I trying to have it both ways? Here I was, hiking along the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, dressed in my newly purchased chest-high waders and boots, fishing rod in hand, in pursuit of a fish and a story.


That’s Darrell Kunitomi. He’s roaring at the broad vein of water shooting through the carved canyon. The river, he told me, hadn’t flowed this fast in decades.

Now I know the world doesn’t need yet another practitioner of bad Hemingway, one more fly-hatted, Orvis-bedecked laureate finding nirvana in the perfect cast and prattling on about it in print. But this was going to be a fishing trip, not a pilgrimage. And a fishing trip in our own backyard. It was perfect.

Forget West Yellowstone. Forget the Upper Peninsula. This is Los Angeles. And these are the San Gabriels.

And Darrell’s up ahead of me — part guide, part wise master of the Force — taking in the entire ecosystem, checking water temperature and watching for insect activity to see if we were in an “active feeding zone.”

Every time we crossed the water, zigzagging upstream, he reached in and pulled up potato-sized rocks to see if nymphs were attached, feeding and fattening up for the trout. Everything he saw told him there were fish in these waters.

I might have been skeptical, but then I’d never given much thought to the San Gabriel Mountains. For me, they were little more than a stunning backdrop to this city, as if Christo had hung a mountain tapestry from the clouds. It didn’t seem logical that one minute you could be in a sprawling mosh pit, fighting for the last Costco parking space with some of the other 20 million residents of Southern California, and minutes later you could be stalking wild fish in some semi-alpine paradise.

Black bear lumber around up there, I’m told, along with bighorn sheep and mountain lions. Trout live up there too, and Darrell knows exactly where.

Or so he claimed.

Hold the tartar sauce

The plan was simple: to get my feet wet on a broad public stream where I’d have some casting room, and then bring me back another day to some secret, nearby spot. If I were to divulge its location, ever, to anyone, Darrell warned me, I would be hunted down by the sacred brotherhood of fly fishermen and tortured with bamboo rods and scary little things called woolly buggers.

But I get ahead of myself. We had to master a few basics, and I had a few questions.

I wanted to know how we were going to cook the trout once we reeled it in. Iron skillet, maybe? A little lemon pepper? Nice little feast by the side of a babbling brook?

I might as well have asked a Hindu if we were going to stop for a couple of burgers on the way back from enlightenment.

It’s catch and release, Darrell said without hiding his suffering. It’s all about the experience. I didn’t quite buy it. Sounded to me like going after deer with paint-ball rifles.

But what did I know? Darrell called me a “baitist.” I don’t think he was being rude; it’s just that I’ve done a little bit of the other kind of fishing.

Fly-fishing, Darrell told me as if he were addressing a cave man, is for the evolved fisherman. It’s a game of chess, whereas bait fishing is checkers.

Which might have been too fine a point for the motorists zipping by on Burbank Boulevard the afternoon I tried casting for the first time. We had set up in the parking lot of a Van Nuys strip mall, across from Ralphs, just inviting a few fender benders.

“Tight loops,” Darrell instructed as the line splayed over my head.

If you’ve ever seen a classic fly-cast, lighter-than-air nylon, floating ribbon-like in graceful stunts, please be advised that my work bore no resemblance. At any given moment, there was the distinct possibility I might accidentally hang myself. (This might have been the moment when Darrell realized with dread how much pressure he was under to teach me to land a trout.)

“God bless America!” he shouted if I showed the slightest instinct for the sport. But that didn’t keep him from nervously lighting cigarettes, one after another.

Later that day, we would try again in one of my favorite fishing holes — Los Angeles City Hall. There we were on the lawn, line flying in the breeze outside the office of the mayor, a political minnow. I want a bigger fish than that, I told Darrell.

Tied up in knots

Darrell, if you haven’t figured it by now, is one of those hobbyists who’s gone pathological.

Behind his mild-mannered life as an apartment manager, actor, tour guide and historical expert at The Times, he worships daily at the Temple of Trout. His Echo Park apartment is both a fly-manufacturing lab and a fly-fishing museum, with cherished items such as his prized 7-foot F.E. Thomas Browntone rod, which he purchased from the estate of actor William Conrad. Whether he can be saved or not matters less than whether he had the patience for a hacker like me.

Between casting lessons, he gave me a fly-tying crash course at the office. No greater achievement, he told me, than catching a fish on a fly you made yourself. I tied my first-ever flies about as well as I had casted on Burbank Boulevard.

Stick the end of the line through the eye of the hook, Darrell instructed, a tiny hook on which he had mashed the barb so the fish could be quickly released without inflicting much harm. I searched desperately for the end of the line and the eye of the hook, both of which I allegedly held in my hands. Fly-fishing is a geezer sport, I discovered, but geezers can’t see. Only blind luck, if not God’s mercy, brought success.

“God bless America!” was Darrell’s response, and I knew by now that whether I caught a fish or not, I had made a new friend.

My best of three flies was that mysterious thing called a woolly bugger, which rather than an instrument of torture, is a 2-inch-long impostor that a trout might mistake for a leech, a nymph or a hellgrammite. It would have to be a pretty dumb fish, though: My first fly looked like a bad mustache.

“It’s one of the deadliest flies ever created,” Darrell said. “It’ll catch anything.”

We would see about that.

Let the games begin

Our last glimpse of civilization before entering San Gabriel Canyon in the Angeles National Forest was a strip mall with a Stop ‘N’ Go liquor store, a taco stand with Thai-Chinese food and teriyaki burgers, and a place called Aloha Pizza.

Just ahead, crowding the forest, was a tract development so heinous I could imagine myself rooting for a good mudslide. It was Los Angeles “hard against the mountains” as John McPhee once described such encroachment, several dozen look-alike domiciles situated directly, defiantly and stupidly in the path of a future fire or flood.

Fortunately the San Gabes swallow you whole, making L.A. disappear instantly. Just as the scent of teriyaki burgers wanes, you’re lifted into a craggy, emerald-green landscape of chaparral and big-cone Douglas fir, with snowy peaks looking down from their not-too-distant perch at the end of the world.

Two minutes into our hike along the West Fork trail amid this mesmerizing jangle of water moving through rocks, my blood pressure dropped. It had rained the night before, bringing up the earthy smell of the forest, and Los Angeles was far, far away.

My first efforts casting into a real stream were suitable for filming as a “Not Like This!” video. My line tangled, the fly fell nowhere near my target, I felt unworthy of the privilege of being allowed outdoors. Our creek contained some stocked fish, and Darrell had told me they were so notoriously dumb they were often caught within minutes. It doesn’t do much for a man’s ego if the dumbest fish in the creek are on to him, but Darrell didn’t lose faith.

“It’s a 3-D game,” he said, as we moved upstream from one trough and pool to another. He pointed out the feeding lanes where white water meets slower currents and reminded me to creep up quietly so as not to spook the fish.

I got three strikes.

But no fish.

You don’t have much time, he explained, like I hadn’t figured that out. A trout’s sense is so evolved that it instantly spits out anything but the real deal. You’ve got to almost anticipate the strike and pull up quickly, beating the fish in a match of quick reflexes.

We fished in ankle-deep water and waist-high water. I tangled lots of line. I caught twigs and branches. I even caught the photographer who had to pull my hook out of the seat of his waders. And as beautiful and peaceful as it was up there, I wanted a fish. I wanted one more than when I had started. I really wanted one.

“We still have Friday,” Darrell said.

I saw panic in his eyes.

Undisclosed location

All I’m allowed to say is this: Darrell’s secret spot is “part of the San Gabriel River system.”

Honest, he’d kill me. Part of the allure of fly-fishing is knowing something no one else knows. A secret between you and the fish.

We had saved my ties for Darrell’s secret spot, and he substituted a better rod for the fiberglass model I’d used two days earlier. Now I had a lighter, 8-foot Scott graphite, the Mercedes of rods. I had no excuses.

We set out at 9:30 a.m. and I struck out everywhere as we moved up-creek, the water descending a natural staircase in a sharply filed canyon, greenery folding in all around. Lots of poison oak to avoid.

At about 11, Darrell took matters into his own hands using a 6-foot-9-inch hand-built rod, made for him by George Boehme of Venice. We were fishing this creek in George’s honor, Darrell said, which only multiplied the number of people I would be letting down.

Darrell went to work, casting perfectly, leaning ever so slightly in the direction of his prey, stripping line with a magician’s hands to maintain just the right tension.

Darrell hadn’t fished much while we were together. Obviously he was being kind. I’d need a gill net to keep up with him. This guy could drop his fly on a floating leaf. His line floats like gossamer, taking long, languorous midair naps. Darrell isn’t human; he’s part of the place. An amphibious Spider-Man spinning webs, setting traps.

“There is nothing,” Darrell said, “like casting a fine, split-cane fly rod. They flex poetically, they are alive.”

In minutes, he had a fish.

I was 25 feet downstream and saw the rainbow trout glisten in the sunlight, a nice little 4-incher that he quickly released.

Call me a wimp, but I now understood catch and release. Put down the lemon pepper. Having won at chess, you wouldn’t eat your partner. Not in a place where a trout’s survival is a long shot. The average catch up here is only 2 to 12 inches, so without Jesus of Nazareth on hand to multiply the fishes, you’d go hungry. What you’re doing isn’t fishing so much as connecting with the natural environment and all of its “unknowables,” as Darrell put it.

Yes, I could get into this. I’m not going to start bringing peacock and rooster feathers home, but Darrell’s five stages of trout fishing began to make sense to me. First, he had said, you want to catch a fish. Second, you want to catch many fish. Third, you want to catch a large fish. Fourth, you want to catch a tough fish. Finally, you just want to hang out along a pristine stream, miles away from the things that ordinarily clutter your mind.

Still on stage one, and wondering if I’d ever move on, I was half encouraged by Darrell’s catch and half intimidated.

“Ungainly, but effective,” he frequently said about my casting.

I caught more twigs, hung the line over my ear and hooked Darrell’s hat. One by one, I lost the three flies I had made. I was discouraged and beginning to think I should take up shuffleboard, but then Darrell’s words came to me like out of a mist.

“You will be fine,” he wrote in an e-mail after our first outing. “When Yoda raised the ship out of the muck, Luke exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe it!’ And Yoda sighed, ‘That is why you fail.’ ”

So do I find the Force? Or does the Force find me?

Then I got a strike. But it got away.

A few minutes later, another strike. This time I felt the fish’s weight a little longer. The day was fading, and Darrell kept taking us deeper into the woods. The walls of the canyon were draped in moss; the poison oak closed in around us as if in collusion with the fish, who were laughing no doubt at my efforts.

Darrell hadn’t given up. The “last-chance pool” lay ahead. He had seen pale morning duns hatching, emerging and flying off the water. There was plenty of life in the stream, and it was only a matter of time, even for me.

Near a gorgeous little alder-shaded plunge pool, maybe three-quarters of a mile up the stream, Darrell tied a No. 16 May Cad Stone onto my line, a white-winged powder puff of an attractor fly he had developed over the years.

“It imitates everything and catches all,” he said. “The mayfly, the caddis fly and the stonefly. It tracks well, floats acceptably, is visible to the angler and seems to imitate lots of the bugs trout like to eat.”

One cast, nothing.

Another cast, the fish were still laughing.

On the third try, I almost felt as if I anticipated the strike and there he was, all muscle, tugging at my line as he dived diagonally across the pool.

When I got the little rainbow airborne, Darrell grabbed it, allowed me to briefly admire it and quickly released the most beautiful fish the San Gabriel Mountains have ever known. He said it was 7 inches long, but it looked much bigger to me.

God bless America, indeed.

Steve Lopez can be reached at

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