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FISHING'S UPPER CAST : Mystique of Fly Angling Lures the Leisure-Rich to the Rivers

September 12, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

On the surface of things, this sage-scented meadow ringed by volcanic peaks is so tranquil that the sound of a fat steer chewing grass resounds across the water.

On the surface, a hand-tied wisp of beige elk hair drifting on the currents of the upper Owens River seems about as dramatic as a long yawn on a summer afternoon.

But surfaces can be deceiving. As the wisp accelerates over a submerged rock, breezes into the shadows of a steep bank, then pirouettes in a small eddy that reflects blue sky and thunderheads, the throbbing theme from "Jaws" swells in the imagination of a newly initiated observer.

Those who miss the drama amid the serenity fail to perceive what the fly fisherman knows , or at least imagines: Somewhere down beneath the shimmering surface, a hungry trout is stalking that piece of fluff the way a great white shark might stalk a swimmer's legs.

Defining precisely what lures people to fly fishing is almost as difficult as defining what attracts a trout to a certain fly. A gill net and hand grenade would be more efficient. Getting take-out truite at Le Dome would cost less.

But, for whatever reasons, swarms of leisure-rich Americans--especially Y-people--are suddenly flitting about on the banks of rivers and streams and urban casting pools like a new hatch of stoneflys.

John Randolph, the editor of "Fly Fisherman" magazine, blames the whole thing on Jimmy Carter.

Carter was still President when he cast his first hand-tied artificial fly into a river in hopes that a trout would eat it, Randolph said. He found the experience of trying to outsmart a fish so intriguing, he invited a bunch of fly fishing aficionados to Camp David to help him unravel the Gordian knots of the sport.

"He was like someone who had just discovered a new religion," Randolph said.

An Explosion of Interest

In 1982, "Fly Fisherman" published Carter's "Spruce Creek Diary" and newspapers across the country reprinted it, triggering the current explosion of interest in fly fishing, according to Randolph.

99% Male Dominated

"About a half million, totally-committed, special interest fly fishermen" now spend most of their leisure time heaving virtually weightless little bits of feather and hair upon the waters of America, and another 5-6 million people are in there but less committed, Randolph figures. Although the sport is about 99% male-dominated, women are taking it up in increasing numbers, Randolph said.

There are several reasons why fly fishing tends to attract folks who have succeeded in other areas of life.

"This is the most technique-intensive sport there is. It's problem-solving oriented. You can get infinitely better. You're always arriving."

And because the sport, at its highest levels, requires knowledge of entomology as well as the craft of fly tying, of hydraulics as well as the art of graceful casting, it offers a camaraderie and "insider-groupiness" that appeals to certain folks, he believes.

This sense of exclusivity is bolstered by the sport's "high threshold of entry," Randolph said. "It's not like spin fishing, where anyone can cast the lure and catch a fish. Few are called and fewer are chosen . . . . That means there's a snob appeal to it."

The rite of passage into fly fishermanship, however, is hardly as forbidding as some would make it seem.

Nymphs, Hatches, Tippet

Southern California sports a handful of top-notch fly fishing stores. Walk into any of them and you'll probably hear ritualistic murmuring about the subtleties of nymphs and fly hatches and tippet. But you're also likely to find friendly advice, simple how-to books and information on classes, seminars and fishing expeditions complete with guided instruction and all the equipment--starting at about $100 a day.

John Shaffer, who with his brother Dave owns a shop in Santa Monica called "Lords of the Fly," teaches fly fishing at the Arcularius Ranch, a priivate retreat on the Owens River about six hours north of Los Angeles.

The Owens River wanders for five miles through the ranch, doodling every which way in the brushy meadows as if nature were drunk and daydreaming when she carved the river's path. A dirt road follows the river, through a cluster of red-roofed cabins rented almost exclusively to fly fishermen and women--some of whom have been coming to the ranch for 60 years or more--and to the fence of an even more exclusive fly fishing ranch--the Inaja Land Company--which reportedly has a total of 25 members.

On a wall of the rustic Arcularius lodge, a print from the 1940s shows several men with 13 large trout dangling on a stringer between them. The picture reflects how much fly fishing has stayed the same and how much it has changed over the years.

Fly fishing gear today isn't much different than it was in the picture, and the ranch itself still has a 1940s feel to it.

An Old Fashioned Feeling

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