SAN DIEGO — The pond is only a few inches deep. It's less than a mile from downtown San Diego, in an area surrounded by miles of city streets and concrete sidewalks.
It isn't the kind of place you'd go to catch record-sized trout. But even so, the pond attracts some of the best fly fishermen in Southern California.
What do they fish for in the casting pond in Balboa Park? Well, they don't really fish at all.
They practice fishing.
Every Sunday morning, a dozen or more fishermen gather at the pond, on the eastern side of Balboa Park near the Morley Field recreational area. Some are old-timers with stories to tell about enormous fish caught in years gone by; others are beginners who barely know how to cast an artificial fly, let alone tie one.
But they share this much: a fascination with the specialized method of fishing known as fly-fishing. And as the sun works its way through the low clouds that often blanket the city, they cast artfully crafted, nearly weightless lures out across the water, again, again and again.
The pond has been there so long that no one can recall how long this activity has been going on. The sport of fly-fishing itself is even older, having originated in the 15th Century or earlier.
Recently, though, there has been a surge of interest in fly fishing, for a variety of reasons.
Former President Jimmy Carter, an avid fly fisherman, has written a book and several magazine articles about the sport that have helped popularize it. Part of the tradition-minded environmentalist movement seems to have embraced fly-fishing, too; the current issue of Audubon magazine has a lengthy feature on the colorful lures that fly fishermen use.
Certain Snob Appeal
And, because the sport is relatively difficult, it has developed a certain snob appeal that makes it attractive to ever-competitive young urban professionals.
But as far as Bob Wisner is concerned, the reason behind the growing popularity of fly fishing is simpler than any of that. "People love it," said Wisner, president of the San Diego Fly Fishers Club.
"It's kind of exotic. It's a clean sport, too," he added, noting that no live bait is used. "And it's a skill sport. You're matching your wits against the fish's, not just dangling a lure down into the water."
Wisner and other members of the fly-fishing club offer free instruction and advice to beginners who show up at the pond on Sunday mornings. And they've noticed that more and more people are turning out, particularly youths.
"It used to be that fly fishing was a sport for older people," said Glen Paul, 52, a member of the San Diego Fly Fishers Club and a teacher at Madison Elementary School in El Cajon. "Now it seems we're seeing piles of younger people. . . . The streams (around the western United States) are full of 16- and 18-year-olds.
"It's more of a challenge" than other types of fishing, Paul added. "It requires a different type of casting, and you've got to learn about insects to do it" well.
Many fish feed only on newly hatched insects or their larvae. Fly fishermen must learn what types of insects the fish they are after prefer, and what time of year those insects hatch, because artificial flies that mimic the shape and color of seasonal insects produce the best results, Paul explained.
Most experienced fly fishermen construct their own artificial flies, so they must also commit to memory the shapes of various insects, especially caddis flies, stone flies and mayflies, which are all favorites of fish.
'It's a Nice Hobby'
Tying artificial flies "is a fine art," said Paul. "If you know what you're doing, you can whip one up in five minutes, but for a beginner it's a job that takes half an hour" or longer.
"But it's a nice hobby, a nice craft. You can produce something that suits you and hopefully will suit the fish."
Some of the materials used for artificial flies, including yarn and fabric trim, can be scrounged from fabric stores. Others--including muskrat fur and duck feathers--must be obtained from hunter friends or from fishing shops such as Stroud Tackle, one of the few local stores specializing in fly-fishing supplies.
Stroud Tackle, 1457 Morena Blvd., is a kind of unofficial headquarters for the 200-member San Diego Fly Fishers Club, said Bill Stroud, 66, who owns the shop along with his wife, Eileen. The Strouds stock rooster, turkey and pheasant feathers as well as deer and antelope hair. The latter are hollow and thus will float on the surface of a lake or stream the way certain insects do, Stroud pointed out.
Right now, he added, bass in local lakes are biting on leech and caterpillar imitations called wooly worms, as well as hare's-ear nymphs, a type of artificial fly that makes use of fur from English hares to simulate insect larvae.