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Cutter's Way : Ralph Cutter is into fly-fishing--really, really into fly-fishing. He lives and breathes trout. And now, he's sharing his passion.

July 01, 1994|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Five hours into Ralph Cutter's two-day fly-fishing class, a woman's jaw goes slack. "My gawd!" she yelps. "You're really into this!"

Cutter pauses. With a digital tensile scale dangling from one hand, the fishing line whose strength he is about to test in another, he lets a sliver of boyish grin crack his face.

Other students, however, fix the woman with stares that say: "Duh!"

Most, after all, had noticed a bit sooner that Cutter's into- itiveness is on a different order, even for this notoriously obsession-prone pastime.

What tipped them off? How about:

* The way Cutter blurts, "I like bugs!" and explicates, "Without flies, there would be no fly-fishing," as he shows detailed charts depicting metamorphic cycles of aquatic insects.

* The way his eyes bulge troutlike as he wriggles a stuffed fabric fish around the room, imagining that the fish is hungry and that the ceiling is the river's bug-covered surface.

* His enthusiasm as he superimposes graphs on an overhead projector, demonstrating the precise point at which a stream's or lake's oxygenation level and water temperature combine to create optimum conditions for a trout's metabolism.

* The quaver in his voice as he rallies the class to watch an emerging mayfly in the insect-breeding aquarium in the kitchen.

* The photograph above that aquarium of a hefty Yucatan crocodile Cutter hooked on a colorful dry fly.

* His insistence that students kneel on the floor to get a fish-eye view as he sprinkles nutritionally correct crickets into a tank containing a gorgeous Golden Trout.

* The story of that trout's genesis:

"About three years ago, I wanted to get photographs of an egg evolving, from the time it's fertilized till the time the head pokes out," Cutter says. "We hiked up to the headwaters of the Kern River. I had a little net, and caught a male and a female trout.

"I took the female trout, and gently squeezed her flanks, till the eggs came out into a Sierra cup. Then I took the male and squeezed out the sperm. I swirled them together and let them sit for 24 hours in the river. Then I put the eggs in a water bottle, packed them in snow and hiked out. . . . One survived."

So, yes, Ralph Cutter would seem to be into fly-fishing.

That settled, though, students may well light upon another, bigger question. It's one they may also ask of themselves sometime during his $395 "Complete Fly Fishing" course:

Why?

"There's something about fly-fishing that's esoteric and cool," Cutter says, his fingers sparring nimbly with a wisp of knot that a hot, pine-scented wind is determined to confuse.

But that's not the real answer.

*

Ralph, 39, and his wife Lisa, 38, run their California School of Fly Fishing in the modern, two-story, solar-heated home that Lisa designed and her brother built, on three pine- and fir-covered acres outside the Tahoe-area town of Truckee.

As Ralph teaches, his daughter Teal, 11, ferries a basket of mini-muffins to each of the 10 students. Her 9-year-old sister, Haley, hovers on the periphery, utterly at ease with the strangers in her house.

About the only wall or shelf in the home not dominated by trout paintings and bric-a-brac is the one featuring old family photographs--and the ubiquitous motif creeps in here too.

One photo, from 1910, shows Cutter's great-grandfather, Ed, a Fresno-area veterinary pharmacist, with his three sons, in the Kennedy Meadows area of the Eastern Sierra. All clutch fly rods.

Ed explored and mapped parts of the Sierra. He also loaded mules with milk cans full of trout and planted the range's high, barren lakes. His three sons followed the same path, and their trips inspired two inventions that became as requisite in backpacks as gorp: Cutter's Insect Repellent and Cutter's Snake Bite Kits.

The oldest of five boys, Ralph spent his first six years on the Cutter family's huge ranch, in the rolling oak hills east of San Francisco.

His mother, a devout kayaker, pioneered numerous stretches of California white water and chaired the rivers section of her Sierra Club chapter. She and Ralph's father--a successful businessman who created the Medfly trap, among other inventions--regularly dragged their kids into the Sierra on horse-packing trips. That wasn't Ralph's only early exposure to fish, though.

In the spring, cutthroat trout battled their way up Bear Creek, from San Francisco Bay into the valley spanned by the Cutters' land. Then, when Ralph was 6, the utility district forced the family to sell. The dammed creek became a reservoir. The spawning run died.

The effect of that incident resurfaced years later, in the vanity plate on Cutter's Ford pickup: "BOMADAM."

Long before he bought that plate, though, there was evidence of riparian influence on his life.

After high school, Cutter migrated through three junior colleges. "I would take all the biology courses I could, until they kicked me out. . . . I didn't want to be a marine biologist. I wanted to know about stuff that lives in the water."

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