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Hooked for Life : Fly-fishing--and teaching it--is Neal Taylor's passion. But his obsession is the environment.


There's something ironic about the fact that one of the country's best-known fishermen would no more kill a fish than quit fishing altogether.

But when Neal Taylor removes the hook from the mouth of the fish he has just caught, he does so with the precision of a surgeon. Before returning the fish to the stream, Taylor holds it beneath the water and gently strokes it to get the oxygen recirculating.

It's hard to believe that someone so big could care so much for something so small. But seeing his look of pleasure as the fish struggles to life and disappears into the river, it becomes obvious that Taylor's husky 6-foot-1 stature belies an underlying tenderness.

To his students, who line the river banks clad in waders and fishing hats, Taylor is a bit of an enigma: a bumbling Jonathan Winters look-alike who takes rod in hand and suddenly becomes a backwoods Baryshnikov.

"The best thing you can have in your tackle box is Neal Taylor's phone number," says student Quint Kuhl of Westlake Village. "Neal Taylor is No. 2 to God."

Taylor, 62, of Santa Barbara, is a passionate environmentalist who has hobnobbed with Presidents, movie stars and other world-class anglers. He's an extraordinary teacher who can move his students to tears or crack them up with goofy jokes.

Above all, he is driven by the belief that nature inspires us to be better people, so we had darn well better respect it.

"Children are our greatest resource," Taylor says. "If we don't leave the land we are enjoying clean and pristine for them, we're not doing our job."


An uncomplicated man who generally prefers a hug to a handshake, Taylor is driven to distraction by the smallest aspect of nature. Where most people may look at a burr and decide its only function is to stick in a dog's paw, Taylor sees a seed that walks.

Likewise, a heap of trash on the shore may be a normal part of the landscape to some, but to Taylor it's "Canneous discardis," that none-too-rare species of garbage that's strangling our environment.

Taylor's appreciation for nature's details grew out of his love for fly-fishing, which he developed for primarily one reason.

"I wanted to be good at something my dad enjoyed," says the California native, who grew up in Summerland, along the Santa Ynez River. He began as a questionable student. Once, he reared the rod back, then came forward with a cast and masterfully hooked his father in the back of the head.

"My dad said I'd better learn to cast if I wanted to fish with him."

So he became more determined, honing his skills so well that he has won first place in 202 of 203 fly-casting competitions--and earned his father's respect.


Taylor's reputation rests as much on his showmanship as on his technical skills. Over the years, this reputation has garnered the attention of three Presidents.

He has instructed Ronald and Nancy Reagan and tutored Jimmy Carter. Dearest of all to his heart, he once spent four days in Colorado fishing with then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"I felt like I had known him all my life. Something happens to you on the stream and you see the inner depths of the person you're fishing with."

The notion that natural surroundings evoke a person's spirit is one of Taylor's guiding principles and has powered him to such accomplishments as:

* Serving as technical adviser on the set of the 1963 movie "Man's Favorite Sport," starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss.

* Leading demonstrations for Pepsi's Sports Advisory Staff, with such well-known athletes as Billie Jean King and Jerry West.

* Teaming with former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton for an episode of TV's "Best of the West."

Despite--or perhaps because of--these achievements, there was a time when Taylor lost sight of the most important things in his life: fishing and family. Somewhere along the line, he decided his life just wasn't flashy enough. So in the early '80s, after his father died, "I decided it was time to start making big money," he says dryly.

He left his wife's family business in printing and publishing and became a sales manager for a large firm in Downtown Los Angeles. The job required long hours, frequent travel, and time away from his family and his beloved fishing.

One night he came home from a trip and found the house empty. Gone were the furniture and his two sons and his daughter. The divorce knocked him senseless.

"You could say I had got my head down and my tail end up," he recalls. "I forgot the important things and I vowed never to get married again. It hurt too much."

Fortunately, Taylor broke that vow. Because it is Linda, his wife of five years, to whom he credits his renewed happiness and, consequently, his rekindled appreciation for the world around him.

Taylor has taught "The Sport and Science of Fly-Fishing" for 14 years at UCLA, Cal State Bakersfield, Moorpark College and other schools. He also conducts camps on fly-fishing throughout the country and gives frequent demonstrations.

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