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Fatal Attraction

Fishing lures, as beautiful as they are effective, are one man's passion

April 02, 2006|Gary Polakovic | Gary Polakovic is a Times staff writer.

In Donald Mayo's workroom, the cabinets are stuffed with quills and wire, rayon and silk, rabbit hair and bear fur, cotton chenille and Mylar.

It seems an outlandish mix of supplies, except to someone who practices the centuries-old art of fly tying. Actually, Mayo doesn't practice: He's a master.

Squinting over his glasses, he surveys the lifeless menagerie before him, a legion of fake insects that are beautiful--and lethal--to fish. Some have buggy eyes and bright colors, some are drab with big hackles. They stand at attention, rows of little soldiers, each assigned a name associated with its pattern: Brindle Bug, General Practitioner, Tippet Shrimp.

Tens of thousands of artificial flies like these have left Mayo's fingers in Norwalk and landed in tackle boxes the world over. He has been at his workbench, tying flies, every day for 27 years. It is, he says, "my passion."

By many assessments one of the best fly tiers in Southern California, Mayo takes an unusual approach to his hobby: He gives the flies he makes to private clients, among them celebrity fishermen such as Jimmy Buffett, and to Bob Marriott's Flyfishing Store in Fullerton, which sells them for as much as $10 each. Mayo doesn't make a nickel, though the store reimburses him for materials. "It's a love of labor," says Bud Eadie, a clerk at Marriott's. At 73, Donald S. Mayo Sr., as he prefers to be known, says he doesn't need the income. The retired janitor and his wife, who raised four children and were foster parents to about 100, live modestly yet comfortably. They don't go for fancy cars or big vacations. Fly tying "is all I spend my money on," Mayo says. "I love it."

He caught the bug in 1953, when he made his first lure from a beer-can opener, hurling it off the Santa Monica Pier. In 1979, he enrolled in a free fly-tying class in Norwalk, tied a Pheasant Tail Nymph, which looks like a little mosquito, and used it to take a bluegill at El Dorado Park near Cerritos. "I knew right then what I wanted to do," Mayo recalls.

Over the years, Mayo has taught classes, hosted seminars and showcased his skill at fishing-tackle shows around the country. Anglers have used his flies to take fish--mainly salmon, trout and steelhead, the hard-charging, metallic-colored seafaring rainbow trout--in Russia, Scandinavia and Canada.

Mayo himself doesn't fish anymore, and conspicuously absent from his workroom are photos or mounts of prize catches; he usually let them go after reeling them in. The walls are decked with angler's creels, bobcat pelts and a boat-shaped bookcase jammed with tying guides and volumes on entomology and the history of fishing.

Angling is replete with tales of men who left their wives, good jobs and logic to quest for fish. Mayo's obsession with tackle is as big. His favorite task is tying antique flies, re-creating lost patterns not seen since the 1400s. They are relatively simple, compared with some modern-day flies, typically fashioned out of unfussy feathers and fur. But to Mayo, they are objects of beauty.

"Every one of his flies is perfect," says Eadie, the clerk at Marriott's. "Everything he ties is artistry."

Some nights, in sleepless hours before dawn, Mayo will shuffle into the workroom, sit at the bench and tie until sunrise. He takes about 20 minutes to create a small one, up to an hour for a bigger one. But it's not unusual for him to spend 40 hours on a salmon fly. "I'm doing something not everyone can do," Mayo says, his hand stroking his gray beard clear to his Orvis T-shirt. "I can change the patterns any way I want. I can control everything, every aspect of the fly. Each one of these signifies accomplishment. In these, I see proportion. I see tradition."

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