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He understands the lure of fly fishing

The sport has a pace all its own, and the scenery alone is worth the trip to Mammoth Lakes.

May 03, 2012|Chris Erskine
  • A fly fisherman works for trout at Hot Creek, about nine miles from the Mammoth Lakes ski resort.
A fly fisherman works for trout at Hot Creek, about nine miles from the Mammoth… (Chris Erskine )

MAMMOTH LAKES — On the banks of a jutting little river, I'm trying to think like a trout thinks: Did I pay the mortgage on time? When do the Kings play next? Whatever happened to that sassy Helen Hunt?

No, wait, those are my thoughts. Then, WHAM, something takes the lure and I'm officially a fly fisherman.

Constantly looking for an activity where my deficiencies aren't quite so apparent, something outdoors where I don't have to run a lot, or strip down to my skivvies, or maintain eye contact for more than a moment, I am drawn now to fly fishing, not so much a sport as a Christopher Guest movie. If it weren't so profoundly gorgeous, with Italian carmaker lines, you'd want to throw spitballs at fly fishing. But not me.

See, the fish have all the advantages in fly fishing. First of all, it's their home field. Second, they're better educated.

Third? We're attracting them under false pretenses — lures that smell like our fingers, on barbless hooks that couldn't snag a Kardashian. Seriously, the only way to give the fish more of an edge is to hand them torpedoes and power of attorney.

Trout, to make matters worse, eat like actresses — little kernels of insect mung at intervals of 48 to 60 hours. My buddy Paul insists that trout graze like cattle, eating all the time, their way of self-medicating. But I don't see it. I manage to hook my first fish in the middle of the poor creature's yawn, a total fluke.

This is Mammoth in spring — not quite God's country, but he keeps a condo here. You haven't really left the city behind when the guys driving F-150s have product in their hair. But Mammoth is a lovely land, laced with lakes and creeks and some of the prettiest fish you will ever temporarily meet.

Not to go too Thoreau on you, but the wind rustling the tall grass . . . the snowcapped mountains 10 miles away . . . the giggle-hiss of the stream. I think this creek might be laughing at me. Go ahead, because I have something called an elk-hair caddis on my line and I'm not afraid to use it. In truth, I'd have a better chance of attracting fish with a Hallmark card.

It has been a freaky season for Mammoth, one of America's most popular resorts. On the heels of last year's epic snows, virtually nothing.

Sure, the locals are still skiing the Cornice on weekends — Mammoth's treacherous upper reaches. But it's too early for the sort of bare spots showing up along the San Joaquin Ridge, which butts up to June Mountain. And Mammoth looks like an ice cream cone, more cone every day.

As trout go, it's early. On nearby Lake George, they're still ice fishing, and most of the June Lake Loop remains frosted over.

Yet, down south of town, the land has warmed and the fishing season has just begun. Ludicrously, it's a sport men turn to in midlife, just when their eyes are fading and they can't see the wispy monofilament they need to tie. Men like a challenge, which I guess is why they're often drawn to marriage and fly fishing.

Know where the Mammoth Airport is? Then you could find Hot Creek, which runs about three miles behind the airport road. There is public access and a pricey private trout ranch. The fish don't care. They'll mess with your mind, no matter how much you make.

I'm at Hot Creek with my buddy Paul and his brother Dave, both devoted fly fishermen, judging by their clown clothes and floppy McLean Stevenson hats. At first, fly fishing feels a little silly with its odd fashions and nomenclature. At second glance, it seems that way too.

Still, I have seen many a golfer hurl a club in disgust. With fly fisherman, you're more likely to get a "that's life, huh?" shrug. As obsessions go, I'm sort of obsessed with it.

"I frankly don't make much of a living, but I make a hell of a life," renowned fly fisherman Jack Gartside once said.

"It takes your mind off the office, time goes by fast, and once in a while you catch a fish," explains my buddy Paul.

"I let it drift over the tongue, then just skated it a few times," Paul's brother Dave says of how he worked the creek.

I have no idea what Dave's talking about. The last thing I let drift over my tongue was a martini olive, and I ended up upside down in a gypsy cab outside Barstow.

Day 2: I catch yet another fish. Two trout in two days? This is becoming an embarrassment of riches. This second one apparently is a female, for it is wearing body makeup, riding boots and an evil little grin that says, "Who's hooked who, pal?"

Or, maybe I've just caught the same fish as yesterday. I don't care.

Because the question lingers: Who's hooked who?

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