Words and images come together in a series of vignettes to capture and reflect on the art and experience of fly fishing.
Story by Mike Hamer
Photographs by Chuck Place
ON A COOL and windless fall evening, I watched a lone fly fisherman throw line into the pewtered surf rolling up the beach at Padaro Lane. It was midweek and, except for an older couple prodding the stilted gait of their ancient Labrador, the beach was empty.
The guy was working a trough that lay a few yards beyond the shore break. Against a western sky awash in pink and blue and tangerine, he appeared as a shadow puppet in a bucket hat and waders. His cast had the steady, rhythmic cadence of someone who had thrown a lot of line into water, and every so often, when the sea lulled long enough, I could hear the insect whirl of nylon slicing through air.
He probed the shallows in a methodical clockwork fashion, from 9 to 3 and back again, elegantly unfurling his lure over the surf and into the darkening water until at last the tip of his rod bent suddenly (it’s always suddenly) downward. From the arc, it looked to be a decent fish, perhaps a meaty barbed perch or maybe even a young halibut, and I looked on with great interest as he reached to pull his catch from the sea.
It was an instantly recognizable shape, one keenly familiar to every saltwater fly fisherman who has stalked these shores—a ball of giant sea kelp.
UNLIKE Hemingway’s marlin, surfperch aren’t literary fish. Ovoid and wild eyed, with their plump starlet lips and unglamorous markings, they mine anonymous coastal shorelines for sand crabs and mud shrimp, all the while failing to inspire paeans or tomes or even a single quotation celebrating their splendor. But I like them, nonetheless.
It was on a stormy afternoon along a thin crescent of Central Coast beach that I caught my first surfperch on a fly rod. Fueled by winter rains, the normally docile creek had bullied a deep roiling gouge that cut through the shore break and ran straight out to sea. I had pulled on my wetsuit and booties and wading jacket and forded chest-deep through the shore break to the sandbar that flanked the south side of the trough.
The water was cold, and where I threw the Red Gremmie into the undercut, it reflected the deep rich color of jade. The fish hit on my second cast—a vigorous pull that put a credible bend in my 6-weight—and I let it take line as it bolted for open sea. It was obviously up for a fight. So I obliged, keeping tension with a steady stripping of line, inching the fish closer along the undercut, getting a manic flash of silver, and then letting it run to the shadows to recommence the standoff.
It was a good fight, and as I reached into the surf to end the drama at last, I remember that across the fussy unsettled water the bluff rose ocher and veined and tufted with verdant clumps of bunch grass. Out in the channel, long gossamer veils of rain fell onto the dark hump of Santa Rosa Island, and the sky above me was mottled and nervous. And I remember thinking then that this is a good fish. Maybe not an epic. Maybe not a novel. But definitely a poem.
I HEARD A story recently about a guy who was off Goleta Beach fly-fishing the kelp beds in his kayak. With the sun setting, he decided on one final cast before calling it a day. The hit was magnificently fierce, and within seconds, he was deep into his backing and on a torpedo run toward Santa Cruz Island.
Just when he was sure the thing would spool him, though, the fish stopped and hunkered down in a hole somewhere out in the deep, leaving the guy’s line pinging and his rod horseshoed over the rail of his kayak.
Apparently, the standoff was epic. The guy struggled mightily to gain 20 feet of line only to be countered with a malignant thrashing that cost him 50. He wasn’t sure what kind of fish it was. Only that it was big and not very happy. This went on for an hour, and the sun went down, and the lights on Goleta Pier looked far away, and the guy, exhausted and lonely, braced for one last pull. Again, the fish resisted, but then slowly the guy gained line, and it seemed that the fish had capitulated. Victory was imminent. But then, in the shadowy horror-flick light off the bow of the kayak, a great violent splashing erupted, and from it a writhing man-sized shape blasted through the surface, crashed back into the dark sea and the line went limp.
To fish is to lose a fish. Indeed, much of fishing is based on the tales about the one that got away. In the mountains, though, there’s no mystery as to what kind of fish it was that got away. It was a trout. It might have been a brown or a rainbow or a cutthroat, but it was a trout. In the mountains, you know. But the ocean can leave you guessing. In the ocean, you don’t always know what it was that got away, and sometimes you don’t even want to.
FLY FISHING is partly about the gear, partly about catching fish, but mostly it’s about being alone. On the coast, this means seeking out the magic hours of pre-dawn and last light. It means gearing up on the coldest days and the rainy days and on the coldest, rainiest days. It’s about finding the times and places where the fish are and the people aren’t.
Pretty soon dark settled on Padaro Lane, and in the distance the lights on Stearns Wharf twinkled like stars. The lone fly fisherman, empty-handed and done for the day, reeled in his line, set the fly into the cork and walked up the beach.
“How’d it go?” I said, when he passed me by.
“It was fantastic,” he said.
“Really?” I said. “So you caught a lot, then?” He shook his head and, even in what remained of the gloaming, I could see his smile. “Nope,” he said, “not a one.”
Local Resources for Fly Fishing
If the lure of fly fishing is calling your name, look no further than these three organizations.
Santa Barbara Fly Fishers (www.sbflyfishers.com) provides programs for all ages, as well as classes from fly-tying and casting to rod building. Monthly meetings and group fishing trips bring the community together under one love—fly-fishing. The Santa Barbara Fly Fishers also contribute to their environment by hosting a season-ending clean-up day on the Santa Ynez River.
The Sespe Fly Fishers (www.sespeflyfishers.com), located in Ventura County, brings together fly fishers around their common interests of conservation, education and fellowship, offering speakers, monthly meetings, outings and public services, such as cleaning up streams and survey box installations.
The Conejo Valley Fly Fishers (www.cvff.org) in Thousand Oaks publishes a monthly newsletter on all things fly fishing, while also giving back to the fly-fishing community with fish counts and assisting California DF&G with other projects. The CVFF also promotes education by supplying fish eggs to local classrooms so that students may learn about the life cycles of fish.