Monday, May 31, 1999
SAN FRANCISCO -- Deep in Golden Gate Park and far from the madding crowd, a break in the eucalyptus and conifer trees reveals a most startling sight: a giant lawn of three concrete ponds, together bigger than a football field.
People are standing on the banks of these shallow pools, motionless but for the flicks of their wrists, the arcs of their fishing rods, the pirouettes of their lines.
Back and forth, the wrists and rods and lines perform their fluid dance, hypnotic in their rhythm and symmetry.
On spring days like these, the sun reflects off the pools and casts a glow, but for the men and women who are lured here like fish to insects, it is the sport and art of fly fishing that warms their spirits.
"It's such a peaceful kind of Zen thing to do," said Cheryl Mamak, 50, a real estate agent who lives in the Richmond District and is just learning to fly fish. "It's so nice to be surrounded by nature."
"There's nothing more relaxing to me than looking at a pond of water and going fly fishing," added her friend, Richard Wilpitz, 51, a Golden Gate Heights plumber who's been fly fishing since the 1960s. "Here you are in a big city and you've got this little lodge surrounded by trees and birds. . . . It's a relief for your eyes and your spirit."
There are many places of fame inside the famous park - the Japanese Tea Garden and the Dutch windmills, the Polo Field and the giant greenhouse, the children's playground and the carousel, and the museums, of course - but not many folks in The City know about the casting pools and the Anglers Lodge, a stone clubhouse that looks like it belongs in Montana or a national park, anywhere but in the middle of a city.
But the members of the Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club who hang their rods here claim the ponds are known among fly fishermen the world over.
There is no other place like it, what with its size, its location, and its reputation, members said. More world tournament champions reportedly belong to the 500-member club than to any other.
But you don't have to be a member to practice at the ponds, each of which is 210 feet across, and between 100 and 200 feet long. The use is free. Beginners are welcome.
Generations of fly fishermen have come to the pools and the lodge since they were built in 1938 as a WPA Project. The club is even older, dating to 1893 when it was based at Stow Lake, just up the road in the park. The 29 knotty pine lockers in the lodge, where lucky club members get to store their rods, go back to the original clubhouse more than 100 years ago.
Gunard Mahl, 60, an electrical engineer who lives in the Sunset, used to come here as a little boy with his dad, when he was only 3 or 4 years old. He then brought his children. His son later taught fly casting to kids.
And David Noble, 37, of the Sunset, who coaches women's volleyball at UCSF, is now teaching the sport to his son, Hunter Jay, only 2 years old.
"One-two, three-four. One-two, three-four," the father and son said in unison as Hunter Jay tried to get the rhythm of casting with a 6-foot rod his dad built for him.
Mahl and Noble work, alas, so they can come only a few times each month. But retirees like Floyd Dean, 56, of Sausalito, come three, four times a week, even more.
Dean loves the challenge of casting an almost weightless line off into the distance to an exact drop of water. His love of fly fishing has taken him to rivers in Yellowstone and the Sierra - his idea of heaven on Earth.
"We can go fishing all day, not catch anything all day, and have a great day," said Dean. "Trout only live in beautiful places. You won't find a respectable trout in San Francisco Bay."
Fly fishermen consider themselves the connoisseurs of fishermen. For starters, they rarely keep the fish they catch. Instead of using bait, they use a "fly" - a tiny decoy of painted wood, with feathers and fur, that is made to look like an insect. And rather than sinking a line with bait in the water and waiting for a fish to nibble, fly fishermen are constantly casting their line about, letting their fly flit across the water surface, much as an insect would.
"Bait fishing is too easy," said Larry Seidler, 45, an investment banker who was practicing before a Florida trip to go tarpon fishing, repeating the mantra of cast fishermen. "Fly fishing is a real sport."
"With bait fishing, you throw it out there, you got a Budweiser on each side of you, your rod in a holder, and you're sitting in a chair, waiting for the fish to bite," said Dean. "In fly fishing, we make the line dance."
But there's more involved than just tying a decent-looking fly onto the line and getting the wrist action down, fly fishermen said.
To be a good fly fisherman is a science and an art.
The science is in knowing the eating habits of each fish: what kind of bugs they like at what stage of maturity, whether they want their food to come to them under the water (which requires a "wet fly" ) or whether they eat at the surface (which needs a "dry fly" ). Fly fishermen must also study the etymology of insects - what they look like, how they move - so they can mimic them.
The art is in the presentation: how you lay down the line, how the fish sees the fly. The trick is not for the fly to splat on the water, but to alight gently, as an insect would. And there's the art of reading the water: knowing how shadows and bends and currents and depths and wind reflect the behavior of the fish and insects.
"I like the concept of trying to imitate nature," said Wilpitz.
The challenges of fly fishing are maddening and thrilling, many said. And they'll go to any lengths to pursue their passion.
Thornton Nedley, 46, of Oakland, hauls his rods on BART and Muni several times a week to make it to the ponds. And Michael MacWilliams, 24, a Stanford doctoral candidate, rearranged his class schedule so he could make the trip from Palo Alto one weekday in addition to the weekend.
"People always understood my fishing addiction," said MacWilliams. "They don't really understand my casting addiction.
"It's the equivalent of playing golf and going to the driving range to practice your swing. This is a driving range for fishing."
To old-timers like Pat Cunningham, 68, of the Sunset, the casting pools are more than a place to practice. A member of the club since 1964, Cunningham comes nearly every day since he retired eight years ago.
He usually arrives about 10 a.m. For the next few hours, his day goes something like this:
"Pick up a rod, talk, cast, chat, sit there, goof off," he said.
"It's the most perfect place in the world."