My very first experience with a fly rod was back in 1972 or 1973. At the time, I was new to California and had just recently discovered saltwater fishing. I had invested in a couple of conventional rods and reels for fish like albacore tuna, yellowtail, etc. I also had a 14’ surf rod with an Alvey “side-cast” reel. I could cast close to 100 yards with that thing. All of that was just great until one day a fishing buddy of mine told me about one of his “special” places. It was 10 minutes from my house and sounded “too good to be true”. The following weekend he took me to this spot after swearing me to secrecy. Well, it was all he said it would be and more. I had the lightest rod and reel I owned....probably 15 lb. test mono. As we got geared up at the car, he handed me a “chunk of wood”. It was about 4 inches long, was a cylinder about 1 inch in diameter, painted bright red on the front half and white on the back half. It had an “eye” screw in the center of each end. He then gave me a smallish “Metz spinner”. Per his instruction, I tied the red end of the wood cylinder to the line off my reel. To the white end I tied a 3 foot piece of 10 lb. mono and to that I tied the Metz spinner.
As we walked towards the water he said things like “You are not going to believe how much fun you are going to have”...yeah...yeah I had heard this before. Well, we get to the water...it turns out to be the Redondo Beach marina. I had occasionally taken a “party” boat out of there to fish kelp bass, rock fish and a few trips out to Catalina Island for yellowtail and other larger species. Anyway, instead of getting on a boat, we walked onto the breakwater and out to where it met the open ocean. It was an “L” shaped structure made of massive rocks. I kept looking out towards the open water. In five minutes of hopping from rock to rock, my friend said “we are here”. It looked like many of the other local areas I had fishind with my surf rod except instead of sand, I was standing on a big rock. Well, my thoughts quickly changed when he said “No, turn around”. I turned and was facing the marina again...just from the opposite direction. About 25-30 feet in front of us was the floating “bait receiver”. For those that do not know, a “bait receiver” is where all of the fishing boats would go to load up on live bait...typically anchovies and other small bait fish. Anchovies were the primary bait for that area and they were kept in a large underwater cage like space made of wooden slats. Between each slat there was an open space of 1-2”...Anchovies are a very close schooling fish and tend to swim around in a big “ball”...only leaving the safety of the school when traveling or when larger predators attacked the “ball”. As I was about to find out, they sometimes also escape from the "cage".
Bob, my friend’s name, said “just watch this” as he setup to cast. I think he also said something like “bet you a beer I catch one on the first cast”. Having fished with Bob on many occasions and in many different settings, I accepted the bet. Well, Bob cast the “chunk” of wood just past the bait receiver just to one side and quickly retrieved it. As the wooden “chunk” started back towards us...maybe two seconds later, he was hooked up! A minute or two later, he was removing the Metz spinner and holding the fish right in my face...I owed him a beer. Bob was holding a 2-3 pound bonito, a close cousin of mackerel, tuna and kingfish. In the next hour or so, I caught and released 15-20 of these fish...all in the 2-4 pound range. It was great fun and I went back many times in the following months. On one of my first solo trips, I started thinking of other ways to fish for these bonito...the lightest rod I had was way more than necessary and seemed somehow “unsporting”. I rarely lost a fish and could land them in just a minute or two. Sometime shortly after, I remembered one of my uncles that lived in Ohio...uncle John. He was a fly fisherman. On occasion when we were visiting him, I would watch him in his backyard casting. He would sometimes walk around and drop “Kleenex” here and there and then cast to them...hooking them.
When I thought of him, I thought of his fly rod. Although I had never had one in my hand, I somehow knew that was what I wanted. I looked around and found a cheap used fiberglass rod (guessing it was a 5-6 weight rod although I had no idea what that meant at the time...it had a reel and a line...I was stoked to give it a try. Over the next several days, I took it down to the beach...just a block away. I tied on the Metz spinner Bob had given me...walked up to the surf line and “cast” it. Well, never having had a fly rod in my hand before, you can imagine the result...should I say the lack of results. As I said earlier, I could cast my surf rod over 100 yards...I couldn’t cast the fly rod 10 feet. I repeated these short trips to the beach several times a week for several weeks. I was starting to question my choice of a fly rod to chase the bonita. One evening on another trip, I was standing ankle deep in the surf just 20-30 yards from the Hermosa Beach fishing pier where I had spent many long nights fishing with my conventional gear...bonita, smallish sharks, surf perch, etc. Out of nowhere, a guy walks up to me. He said he had been watching me from the pier. He said he thought "I might need a little help". He asked if he could have my rod. I handed it to him and watched as he pulled 10 yards or so of line off the reel, did a short cast (I learned later it was a roll cast). He held the rod high, pulled it back and forth a few times and cast the fly just out beyond the small breakers. He grabbed the fly line and gently stripped it back...he did it again. He handed the rod back. He then went on to explain that the fly line was the "weight”. He spent another few minutes showing me in a little more detail how to accelerate the rod, stop it at the right place -front and back- and watched as I tried to imitate him. He seemed to be enjoying himself...even giggling a little from time to time. Just 10 minutes or so later, he turned around and said his wife was calling him. I thanked him for his help and he was gone.
Over the next few trips to the beach, I gradually improved my casting until I could cast far enough to give the bonito a try. I had actually caught a small surf perch in one of my last practice sessions...I was getting hooked…
A week or so later I made a solo trip back to the marina. I walked out on the breakwater to where I had been fishing...Bob's secret spot. I stripped 10-12 yards off the reel and cast that Metz spinner as far as I could, stripped it back and repeated the process...yes, it was a process...not really fly casting...more like thrashing… About the 6th or 8th “thrash”, I suddenly felt something...I set the hook, lost control of the fly line and stood there watching that bonito swim around wherever he pleased... taking line from the spool as he went. I remember to this day the sound of the line being rapidly taken off the reel...I liked that sound. I got my line under control, got the fish on the reel and after 10 minutes or so it was at my feet. As the rod did not seem strong enough to pick the fish up out of the water, I climbed down a few rocks to get close enough to grab the fish. As I was about to grab the fish, a foot slipped and I was all but swimming in the marina. I scrambled back up, got the fish under control and eventually landed it. My first real fish on a fly rod...what a hoot! A few minutes later, I hooked another one. This time the fish took off around the bait receiver...I could feel the fly line was rubbing on something...two seconds later...nothing. I retrieved my line. I had just lost my first “fly” to a fish. Little did I know that it would be the first of many. It was upsetting as it was the only "fly" I had...well it was a Metz spinner. I headed back to the car...I would be back!
A day or so later, I walked back down to the beach by the Hermosa pier. Over the preceding several months, I had become friends with Jerry Morris. Jerry owned the Tackle Box, as you might guess, a tackle store. Jerry is the one that got me into surf fishing and sold me the rod and Alvey reel. I told him what I had been up to at the marina...I think he said I was “nuts”. He did however help me out of my predicament...no flies. He went to the counter, picked up a smallish hook...everything he sold was salt water related. He went to the wall where the saltwater jigs were displayed, pulled down a fairly small blue and white trolling jig and from somewhere else came back with a spool of white thread. He got a pair of vise-grip like things from the back. He put the hook in the vise-grips, handed them to me, he then pulled 2-3 feathers of each color off the jig and proceeded to tie the feathers on the hook, putting the blue feathers on the top and white on the bottom...would look more like an anchovy he said. He made numerous turns around the hook, did a few half-hitches, cut off the thread put a drop or two of some kind of glue over the threads and handed me my first real fly. I bought the rest of the jig and another one that was red and white. I went directly back home and tied 6-8 more flies using hooks I had in my tackle box and a spool of white thread I stole from my then girlfriend who I lived with. I was now a fly tier too.
On my next trip back to the marina, those flies proved to be even more effective than the black and yellow Metz spinner with the little propeller on the front. I was a fly fisherman!!!
As I said earlier, I had done a lot of party boat fishing mostly with Bob. He was very experienced and a very good and successful fisherman when on a boat. Over time, first Bob (then eventually me) got good enough and were recognized by some of the charter boat captains and crew and often, when there were not many paying customers, we would be invited to go along for free. Mostly this happened in San Diego out of Point Loma where the majority of the charter boats were docked. Many of the boats depended on the “fish counts” that were posted daily at the top of the dock to lure those wanting to go out for a trip. If your boat had the highest “fish count” from the previous day, you generally attracted more paying customers than other boats. Therefore, the reason for us often getting a free ride...we called it “deadheading”. Not sure why but it was a free trip and always a lot of fun.
After a couple of years of this, I decided to bring a newly acquired 8 weight fly rod on one of these trips out of San Diego. I recall the boat was the New Holiday and the captain/owner was Steve. Well, Steve saw the fly rod along with the two or three other rods I routinely brought on these trips. As I was “deadheading”, he asked me “just what in the hell is that?” I explained...he was hesitant to even have it on the boat. As was almost always the case, when the boat was moving around and spotted a floating kelp bed, it would drive by and a deckhand would throw a scoop of live bait to the kelp bed. Usually, another of the crew would be up top and watch. If they saw fish move on the bait, the boat would swing around and get in position for the paying clients to throw anchovies, jigs, spoons, etc. towards the kelp. At several of these stops, a few dolphin (the fish...not Flipper...also called mahi-mahi or dorado) were caught. Later in the day, when all the clients had caught a good number of fish, we happened across another kelp paddy on our way back to the marina.
Over the loudspeaker I heard something like “OK folks...time for some entertainment...you should enjoy this”. He then announced that I should get my fly rod ready. The crew threw a scoop of live anchovies out over the kelp paddy and instantly you could see fish darting about. I walked back to the stern...the only one with a rod...people were smiling...pointing. Steve said...again over the loudspeaker...something about “just let him (meaning me) get this crazy idea out of his head”. I cast one of the blue/white flies I had tied out to the kelp paddy, let it sink for a couple of seconds, started a fast strip/retrieve and just a second later a 4-5 lb. dorado was tail walking across the surface. It jumped several times and headed into the kelp. As I had never hooked a fish anything like this before on a fly rod, I just grabbed the line...my reel didn’t have a very good drag...and applied some pressure on the fish. The fish turned and moved into more open water, jumped a few more times and in 5 minutes or so I had it to the boat and on the deck. A beautiful green/yellow/blue thing. I had caught plenty of these before on other rods...but this one was somehow much prettier than any of the others.
On the way back in, several of the paying customers came up to me and said how much fun they had watching me “get this silly idea out of my head”. They noted that most of the other dorado that had been caught that day did not jump or show any of the acrobatic moves mine had...they said it must have been fun...it was!!! At some point as we went in, Steve called me up to the wheelhouse. He said he was impressed...he "enjoyed the “show”...he said that I should never again bring my fly rod onto his boat. He reminded me that my job as a “deadheader” was to put fish on the boat...to increase his fish count...not to “play with them”. That fly rod never saw another “deadhead” trip but it went on every other trip I took as a paying customer. I still used my heavier stuff most of the time but every time I saw a kelp paddy, I would run for my fly rod and head to the bow of the boat where there were rarely any other fishermen because the bait was in the stern and the crew was there to help them get their fish on deck...I WAS HOOKED!