An Interview With Mike Fong
(From the Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club Bulletin, June, 2002)
By Henry Wu
I met Mike several years ago, when I was squatting on the Nature Conservancy section of the McCloud River allegedly "working" as the caretaker of the Preserve. He probably doesn't remember me; after all, caretakers come and go, and I was particularly unimpressive when compared to the long line of burly mountain men that held the job at various times. I, however, remember Mike.
The day he arrived, it was hot. The morning mosquitoes were extra tenacious, we had run out of bacon, and management -- had just asked us to put down our rods, and start shoveling out the outhouse. Mike was wearing a ridiculous porkpie hat and polarized sunglasses that reminded me of safety goggles from high school chemistry. He strolled onto the Preserve and asked me and Don Shimazu, the other caretaker, to show him around the Preserve for a few hours.
Don and I figured, what the heck, even if he stinks, at least we'll set a McCloud River Preserve record for the most Asian fishermen to simultaneously nymph Yew Tree Pool. (Secretly, we were also salivating over the possibility of getting a mention in the Inside Angler, but we didn't want Mike to know that.) Well, as the story goes, Mike didn't end up needing us or our advice, we didn't get our 15 minutes of fame, and he certainly didn't stink. Mike, very much on his own, proceeded to systematically dissect the McCloud's complexities by employing shortline nymphing techniques with an adroitness not there in quite some time.
Shortline nymphing you say?!!! EVERYONE knows that you must use the Fluffy Fly Shop Indicator Special ($4.95) on the McCloud. How can that possibly be?! Well folks, that's the kind of non-conformist critical thinking that separates Mike Fong from the rest of us nattering naysayers. Incidentally, that's also the reason why you should take heed of what he has to say in the following exclusive interview.
"What quality fishing opportunities are available for a weekend [driving] trip from SF?"
There are so many quality fishing opportunities within reasonable driving distances from San Francisco that it would be impossible to list them all. Here are a few: Shad are running in the American, Feather and Sacramento Rivers. By the time this goes to press, the runs will be beyond Verona with most of the action upstream on the Sacramento around Colusa. If anglers plan to fish the American and Sacramento, there are big stripers to be had while fishing at first light or at dusk.
For warm water species, a delightful place to fish is the many ponds on the Fort Hunter Leggitt Military Base near King City. For accommodations, there are rooms at the former hunting retreat of Randolph Hearst, a motel on the grounds, plus a campground. Most of the ponds are small and can be fished from float tubes, but a small boat or canoe is better.
As this is being written, the spring run of striped bass is on in San Pablo Bay. A boat is needed for this fishing, but there are local guides. If a guide is needed, you can contact Captain Brian Wilson at 415/491-1447.
Most of the best trout waters in CA are within a five-hour drive of San Francisco. One of the most productive waters, in spite of all the bad press about pike, remains Davis Lake near Portola. Ice-out this year was in early April. Spring fishing at Davis usually lasts until mid June. Eagle Lake opens to fishing on the Saturday nearest Memorial Day and always fishes good through June. Many of the better flyfishing opportunities are seasonally dependent.
"When, where, are the best local hatches?"
Compared to streams in the Rockies, streams in California are not famous for their hatches, at least not the kind that bring big fish to the surface to take dry flies. If you seek fish that do respond well to emergences, I would nominate the Fall River as the most consistent.
It isn't that there are not strong hatches on California streams, because there are, but even during emergences, most of the fish are caught sub-surface. An excellent example of what I mean is the caddis hatch on the lower Sacramento River by the town of Redding that peaks around the first of March. The bugs can be seen emerging, nearly covering every foot of water, but big rising rainbows are few, except for the last half hour before darkness sets in.
The Fall River host a good population of Hexagenia, the giant may fly that hatches at dusk. This emergence starts each year at the end of June and can last through the first week of August with the hatch progressing upstream. Much of the lower Fall River is hardly fished because of difficulty of access.
If you want to fish the Hex, this can be done at several other places. One of these places is Lake Almanor near Chester. The west side of the lake is easily accessed and can be fished from a personal inflatable. Years ago, before it was drained, Butte Valley Reservoir nearby was an exceptional place to fish the "Hex." From what we hear from local anglers, the Hexes are starting to come back.
"Besides Alaska, which state or region offers the most top quality fly fishing opportunities?"
As a state, I would say that Montana offers the most high quality trout waters in the West. The reason for this is that there are many streams supporting wild trout combined with a trespass law that allows public access to the high water mark.
If you're looking for a trout stream capable of producing good sport without crowds, I'd suggest the lower Clark Fork at this time. For fall-run steelhead, British Columbia is without question, the best region. The entire Skeena drainage with all its famous tributaries is still "where-it's -at." Many anglers consider the Dean River the premier summer-run stream.
"Is the Inside Angler your full-time job?"
In 1992, when Chris and I started "The Inside Angler," I worked at a graphic arts house in San Francisco, which produced film for the printing industry. Ironically, the industry was being undermined by desktop publishing. In 1993, after our renewals for subscriptions came in so positively, I took an early retirement. We have since devoted all of our time to fishing and producing our newsletter. Were it not for Desktop Publishing, the revolution in graphic arts that made my work obsolete, we couldn't have produced "The Inside Angler."
"What is your feeling on pay-to-play fee fishing for genetically engineered trout?"
If you asked me this question twenty years ago, I would have said people would be crazy to pay to fish. Times have changed. If you were to look objectively at our fishing in California, you'd find that just about all of our lakes lack the ability to produce wild trout in any significant numbers. Almost all of our lakes require planting to sustain the fishing, even Davis and Eagle.
My feeling is that many of the pay-to-fish lakes are better managed for the sport they can provide. At the best of these pay-lakes, you're going to have the chance to catch larger trout and have less competition from other anglers because of limited access.
Chris and I have fished pay-to-fish lakes all over the West, even the famous Monster Lake in Wyoming. Both of us agree that Sugar Creek Ranch near Callahan is one of the best. It has rainbows up to twenty pounds, and the chance to hook fish over five pounds on a dry fly is a distinct possibility. This is not to say that everyone who fishes at Sugar Creek catches huge trout. There is some challenge, so there is some degree of satisfaction.
"What West Coast drainage has the best balance of quality and quantity of fish? "
Boy, that is a tough question. For trout, I'll stick my neck out and say that the Missouri River downstream of Holter Dam to the town of Cascade is one of my choices. The reasons for this are many. First, the trout are wild. Poor technical abilities by anglers almost guarantee poor results. A good technician with knowledge of the stream is going to do well. Unfortunately, the Missouri is no longer a secret and fishing pressure has exploded exponentially during the last decade.
If you seek more solitude, my recommendation would be the Elk River near Fernie in British Columbia. The attractions of this stream are easy access (a road follows it for most of its fishable length) and a large population of cutthroat. Any time after run-off from snow melt (usually mid July) through the last week in September is prime. Two competent anglers fishing with a good guide might land 100 cutthroat averaging between twelve and nineteen inches in a day's fishing. Anglers who own a suitable inflatable can easily handle this stream.
" What are some of the attractions of your publication? Why do people pay to read where you go?"
My main motivation in fishing is exploration. Ever since I was old enough to be mobile on my own, I've looked for places that offered good fishing. One thing I learned early on was that good fishing meant different things to different people.
Another thing I learned was that anglers are not exactly precise when relating information. When I looked or read about places to fish, the information was vague at best. Even when asking acquaintances (not close friends), I'd receive answers like "I thought the fishing should have been better" or "the fishing was better last year."
Of course, the answer to my question could have been anything I'd want it to be. What I was hoping to hear was a time and place plus a reasonable expectation of what I could catch in terms or size and quality. I also wanted to know if the destination was heavily fished. Answers like these are exactly what we provide in "The Inside Angler."
There are no heroes in our reports, but there are suggestions of what techniques and flies might be more productive and most importantly, we publish information with regard to services and places close to stay, including campgrounds. I would say the greatest asset of our publication is honesty, while still being as critical as we can by realizing that many variables can affect the outcome of any effort.
When "The Inside Angler" was started, we didn't envision a publication with a large audience. We remain a small circulation newsletter because many of the places we talk about would lose the very thing that attracted us in the first place, were the circulation large. However, sooner or later, all places are "found." Chris and I are just trying to keep ahead of this wave.
" What is your favorite water in California? Why?"
I can honestly say that I don't have a favorite water in California. We're always looking for new places (at least to us) to fish and the fishing at familiar places seem to change. I'm sure many club members remember the great may fly hatches that used to take place at Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park and the big, fat rainbows and browns. The same could be said about the fishing at Lewiston Lake. Both of these fisheries are just shadows of what they used to be.
At the other end of the scale is the great fishing on the Smith for salmon last autumn. Both steelhead and salmon runs were very strong last year in California streams and early forecasts seem very positive for this season. The index for striped bass is higher now than just a few years ago.
" What are your favorite flyfishing destinations worldwide? Why?"
I wish we could answer this question with more authority, but our worldwide travels have been limited.
Years ago, I had the chance to fish for Atlantic salmon in Norway, but the runs on the rivers that we fished are now very depressed. For bonefish, we've fished five different out-islands in the Bahamas, most with outstanding results. We've fished at Los Roques for bonefish in Venezuela and on the mainland at Rio Chico for snook and baby tarpon, both worthwhile trips.
In fishing travel, good flats fishing are an easy sell and most of the more established camps book quickly. But bonefish can be tough to catch when an area becomes heavily fished. For our next trip to the Bahamas, we'd probably go to a place not so well known.
Some of the best bone fishing remains in the Florida Keys with November a prime time for big fish and little competition. For more variety on the flats, Belize is a popular destination with a reasonable chance for tarpon and permit in addition to bonefish.
From the experiences of others plus a couple of trips on our own to Belize, weather plays a big part in the outcome of any visit. Trips scheduled from mid June on become very risky with the coming of the Hurricane Season.
Many anglers are heading for Cuba. The thing here is that if you get a good guide, you can have fantastic fishing. With a poor guide, you might as well stay at home. Under the best of conditions, you'll catch bonefish, tarpon and mutton snapper on the flats, barracuda, snappers, jacks and small tuna species just offshore. Permit are tough anywhere. Chris even had the opportunity to watch tarpon feeding on a balled bait school.
We've only been to New Zealand once many years ago for a period of three weeks. We've been contemplating a return trip knowing things have changed dramatically with respect to backcountry trout fishing. In that one trip, we made friends with locals who have come to visit us.
It's easy to keep in touch via the Internet and in a land where people are so friendly; it is still possible to find some of the best trout fishing in the world without crowds.
Our only experience with trout fishing in South America was in Chile. During our visit many years ago, the fishing wasn't nearly as developed as it is now. It is now possible to stay at an established lodge and never leave the property during a week's fishing. If you secure the services of an operator who moves around, you get to see much more waters of different kinds.
For offshore saltwater flyfishing, it is still hard to beat the value of traveling to Loreto, Baja California in July to meet the northward migration of Dorado (dolphin fish). Whereas once we had to take a light plane for a five-hour flight without a headwind, it is now an easy trip on a jet.
There is a risk in any saltwater trip to find the right conditions for maximum results. Year in and year out, Loreto in July cannot be beat. Besides Dorado, there are excellent chances for sailfish and rooster fish. All these species can really test your $500 reels.
If billfish are of interest, lodges on the Pacific side of Costa Rica and Panama specialize in catching sailfish on the fly. We fished a week years ago out of Tropic Star Lodge in Panama and it still ranks up there with the best places to land a sail on the fly.
In recent years, we've focused more attention on British Columbia and Alberta. You hardly ever hear of the fishing on the interior trout streams of British Columbia other than the upper Dean and the Blackwater, streams that abound with small rainbows that soon get boring.
There is a good reason why the BEST trout streams are less publicized. People who know would rather they remain "undiscovered." This is where we'll be spending a lot of time this year and in years to come.
"Can you recommend any reasonably-priced establishments for private-water fishing in the Northern Cal/Oregon area?"
I've already mentioned Sugar Creek Ranch by Callahan. Their number is 530/467-5285 and they are on the Internet at www.sugarcreekranch.com. The Fly Shop in Redding at 800/699-3474 manages several private water situations and prices vary.
If you mean by reasonably-priced as value for the money, you might consider Yamsi Ranch on the upper Williamson River. Their number is 541/783-2403 and web site www.yamsiflyfishing.com.
At Yamsi, we're talking wild rainbows of good size and stream dwelling brookies that can weigh five pounds. Hexes come out on ranch waters during July. Guests stay in the ranch house with furnishing and items like those found on the Antiques Road Show or a newer guesthouse.
"What are your thoughts on how the sport of flyfishing will evolve over the next 5 years? 10 years? 25 years?"
It appears that the interest in flyfishing has peaked as far as growth according to manufacturers, especially those producing fly rods. Presently, there are far more flyfishers on streams than anyone could have imagined ten years ago.
For the record, "A River Runs Through It" was released about a decade ago. Although flyfishing and equipment required can be expensive, it doesn't have to be.
I would suspect that some growth in flyfishing would expand to areas where the approach was less practiced because of the need of a boat. I can see more wide use of motor boats and jet sleds on rivers once the domain of drift boats and possible conflicts, not unlike the controversy between backpacker and all terrain bikes.
Because anglers are more mobile with a willingness to travel, I see more trout anglers heading across the border to fish in Canada. One thing we've already discovered is that some of the best waters can be fished from lodges or by camping. It all depends on the your basic needs and comfort level.
"Do you offer guiding services?"
We do not guide although we often obtain the services of guides, who are usually mentioned in our reports.