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When Gil Nyerges wants to engage in a match of wits and cunning, he hops in his little red pickup and heads for Lone Lake.
Decked out in chest-high waders and carrying a fly fishing pole, Nyerges is doing today what he has done for the past 70 years -- trying to figure out what makes fish happy. At 81, Nyerges is probably the most experienced fly fisherman on South Whidbey, but on any given day, his years of experience may be no match to for the pea-sized brains of the trout living in the lake. But on another day, Nyerges and his inventory of homemade flies might get 50 fish to go for the hook at the end of his line.
Getting fish to strike at that fly and hook, Nyerges said, is the constant challenge of fly fishing. So on those big days, when seemingly every fish in the lake goes for his line, he knows he's gotten something right.
"Then you know you've fooled him," he said of his showdown with the fish.
Though it is not home to any of the picturesque trout streams fly fishermen dream of when planning their next fishing trip, Whidbey Island is nonetheless a draw for adherents of this sport. Boasting three dedicated fly fishing lakes -- Lone Lake, Cranberry Lake and Pass Lake -- the island has long been known for having some of the best fly fishing west of the Cascade Mountains.
Three years ago, members of the Whidbey Island Fly Fishing Club convinced the Department of Fish and Wildlife to designate Lone Lake primarily for fly fishing. Now, the lake is open year round to fly fishers. Stocked annually with trout and posted with a one-fish daily limit, it is essentially a catch-and-release spot. That is the perfect setup for fly fishers, Nyerges said, who are -- for the most part -- only out to "exercise the fish."
"It's not going out and killing a bunch of fish," he said.
With the perfect setting practically in their back yard, Nyerges and other members of the Whidbey Island Fly Fishing Club are trying to get more people interested in their sport. Later this month, the club will hold the first of what members hope to be well-attended meetings at the Central Whidbey Sportsmen's Association in Coupeville, and to start teaching fly fishing classes.
Fly fishing is a sport based in patience and a desire to master a skill. Because most fly fishers don't keep their catches, the sport is focused on the thrill of getting a fish to strike a lure. Since those strikes don't always come easy, fly fishers often need to concentrate on the intangibles of the sport -- the scenery, the quiet of the lake, and having time to think. Nyerges said that even on the days when no fish bite, fly fishing can be fun and relaxing "especially if you don't care how many fish you catch."
Al Lidholm, a longtime member of the club, said fly fishing involves a variety of skills, all of which require teaching. To truly get into the sport, a fisher needs to master the long, rhythmic casting technique that entices fish to pursue fly lures. Also important is learning the art of tying flies.
In Lidholm's fishing kit -- which includes hundreds of flies of his own creation -- there is everything from a simple puff of furry fluff attached to a hook, to a realistic dragonfly that took hours to wire and tie together.
The more complex flies are often more a labor of love and creativity than sure-fire fish baiting solutions. Lidholm once caught fish with a piece of glove leather. A piece of a twig did the job for Nyerges on one fishing trip after he lost all his lures.
Sometimes the best fly for the job is not the prettiest one in the tackle box.
"Fish are not art critics," Lidholm said.
Spreading the sport
As the fishing club rebuilds, its members will be promoting the diverse nature of fly fishing. While fly fishing has been almost exclusively a freshwater activity for decades, more and more of its practitioners are heading for seas and oceans these days.
Nyerges said saltwater fly fishing gives anglers a chance to reel in fish far larger than the 2-pound trout on Whidbey Island or even the 20-pound fish in Eastern Washington lakes. Tuna, sailfish, tarpin, permit, snook and bonefish all make for adventurous catches and good stories. The biggest saltwater catch Nyerges ever made was a 150-pound tarpin, which finally came out of the water after a three- hour fight -- and promptly went back in when Nyerges released it.
Fly fishing almost always requires travel, since fishing the same lake year in and year out can get dull. Lidholm has traveled the world with his fly rod, reel and lures. While serving with the Navy during the Gulf War, he fished in the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates. That made him quite the oddity to the people watching him from shore.
"I had an audience," he said.
Both men hope to attract up to 20 people to the fly fishing club as regular members, and perhaps dozens more to future fly fishing classes they plan to offer. The ultimate goal, they say, is to start a renaissance of fly fishing on the island and to promote good lake and fish stewardship everywhere Whidbey Island fishermen go. Fly fishers need to remember, Nyerges said, that it takes effort and money -- in the from of licensing fees -- to keep the waters of Washington fishable.
"Fish aren't free," he said.