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"If Reagan hadn't let all those crazy people out," quips Ricardo Nuñez, "our membership would be half of what it is today."
Nuñez surveys the crowd around the casting pools in Golden Gate Park on a warm summer Sunday. Men and women of assorted races stand on platforms practicing their fly-fishing and plug-casting. Their fishing rods range from 3-foot-long kiddie poles to 14-foot engineering masterpieces designed to catch salmon and steelhead trout. A contingent of wives, daughters, and grandkids relaxes on the adjoining lawn, chatting in the sun.
"We've got a lot of armchair, couch fishermen," says Nuñez. He wears a ponytail, dark sunglasses, and a polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts. "On top of that, there are a lot of pompous asses, and I'm one of them."
He gestures toward a younger man on a nearby casting platform. "That's Marius," Nuñez explains. "He's one of the best casters we have. Marius was exiled from Poland for illegally selling politically oriented books. Now he's doing his Ph.D. over at Berkeley." Nuñez pauses, searching for the right words. "He's one of the most egotistical and hubristic casters I know, and one of my dearest friends."
Marius has been entrusted with the task of trying out Nuñez's new graphite rod. He slowly waves it forward, back, and forward again, and lets the line fly gently across the pool. "That's the longest cast I've ever made!" Marius exclaims with a grin.
"It's a dick thing," Nuñez says.
The Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club (GGACC) is nestled in the bosom of Golden Gate Park, just south of the bison pasture and west of the Polo Grounds. Founded in 1894, it is the second-oldest casting club in the country. Its present lodge and casting ponds were built by Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration in 1938. Four-term club President Bill Ward, who holds the International Game Fish Association world record for silver salmon on 2-pound test tippet, says the club's facilities "could be in Montana or Wyoming and you wouldn't know the difference. It would be almost impossible to re-create a facility like this in the heart of a city like San Francisco."
The Angler's Lodge is a classy wood building that combines an elegant mustiness with the disciplined tidiness of fishermen. Tall rod lockers ring a large wooden table in a room that opens onto the casting pools. On a wall, framed group photos depict the different eras of GGACC's membership, which, predictably, includes more than a few characters.
Nuñez taps the tip of a withered fishing rod against the figure of an old man in the most recent photograph. "This guy's dead." He moves the rod along the line of gray-haired fishermen. "Dead. Dead. Dead. Floyd, what happened to this guy?"
"Dead," fellow caster Floyd Dean nods.
"This guy," Nuñez says, pausing on a nondescript face, "this guy fought in Rommel's army in Africa. A fucking Nazi." The rod moves on. "This guy is a full-blown pervert. He looked at my 10-year-old son the wrong way, and if he ever does again I'm going to knock him out."
"That's the one," Dean agrees with a wry smile.
GGACC is open to anyone, and becoming a member is just a matter of filling out a form and putting down 30 bucks a year. Approximately 550 people are current members, and they reflect the broad spectrum of age, sex, and race of the Bay Area's population. "Whether you're a carpenter or a brain surgeon," says Bill Ward, "you're all equal when you put a rod in your hands."
Beneath the brim of a mesh cap advertising the Farm Credit System, Armando Bernasconi explains that he comes to the casting pools "every day. I grew up in the mountains in Switzerland. There, you go to the river, take a chair, take a nap, wake up, and you have a fish. But in fly-fishing you have to work all the time." He looks down at his small potbelly and says, "I am not a spring chicken anymore."
Bernasconi dumps the contents of a cloth bag on the wooden table. We count 20 fly boxes, each roughly the size of a large makeup compact. Inside each, Bernasconi says, are 50 to 500 flies, the vast majority of which he made himself. He opens a box and passes it to me, explaining the different types of flies and their purpose. "Caddies" are designed to stay atop the water. "Nymphs," he says with a straight face, are intended to "go down."
Another old-timer saunters into the lodge, touches a talk box to his larynx, and identifies himself as Al. He is Bernasconi's partner. Quiet Al acknowledges Dog Bites with a wave and takes a seat at the table. A minute later, another, feistier Al strolls in carrying a paper bag of fresh fish.
"How was it?" Quiet Al asks.
"The fishing was fantastic!" replies Feisty Al. He bears a striking resemblance to Johnny Carson in his prime. "I went on a fishing trip to the Farallones yesterday," he explains. "We had an excellent captain and deckhand, but we were falling over each other. There were just too many bodies."
"What was the big catch?" Quiet Al rasps.
"The big fish of the day was 35 pounds," says Feisty Al, giving Dog Bites a wink. "Fishermen are very nice people, except they lie a lot. Politicians all started out as fishermen."
The three fishing amigos decide to show us the plugging game out in the casting pool, where four colored hula hoops form an imperfect diamond whose center is about 30 feet from the shore. In the plugging game, each player attempts to cast his weight into the prescribed hoop, which is 24 inches across. The weights zip from their short rods and hit their target more often than Barry Bonds gets walked.
During a losing effort, Bernasconi explains the basics of plugging competitions. "You've got to put the fly wherever they want. The fly has to go in the ring. It looks easy, but it's not easy." He shakes his head as the Als convert repeatedly. "I've come here for many years, and it's still not easy."
After mopping the floor with Bernasconi, Feisty Al looks over at Dog Bites and smiles. "Like I said, this is a great place ... to get away from the wife."