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The Hook makes fishing even harder

Does a more difficult mano-a-mano style make the sport more rewarding?

Keith Munemitsu and his fly-fishing friends often use paddleboards along the coast of Orange County and Catalina Island to access areas hard to reach by boat.

Far offshore, in the channel between Catalina and Newport Beach, 40-something-year-old marketing professional Keith Munemitsu watches the vibrant yellow and blue flashes of a school of mahi mahi hunting just below the surface, near a large floating kelp paddy. The fish are mere yards from his small boat on this perfect day, with blue skies, no wind, and, most important of all, lots of fish. Munemitsu knows he’s done the toughest part of a fishing excursion: found the fish.

So, naturally, now it’s time to make fly fishing even harder.

Munemitsu reaches for a $2,000 saltwater fly-fishing rod and reel. He’s loaded it with a sinking line he had to make himself to go after open-ocean species like mahi, tuna and yellowtail. On the end of his leader is a self-tied fly he hopes will trick the mahi. This would be much easier with bait – pretty much a guaranteed strike. “But what’s the fun in that?” he asks rhetorically.

He whips the fly out toward the schooling fish and rips and pulls it back, trying to make the fly act like a bait fish terrified to be caught away from the cover of the kelp paddy. As he pulls the line, it doesn’t roll neatly onto his reel again. It gets folded into a stripping basket by his side, with the hope that no tangles form.

“If a 30-pound mahi hits and your line is tangled, you’ve got a problem,” he says. Which is to say, there’s a chance Munemitsu’s whole $2,000 rig could get yanked overboard.

On the fourth cast, a 30-pound mahi hits his fly and the fight is on. Truly. Fly-fishing reels have no gears and are therefore a 1-to-1 cranking ratio, so Munemitsu doesn’t have the leverage of traditional fishing tackle, which has a cranking ratio of 3-, 4-, sometimes even 5-to-1.

“So you’re fighting this fish with a bending rod and a direct connection to you. The reel also has continuous drag, meaning when the fish runs and peels line, the handle spins. So you’ve got to let go of that reel or break a finger,” he says.

Munemitsu battles the mahi for almost 15 minutes using mostly his hand to pull in or let out line as needed. Finally, he gets the fish to the side of the boat.

And here is where another difference arises. Munemitsu doesn’t gaff the mahi. He and his fishing partner, Capt. Vaughn Podmore, the top Orange County-based saltwater fly-fishing guide, pull the fish gently from the water, snap a few photos and return it to the sea. This mahi doesn’t know how lucky it just got.

“We keep what we need and release the rest,” says Munemitsu, who already has one nice mahi in the cooler and plans to take no more. In fact, he has kept less than 10 percent of the fish he’s caught in the six years he’s been saltwater fly-fishing. For him, and the tight-knit group of six friends who share his obsession, fly-fishing is about the hunt and the battle, and, particularly about the art of landing fish with tackle that gives little advantage.
Like most fly fisherman, Munemitsu started in a pair of waders waist deep in a freshwater stream. Back in 2000, a friend invited him on a fly-fishing trip to Montana. On the first day, Munemitsu wandered up current from his friend, past a bend in the river.

“At some point, I looked at my watch and four hours had gone by,” Munemitsu recalls. “I was so entranced by the experience I thought it had been less than an hour. I thought, why have I not been doing this my whole life?”

Munemitsu was hooked so much that he began taking trips to the local mountains and to Mammoth. He would lose himself to nature and the simple, rhythmic act of the cast. When his son was born six years ago, his trips became impossible, so, living two minutes from the ocean, he bought a saltwater rod.

Munemitsu dived deep into the sport. Today, through the Calico Syndicate, an advocacy group he runs with fellow saltwater fly fishermen that puts out YouTube videos and produces a Fly Fishing Film Tour, he hopes to inspire others to take up what for them is the most exciting, technical and rewarding way to catch a fish.

And while the sport does have its roots in traditional freshwater fly-fishing, if you’re picturing Brad Pitt and Robert Redford types creating impossibly metronomic arcs across a blue sky, stop right now, Munemitsu says. Though freshwater fly fisherman are famously critical of one another’s styles, as worried about the perfect cast as they are about the size of the fish it lures in, saltwater fly fisherman are unburdened by style concerns.

“You’ve just gotta get the fly there any way you can, because everything happens below the surface,” Munemitsu says.

Everything in saltwater fly-fishing equipment is heavier, so the fly can get below the surface, where fish like tuna, mahi and calico bass swim. This means that those beautiful “A River Runs Through It” curves hovering over the fly fisherman’s head are as unneeded as they are impossible to accomplish, Munemitsu says.

His goal is to break the record for calico bass, but do it with a fly-fishing rod and reel. That’s a hefty goal, since the record stands at 14.2 pounds and the biggest calico Munemitsu has caught is an 8-pounder. And that was touch and go.

“Basically, a 10-pound calico fights as hard as a 20-pound mahi,” he says. “So it’s like saying I’m going to go climb Mount Everest, but I’m going to put 30 pounds of weight in my backpack. I’m going to make it even harder,” he says.

Another challenge of the calico is where they live. While mahi, yellowtail and tuna reside offshore, with little or nothing to wrap up in once caught, the calicos live in kelp forests, surf lines and boulder fields. So just getting the fly to them is a challenge. Sometimes, Munemitsu, an accomplished paddler, uses a stand-up paddleboard to get to places boats can’t.

“Here’s another fun problem with fly-fishing: It is extremely expensive,” Munemitsu says. “I would say that it’s three times more expensive than conventional fishing. Why? I don’t know.”

He then lists some examples. Entry-level fly-fishing clothes: $500. Entry-level rod: $300. Rockstar rod: $900. Top reel: $800. Extra spool: $400. Line: $100. Leader: $100.
“Basically, we have between $1,800 and $2,000 in our hands at any given time,” he says with a yes-I-realize-I-have-a-problem laugh.

It’s also just as addictive as it is expensive. Case in point: Frustrated with the lightweight nature of freshwater, and even saltwater, line on the market, Munemitsu set out to make his own. He spent seven months and thousands of dollars trying to develop a heavier line so he could target tuna, mahi and big calico bass. Finally, a friend introduced him to an engineer from 3M who helped him come up with a formula for melting lighter lines together and covering them with a sleeve.

“No one thought it would work. It works,” he says. Which is to say, it made one of the hardest forms of fishing a tiny bit easier.

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