An Ode to Fly Fishing

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls March 15, 2014 12:24

California’s river and stream fishing season runs from the last Saturday in April through Nov. 15; some exceptions apply, dfg.ca.gov/fishing. Following the main story are lists of area fishing spots and family friendly fishing events and clubs.

To Jim Maddox, fly fishing is about a lot more than catching fish.

A retired state wildlife biologist, Maddox has been practicing the fine art of the fly for more than 60 of his 75 years.

The sport has been part of his life since he received a first rod from his father at age 10. It has afforded him many special times with his sons and now with his grandson.

He considers himself to be proficient with fly rod and reel, but more so in terms of family.

“My greatest success is my boys,” Maddox says while relaxing in the comfortable and fishing-gear-friendly Sonora area home he shares with his wife of more than 50 years, Linda. “Sometimes I’ll just watch them fish. I enjoy that as much as if I’m fishing myself.”

Mark and Craig Maddox, 46 and 43, echo their dad’s sentiment.

“It’s outstanding to be able to get out and do something like that with my father,” says Mark, who works for Sandvik, a Sonora manufacturer of thermal processing equipment.

“I can’t put it into words … It’s the greatest thing ever,” adds Craig, who manages the garden department at Sonora’s Walmart store. “Fishing with my dad is pretty much the highlight of any time.”

Craig’s 11-year-old son, Jordan, has joined the ranks of fly fishermen with his first catch – a small trout taken on the Tule River near the family vacation cabin outside Visalia.

“I didn’t even help him,” Craig says. “He caught it on his own.”

Those abilities trace back to Grandpa Maddox, who helped his sons become fine fishermen.

“I’m very proud that they’re good,” Jim says. “They both can out-fish me, I can tell you that. I’m even more proud that they fish for the same reasons I do. Conservation is a big word. We always catch and release so we can fish again (Yes, Jordan released his first catch).

“At the end of the day, the success is that you did it, whether you caught any fish or not,” he continues. “It has as much to do with the going and the doing. The thing I’m really out for is the experience … the aesthetic feeling of it.”

Bamboo start

It all began with that first rod – a bamboo Montague Flash. His father, retired U.S. Navy officer and World War II veteran William S. Maddox, gave it to Jim in a gun barrel case.

His aunt then gave him a box of flies, a collection he still has. The adventures began at that Tule River cabin, which has been in the Maddox family since 1931.

“That started to get me hooked on it,” he says, pun intended. “I was just kind of curious, watching fish hit bugs in the water.”

Maddox, however, admits that the first fish he ever caught was a planted rainbow … with a salmon egg … with the Montague … with his aunt … and with no fishing license.

But he soon found fishing with flies – lures crafted to resemble insects or other prey that fish encounter in their natural habitats – more to his liking than using bait. He made his first fly catch on the Tule when he was 12.

“The fish you’re going for are wild,” Maddox says, adding that planted fish aren’t the wily, stream-wise survivors their native brethren are. “They are a challenge, and I looked for the challenge.”

Central Valley roots

The family’s roots run deep in the Visalia area. There’s a street in the town named Ben Maddox Way, for Jim’s great-grandfather. Maddox said a water company Ben owned was among the first utilities that joined together to form PG&E. Ben also merged the town’s two newspapers, the Times and the Delta, and was influential in establishing Sequoia National Park in 1890. A Sierra Nevada peak within the park, Mt. Maddox, bears his name.

Jim’s grandfather, Morley Maddox, owned the Times-Delta, and a grandfather on his mother’s side was a Tulare County agricultural commissioner.

Most important to Maddox, Visalia is where he met his wife.

“Linda was a classmate and good friend of my sister, Becky,” he says. “She introduced us, and Linda has never completely forgiven my sister for that.”

He then enrolled at Oregon State University, graduated in 1964 with a degree in wildlife management, and landed a job with the California Department of Fish and Game.

Maddox spent his first five years with the DFG at Blythe, in the windy, dusty, blistering-hot desert near the Arizona border. Awful? Not necessarily.

“Blythe has the best hunting for dove and quail,” he says. “We were eight miles from the Colorado River.”

Tuolumne County came into the Maddoxes’ lives in August of 1969, when he and Linda came to Sonora sight unseen for a new Fish and Game job right before deer season.

“I’ve never seen anything like that … the (hunting) pressure … and there were more deer then,” Maddox says.

How much pressure? In the 1950s and ’60s, he says, hordes of hunters would jam Highway 108 on the eve of the season’s opening day, then would bag more than 1,000 bucks before the rifle fire ceased. In contrast, deer hunters in recent seasons have taken fewer than 300 annually.

Foothill friends

After the move to Tuolumne County came another watershed event: “I met Shirley Zion,” says Maddox.

A friend of one of the Maddoxes’ early Sonora neighbors, she was later a colleague of Jim’s on the Curtis Creek School Board. Perhaps more importantly, the late Shirley Zion was accomplished at both fly fishing and fly tying.

“She tied flies that were incredible,” Maddox says. “I’ve never seen them tied with such quality. I never had the privilege of fishing with her, but we used to gab about it, and she became a mentor. That furthered me getting hooked.”

He still proudly owns two prize fly rods Zion made for him. “I was fortunate, in a lot of ways, to know Shirley,” he says. “I learned just by talking with her.”

Maddox also knew the late Buzz Busick, a fly-tying master from Visalia, and remains good friends with Bonnie Galvan, a Soulsbyville reel-maker whom he calls “fly fishing royalty.”

Maddox gives a rave review to fishing in this area (see “Fishing flyways and byways,” page 18).

“People who live in Tuolumne County have incredible fishing opportunities,” he says. “Take your fly rod, find some water and try it. Any water in Tuolumne County deserves a certain amount of attention.”

He won’t give away his most prized spots – “my boys would kill me” – but a few of his favorite jewels are Woods Meadow Creek, Two-Mile Creek off the Clavey River and Disaster Creek in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. The latter is a long trek, but Maddox promises, “If you pay your dues, there are Lahontan cutthroat trout there.”

Golden, rainbow, German brown and brook trout also haunt local waters. Maddox says he prefers “small water” as compared to larger, popular streams such as the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River or the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus below Beardsley Reservoir.

He said he and his sons once came upon a tiny tributary stream “you could hop across” in the Silver Mine Creek area east of Eagle Meadow, tried their luck and were rewarded with a catch of “brookies.”

The iconic vision of fly fishing, courtesy of the movie A River Runs Through It, is of a man in waders whipping his line back and forth across a nice wide stream. Fly casting in the Sierra usually is not that simple, as most streams are narrow, fast and closely lined by trees waiting to snag wayward flies.

“I’ve decorated many alder trees through the years,” Maddox laughs.

Tips and technique

The cost of getting started in fly fishing is reasonable compared to many other outdoor pursuits.

“You can get pretty well outfitted for about $300,” Maddox says. “There’s a lot of good used stuff on eBay.”

It is easy to shell out much more, of course. “But you don’t have to spend that kind of money to have a good time fly fishing,” says Maddox.

Whether to buy or tie flies is another question anglers debate. Maddox does both.

“I buy most of my flies, but I’ve tied flies that will catch fish,” he says. “It’s fun to tie them – if you’re really bored and it’s raining. But there are plenty of good ones you can buy for $5 a dozen on eBay. They might be made in Pakistan, but they’re fine – and the fish don’t care.”

Learning the art of fly casting with the requisite weighted line demands patience and practice.

“The best thing you can do is go out to an open space, like a football field, and practice – without a fly on,” Maddox says. “One of the skills you need to develop is the old 10-and-2 thing – don’t go any further back than 2 o’clock and don’t go any further forward than 10 o’clock. You rather deliberately bring the line off the ground. Your line will get in a knot if you start forward too fast, and that’s when the big fish strikes, your line breaks and you wind up cursing yourself.

“It’s a timing thing, and you still get messed up even with experience. You’re going to suffer failures before you have success. We all go through those kinds of perils.

“The main thing is to get the proper line for the rod. That has everything to do with it. Balance the line with the rod because the rod carries the line out. Again, don’t have a fly on when you practice. The fly doesn’t do anything but catch fish.”

No matter the rig, he says, barbless hooks are a must for conservation purposes.

Once in the field, Maddox continues, fly fishermen learn to “read the river” and “match the hatch” – meaning they acquire a knack for recognizing where fish hang out and feel safe, and then select their flies based on what Mother Nature has on the menu.

Family time

Jordan Maddox with his first trout caught with a fly rod, and his dad Craig

Time has provided Maddox with myriad memories and fishing stories. Among his favorites: fishing with his sons and his brother-in-law, the late Lynn Thomas.

“Uncle Lynn was a big part of fishing with the boys,” Maddox recalls. “He had a way of looking at the little hidey holes for fish. He’d catch the big fish you missed. When that happened, we’d say you got Uncle Lynned.”

One of his favorite stories involves his eldest son Mark, and dates back to 1994 when Maddox was hobbling around in a cast after a motorcycle accident. Jim roars with laughter at recalling the scene on the Tule.

“I was using a Zion fly and rod, and I was hiding on a tall rock. The fish came out from under the rock and I set the fly, then the fun began. It was a good fight – I got the fish to shore and then Mark corralled it and took it up to the cabin and cleaned it even before it could be properly admired. I hate to tell this story on him because he thought he was helping me out. I had to gather the remains for the taxidermist.”

The fish, one of the few Maddox has ever kept, turned out to be a beautiful three-pound brown that narrowly escaped the skillet and eventually found its way to Sonora taxidermist Joanie Bell, who put the trout’s parts back together for a nice mount.

“That was a pretty big fish for that river, and it’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught on a fly,” Maddox says.

It is mounted in his den, along with the Zion fly he used to catch it.

Not long before that, when Maddox was newly laid up because of the accident, he was troubled by a recurring thought: “That I’d never get to go fly fishing again. It was a concern. It’s been an important thing for me.”

He no longer rides motorcycles.

Maddox has an appreciation for all kinds of fishing, but fly fishing is his passion.

“It’s more of a challenge,” he explains, “to lay a fly out there and attract a fish to hit it.”

He acknowledges being a bit obsessive about the pastime and wholeheartedly invites everyone to join in the fun.

“Absolutely, I recommend it. It’s a part of me, that’s for sure.”

Mark Stoltenberg angling on the Merced River in Yosemite

Fishing flyways and byways

Choice fly fishing waters teem with trout throughout the Mother Lode, though a number were damaged by the Rim Fire late last summer and may take years to recover.

Enthusiast Jim Maddox cautions that fly fishers should check the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s annual regulations to make sure they will not be fishing in areas with seasonal closures.

Popular waters in Tuolumne County, according to Maddox: the Clark and Middle Forks of the Stanislaus River, North Fork of the Tuolumne River, and Disaster, Silver Mine,Shoofly, Beaver, Chinaman and Lion creeks. Across Sonora Pass he likes the West Walker River. And in Mariposa County he suggests the South Fork of the Merced River west of El Portal off Peach Tree Bar Trail.

Beckoning in Calaveras County, according to Dave Ryniec of the Calaveras Fly Fishers club: White Pines Lake, North Fork of the Stanislaus, Mosquito lakes, Trumbull, Highland and Angels creeks, Tiger Creek Afterbay. Further up, in Alpine County, he recommends Lake Alpine and Spicer Reservoir, and across Ebbetts Pass, the East Fork of the Carson and Walker rivers.

In Amador County, says Scott Smallfield of Sierra Mountain Outdoors in Sutter Creek, “A lot of the good streams are upcountry. Any moving water from 6,000 feet up, if it’s got water all year, has probably got fish in it.”

He also recommends the Mokelumne River, Pardee and Camanche reservoirs and Lake Amador.

 

FAMILY-FRIENDLY EVENTS, FISHING CLUBS

Trout Fest – 9am-1pm Sat., April 12, Moccasin Creek Hatchery, Moccasin. Learn all about trout and fishing, free, all equipment provided. Actual fishing limited to those 15 and younger. (559) 765-4824, troutfest@wildlife.ca.gov.

Pinecrest Lake Fishing Fair – June 14, hosted by Stanislaus National Forest’s Summit Ranger District for boys and girls younger than 16 (must be accompanied by adult). License not required for kids, required for adults. Registration 7:30am, amphitheater, 965-3434.

Kids’ Derbies ­– Indian Creek Reservoir, June 7, and Lake Alpine, July 19, (530) 694-2511.

Free Fishing Days – July 5 and Sept. 6, sponsored by California Department of Fish and Wildlife. License not required.Kokanee and Kids’ Derbies ­– Pardee Reservoir, dates pending, 772-1472.

Fall Trout Derby – Oct. 4 and 5, Lake McSwain below Lake McClure, lakemcclure.com.

C.A.S.T. (Catch A Special Thrill) for Kids – Oct. 11, Tuttletown Boat Launch, New Melones Reservoir, for disabled and disadvantaged youths under age 15, 536-9094, castforkids.org.

One-Fly Contest – Pinecrest, date pending, 533-2314.

Amador Flyfishersamadorflyfishers.org.

Calaveras Fly Fishers – Meets monthly in Arnold, 795-7979.

Mother Lode Fly Fishing Club – Meets monthly in Sonora, 533-2314.

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls March 15, 2014 12:24
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1 Comment

  1. Glenda Friel February 14, 21:49

    Looking for Joanie Bell taxidermy she use to be my neighbor on River red Oakdale ca. Was reading your article and noticed she did a fish for! Thanks for sharing your story.

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