Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
The line unfurls lazily, the loops straightening until taut, then retracts, launching over your shoulder and snapping out ahead of you, shooting through the guides and following the lead of the delicate, flexible rapier of graphite in your hand until, fully extended, it drops lightly onto the glassy water. Surrounded by lush green trees and a lingering morning fog, you’d never guess you were moments away from an epic burrito in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Located in Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club has been given city-dwelling fly fishermen a place to practice their art for almost a hundred years. Three large pools provide a serene on-the-water experience set amongst the City By The Bay’s bustle and hubbub, and it’s even further insulated in the spring when the rhododendron garden is explosive with color. A rustic, mountain-style lodge sits to the side, offering a fly fishing museum, expansive library of videos, photos, and books, as well as a chance to sign up for free lessons or borrow a rod and line.
Just don’t expect to catch anything, as the man-made pools aren’t stocked with fish.
“It’s like a secret garden,” explains local Eric Patton, a graphic designer in the tech industry who inherited a love of fly fishing from his father. “You can totally escape the day’s stress and just zone out casting.”
Fly fishing’s Zen-like vibe is a large part of what draws people to the sport, in which a line is finessed through a series of motions with a long, flexible rod to launch under it’s own weight forward, delivering intricately crafted feather and yarn lures with remarkable precision to, presumably, a fish. The casting technique is integral to the whole gambit, since a bad cast will result in a lack of range or poor lure presentation, frightening rather than enticing any desirable aquatic onlookers.
While relatively easy to get the basics of, a truly good cast takes years of practice to attain, and the repetition of movement can become trance-like, as every ounce of focus is dedicated to proper form. Even masters of the sport, wizened old men with arcane, hand made bamboo rods who’ve been at it for decades, revel in the rarity of a truly perfect cast. It’s a pursuit often described as addictive, and those who become hooked will obsess over even the most miniscule details.
“It’s a lot like golf, in that you’re out here in a gorgeous park, breathing fresh air, and trying to do something that seems so simple over and over again,” Jeff Hansen tells me, his thick silver beard muffling his words a bit. “And, like golf, the swing is everything. And damned near impossible to perfect.”
Though once an activity relegated to upper class old men, fly fishing is gaining an increasing popularity with a younger, and more diverse, audience. The Casting Club offers clinics to aspiring anglers of every ability level, including a free beginner’s class on the second Saturday of every month.
“I just like being outside, and it’s so relaxing and mellow,” says Michelle Ferrera, a 24-year-old bartender who took up the sport after walking by the casting pools and becoming mesmerized by what she saw. “I love it that I can come here and do this, and I don’t have to leave the city.”
For Ferrera, it’s not even about the act of fishing.
“Oh, I never go actually fishing,” she laughs. “I’ve never caught a fish, at least on a fly rod, in my life. It’s all about just detaching.”
This sentiment is echoed by 61-year-old Bert Rances, a regular at the 100 to 200 foot long pools.
“Once I’m in the water I feel like I’m in a different world. Everything slows down,” Rances told The San Francisco Chronicle. “You’re in your own world. The movements I do are very subtle. It’s poetry in motion, in a way.”
As you watch people cast and mingle with the chatty fishermen gathered on the sidelines who either come to hang out or are awaiting their turn, one other thing is guaranteed—there may not be any fish in these pools, but, like anywhere fishermen gather, there’s no shortage of fish stories.