Fly fishing Nirvana
Leland Ranch: Baptism with a bamboo rod (Sonoma Magazine, Spring 2011)
It is, at first glance, utterly incongruous. At the edge of Carneros, in what Sonoma promoters have taken to calling "Real Wine Country," surrounded by vineyards and bordered by olive trees, is a fly fishing ranch. With real fish. Two ponds. A state-of-the-art store. And, for a little rainy-day change of pace, two classic Brunswick pool tables and a bottle of really good Pinot Noir.
If you've already been baptized with a bamboo rod and a black caddis nymph in the mouth of a steelhead, you're way past catechism school. You've got religion.
Which is why the very thought of casting a fly makes your heart start to pound. You know redemption is waiting by the water, you understand that with a rod in hand your stress melts away and each cast means a little more peace.
For you, fly fishing is not a hobby, it is the altar at which you worship, it is a passion, it is the tool for balancing your life. So what better place to practice your faith than in wine country?
Heaven is not necessarily your favorite steelhead hole way up on the Smith River. It could be as close as a left turn off Arnold Drive into the Leland Ranch Fly Fishing Educational Center.
Sonoma's newest oasis is a 13-acre property across from the Fruit Basket on Highway 121, where owner Josh Fraiser has transformed barren land into fly fishing nirvana. From the road at 50 miles per hour it's a blur of log fences and sculpted oaks, but turn in, and you will discover a state-of-the-art fishing education facility.
"The goal is to get people into fly fishing, to help them learn to catch the fish in front of them instead of the trees behind them." Frasier has an easy manner and an infectious love for the art. He has developed not only a pristine fly fishing educational center but also a line of rods and reels and his own seven-step method to make you a better angler.
You walk into the first building and meet Frasier and Jim Andras, one of the instructors. Jim will be your leader for the free Wednesday intro class. He walks you out to the first pond and explains that the public is encouraged to come out and practice any time. You make a mental note to bring your rod the next time your wife suggests a day of wine tasting or shopping at Cornerstone Sonoma.
Together, you and Jim cast barbless flies on the deck of the outdoor classroom overlooking the main lake. His motion is effortless, simple, and his fly is consistently outdistancing yours. He explains the Leland Method, seven steps with names like "catching the J" and "stop, shoot, and drop." As you talk, Jim suggests you might benefit from the Step 2 Efficient Casting class where you'll learn how to avoid tailing loops, snapped-off flies, wind knots and piled line. You know you've always been a line piler. It's embarrassing.
You tell Jim about Beaver Creek in the Sierra where you often catch more trees than fish. He shows you how to shoot a line when faced with excessive foliage. You try some of the techniques and realize that, in 10 short minutes, you've already become a better fly fisherman.
Josh Frazier put Leland Ranch in Carneros because the temperature is not only perfect for growing Chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, it's perfect for the 14 to16-inch trout that thrive in the lake. Frasier knew this when he designed the facility, "It was kind of a back-of-a-napkin design, but it turned out all right," he says modestly. This is how Frasier rolls: understated, not an ounce of conceit, just a genuine guy with a vision. He has added more than four hundred trees, built two small streams linking a one-acre casting pond and a 2.5-acre trout lake. He also built an outdoor classroom and a "barn" which houses the two classic 80-year old Brunswick pool tables. "We have a table at our store in San Francisco and I thought it would help people come out and enjoy their time." Frasier's San Francisco fly fishing shop on Bush Street is an angler's Mecca and the original portal to a universe of fishing resources covering gear, instruction, fly tying, outfitters, and even fishing reports on virtually every reach on every river in California and beyond.
The instruction includes a Sunday "Rod and Reel Day," an all-day seminar covering tackle selection, rigging, leader theory, casting, entomology, fly tying, reading water and playing fish. Included in the $395 price is a Leland rod, reel, line and leader package, yours to keep. Jim explains that there are classes for everyone at every level, beginner to expert. There is a camp for kids in the summer, on-location stream instruction in the Sierra, a five-day trip to Clearwater Lodge on the Pit River, and many classes at the Ranch.
Frasier named Leland Ranch after his grandfather, "a man whose face I knew only from the black and white photos taken along the Owens River," he writes on his web site. "Sadly, I thought fly fishing was a mystery whose complexity and history had to be learned from a sage like my grandfather." Frasier didn't learn to fly fish until he was in high school because he thought he couldn't do it, thought it was too complicated. Then he caught his first fish and that was that. "After thinking for so long that I couldn't do it, it gave me the ability to think I could teach anybody," he explains. And he's been teaching ever since.
Walking back to the fly shop with Jim I gawk like a kid in a candy store. It is full of flies, waders, hats, gear and rods, including the Leland Sonoma rod with an ergonomic grip designed specifically for use with the Leland Method. I read a recommendation about the Hair Wing Sierra Bright Dot fly, "a handsome California-born attractor pattern that's been known to raise fish on waters worldwide." I buy five Bright Dots for my next trip to Beaver Creek.
Josh Frazier's vision is about 70 percent complete. Eventually Leland Ranch will include solar power and off-the-grid living, increased flow and manipulation of the waterways, further development of fish and local bird habitat, growing educational programs and a tasting room to showcase Frasier's Tight Lines Wines. (See page 90 for a review of the luscious '08 Sonoma Coast Pinot, although the aesthetics of the Ranch could make even Two Buck Chuck taste delicious.)
Since my visit there has already been a major renovation, including a completely re-stocked store, a new bass lake, a nine-hole fly rod casting course and new event-hosting facilities. To celebrate all these goodies, Leland will hold its first annual Fly Fishing Exposition April 16 and 17, including a fly fishing film tour, wine tasting, barbecue, fly fishing demos, and exhibits from tackle, equipment and apparel companies. There will even be fly fishing celebs, including R. Valentine Atkinson, the world-renowned fly fishing photographer and member of the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. If you want an intense taste of fly fishing religion go to lelandflyfishing.com/leland ranch for the delectable details.
I left Leland Ranch feeling like I'd been freshly baptized in the healing waters of Lourdes. It is an amazing facility, guided by a clear, expansive vision and a devotion to conserving the fish and the habitat that form the altar of the fly fishing faith. Despite an upside-down mortgage, a mother-in-law's pending visit, and the evaluation coming up next week at work, my life felt a little more balanced.
From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA
Fly Fishing Nirvana