|A family affair - photo Al Grillo
ALASKA APRIL 2004
T H E A L A S K
A S P O R T S M A N
THIS SELF-TAUGHT FLY-CASTER IS EAGER TO SHARE HIS UNORTHODOX
By Lynne Snifka
ORLANDO GONZALES pounded his fist into the table,
then yelled, “Oh my God!” in a falsetto voice as his face broke into a grin. He was talking—just talking—about
what it’s like to fly-fish the Kenai River with someone who’s never done it before, about the moment when a novice
lands his first fish. Gonzales has been fishing the Kenai for 20 years, and every time he gets near it, sometimes when he’s
only talking about it, his heart beats faster, he said. Sometimes, he’s so excited he can’t step into his waders.
“I like to just watch him,” said his wife, Heather Gonzales. “You can just see the adrenaline pumping through
his body. People on the river, they notice him because he’ll be like ‘ARRRH! That one’s mine!’ And
he’s just so good. And I’m not saying that just to brag. It’s really amazing." In a sport that
conjures images of a solitary, smartly outfitted, stoic gentleman with a graceful cast, Gonzales is an anomaly. He casts flies
for trout amongst the throngs of salmon fishermen on the Kenai. He doesn’t care about the brand name of his gear. He
will share his technique with anyone who wants to fish the river. And he’s easy to find: He’s the guy who can
read ripples across fast-moving water, the one who loops his leader together instead of knotting it, the one catching salmon
with a 5-weight and 12-pound test, the one with a 3-year-old daughter standing next to him hooking her own fish and a 7-year-old
son who can land them alone.
If success comes from finding and flipping a motivational switch
in the mind, Gonzales was turned on early. His father grew up fishing in the Philippines. After the family moved from Hawaii
to Alaska in 1980, Rolly Gonzales spent weekends fishing the local lakes and rivers with his two sons—10-year-old Orlando
and his younger brother Ron. Back then, everything was strictly spin casting, Gonzales said, at least until Ron learned about
fly-fishing in Cub Scouts.
“We used to use halibut line on a regular fishing pole,”
said Ron, who now lives in California. “I was trying to mimic somebody who was fly-fishing and I didn’t
really know what it was all about. But we did tie flies on those big lines and everything.”
Both boys were fascinated. They stood in the driveway of their parents’ Anchorage home for hours a day, practicing casts
until it was too dark to see the line. They tied flies with shreds of old clothing, pieces of carpet and hair from the family’s
pet husky. They fished in nearby Cheney Lake and other stocked, local holes until the late summer sun finally dropped behind
the horizon or the cold numbed their fingers beyond the ability to manipulate tackle. Orlando was particularly smitten.
“When my brother came into the picture, he knew more than me in a matter of months,”
Ron Gonzales said. “No matter what he does, he’ll pick it up and go as far as he can with it. He’ll
Orlando read fly-fishing books, practiced his cast and then practiced his
cast some more. On weekend trips to the Kenai with his father to fish for salmon, he’d get bored trying to hook reds
and wander upriver to stalk Dolly Varden and his favorite, rainbow trout.
will fight until its last breath,” Gonzales said. “And they’re really picky eaters. And every season they
see a particular fly, they get smarter, I swear. Some of the fish down there on the Kenai are over 30 inches because they’re
These days, Gonzales is the patriarch toting his family to the Kenai
for weekend fishing excursions. Every weekend from June through September, after he finishes his Sunday through Thursday workweek
at a local Costco Wholesale store, Gonzales feels the adrenaline. He backs his Kia Sportage up to the pop-up trailer and he
and Heather, along with 7-year-old Anthony and 3-year-old Alyssa, head down to the Kenai. Alyssa takes the rod her father
built for her, the one with the Powerpuff Girls stickers on it. And there, on the river, Gonzales finds peace.
“When I’m fishing, that’s all I think about. It’s like being in a quiet room,” Gonzales said.
“That’s how I feel when I’m on the river. Like I tell everybody, in order to understand it, you’ve
got to be on the river. You can’t grasp the feeling you have being in the water, just being in the water.”
His memory is photographic and fish-centric. By his own admission, he can’t tell you
where his wife worked while they were dating, but he knows the story behind each fish, every trip. He can speak about the
last time he fished with his friend and fellow fishing guide, Curt Trout, as though it was yesterday. They were in the Russian
River Sanctuary area, near the Kenai and they waded in behind some men who were in the river cleaning their fish. They cast
out 10 or 15 feet behind the fish cleaners, Gonzales said, and started hooking the Dolly Varden and grayling that were feeding
on the discarded carcasses.
“I’m ranting and raving, screaming, ‘Woo
fish! Fish on! On fish! Fish. Fish! FISH!’” Gonzales said. “I’m really loud, especially if I’m
with my friends. It’s almost like a competition. And it makes it a lot of fun. More fun than it should be, maybe.
Because it’s exciting. You’re getting out there and the louder you are, the less you’re going to think
about anything else. It’s just you and the fish. A lot of your traditional fly fishermen are kind of quiet, you know,
smoking their pipes.”
It’s not just about the fish and the river. For Gonzales,
it’s about finding the perfect shade of nail polish to paint beads the color of salmon roe. It’s about the elaborate
cork handles he turns for the rods he builds. It’s about helping Anthony and Alyssa gain mastery of the sport. It’s
about teaching friends, acquaintances—even strangers—how to find excitement and contentment on the Kenai River.
Gonzales operates his own business, Alaska on the Fly, and before the kids were old enough
to fish he spent weekends guiding on the river he grew up fishing. He still spends much of the off-season building rods and
tying flies that he sells to local sport-fishing shops; some he uses to teach free clinics put on by the Alaska Fly Fishers,
a local fishing club; and some “that nobody will ever have except for close friends that are fishing with me at the
Alaska Fly Fishers president Bob Fairchild noticed Gonzales at fly-tying clinics,
the way his spirit drew a mixed crowd of longtime anglers and young people. He observed how Gonzales seemed to be able to
relate every fly to an actual fish tale, a real-world experience. Fairchild eventually tapped him to write the “Fly
of the Month” column for the organization’s newsletter. His first column appeared in this year’s January
“He’s innovative in fly tying,” Fairchild said. “It’s
easy to come up with (fly patterns) on the bench, but you have to be able to prove that it works. And he gets enough days
out on the river that he can come up with a lot of patterns and actually test them out.”
Gonzales has fished lakes and rivers across Alaska and, though he fishes in the Lower 48 when he visits his brother in California,
he sees no reason to leave a place where the fishing is so magnificent.
up fishing the Russian (River) and the Kenai. That’s what I know. That’s where I go,” Gonzales said. “It
turns out to be an obsession more than anything. And that turns out to be good, because it keeps me going. The biggest backbone
of my hobby, my life, is my wife. I have passion for my wife. I’m in love. And I have that same
passion for fishing. That I can have them both . . . it’s just so great.”
Lynne Snifka is
a free-lance writer who lives in Anchorage