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MASTER OF HOT CREEK OKUI EXCELS AT SPORT HE DISCOVERED AT MANZANAR.

Byline: BILL BECHER

MAMMOTH LAKES - Mas Okui is known as ``The Master of Hot Creek'' for his command of fly-fishing this beautiful and often frustrating trout stream.

He has made the journey many times, but last weekend's trip on the opening weekend of trout season was far different than his first trip to the Eastern Sierra.

The first time Okui was under military guard.

He and his family, along with thousands of Japanese-Americans from Southern California, were interned in 1942 in what President Franklin Roosevelt called a concentration camp. It was officially known as the Manzanar War Relocation Center - a square mile of scrubland north of Lone Pine. Guard towers and barbed wire surrounded the tarpaper-covered barracks that housed more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens.

While he was interned, Okui, then about 11, was approached by one of the military police guards.

``We were afraid of the MPs,'' Okui said. But the guard gave Okui and his friends hand lines wrapped on wooden frames and some fishhooks. Using this tackle, Okui caught his first Sierra trout in Bair's Creek, which ran through the camp.

``We didn't catch many,'' said Okui.

That's changed.

After he was released from Manzanar, Okui read every book he could find in the library about fishing. When he grew up, whole summers were devoted to fishing. He's evolved into one of the finest fly fishers in the country, particularly on Hot Creek, his favorite stream.

Before going to Hot Creek this year, Okui, now 72, stopped at the desolate stretch of the Owens Valley north of Lone Pine on Saturday for the dedication of the new visitor center at Manzanar, now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. He's worked on an advisory committee here for a dozen years to help create a place where people can appreciate what he and others went through in World War II.

When he talks about Manzanar, Okui doesn't seem to display bitterness.

He says that he was always taught to persevere.

``Part of the notion of persevering is the notion that, if you can't do anything about it, you don't do anything about it,'' Okui said.

The Japanese word for this is ``gaman,'' which a dictionary defines as ``patience; endurance; perseverance; tolerance; self-control and self- denial.''

Gaman could also describe Okui's fishing style. He's always the last one off the stream.

``Always finish out a drift,'' he told Pete Sumner from Moorpark during an impromptu lesson Sunday at Hot Creek. As Okui finished his drift, a trout grabbed his fly.

Sensei is the Japanese word for teacher, and it's the right one to describe this nearly 6-foot, gray-haired man who walked slowly, but with quiet dignity, looking for trout.

Okui was a teacher for 35 years - the last 15 were at Canoga Park High, where he taught history and government. In his spare time, he taught fishing.

A member of the San Fernando Valley's Sierra Pacific Flyfishers club, Okui has conducted many clinics and classes at Hot Creek. He has developed his own method of fishing, constructing his own leaders and designing his own flies.

Mike Weigand, also a teacher, has fished with Okui for many years after attending his clinics.

``He is very willing to share anything and everything that he's doing,'' Weigand said.

Hot Creek can be tough on beginning fly fishers. Department of Fish and Game surveys say the average angler catches one-and-a-half trout per hour here. Okui has caught as many as 26 fish in one hour.

At the top of the fisherman's trail at Hot Creek, there is a Department of Fish and Game box for survey forms where anglers can report their catch.

``I used to fill out these reports and people would think I was lying,'' Okui said.

In a sport where you can drop a grand on a rod and reel at Orvis, Okui has always taken the frugal approach. He says he's never spent more than $160 on a rod and his flies make use of inexpensive materials. He wears a 30-year-old Doug Swisher vest - it has lots of pockets for fly boxes.

The key to his success is knowing the water, the trout, the bugs that the trout eat, and how to present a fly to the trout that behaves like the real thing and stays on the water for the maximum amount of time.

Much of Okui's method of fishing spring creeks like Hot Creek goes against modern fly-fishing style. Okui prefers a soft fly rod that allows him to cast extremely long leaders - 15 to 22 feet long, twice the length that most others use.

He casts this long leader using a slow stroke with an open loop, while today's rod-makers emphasize a stiff rod that shoots a tight-loop. By ``mending,'' moving the line up or downstream as it floats, Okui gets very long drifts of his fly, which are usually interrupted by a hungry trout.

While he fishes, his wife sits patiently streamside, reading a book. They have reared two successful sons, one a periodontist in Tarzana.

As he walked out of Hot Creek on Sunday, Okui couldn't help but stop and point out to his student where trout hold and why.

``I know where the fish are and how to catch them,'' Okui said. ``The bad part is by the time you get good at anything you're old.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) Mas Okui of Woodland Hills started fishing when he was interned at Manzanar with other Japanese-Americans during World War II.

(2) Mas Okui shows some of the flies he has designed for fishing at Mammoth Lakes' notoriously difficult Hot Creek.

Bill Becher/Special to the Daily News
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 29, 2004
Words:954
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