A few years ago Richard Loft picked up a rod, pulled on a pair of secondhand waders and stepped from a rough patch in his life into the tranquil world of fly-fishing. The sport helped serve as a turning point for Loft, and now the Napa resident is eager to share his newfound passion as owner/operator of Napa Valley Fly Guides. Loft offers everything from instruction to guided fishing trips on local creeks and other select Northern California rivers. He even includes the fly rod.
Since he took up fly-fishing, Loft has fished rivers and streams throughout California, though he spends most of his casting time on nearby Putah Creek below Monticello Dam. That’s where Loft originally got the idea to start his guide service after encountering a befuddled angler struggling with his expensive-looking new fly gear.
“I asked him if he’d been out yet and he said no,” Loft said. “I asked if he was new and he said ‘Yeah, I’m in town on business. I’m from Cincinnati and I just bought this rod and I brought it along and see if I could find a river and learn how to fish.’”
Loft offered to help the newbie, demonstrating how to set his equipment up and where to fish.
“A few minutes later he said ‘you know what? I should pay you,’ and he pulled out a hundred dollar bill. You know, he’s here on business … he didn’t have a lot of time and he just wanted to learn to fish a little bit. And I put him on a fish. He caught a fish and I netted it for him. He told me I should do this for a living.”
Though he was raised in a hunting and fishing family, Loft said he had never experienced fly-fishing until he moved to Napa in 2008. Born in Los Angeles, he had been living in Northern California since the mid-1990s. His life had taken some wrong turns, he said, and he was looking for a new direction.
“I had made some bad choices and fell into some really unhealthy living,” he said.
Loft “followed a girl” to Napa and things began to turn around, he said.
“We got married and things just started clicking for me,” he said. “Then I found fly-fishing and it was like finding your way home. Now I stand in a piece of water and I look in awe of the beauty.”
Sitting at a workbench in his home, Loft twirls a bobbin of red thread to bind a feathery material around a tiny hook mounted in a special vise. The hook takes on the appearance of a mosquito-sized bug with a red body, a color that Loft says helps to attract hungry trout. He said that fly fishermen often make their own flies, a centuries-old craft that blends creativity with meticulous technique.
Loft explains that he was drawn to fly-fishing partly because of its art and tradition. He said that his enthusiasm for the sport was further boosted when he watched the 2008 film documentary “Rivers of a Lost Coast,” which chronicles the little-known Northern California fly-fishing culture of the 1940s and 1950s. The film, narrated by actor Tom Skerritt, follows a highly competitive group of legendary anglers who fished for steelhead in some of the great coastal rivers in the region.
“That’s one of the things that I love about this, the history,” Loft said, noting that images in the film reminded him of family photos of his father and grandfather fishing California rivers decades ago.
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Loft said that while fly-fishing is often characterized as an elite, upscale sport, it is enjoyed by a wide variety of people drawn to the challenge and the chance to get outdoors. While some equipment can cost into the thousands of dollars, he said more affordable gear makes the sport accessible to everyone.
“I bought my first set of waders at a Sonoma yard sale for $5,” Loft said.
Napa Valley’s proximity to first-class fly-fishing waters also makes the sport a viable option for local anglers and tourists looking for vacation alternatives. A 25-mile drive from downtown Napa, Putah Creek flows from the bottom of Lake Berryessa, the cold water providing an ideal trout habitat. The creek flows through a California State Wildlife Area and is a designated catch-and-release stream, meaning that anglers can only use barbless hooks and must release fish after they are caught.
“It’s really considered by a lot of people a good contender for a blue-ribbon river,” Loft said.
He said the catch-and-release program has been so successful that the state no longer stocks Putah Creek with hatchery-spawned trout.
“Now it’s a self-sustaining population of, basically, wild trout,” he said. “It’s full of fish.”
Loft started Napa Valley Fly Guides in September, targeting both locals and visitors to wine country. He has distributed literature about his services to various businesses throughout the Napa Valley, everyone from high-end resorts to local coffee shops. He even dropped off some brochures for employees at Napa State Hospital. Loft noted that he offers guide services and/or instruction custom-tailored to the angling needs of a specific customer.
“If you have 10 years of experience I’m just going to show you the honey holes,” he said, referring to the good fishing spots on the river. “You’re buying someone’s intimate knowledge of that river. If you’re new I’m going to explain how to set up (the gear).”
Napa Valley Fly Guides sessions include the rod, reel and flies, Loft said. A basic half-day guided trip for one or two people costs $250 and a full day is $350. Waders are available for rent and some packages even include breakfast and a picnic lunch.
While Putah Creek has become his “home stream,” Loft said that he also offers guide services on several other California rivers that he has fished. Some of those include the Yuba River, American River and the Stanislaus River.
As he snips the thread from a tied fly at his workbench, Loft said that fly-fishing offers more than just the thrill of landing a prize rainbow from pristine waters. It’s also a chance to reconnect with nature and relieve the stresses of a busy life, he said.
“I’ve been fishing all of my life,” he said, “but I didn’t really get into it until I discovered fly-fishing. It takes me to places that I’d never go.”