‘Back in the 1960s, when Armando Bernasconi first walked past the three sparkling blue pools tucked away in Golden Gate Park, he thought he had found a swimming spot that just never had any swimmers. But Bernasconi soon discovered that the artificial ponds were a training ground for master anglers seeking to refine their fly-fishing and casting skills. And since he retired at age 62, Bernasconi, now 95, has been almost a daily presence at the casting pools.“ Even when I go out to fish, I still come here every day,” said Bernasconi, who had stopped his daily ritual a few months ago because of illness.
On Saturday, Bernasconi found his way back to the casting pools and the Anglers Lodge as the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club celebrated two concurrent anniversaries — 80 years since the facilities were built and 85 years since the club was formed. When the club was founded in 1933, members had a lodge on the park’s Stow Lake. But in 1938, some of the anglers heard of a Portland, Ore., group that persuaded the Works Progress Administration, tasked with creating jobs through infrastructure projects during the Great Depression, to fund casting ponds up in Oregon.The club persuaded Golden Gate Park directors and the WPA to sponsor a similar project, and in 1939, the first national casting tournament was held at the newly constructed Angler’s Lodge.
On the second Saturday of every month, the club hosts casting lessons at the ponds, free and open to the public. For Saturday’s celebration, about 150 casters of all levels ringed the three ponds to hone their skills. “The ponds are like a driving range for golf, but instead for casting,” said Willy George, the club’s president. “You can wade in, practice your distance, or set up targets to improve your accuracy.” Growing up in Wisconsin, George had always loved fishing and the outdoors, but he didn’t learn to fly-fish until he moved to California. He started at a casting club in the East Bay, but joined the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club once he wanted to master the sport. “This club is the place to go if you want to get better,” George said. “Until I got here, I was a big fish in a small pond.”
In addition to its monthly casting lessons, the club’s outreach includes organized outings to fishing spots, a program for disabled veterans, and various classes in tying flies and building rods. Larry Kenney, a longtime club member and San Francisco native, said the group has expanded its outreach efforts in recent years and seen its membership both grow and diversify. In the past three or four years, Kenney said, the club has gone from 350 members to more than 1,000. “It used to be a bunch of curmudgeonly old men, but it’s a lot more open now,” Kenney said, adding that the falling cost of fishing equipment as technology has improved has made the sport more accessible.
Saturday’s casting lessons ranged from novices to masters, from regulars at the lodge to those who stumbled upon the pond by chance. Janice Matthews and Carol Albury-Johnson, two friends in their 60s on vacation in the city, heard about the event on a morning news show and called it a stroke of luck and timing. The two women are experienced anglers but never had a chance to learn how to fly-fish. “My friends who fly-fished were all snooty, and I was afraid to even take a class,” Albury-Johnson said. “But nobody knows me here, and I’m so excited we found this.”’