Jim Lazarotti - Interview of a Master local-area fly fisherman.

Jim Lazarotti has lived in the Santa Cruz area for most of his life. He was born there in June 1932. He has been a fisherman since 7 years old and has been fly fishing the surf since 1990. I heard of Jim and his fishing abilities for a long time before I ever met him. He is one of the early members of Santa Cruz Flyfishermen. It began as a small group of fly fishers, mainly Steelhead fishers and one or two salt water fishers rooted at Ernie's Casting Pond (a local fly shop in Santa Cruz). He worked at many jobs before joining Lockheed Santa Cruz Test Facility's fire department in 1958. In 1978, he transferred to work on the Trident Missile Program. He retired in 1981 (at the early age of 49). Jim was a commercial Salmon fisherman from 1980 to 1983. He shared a house on Empire Grade in the Santa Cruz mountains in a wood-heated home with his wife, Arlene - only 20 minutes from the closest beach. He past away shortly after a massive stroke on August 19, 2005. Please read the Memorial section at the end of this interview. I'm going to miss fishing with him.

Here is the interview:

  1. When did you start fishing?

    My interest in fishing began at age 7. I went to Branciforte Creek on opening day and caught 5 fish, brought them home to my mother and said: look at my 5 trout! She said: What did you bring these home for? They're no good. They're bullheads! and, into the garbage they went!

  2. How long ago did you start surf fishing? Bait? Lure? Fly?

    I started fishing the surf and rocks in 1942. We would get very large Rubberlip Sea Perch with sandcrabs at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. I saw a Rubberlip caught by a friend that had to weigh six lbs. It was the size of a thanksgiving platter! Later on I caught these Perch on a small bass plug and on a #6 Red Ibis fly cast with a silk line. I didn't stay with surf fishing. I fished for Steelhead and salmon locally, and in Northern California and Oregon in 1946. I started grubbing for Perch in 1987 and started using a fly in the surf after taking Ken Hanley's class in 1990.

  3. Who are the old timers that you have fished with over the years?

    The old timers fly fishing the surf in this area would be John Shaw, Lew Morelli, Elmer Morelli, Ty Swafford, Roy Williamson, and Manuel Gutierrez - all dead now. They mostly fished the mouth of the San Lorenzo and Pajaro rivers for Stripers. The late Al Lent, Ned Conway and Bob Evans all fished the San Lorenzo River. Lee (Skorp) Evans (no relation to Bob) did too and is still fishing and doing concrete work at the age of 89!

  4. What are your most memorable experiences of them?

    John Shaw - a gentleman, never one to crowd in had a mind for of the history of many fly patterns.

    Lew Morelli - a high liner (caught the most fish), lived to fish, a fly Striper and Halibut fisherman.

    Elmer Morelli - the best winter Steelhead man, we would constantly razz each other.

    Ty Swafford - one of the few that fly fished the surf for Stripers, another real gentleman.

    Roy Williamson - fished for Stripers at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, and Steelhead with bait and fly.

    Manny Gutierrez - he took me on my first Salmon mooching trip and first rockfish on fly trip. We fished together for Perch with grub and fly. Manny held a fishout for the Santa Cruz Flyfishermen that I helped him with.

    Al Lent - lived in Soquel and was the first man to deliberately fish fly for Steelhead in the San Lorenzo River. I have two of his flies, the Lentana, and the Nite Owl (tied feather wing rather than bucktail). The flies were given to me by my late fishing partner, Ned Conway.

    Ned Conway - fished all over the west but loved the San Lorenzo River best.

    Bob Evans - disabled in World-War-One but hunted and fished all over California. I took him on his first Shad trip to the Russian River (in the later 1950s) which was good in those days.

    Lee (Skorp) Evans was the guy who introduced fluorescent Russian River patterns to the San Lorenzo.

    Editor's Note: I'd like to document more of our Santa Cruz area in-shore fly fishing legacy. If other readers have any fishing stories to share about these people, I can write more and link them in. Patrick Swafford, Ty's son wrote, click on Ty Swafford links to read the stories.

  5. Have the fisheries changed over the years? Perch? Stripers? Halibut?

    The Perch seemed abundant in 1990 through about 1993. You could usually get into schools of large Barred Perch and walleyes in those days. With Stripers, I haven't targeted them. I've caught mainly small Stripers from 8-inches to 17-inches (except for the recent 12-lber). You see schools occasionally. Once while fishing the lagoon at Pescadero, it was filled with small schoolies that were feeding and I've seen them on the beach a few times. In 1995, 2001, and 2002, there was good surf fishing (fly or lure) for California Halibut (most were under 22-inch size limit) but I got a few keepers.

  6. What is the biggest Striper on a fly you ever saw?

    The biggest bass that I ever saw was 25 lbs, caught by Mark Goin at Manresa Beach. I think he caught it in 1990. The bass had blitzed the beach for anchovies, but stayed in the surf for several days feeding on sand crabs. I hooked one bass, lost it on the first run. Wilson Quick and Mark caught a number of bass on fly that year.

  7. What's the biggest Striper you caught fly fishing in the surf?

    It was 12-lbs. The one I caught on a Surf Miki this year. I saw a small rip and cast into it expecting nothing, saw a swirl, set up then I was soon deep into my backing. My 5-wt rod and 6-lb leader were put to the test.

  8. With respect to good years for halibut (1995, 2001, and 2002), is this because of bait abundance in the Capitola/New Brighton areas?

    The halibut were on the beach because the bait were in close.

  9. What were the most and biggest halibut you ever caught in the surf?

    I caught 14 halibut in 1996, all sub-legal; 18 halibut in 2001, all sub-legal; 5 halibut in 2002, 3 of them were 22-inches to 25-inches.

  10. Have you caught any other species while fly fishing the surf?

    In 2001 while Halibut fishing in the late afternoon I hooked a very strong, fast fish that I thought was a Striper; instead it was a 22" White Sea Bass that grabbed a Sea Habit fly.

  11. How long after the Surfperch class did it take to understand how to catch a lot of fish? and what was key in acquiring the skills to consistently catch fish?

    It took me about two years. I kept fishing grubs with light level-wind outfit because nearly all of my big fish came from 100-ft or more, longer than I could throw a fly. Keeping at it, fishing fly only, refining tackle... ...eventually I got it.

  12. What fly rod, reel, lines and flies do you use for Perch? Stripers? Halibut?

    My outfit for Perch is a 9 1/2-foot, 5-weight rod built on a talon blank; running line is 0.027 level line, and a 190-grain type-6 head with 5-ft of 10-lb test leader (it used to be 6-lbs until I caught the Striper). I use a Pflueger Medalist fly reel. For Halibut a 9 1/2-ft 9-weight with 330 grains intermediate head, 8-ft 15-lb test leader, and several different streamers (2/0 clousers). I have used this same rod with type 4 head for White Sea Bass in-shore fishing (not in the surf).

  13. Why do you use a 9-wt rod for Halibut? Why do you use an intermediate line? Have you had any top water action with Halibut?

    To cast a large fly, as far as possible. The intermediate line works better than a type 3 and 4. The fish come up for a fly. I had 2 halibut nail a fly right when it hit the water.

  14. What is key to catching a lot of Surfperch? What is key to catching big Surfperch?

    I wish I knew! The start of ebb tide during late winter-early spring has often been very good if the surf was calm enough.

  15. Tell us more about White Sea Bass (WSB) fishing. For a while (from reports), it sounded like the local population was growing. Have you fished much for them? How many have you caught? What is the biggest?

    WSB are somewhat stronger than Stripers - size for size. I first fished for WSB on July 11, 1997 with Manuel Gutierrez. We hooked 9 fish - 5 for Manny and 4 for me. The sizes were 26-in to 29.5-in - only one legal fish (28-in limit). I lost a head when mono fouled on the 1st guide. I also broke a 17-lb test tippet. I have caught around a dozen. The two biggest were 20-lbs and 14-lbs.

  16. Where have you found WSB?

    We fished opposite 41st Avenue to New Brighton in water from 10-ft to 60-ft deep, mostly near kelp beds.

  17. What is the state of the WSB fishery from what you know?

    I think there are not as many now as in the 1990s.

  18. Why did you start commercial fishing?

    I enjoyed being on the ocean and thought I might make some money (HA!). I fished from 1980 to 1983, the '83 El Nino brought very thin Salmon, and Bonito and Barracuda to Monterey Bay. I caught Bonito on a fly - what a blast!

  19. How many times a week did you typically get out? Where? How far out? From Santa Cruz Harbor?

    I got out once or twice a week, up to 20 miles from the Santa Cruz harbor.

  20. How many hooks on each of 2 booms? What bait(s) did you fish?

    I fished from 2 spreads (leaders) to 15 spreads off of two 9 foot booms, depending on the depth of water being fished. I usually fished straight Anchovy on one side and silver-plated Katchmor Spoons on the other side.

  21. Your biggest haul?

    My biggest haul was 8 Salmon. That was why I figured that commercial Salmon fishing was too expensive a hobby.

  22. Most exciting experience? Most scary experience?

    When I hooked 4 big sharks on one pole. It almost rolled the boat over. I had to pull them in whacking them off at the leader when they got close enough.

  23. I've noticed that you have been outspoken about political/environmental issues that affect our fisheries. You have witnessed the decline of the Steelhead fishery on the San Lorenzo. I guess it might be recovering now??? I'm curious whether you wanted to say anything about the Surfperch fishery or anything in general?

    The San Lorenzo River is still in decline. A few fish are caught late in the season (the few that make it through the Harbor Seal gauntlet) and people think the river is recovering!

    My best year for local winter-run fishing season (December 1 to February 28) was 1956/1957. I landed over 70 Steelhead and a few Silver Salmon fishing 4 or 5 days a week (between jobs). I quit frozen foods on November 28, and started Los Altos Fire Department on March 2. I fished Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday on the San Lorenzo River and Scott Creek and fished the surf at Scott and Waddell Creek and the estuary of Pescadero Creek on Monday through Thursday. This was mostly bait and spoonfishing with some fly fishing at Pescadero and San Lorenzo Rivers.

    I've enclosed some letters to the Fish and Game Commission. It doesn't seems to do much good.
    Editor's Note: So far, it seems that the Barred Surfperch fishery remains healthy. The five fish limit may have helped significantly. It would be wonderful to influence regulation changes that would assure us of a sustainable fishery. A uniform 10-inch limit for Redtail, Barred and Calico Surfperch seems like a good place to start.

  24. Do any of the skills/knowledge you acquired for Steelhead/Salmon fishing apply to surfperching? casting? line control? retrieving? strike detection?

    Yes, attention to (or Zen focus on) line control and strike detection.

  25. Have you ever caught Steelhead on flies on sandy beaches?

    I never have, but the late Lew Morelli caught Steelhead and Silvers on fly in the surf many years ago, and Ben Taylor landed a 12-lb Steelhead at Waddell Beach in 2002.

  26. What is the largest Steelhead that you've caught?

    My largest is 16-lbs. I caught it at Scott Creek at the big creek hole. This was an ocean-bright fresh run hen, hooked in a spot where I have had 6 to 7-lb fish run into roots and break-off. The hen was tired, evidently the first stop after leaving the ocean. It could have broken me off easily, but it hadn't rested long enough. I released the fish. It seemed OK. This was caught with fly rod, mono line, and spinner - not a fly.

  27. What is it about surfperching with a fly that keeps you coming back?

    The smell, sounds, interesting sights and the strike and the surge of Barred Perch on a 5-weight rod or my equally light-weight, level-wind grub outfit. The meeting of interesting people (like you!). I'm always trying to better myself at reading the beach definition.

Editor's Note: The following photos might explain why fly fishing for surfperch can be so addictive (click to see enlarged view).

Jim makes it look easy!

Amidst the sights, sounds and feelings of the beach, one faces a challenge to understand everything there is to know about the humble Surfperch...

Jim Lazarotti casting... ...no wasted motion...
...line shooting...
...retrieving with mind poised on fish...
Barred Surfperch on the beach...
...now in the hands of a happy fly fisherman...


You may have read or heard that Jim Lazarotti died on August 19, 2005, shortly after a massive stroke. This interview gives some insight into the person, the fisherman and the conservationist that he was. The Santa Cruz Sentinel published
his obituary on August 29, 2005. The last sequence of pictures is from a trip in July 2004. They are among my favorites because they capture the magic that you feel on the beach. It was a refreshing misty day, the water was beautiful and the bite was good. He really did make it look easy! The last picture shows Jim with fish in hand and twinkle in his eyes. He loved to fish!

I ran into Jim on the beaches more in 2005 year than ever before. I will miss him a lot!

Also read the posts about Jim on Dan Blanton's board.

ZFF readers also shared memories of Jim below:

From: Ken Hanley [mailto:kenpacx@yahoo.com]
Sent: Friday, September 02, 2005 8:49 AM
To: glenn@zenflyfishing.com
Subject: Say Hey Glenn...

The passing of Jim has saddened me a great deal. He was a dear friend. I first met Jim and Arlene in one of my short courses offered at DeAnza College. They were attending a clam digging clinic I held every winter. That was back around 1983. I remember his dedication to targeting cockles and we celebrated his harvest with a delicious clam chowder on the beach.
Over the years we became close friends. He was a quite giant... both in spirit and action. I'm honored to have had Jim in my life.

With respect, Ken

From: Phillip Kim [mailto:kickfish2001@yahoo.com]
Sent: Friday, September 02, 2005 9:49 AM
To: Glenn Yoshimoto
Subject: Hello

Hi Glenn,

I saw the post on Dan Blanton Board about the passing of Jim. I only had the privilege of fishing w/ him only once w/ you but I could tell that he was a good guy and a great fisherman. I could also tell that he was a character! I'm sure he's at a place where every cast lays down ruler straight every time.

From: Tlfwater@aol.com [mailto:Tlfwater@aol.com]
Sent: Tuesday, September 13, 2005 11:36 AM
To: glenn@zenflyfishing.com
Subject: Jim L.
Several of us (locals) here in Pescadero, considered Jim one of the regulars. He didn't mince his words or thoughts about those whom he thought were damaging our steelhead population. High on his list of "bad actors" were State Parks and the growing seal population who frequents our lagoon. Jim supported our local Steelhead Festival and wrote letters to any agency who would listen regarding our fishery resource issues. Many was the day that Jim and I would talk about our fishery - past and present, our mutual love of fishing and how we could improve conditions "if we ran the zoo". I'll miss Jim's old pickup with all of the bumper stickers. I suspect that we will tell a few Jim stories around the lagoon this year --certainly we will be thinking of Jim when our season opens.

Tim Frahm

Tight lines forever Jim...

Questions or Comments Contact:
Glenn Yoshimoto
Los Gatos, California

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Published: August 10, 2004
Revised: September 24, 2005

This page © Copyright 2004 & 2005, Glenn Yoshimoto