Photos by Steve Shay
Burien-raised educator, Steve Kokita has a healthy 46-year obsession with fly tying and fly fishing. Pictured right is a display of classic reels and flies he has made.

Fly fishing & fly tying provide allure for Burien educator

Recently, "Hunger Games" created a stir in archery and put bows and arrows into the hands of many in its young, target audience. Similarly, two decades ago, the film, "A River Runs Through It" inspired a tidal wave of newbies to purchase bamboo rods, artificial lures, costly matching khaki hats, vests, and "river pants".

Burien-raised Steve Kokita appreciates the interest that Montana river sparked in that sport, but his obsession with fly tying and fly fishing is not just a fly-by-night hobby, but rather his half-century obsession.

"The 'River Runs Through It' movie made it trendy," Kokita said of fly fishing. "You can spend all kinds of money but not know how to fly fish, but you'll look good standing by the water. Then there is just us old guys who like to fish. It's just another form of fishing. It's harder. It's sportier than traditional fishing. I'm hardcore. I find bamboo rods cheap on eBay," he said. "The most I ever paid was $50 and that was a lot. You can spend $5,000 on a new bamboo rod. It won't catch any more fish than mine will. I buy what are called 'blue collar rods.'"

He strips off their varnish. Old original bamboo rods don't have enough guides, he said, those metal loops spaced apart. He adds more for better casts. He is proud of one rod with a stripping guide he made from a piece of brass tubing inset with jade his father gave him. He redid the cork grip, too.

Kokita has made thousands of flies at his "man cave," a modest corner of the living room he shares with his forgiving wife, Kerri, who cuts him a lot of slack. To make a fly, his 25 year-old vise, (not his fishing obsession, his metal gripping tool), clasps a hook and squeezes the sharp barb to remove its point. He wraps the hook with thread, feathers, fur, and beads with his fingers, and basic handmade tools including a bodkin and dubbing spinner. He said some prefer buying flies. But be warned.

"There are flies that catch fish and there are flies that catch fishermen," he said. Mine catch fish."

Many of his flies are patterned from the chironomid. There are over 2,500 species in North America, he said. Also popular, "flying ants", and damsel nymphs that resemble those blue dragon flies that hover, before they mature. Some flies are under one-eighth inch long, others three inches or more. He once used a lock of his silver hair for a fly, and a "colleague" went one step weirder.

"The 'hare's ear fly' is a classic pattern," he said. "A fishing friend tied his own fly with clippings out of his ear and called it an 'ear hair fly.'

"You're fooling fish with fur and feathers instead of a gooey bait that smells like cheese or something," he said, contrasting fly fishing with spin or bait fishing. "You just get motion. You're imitating actual bugs. Fish eat bugs. I never see cheese floating around the water. Fish tend to swallow bait that tastes good and is chewy. These flies are hard. The fish spit it out quick. The fish are almost always hooked in the lip or top of the mouth, and aren't usually killed.

"The majority of us practice catch and release with a barbless fly, don't play them too long, and release them back so that someone else can enjoy it," he explained. "Trout to me tastes muddy, like the pellets the hatcheries feed them. If I want to eat fish we go down to Sunfish Seafoods on Alki and have their halibut. That's my idea of eating fish."

While he has fished for salmon in Alaska, and mahi-mahi, or dorado, in Mexico, he is content fishing locally.

"This area is rich in fishing opportunities," he said. In 12 minutes I'm in Lincoln Park, even closer is Seahurst Park in Burien. I fish the 'I-5 corridor of lakes', Bow Fenwick, Steel, Star, Desire, Geneva, Killarney. In most of them they plant the trout. They also have spiny ray fish, bass, perch, sunfish. The Game Department puts them in, and people take them out. Angle Lake has landlocked sockeye salmon, 'kokanee.'"

A long-time carpenter and construction worker, Kokita helped build super ferries. As a result of his rugged career, and his 35 years of mogul skiing and dirt-biking, he has back problems, he said. He is now a special ed para-educator at Hazel Valley School in Burien and tutored reading there four years. He has worked at Chinook Middle School in SeaTac, and last year at North Hill in Des Moines.

He is outing director of Puget Sound Fly Fishers Club, a Tacoma organization since 1956 with 130 members, and has taught rod building, fly tying there.

While his job keeps him out of trouble, his hobby gets him into some.

"Last weekend I went fly fishing near Gig Harbor for silvers from my seven-foot, one-seater pram I built," he said. "I caught an eight-pound buck. This huge, 300-pound harbor seal, longer than my boat, leaped up about six feet away to grab that salmon. That salmon's eyes got about as big as silver dollars. He took off and that seal is chasing him, and went around the boat twice. That sucker got that salmon. I was lucky it didn't hit the boat and flip it over. That seal wouldn't want me in the water with him after stealing my salmon."

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