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Artful bait fools finicky fish

Joel LaFollette is bound to his grandfather by a slender thread, which also ties him to one of the most exclusive groups in the world Ñ fly fishermen.

Izaak Walton celebrated the brotherhood in his 1653 volume 'The Compleat Angler'; LaFollette's own edition of the book dates from 1808. He reckons the earliest reference to fly-fishing occurs in Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the sport is still so contemporary that it's a focus of the Pacific Northwest Sportsmen's Show.

The show covers all aspects of outdoor recreation Ñ from hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, boating and survival to the return of the Head and Horns contest for the biggest trophies.

LaFollette, who lives in West Linn, is an expert in tying brightly colored insect look-alikes, designed to disappoint game fish for the last time.

He learned as an 8-year-old, watching his grandfather, Dale, in the basement of a little house on Mt. Tabor, at the same workbench that LaFollette uses now.

LaFollette's skills have led him to people such as former President Jimmy Carter, television newsman Tom Brokaw and author Tom McGuane, and this will be the fourth year he's taught fly tying at the show.

His Royal Treatment steelhead fly is sufficiently individual to be featured in the latest Kaufmann's Streamborn catalogue; LaFollette works at the company's Tigard store. On his days off, he guides fly-fishing tours on the Deschutes River.

And that's another way he's still close to his grandfather, who died in 1984.

'His ashes were scattered in the Deschutes River at Frustration Flats Ñ a difficult place to fish,' LaFollette said with a chuckle.

LaFollette, 44, looks like an angler from another time, with small steel-rimmed glasses, dark crew cut hair and calm, attentive demeanor. Fly tying is a far cry from his past jobs, which range from race driving instructor, industrial photographer and commercial fisherman to running offshore crab boats and shrimp, tuna and salmon boats. 'I've never had a real job,' he said.

But the jobs are just another thread to the gruff old man who spent his last $30 on a pair of good boots during the Depression, built his own packboard (displayed on LaFollette's wall) and successfully panned for gold.

'He had stories and stories on stories,' said LaFollette, shaking his head. 'And I realized I'd better get out there because I wanted stories too.'

In the meantime, the 8-year-old boy, who had come to live with his grandparents after his mother died, watched his grandfather tie flies 'and kept my mouth shut.'

'And one day Grandpa said: 'Do you want to learn to do this?''

LaFollette's specialty are steelhead flies, significantly different from salmon or trout flies, for example. Like Atlantic salmon, steelhead do not feed in fresh water on their way upstream to spawn, so the flies don't have to resemble insects in color or size.

'It allows you to be creative,' he said. 'Steelhead are very territorial, so you're looking for something to annoy them. Then they'll strike.'

LaFollette also is a scuba diver and said he learned steelhead habits by sitting in pools watching them react to the current and the debris that floated into their territory.

Steelhead flies are large and brightly colored Ñ his Royal Treatment is dazzlingly iridescent, with peacock and golden pheasant feathers.

LaFollette says he can tie six of them in an hour. 'Once you learn the basics, the sky's the limit,' he said, holding up a Royal Treatment for inspection. 'These will be tied commercially overseas. I'm pretty proud of that.'

LaFollette caught a 14-pound steelhead on his fly on the Deschutes River the first week of January, but McGuane did him one better Ñ though it's hard to one-up a true fisherman like LaFollette.

'He caught a 19-pound steelhead up in B.C.,' said LaFollette, 'but the fish are bigger up there.'