Conservationist is hooked on fly-fishing Frederick angler teaches his sport


FREDERICK -- March has finally sprung free of winter, and Jim Gilford is back teaching by the water.

Mr. Gilford is an expert fly-fisherman -- for starters. He's been a fly-fisherman nearly all his 64 years. He is also a renowned teacher of fly-fishing, beginning his 30th year this weekend in Frederick.

"He legitimately qualifies for the title of expert," says Ron Moser, an official with the state Department of Transportation who has fished with Mr. Gilford for years. "He can do things with a fly rod you wouldn't believe."

And he is more.

"Jim Gilford is an unsung hero," says Bob Brown, a state Department of Natural Resources police officer who has known Mr. Gilford 25 years. "He wants nothing in return for anything he does. And he does more than anyone can imagine."

Mr. Gilford, a biologist and retired professor, has devoted his life to the conservation of natural resources. The son of a Pennsylvania game warden, he grew up in the Pocono Mountains and developed early a reverence for the natural world.

"My dad spent a lot of time explaining things to me, explaining how things fit together, what today we call ecosystems," Mr. Gilford says. "You just get a feeling, a fondness for that kind of environment. It's just part of your values."

Mr. Gilford has been a member, or more often the leader, of local, state, regional and national boards and organizations involved with such issues as water quality, sediment control, soil conservation, stream and river ecology, and, of course, fly-fishing.

"If there's something to be done, he takes the lead and does it," Officer Brown says. "He works and works . . . and just keeps on working."

You wouldn't know this speaking to Mr. Gilford.

He is as ingratiating as a spring breeze, as unpretentious as a dogwood hidden in the pines.

"Jim doesn't care for the limelight," Officer Brown continues. "But he's one of the most brilliant people I've ever known. He's probably as knowledgeable as anybody when it comes to natural resources -- fisheries, wildlife, everything out there."

Mr. Gilford has taught fly-fishing and fly-tying up and down the East Coast, but now conducts sessions only in this area, primarily from his son's tackle shop, The Rod Rack, in Frederick.

"Most of the people have never held a fly rod in their hands before," he says, sitting in the shop where he's been tying flies. "All they need is a good disposition and comfortable clothes. If they have those, they're ready to go." They also need $150 for the two days.

Mr. Gilford says Robert Redford's movie, "A River Runs Through It," has bolstered interest in the sport. The movie is based on Norman Maclean's book about fly-fishing and growing up in Montana.

"There is something about fly-fishing, the solitude, the pleasant loneliness. . . . But I try to dispel the notion that there's anything mystical or mysterious about it," Mr. Gilford says. "This isn't something only a few people can do."

Mr. Gilford has been fly-fishing, tying ties, hunting and traipsing outdoors since he was a boy. Those interests have guided him through life.

He earned a master's degree in zoology and a doctorate in science and hygiene. The doctorate came from the Johns Hopkins University, where he researched wildlife parasites. He taught biology at Gettysburg College, worked as a research biologist at Fort Detrick, served as chairman of the biology department at Hood College and headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unit that evaluated industrial chemicals.

But he never missed a chance to fish, especially fly-fish.

He even collected insect larvae from streams, grew them at home in his aquarium and photographed their development. From the pictures he designed flies for fooling fish.

He fooled them often at Big Hunting Creek, which runs through the Catoctin Mountain National Park and Cunningham Falls State Park near Thurmont.

Mr. Gilford has fished there for 40 years. For the past eight he has headed a volunteer group that works on the stream to preserve it.

That's where former President Jimmy Carter fished when he stayed at Camp David.

Mr. Carter twice invited Mr. Gilford and a few others to Camp David to discuss fly-fishing.

They remained inside the compound, but later Mr. Gilford fished with Mr. Carter in Pennsylvania. You almost have to force that out of Mr. Gilford.

All he'll say about it is that Mr. Carter sure has a fine sense of humor.

Mr. Moser is not as guarded in his observations of Mr. Gilford. Mr. Moser says the man knows bugs, he's an expert on bugs, and the man knows fish, he's an expert on fish.

That knowledge, combined with Mr. Gilford's skill with the rod, places him "about nine steps ahead of the next guy," Mr. Moser says. "I mean, he's just devastating."

Mr. Gilford would blush. He'd rather be fishing.

This weekend's school is the first of six this year. Mr. Gilford also gives private lessons. Anyone interested should call him at (301) 663-3966.


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