The late Gil Hokanson had to be one of the most colorful characters ever to grace the fly fishing fraternity. I first met Gil back in the 1960’s when I was just getting involved in tournament casting at the Long Beach Casting Club in Southern California. Of course, Gill had been fly fishing for decades but by then he was more noted for his considerable casting skills and unique Hokanson hat than anything else. At that time Gil, long retired, used to keep busy helping out in his son’s sail making shop in Marina Del Rey, near Santa Monica, California. That’s where he got the idea for what was to become the famous Hokanson fishing hat, a practical, comfortable floppy-brimmed headware sewn from sail canvas that quickly earned a devoted following, among whom was Lee Marvin, the famous actor and avid marlin angler. Soon, all of us had ordered and were wearing Hokanson hats. I still have mine, as does my wife.

Gil was also unique in my experience as owning more fly rods than anyone I have ever known. He claimed in excess of two hundred rods, most of which he had never used, either for fishing or tournament casting. Gil just liked to collect rods.

But that’s not what this story is about. In my experience Gil, a great guy but one who so far as I can recall possessed virtually no discernible sense of humor, was one of the funniest men around. Whenever people who knew Gil got together, someone would invariably recount an instance where Gil either did something outrageous or was involved in some way. And to his everlasting credit, whether he was the butt of the joke or not, Gil never took offense. A good guy, a pleasure to have known.

One time Gil made his annual trek to the eastern slope of California’s High Sierra, something he and his closest friends had been doing since they were young men. This time he and his wife had made reservations and were staying at the Hilton Creek Lodge on the western shore of Crowley Lake, the huge man-made and fecund impoundment that is the infamous Mecca of hordes of anglers on opening day each year. For this trip they were driving a large, luxurious and powerful new station wagon Gil had taken delivery of a mere week before. Early the next morning Gil arose and, while his wife slept, headed toward Benton Crossing on the upper Owens River. He had not heard any current fishing reports and wanted to check out conditions for himself. For those readers not familiar with the area, the Upper Owens is the principal feeder stream for Crowley Lake and is noted for harboring huge brown and rainbow trout in the cutbanks along the river between Benton Crossing and the lake proper, a stretch of just a few miles.

Thick patches of fog greeted Gil when he arrived at the bridge at Benton Crossing but he could still see to drive safely. He drove across, found the graveled access road that followed the river south toward the lake and stopped at several places to get out to look. At his last stop, about a mile or so south of the bridge, the cutbank was at least six feet above the water. Gil got out of the car, left the motor running and softly walked over to the edge to peer down, trying not to spook any fish who might be there. A moment later he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, heard the soft crunch of gravel and swung around just in time to see his beautiful new vehicle majestically roll past and plunge into the river. While in most places the Owens is not deeper than waist deep Gil had picked the one spot where his automobile could totally submerge. And so it did. With a rush of air bubbles it slowly sank beneath the surface

Poor Gil. What a quandary. There he was, miles from any habitation, no one in sight, surrounded by thick fog. And yet, we’ve all known folks who for some unknown reason Lady Luck favors in such circumstances. Gil was that sort of guy. Not more than five minutes had passed before a pair of headlights split the fog, a small car drove up and a young fellow got out. "Hey, buddy, how’s the fishing’?"

"Haven’t done any. Just got here a few minutes ago."

The young fellow looked around, suddenly aware that Gil was all-alone, no vehicle in sight. "Hey, man, how’d you get here? Where’s your car?"

Mutely, Gil pointed to the river where still visible were the gleam of headlights left on to penetrate the fog.

"My god, man, whu’ happened?"

It took a team of divers and a heavy-duty tow truck to salvage Gil’s beautiful new automobile. It was declared virtually a total loss and certainly could not be driven in the near future. What was worse was that even before the vehicle had been towed into the shop in the nearby village of Mammoth Lakes and Gil had arrived back at Hilton Creek Lodge the word had spread. Though nameless, Gill rapidly became the butt of a thousand jokes and laughs. Anyone but Gil would have been totally mortified, no doubt done anything to remain anonymous.

Instead, seemingly unfazed by what had happened, Gil decided to stop in for a drink before facing his wife and the consequences. Scooting up to the bar he ordered a tall draft beer.

"Hey, you guys," it was a tall fellow who had just entered and joined a group of other patrons. With a bellow the guy roared: "D’ya hear about that idiot who drove his car into the river over by Benton Crossing?"

Now who but Gil Hokanson would think to respond in all seriousness: "HEY! THAT WAS ME!"

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Copyright 2000, John F. McKim