Neal Taylor dies at 78; fisherman regaled generations of Santa Barbara anglers
For Neal Taylor, fishing wasn't limited to weekends or, for that matter, water. On one of Santa Barbara's busiest streets, the seven-time national casting champion showed a friend just how it's done, lofting his line into an intersection when the light turned red and yanking it back when traffic resumed.

"I thought, this guy is really funny," said Bob Nunez, a dentist and one of Taylor's closest fishing buddies. "I thought, I love this guy."

Taylor died Tuesday at his Santa Barbara home. He was 78 and, according to family members, had congestive heart failure.

Just days before his death, he was distributing posters for an upcoming trout derby at Lake Cachuma, a Santa Barbara County mountain reservoir where, from boats plying quiet coves, he taught countless neophytes the joys of the outdoors.

"There are 4,000 school kids who would come through on field trips every year, and he regaled them with tales," said his wife, Linda. "There are so many people around town who'd come up to him and say, 'I remember you from that boat trip when I was 5' — and these are people whose kids are taking the same trip now."

As much a showman as he was an angler, Taylor could cast into a crowd and knock the ash off a cigarette at 30 yards or plant his line in an unsuspecting coffee drinker's cup. He honed his theatrical skills wherever there was an audience eager to plumb the psyche of a trout: UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and the Lake Cachuma booth at the Fred Hall Show, an annual fishing-tackle extravaganza.

"He'd just sucker people in with these hilarious stories that always began, 'You know, there was this time when…' " said Brian Roney, deputy director of the Santa Barbara County Parks and Recreation Department. "He was really the face of Cachuma."

A big man with a striking resemblance to comedian Jonathan Winters, Taylor could spin tales so masterfully that pals on fishing trips would immediately ask to hear them again. Some were bawdy stories perfect for a Montana campfire, but he also gave a natural actor's intensity to great moments from a life with fishing at its heart.

Taylor helped Jimmy Carter read a trout stream, figuring out just where and when the fish were likely to bite. He taught Nancy and Ronald Reagan how to cast on a pond at their ranch near Santa Barbara. When he was an Air Force recruit, he was summoned by his commander in chief — President Eisenhower — for a few days of instruction on the Platte River in Colorado.

When Ike slumped over as the two were watching a sunset, Taylor, alarmed, asked what was wrong.

"There isn't a day I don't think about those young men at Normandy," Eisenhower replied.

Taylor was born Sept. 17, 1932, in Pasadena and was raised near Santa Barbara in Summerland, where his father, Walter Taylor, ran a store. Walter, who would fish with his writer friend Zane Grey, passed his passion for the outdoors down to his son.

For most of his career, Taylor sold sporting goods. In 1981, he left a grueling corporate job and moved back to Santa Barbara, where he joined the county parks department as a naturalist at Lake Cachuma.

In 1989, Times hiking columnist John McKinney caught Taylor's "amazing spiel" to passengers on the Cachuma Queen: "At Lake Cachuma, we have seeds that walk, spiders that fly, plants that catch fish and trees that predict rain," Taylor told his audience.

Later in the day he commented on the coots skittering above the water — "the Rodney Dangerfield of the bird world," he said — and he offered a coot recipe.

The coot must be plucked, he said, and left in a stream overnight. Then it should be stuffed with an apple, wired to a split green log and smoked over a campfire for 3 1/2 hours.

"Then," he said, "throw away the coot and eat the apple."

Taylor and Linda met when they were 4-H leaders.

"Before I met him, I thought you threw a line in the water and maybe a fish would be there," she said.

They wed at Lake Cachuma in 1989, in a second marriage for each. In addition to Linda, he is survived by a son and daughter from his previous marriage and a stepson and stepdaughter from his marriage to Linda.

A potluck memorial service is planned at the lake for March 20 at 1 p.m. Guests are asked to bring a beverage, a dish to share with others and a camp chair.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com