Fifty years ago, the Washington State record steelhead was broken five times during the winter of 1971. Time machine, anyone?
On Feb 21st Ted Burton found this 32 pound, 0 ounce trophy on the Lower Quinault.
Walk into a party full of half-buzzed steelheaders engaged in loud, laughing conversation and say “30-pound steelhead” and watch the room fall into quiet listen. I’ll bet you could hear a mouse peeing on a cotton ball. What if that discussion included a state record being broken five times in one winter season? Suddenly no one is looking at their phones. Well, just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale from the best of times for steelhead fishing in Washington State. It was the winter steelhead season of 1971; five kaiju steelhead were landed over 30 pounds that broke the state record on a seemingly weekly pace.
Yes, there have been more than a few of the 30-pound variety landed and pictured up since, but keep in mind this was wayyyy before social media; there was like newspapers, STS magazine and word of mouth, and that’s it. Remarkable for its time.
To the question, “what is the most bad-ass picture of a steel-head you’ve ever seen?” I have an answer. Easy. On New Years Day, 1971, Mr. Albert English of Mount Vernon landed a 30-pound, two-ounce fresh-from-the-tides fish from the lower Skagit River. Forty-pound test and a plunked pink-pearl #4 Spin-n-Glo did the job. I’ve seen the picture of him holding that perfect chrome giant for years now, it gets my vote. And trust me, I’ve been more than fortunate to see some unworldly large steelhead, but Mr. English’s fish is the winner. This fish also threw the first pitch to start this All-Star game of my record/no, my record/no, MY record this winter fifty years ago.
It took Mr. English a half hour to land, even with tackle five times heavier than any new age steelheader could even begin to fathom. One thing anyone who has paid even the smallest attention to is, historically, most really massive steelhead are caught on plunking gear. Two reasons- first, obviously, plunking tackle is usually ridiculously heavy, so the odds are slightly tipped in an anglers favor when rasslin’ one of these unworldly creatures, and second is plunkers usually fish when the rivers are slightly higher and somewhat dirtier than ideal. All steelhead, even the giants will travel shallow, having cloudy water to hide them plus currents are milder. Whereas it can be nearly impossible to negotiate a monster buck from a deep, tree-riddled holding spot under “normal” flows, getting one to strike in shallow travelling water ups the percentage of an encounter for the angler.
Back to 1971…the rivers that kicked out these records are still prowled heavily by trophy seekers today. About a month after Al English set his record, on February 21st Ted Burton of Idaho made a trip to the lower Quinault, which over the decades has produced probably the highest number of 20-plus-pound steelhead this side of the Skeena. Back then, there were no aluminum sleds or drift boats, if you wished to fish tribal waters you did so with a tribal guide in a 25-foot dugout canoe with a small prop outboard. Which by Ted’s story, made landing this fish, well, unique. A large rocket red Ray Bobber on a wispy 12-pound leader was all that was connecting Ted to his record, as the guide had to run his motor wide open and chase it as it ran 3/4ths of a mile (!!!!) hell bent upstream. Real monsters go upstream, by the way…
Forty-five minutes and over a mile from where it was hooked, finally in the guide’s net, the hook fell out when 32 pounds (0 ounces) of buck steelhead hit the bottom of the canoe, breaking the net handle and hoop in three places. Two fish this early in the winter season, two state records. Turns out the ink wasn’t even dry on the morning newspaper before #3 hit the record books nine days later.
Back on the lower Skagit River, plunking of course. On March 2nd, another Sedro Wooley angler, Mr. Harold Halverson, was soak-ing a #4 red/white Spin-n-Glo on straight 20-pound test in milky green/grey water. He said when it hit, a strike so swift and violent he had never experienced before, he was chilling with his plunk-ing buds in a nearby shack. By the time he got to the rod the giant steelhead had blazed 200 feet downriver. He was finally able to get it in after a long, ferocious battle until one of his associates gaffed it (can you imagine the looks you may get sporting a large gaff hook on the river today…) and dragged it up the beach. Thirty-two pounds, eight-ounces on a certified scale later, the state record had been broken yet again.
Had Bob Gunther of Milton not waited 3 days to weigh his 45 ½ inch sea monster, it would have weighed more than 31 pounds, 9 ounces and shattered the state record.
I can personally vouch for the Spin-n-Glo as a trophy lure. It spins and wobbles, for goodness’ sake, plus that vibration it features a large profile to really piss off Ike and his ilk. All during the ‘80s on the big Olympic Peninsula streams we drift fished #6 pink pearl Spin-n-Glos on crazy heavy tackle, never going below 20-pound test, even under clear conditions. The real tanks destroyed those winged bobbers, we landed more 20-pound (and larger) steelhead on them than any other technique, save plugs. And lost some “freight trains” we could not turn—nor saw—before going into submerged lumber yards, even with that cable for line/leaders.
Seven days later, March 9th, our story goes south to a familiar name, the Cowlitz. You see, before the Barrier Dam was built in 1970, there were some absolute giant wild steelhead that spawned all over the upper Cowlitz and especially its main tributary, the Cispus River. A fellow showed me a pic of his grandfather standing next to a Model T holding two huge steelhead—the tips of their noses were chest high and their tails dragged the ground—both from the Cispus. Those fish are now long gone, but in 1971 the last of those genetic marvels were still returning and there was one waiting just below the new Barrier Dam for Cliff Aynes of Puyal-up. This one turned out to be the biggest of them all, and it held the Washington State record until 1980.
Harold Halverson plunked a Spin- N-Glo March 2nd on the lower Skagit to take the lead with a 32 pound, 8 ounce monster.
At 6 a.m. Cliff tossed his #8 peach luminescent Corky (one of the real cork ones) out for the hundredth time and hung solid. So he thought, as his 12-pound line and leader were about to get a density test from a steelhead just south of 33 pounds! He said when it hit, it went across the Cowlitz and just sat, shaking its head for ten minutes, then brought it to his side, then it went all the way across again. It did this three times before—wait for it—it scorched upstream over 150 yards at warp speed. “I carry 200 yards of line on my reel” Cliff said, “and I saw the bottom of the spool on one run!!” it finally came back down, only to go another 100 yards downstream. Cliff and his partner followed and finally landed the fish. He weighed it the next day, and it was the new state record again, this time all 32 pounds, 10 ounces stayed in the book all year.
But, let’s see…isn’t that just four giants? Didn’t you say there was five? Yes, as Yoda said, there is another…
March has always been big steelhead time on Washington’s trophy rivers, and this March 15th the real monster was landed. A 45-inch male fish was banked on the Queets by Mr. Bob Guntle from Milton. The Queets that year was a trophy fish factory, as Tribal netters took over a dozen steelhead of 30 pounds with two going 35 and 38 pounds!
Bob Guntle landed the largest of the five on the lightest gear, a mere 10-pound test line and leader, a 1/0 hook, pencil lead and my favorite steelie-getter of all time: a gob of boraxed salmon roe. The river was low and very clear that day, unusual for the Queets which seemingly always runs with color from the multitude of clay bleeds along its glacier-fed length.
When he hooked it, it took off—wait for it—upriver for a hundred yards and sulked on the opposite bank. Bob said he fought that huge fish for the longest time, finally landing it under total darkness. The next day it was measured at 45-1/2 inches, the longest steelhead taken that winter.
Albert English of Mt. Vernon wasted no time in landing the first giant, 30 pounds, 2 ounces from the lower Skagit River on New Years Day.
Bob put the fish on top of his camper to keep it away from the animals, it was a full three days the fish slowly dried and lost weight. Once all the way back home, it weighed 31 pounds, 9 ounces on a meat market scale. Had he weighed it sooner there is no doubt that long beast would have crushed Cliff Aynes’ fish for the state record. He who hesitates, as they say…nevertheless a remarkable steelhead.
There have been some real sockdolagers since…November of ’73 a summer run of 35 pounds (the overall record for Washington) was taken by Gilbert Pierson on a large Eddie Pope Hot Shot from the Snake River, more than likely a Clearwater River fish, before Lower Granite Dam on the Snake inundated the most awesome piece of steelhead water on Earth at the Clearwater Mouth and before Dworshak Dam on the North Fork Clearwater eradicated one of the largest strains of steelhead found anywhere. In April of 1980 Gene Maygra landed the current winter record fish, 32.75 pounds from the East Fork Lewis. Many more of the magical 30-pound variety have been caught and released since, anyone who spends too much time of the interwebs has seen all the grand steelhead landed since the early ‘90s. It’s pretty cool we have that ability to show the world trophy released fish. All would have challenged the current Washington State record, I’m sure.
What’s fun to me, is most of these huge fish back then were caught on some sort of O.G. trophy steelhead tackle. If you brought one of these record-breaking anglers to the present, I’m sure they would look at anglers today who bobber-dog like Count Dracula would look at Count Chocula…
On March 9th, Clifford Aynes landed the final Washington State record on the Cowlitz with this 32 pound, 10 ounce lifetime trophy.
Incredible, yes. Will we ever see anything like it again? That’s a hard no, for several reasons. To get an official record, you must weigh the fish at a certified scale, that means a dead steelhead. Unless it’s a hatchery fish—possible, with broodstock programs—all the real monsters are wild, and there is no scenario I can think of where killing such a creature is legal or even remotely ethical today. Plus, the way the oceans are treating our steelhead, we can only hope for a shell of the “good ol’ days”.
In the 1971 season there were just over 250,000 steelhead landed in Washington State. Today just 10% of that is considered a good year. In the meantime, keep alive the memory of 1971 and pray that we get to experience at least one more year like that one, fellow steelheaders.