FINISH STRONG - Josiah Darr

FINISH STRONG - Josiah Darr

We didn’t fish anymore after that and we went our separate ways, but before we left, Rich shook my hand like it’s never been shook before and looked me dead in the eye and said, “young man, I’ve been fishing steelhead over 50 years and that was the best steelhead fishing day of my life. Thank you.” 

 

One of the handful of Rich’s fish from the most memorable day of my guiding career. 

 

There aren’t many events more exciting to a new fisherman than catching your first steelhead. I’m sure you could ask a thousand fishermen where they caught their first and they’d tell you in vivid detail all about the event. I certainly remember mine.

There I was, standing at Big Creek in Knappa, Oregon right up by the big rock maybe a hundred yards down from the hatchery deadline wire. Got him on a pink-pearl Birdy Drifter and a sand shrimp tail. He was a little buck no more than 26” long, but that didn’t matter to me. He may as well have been a 26 pounder to a 12 year old who’d just started steelhead fishing and at that point had never felt the first spongy tug of a drift fishing bite. I was beside myself in excitement, but my momma didn’t raise no fool. Before my buddy Leo could cast into the hole, I managed to slide another shrimp tail up my hook, pitch back into the little green bucket where my first steelhead was hiding and hook my second! It was a day I’ll never forget.

Fast-forward about 23 years and I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of dozens of friends’ and clients’ first steelhead. Some have been absolute bruisers, while others were nothing too spectacular. But to that angler who’d just landed their first fish of a thousand casts, they were magical. We always whoop and holler and make a big deal out of the fish because it is a big deal. It’s a super special moment that might start a love affair with the pursuit of steelhead for the rest of their life. You never know. And to the guide, or friend or dad or whoever it was that helped them get that opportunity, there is this sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. That is truly why I love guiding.

As I think back on some of the most special moments when I watched someone catch a steelhead of a lifetime, one moment sticks out more than any other. No, it’s not my wife’s first fish or one of my favorite clients daughter’s first steelhead. It was a steelhead we never actually landed. It was Rich Riley’s last steelhead.

I met Rich at a Northwest Steelheaders meeting while I lived in Tillamook. Rich was a harmless little old man with a heart of gold. Every word that came out of his mouth was kind or encouraging and in one way or another, lifted you up. I absolutely adored him from the day I met him, as I’m sure everyone else did too. It was impossible not to like Rich. He was so genuine and had the softest, kindest voice you could ever imagine. I know it sounds like I had a crush on him, but only because I kinda did.

 

 

Every time I’d run into Rich at a Steelheaders meeting or the grocery store or wherever, he’d always stop me and we’d chat for an hour about steelhead and salmon fishing. He’d enthusiastically ask me how I’d been doing on the river and if I was still getting them good. He’s say something like, “It’s so good to see you young guys out there doing well. Makes my heart happy.” It was always the best part of my day if I saw Rich.

Besides probably being my favorite person and very fortunate to know, Rich had one odd little thing about him that you couldn’t miss when you spoke to him face to face. Rich had a slight shake to hands and upper body. Little tremors that almost never really stopped but weren’t so bad that it stopped him from doing what he wanted to do. It just took him a little longer. You could always hear that slight shake in his voice too. His words came out slowly and a little separated, but they were always worth the wait. That man had an unending array of knowledge he’d compiled over a lifetime and if you were patient enough to listen, you’d always pick up little gems.

The former President of the Tillamook Chapter of the Northwest Steelheaders and dear friend of mine, Len Clarke told me one day in confidence why it was that Rich shook like he did.

Rich had Pugilistic Parkinson’s he’d acquired over a very successful boxing career he’d had when he was younger, Len told me. He also told me Rich never told anyone that he used to be a boxer, but since I was the editor of the local sports page at the time and rich was the Mayor of Manzanita, I should maybe ask him about it quietly sometime.

 

 

One day I asked Rich about his former boxing career and I never guessed the response I’d get. Rich’s eyes narrowed, his fists balled up and the corners of him mouth tightened.

“Who told you that!?” he demanded. “It was Len wasn’t it!? I don’t want to talk about it!”

Rich and I didn’t speak for a few days until my phone rang one afternoon. Rich apologized for being so short with me and agreed to an interview a few days later at his home.

I drove up to the address in Rockaway Beach he’d given me not knowing I was about to enter the most exquisite house I’d ever seen on top of a precipice overlooking Rockaway Beach and miles of Oregon shoreline.

I set down a recorder and Rich began to tell me how his boxing career started on a dairy farm in Neosho, Missouri. See, young Rich’s job was to milk cows by hand every day and throw hay bales, inadvertently making his hands like rocks for when he started officially boxing in the Gold Glove tournament in 1950 at 13 years old.

Over the next 10 years rich fought in welterweights, featherweight, bantamweight, and lightweight divisions at Gold Glove tournaments. He made sure to note that in his “open” division, there was no separation in ages of boxers.

 

 

“The only fight I ever lost I was when I was 16 and I lost to 26-year old Jerome Sea-man from South Carolina. It’s funny out of the hundreds of fights through my career I won, I remember every second of the one I lost,” Rich said with a sigh.

Over the next hour Rich told me all about his boxing career. How he trailed with Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali for those who don’t know boxing. How he’d continued to box throughout his Air Force career and in his five years he’d never lost a single one of his 45 bouts. Then he told me about the night it all came to an end.

Rich told me before the biggest fight of his life as the main event in Las Vegas, a reporter asked him if it bothered him when he shook.

“I never noticed it, but other people did and I had seen some other really great fighters who were in really bad shape,” Rich said with remorse in his voice.

Rich never fought his fight that night. He quit boxing right then and there, 10 years after his first fight.

I sat in awe of Rich’s story. This little frail old man was once one of the baddest ass fighters on earth and he never told a soul. I wondered why, but he knew I’d ask and had a quick answer for me.

“I can’t tell you how many times even good friends would come over to the house and see all the boxing medals and trophies and want to see if they could beat me,” Rich said. “They couldn’t and I lost a lot of friends. It broke my wife’s heart. Now I just don’t talk about it because people’s impression of a fighter is a derelict, perverted, deviant, brain dead, illiterate kin to Mike Tyson who bites people’s ears off.

 

 

“They forget about the Sugar Ray Leonard’s, the Floyd Patterson’s, the Roy Jones Jr’s. They were all gentlemen, that’s how boxing is supposed to be.”

I was blown away.

Naturally I asked Rich if he wanted to go winter steelhead fishing with me and a few weeks later he excitedly stood in the front of my drift boat as we floated down the Wilson River. He looked like a 7-year old on Christmas morning. You couldn’t hide the excitement in his eyes.

I’d brought my friend Nick Arnold along to ride in the back of the boat and hopefully pick up a few fish since I thought Rich would have a tough time making casts and mending with the shaking, but what I saw next had me speechless.

Everywhere I told Rich to cast, he hit. Every second of every drift, his line was mended and his bobber was flawlessly coasting down stream. Not only was he good, he was perfect! And I know this seems far-fetched, but I’d swear on a stack of Bibles that Rich didn’t shake one time all day. There was a little magic in that old man and other than witty banter, Nick was just about obsolete in the back of the boat. Rich vacuumed up steelhead like it was going out of style and had landed five in a row before his bobber plunged right before the takeout. This time Rich was in for more than he could handle.

The water was high and green and coming down the mountain at a pretty good clip. This fish had some huge shoulders on it and was bright at lightning other than a faint pink cheek. It was a trophy buck to say the least and Rich was hooked in well. He fought and fought and fought, but the fish used the current to its advantage and it actually wore Rich out. I asked if he wanted Nick to take the rod and the daggers Rich shot at me with his eyes answered that right away.

Rich could barely hold onto the rod any longer and I simply couldn’t wade out any deeper to net the fish. It hung in the current for what seemed like hours just out of reach and all of a sudden with one little head shake, it was gone.

 

 

Rich sat down for a well deserved rest, and when I got in the boat. Rich looked me right in the eye and with total seriousness he asked me if he had handed that rod to Nick, would we have landed that fish. I was too young and dumb to lie to him and I said, “it’s hard to know, but probably.”

Rich looked right at Nick and I with a big smile on his face and said, “We’ll go ahead and count that one.”

We didn’t fish anymore after that and we went our separate ways, but before we left, Rich shook my hand like it’s never been shook before and looked me dead in the eye and said, “young man, I’ve been fishing steelhead over 50 years and that was the best steelhead fishing day of my life. Thank you.”

 

 

I was humbled to say the least, but I went home feeling at least 10 feet tall.

On February 15th, 2016, a few weeks after our fishing trip, Rich died in his home from an ongoing fight with cancer that he’d never told anyone about besides his wife. When I heard the news I was brokenhearted for a second, but joy overtook the sad-ness knowing Rich’s last fish, that we went ahead and counted, was the last steelhead he ever caught and the most special fish I’d ever been a part of.

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3 comments

J, my dad was a boxer, so this one hit home. Well done.

Rocky Tilander

Love stories like that warms my heart

Thomas Lambertz

Great story, sir!

Gordie Morgan

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