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FULL CIRCLE — MY FIRST - AND LAST - DRIFT BOAT - Bill Herzog

A lifetime of river fishing memories, old and new, courtesy of a banana shaped rowboat.
(For the duration of this article, please put “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” from Elton John on the speakers while you read for proper ambiance…)

 

 

“The Green Manalishi” ready to take the author back where it all began...

 

My parents were folks of modest means, so when I graduated high school in 1977 my only vehicle to college was a possible scholarship. A 3.4 GPA was good, but not good enough for a free ride. So, community college it was, little Fort Steilacoom C.C. near our house in Tacoma was all we could afford. Now looking back, the people I met in that place would send me off on a lifetime journey of steelhead and salmon fishing that may never have manifested had I went to a big university. 

Striking up a casual conversation with a fellow student in the student center, of course fishing was the reason for the chat. Turns out his older brother worked for Washington Fish & Wildlife (its name back then), and there was a river near Aberdeen called the Wynoochee that should be getting back its initial plants of summer steelhead this year (1980). It was early June, he invited me to float the river this coming Saturday to fish and see if anything was home. I’ve never heard of this place, but what the heck I just started this steelheading business a year ago and wanted to see other rivers.

 

Rowing the upper Wynoochee in the “last boat,” July 2021.

 

The Wynoochee was low and clear, common during summer. Not another boat or angler in sight. We wound up hooking over a dozen Skamania bred hatchery summer runs that trip, half on my favorite flame yarn/chunk of raw prawn, the other ones on this “brand new” (to me) technique, back trolling Hot Shots. The violence of the grab, the newness of the presentation, man! I just had to get a boat for this place and come do this some more!

I could not wait to get back to Tacoma and show my buddy these amazing summer steelhead. 

 

The First One: 1979

Fueled by youth and the four eye popping summer steelhead I rolled in with, my friend Mike and I were on the immediate hunt for one of these steelhead chariots.

An ad in the local newspaper (yes, a newspaper) showed a hand-made 15-foot wooden dory. We checked it out, it was exactly what we hoped for. Bright blue paint job, padded rowing and passenger seats. The gent selling it was 60 years old, as he told us, and didn’t that seem at the time like he had one leg in the coffin. We were 19 years old, so man, this dude was old!

 

Jerry Bacon and the author with some plug caught September Wynoochee summer runs on the White Bridge ramp.

 

“It’s been all over the map, the steelheader’s map,” he said, “From the Thompson in B.C. to the Skagit, Skykomish, the Hoh, Cowlitz, pretty much if you can name it. I have to sell it…” he paused, choking up, patting the boat on the bow while he gathered himself. “My best friend…I fished with him…for over 40 years. He died last week. We caught so many steelhead in this boat, it reminds me of him, I can’t look at it anymore. You boys take it out, use it, it will get you fish!

 

First winter steelhead out of the “Roach Coach,” 1980.

 

He sold me the boat, with trailer, for 50 dollars. It’s all he would take from me (the ad said $1500), he saw our enthusiasm and basically gave it away. Didn’t take us but a few days to tow “The Roach Coach” down to the Wynoochee and see if we could row this thing...

 

Mike Cronen poses on the maiden voyage of the first drift boat, 1979 on the upper Wynoochee.

  

Learning to row was awkward, but we picked it up quick. “Point the bow at what you don’t want to hit and row back away from it,” the veteran boaters told us. Caught my first of many Wynoochee summer runs on that new “Hotshotting” technique the following week; many more steelhead, winter and summer, were found over the next two years in that blue drift boat.

I loved that first boat, but something new and shiny was giving me the Lorelei call…

 

1981 to 1997: The Best of Times 

I saved a few bucks from my new warehouse job in Seattle, went to Auburn Sports & Marine and bought a sparkling new 14-foot aluminum Fish Rite. Just like the big boys…named it “Living After Midnight” by Judas Priest, because we were always leaving town just after midnight to go float (“I left the city ‘bout 1 a.m., loaded…loaded! I’m all geared up to score again…”) You know the song, it’s been my “going fishing song” for 40 years! Wouldn’t you know it, my brother Mike got one exactly like it around the same time. They were different colors but those 14 footers were our chariots of fire for two decades.

 

Two plug-caught summer runs below Carter Creek on the Wynoochee.

 

We could not imagine going steelheading without our boats. Sure, we had out special canyon spots we hiked into and little rivers we couldn’t float, but whenever the names Wynoochee, Bogachiel, Hoh, Queets, Humptulips, Nisqually, Skykomish or Skagit came up, winter, spring, fall or summer, the drift boat was there. Countless fish, countless days, countless barrels full of splash and giggle times we will never forget. The grabs, the trophies, the heartbreak…courtesy of a 14-foot aluminum boat with no motor.

I augmented my floating arsenal with a 10-foot fiberglass Don Hill mini drifter, which amazingly took two grown men down low water times quite well. Most of our times, however, were in those 14 footers. 

Things began to change, almost imperceptibly on our summer and winter rivers. More and more anglers were showing up, they also sporting new drift boats, as the late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw a big rush to the rivers and a spike in drift boat sales. Good fishing fueled the masses; for writers, tackle salesmen and the like these were boom times. The rivers got somewhat uncomfortably busier, but we just played the game, leaving earlier and getting craftier when and where we launched.

Steelheading was still very good, we were in the prime of our lives and nothing spelled yee-haw like a day in the drift boat.

 

The Lost Rower: 1996 to 2020

A funny thing happened on the way to the river in the late ‘90s. My coastal rivers had become extraordinarily crowded, both summer and winter, a fine mix of “hotspotting” by this Internet thing, closures and nowhere else for all these displaced Puget Sound steelheaders to go. Without rivers like the Skagit, Skykomish, Stillaguamish, Green, Carbon and Puyallup to hunt for steelhead, all these folks had one choice: Jump in with the endless boat parades on the last open rivers on the coast…or (shudder) golf. This made floating not so much fun anymore. Without any sort of restrictions on the horizon my winter/spring and even summer rivers were being pummeled. The rudeness and selfishness, brought about by the lack of available spots of both old and young anglers was non palatable. Steelhead never got even a moment’s break whenever rivers were in shape. This change of events really turned me off to drift boating and I sold “Living After Midnight” that spring after 16 years, immediately after Nick Amato and I did that drift fishing video. I became a bank angler with a chip on his shoulder by design.

 

Easy ladies, he’s taken... Mike Cronen with a limit of July plug-caught Wynoochee summers.

 

I cursed under my breath—and sometimes, not so quietly—whenever a boater would fish through our (my) water. I did, however, become pretty sneaky, as all crafty successful bank anglers must become, to figure out access spots to premium water before the chanting hordes of plastic, rubber and aluminum came NASCAR-ing down the creek. 

I perversely loved the extra challenge of less water to fish from the bank; to fishing smarter, slower and more thorough than the boat folks. These factors were lost on me whenever I floated, the “upstream twitch” I developed (you boat dudes know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout) for anticipating other craft floating down on top of us made me work water faster than any thorough steelheader would. The lust for first water turned me into a “highlighter,” a common malady of drifters.

I realized that for the last several years, whenever I went to my favorite rivers and saw the unacceptable crowding, the way steelhead fishing had lowered itself to the least common denominator for techniques and just nowhere to fish, this had to stop. No one should go to the places they love and be extraordinarily pissed off all the way driving home. Where in the serious hell is the fun in that? So, I quit. Bill Herzog has quit steelheading…that does not roll off the tongue. Except for a few days a year on the big Snake and Grande Ronde each fall, I had for the most part given up my life’s love.

 

The Last One: 2021

Moving to eastern Washington took me away from those westside rivers, far enough away that a steelheading trip was a gulag drive, expensive and usually unproductive. I pretended not to care, became a trout fisher, and found a new passion for something I used to do a lot as a kid. However, I thought often about that first boat, and why I bought it. Not seeing my friends hardly ever due to my remote location east. The feeling of floating a river, the swirl of anticipation of a familiar hole or unknown holding water around the next bend. Running a boulder garden, setting up to let out the Hot Shots, putting my partner in perfect position to cast…all of this was nearly lost to me for the past 25 years. Plus, I realized just how much I loved to row, to feel the life pulse of the river, to read the flows for safe efficient entry into a rapid or chute, digging deep and swift to avoid by inches downed trees after a rapid. All of it I pushed away, buried deep, driven by ethics and crowding to remove this huge part of who I was—am—from river fishing.

Something turned on one day, I don’t know, perhaps a ghost, a want, a wave of nostalgia, I’m not sure. Perhaps my age and the reality that quality years are down to single digits. What I knew was I wanted to taste again what was, to experience what got me out of bed so damned early for so long, that thing of ours that ruined relationships and many social goings-on for so many decades. I wanted a drift boat again.

 

When I first got the 12’ Willie, it needed a bit of work...

 

Make no mistake, I knew what was waiting. It’s certainly not 1982 anymore, folks. I have great friends, well known guys who made their bones and careers (writers, guides) around steelheading, and now are completely out of the club because runs have slipped far beyond what they deem acceptable to put forth the effort. I too went there, trout, kokanee and salmon taking my days on the water. But know this…I am a steelheader. A (blinking) steelheader!!!!! Not some salmon, nor trout, nor any other fish that swims in the galaxy, a steelhead fisherman. The rarest and most dedicated breed of angler. No other fish, no matter how spectacular, can fill that void. The undisputed greatest game fish of all. The lore, the mystique, the places they live…irreplaceable. So, I decided at the tender age of 62 to go back to my roots, my best of times, to try once more for a fish that are never in abundance and run numbers merely a withered husk of what they used to be. That being said, it’s a wonder how the universe answers your prayers...

When my friend/long time OP guide JD Love lived near Forks, he always had a lot of boats in his yard, we called it “The Marina.” One of them was a 12-foot aluminum circa early ‘90s two-man Willie drift boat, kept at his place for 15 years, owned by a friend of his which he never used. I used it, by golly. I really took a shine to the little gem, I rowed it often down the Bogachiel, Hoh, Sol Duc and Queets. Loved the way it tracked, pulled plugs, just ease of rowing. He took the boat home to his place in Seattle and left it out in the elements for seven years. I called him on a whim, wanting a drift boat again, and figured if I get one it might as well be one with great karma. To my surprise and delight, he sold me the boat and trailer in the spring of 2021 for a song. The poor little boat had been mostly gobbled up by Nature, it would be a real reclamation job to fix, but I was up to it and took it home. 

I have my drift boat. Now I had to get some stuff to fish with. The good stuff. I have all the highest quality terminal tackle, rods and reels that you can buy today. But no good stuff.

 

The little Don Hill mini drifter was money in the low, clear flows of August.

 

I even went as far as gathering tackle from the best of times. I restored and built two old school translucent honey colored Lamiglas S Glass rods, in my humble opinion the greatest steelhead rod ever made. For pulling plugs, it has no peer. One of the rods is the very same one I fished for Wynoochee summer runs on the very first attempt, first day at pulling plugs. You bet that one goes on my side. Even though I fly the flag for the finest rods in the galaxy now (G. Loomis), the S Glass will never be topped. I had to have two of them to pull plugs, no substitute. Nothing goes on these rods but the greatest reel ever made, the same ones I’ve had since they were spanking new out of the box in 1984, the direct drive Shimano 201 and 251 Bantam reels. A step further, again, I have all the sizes and colors of Mag Lips from Yakima Bait, the best steelhead/salmon plug you can buy today. But… 

There are several aspects about the old school #30 Hot Shots, made by Eddie Pope originally and made up until recently by Luhr Jensen. I wanted the O. Gs in my box, the oldest and best silver bellied Pirates, prism sided clear bodied and the pure green metallics that had that ever so slight tint of blue in the sun. I wanted to fish with those. No substitute. I constantly checked Ebay hour on the hour for the Hot Shots I wanted. I have boxes of the best steelhead spoon ever produced, the BC Steel, but when on the summer river I want to throw the naked lady 2/5ths Little Cleo, the one I used back when MTV was brand new. Real cork bodied Corkies and #3 translucent “sunrise” Okie Drifters for drift fishing. You read that right, not a float, jig and certainly no beads in the boat. It’s 1983 when you step over the gunnel, kids. 

My great teacher, Uncle Bob told me so long ago that if you want to know, to feel, what it was like back in the day, use the gear of the time period. He was so right. 

In April of 2021, after a month of aluminum rehab, pressure washing, new paint job, new bottom and 100 hours of demanding work, a completely restored classic 12-foot Willie Boat was ready to float. She is bright Seattle Sounders green, almost chartreuse; you cannot miss her going down the road or floating by. ”The Green Manalishi” (named after a killer Judas Priest cover song) was ready to take me downstream after a 24-year hiatus. 

My brother Mike might not have known (but you know, I think he really did) the other reason I got that boat. I bought it just to take my friends and family down a river again. Nobody dissects a river like him, by the way. This last summer, we floated a stretch of the Wynoochee River near Aberdeen, WA, a piece we used to do so often before cell phones. Here we were again, after decades away, chasing those same summer steelhead, where it all began. For the first time in as long as I can recall, that void was full again. I fished seldom during the float; my reward was to row. Row. Run after run, Mike’s casts precise, showcasing deadly accuracy. If there was a summer run within a nine iron, he would have hooked it. All that restoration, worth it right there. Magnificent. 

 

The miracle afternoon bite. I waited 25 years for that fish. All those hours of restoration boat work, building rods, getting lures was really for that one steelhead from where it all began. And Mike was there. Full circle.

 

I never forgot what the “old” man told us the day we bought that first blue wooden boat, about his best friend he just lost. That guy in the front has been there for 45 years. Don’t think for a second every moment he is in front casting isn’t just like Christmas.

All the previous reasons would have been more than enough to turn back the clock, but the cake icing was delivered by my doctor to me on a visit this last August. He turned to my wife after he told me the festive news about the result of the biopsy and said, “He only heard one word…that’s why you’re here, to fill him in about his options when you are driving later.” Yes, I only heard one word, my immediate thought was not of my future health but future fishing trips. Steelhead fishing trips. Those took on a whole new significance. And an urgency to “do it my way” like I’ve never felt before. Maybe my body knew something last winter and this was the reason for my “gotta get back” thinking.

I will never take a single minute for granted on the river from now on. Maybe, hell, not maybe, my absent years definitely took time away, so damn much wasted time, away from what I truly loved to make me truly appreciate the way we were and what we do.

After doing this thing of ours on the rivers of the Northwest for over five decades, I know my best days are far in the rear view. That’s just fine, because I have a drift boat again. I’m gonna be just fine. I belong behind the oars. Doing what real steelheaders do. If you see us out there, in that bright green little dory with the black G. Loomis/Judas Priest stickers, say howdy. Unlike years past, I’ll be damn glad to see my fellow steelheaders out on the waters. This drift boat will be my last one, for sure…to take me down the rivers I’ve never stopped dreaming about since day one.

Oh, yeah, did we catch a steelhead or two on that first drift back to the Wynoochee? You know, for the first time in my 33-year writing career, it doesn’t matter. What a long, strange, wonderful trip it’s been…

 

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