Oregon’s Bill Monroe reflects on 37 years of chronicling the state’s wet and wild outdoors
For 37 years, Monroe has been a familiar, sagacious voice at The Oregonian, sharing the state’s latest outdoor news, along with his own unbashful commentary. He’s reported back from hundreds of hunting and fishing excursions and discovered Oregon’s story in steelhead riffles and bird songs in every corner of the state. If Oregon has a cadence, it sounds something like Bill Monroe. “Some of the best advice I got in the newsroom was to establish my absence,” Monroe said. “The story was outside.”
Monroe’s grandmother was the first to notice Bill’s knack for the written word, enrolling him in a summer writing class during his childhood. The ability to spin a sentence came in handy when Monroe went to college on the GI Bill after serving in Vietnam, enrolling in the Fisheries Biology program at Oregon State University.
But when faced with the very real prospect of having to tackle Organic Chemistry as part of his degree course, Monroe pivoted. He switched his major to journalism, setting the course for a career of weaving his affinity for fishing and hunting with his talent for writing.
Monroe’s unique ability to capture narrative in his outdoor reporting propelled him to secure several national outdoor writing awards. “He’s a good storyteller,” said Jeff Wohler, Monroe’s longtime Sports Editor at The Oregonian. “He sets a scene and takes us places we might not get to go, or that we’ve visited before and get to relive again.” As Monroe’s writing prominence rose, so too did his profile on the national level, where he served a term as President of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
Monroe was born at Emanuel Hospital in Portland, but grew up in several west coast communities as his family followed his father’s military career. But the northwest always beckoned. “I joined the Navy and saw half of the world,” Monroe said. “After 12 typhoons, I promised that if I could get back to the northwest, I’d never leave again. We have deserts, lakes, streams, the ocean, salmon, steelhead, tuna, halibut, panfish, bass. We get to love it all -there’s just nothing like it.”
But lately, Monroe’s affection for Oregon is tempered by his concerns for the future. Increasingly, he is seeing a policy-making environment where interest groups and politics guide decisions instead of science. “It’s about preparing for the future,” Monroe said. “Nobody is doing that.”
A pickup-driving combat veteran with a bit of a hawkish worldview and Republican-leaning politics, Bill Monroe defies a tempting caricature. He points to his environmental coverage of pollution in Portland Harbor and the 10-year anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster as some of his proudest career achievements, and references the Greek concept of Gaia -that the Earth itself is a living organism- as he shouts for a Beaver fly ball to drop fair. The [Bill] Monroe Doctrine is complex.
“I detest bio-politics,” Monroe said. “Tossing science to politicians is eroding our survival.” Particularly frustrating for Monroe is the pattern of being presented with compelling evidence that problems exist, with no viable solutions offered by elected officials or embraced by the body-politic.
“I am deeply worried about my grandkids’ generation -even my kids’ generation,” Monroe said. Ocean temperatures and carbon pollution are on the front of his mind, and his crystal ball is gloomy: “We are now suffering a cataclysmic event we created ourselves.”
He’s also troubled by a growing culture of instant gratification and urgency.
“People need to be willing to stay in a place and really learn to fish and hunt,” Monroe said. “You can’t do that on one of these,” he implored, clutching his smartphone. “We are becoming victims of our own vanity.”
Monroe’s concern for the future has also broadened his scope of interest. After retiring from The Oregonian (though he still contributes a monthly story), Monroe began serving on the Clackamas River Basin Council, where he is currently the board chair. “Bill has really become the Patron Saint of the Clackamas,” said Salmon Trout Steelheader Publisher, Frank Amato.
Cheryl McGinnis, the Council’s Executive Director, noted Monroe’s sense of urgency, “I think he’d like to see things done pretty quickly,” she said, laughing. That urgency, coupled with what McGinnis referred to as “…the strength of Bill’s voice and the words that he chooses,” has boosted the Council’s profile.
While politics isn’t Monroe’s preferred muse, his knack for holding policy-makers accountable has become a signature element of his reporting. “He is aware of what policy-makers have at their disposal and can cut through the conversations,” McGinnis said.
It’s a trick he learned from his mentor, Rod Deckert, the City Editor at the Corvallis Gazette Times, where Monroe started his journalism career. “He taught me to probe, turn over rocks, ask hard questions and stay in bureaucrats’ faces until we had the answers,” Monroe said.
While not afraid to call out issues when he sees them, Monroe’s journalistic approach has trended cooperative throughout his career. “I depend a lot more upon building relationships than getting into faces,” Monroe said.
Wohler agreed, “I think, given his druthers, he’d just as soon be fishing, hunting, in the outdoors all the time, but he recognizes that he has a responsibility to his readers.” That responsibility is to convey trustworthy policy and political information to readers.
Monroe is as blunt now as ever when it comes to the travails of policy-making, particularly as it relates to the federal government. In a guest column to The Oregonian’s opinion page last spring, Monroe filleted federal budget-writers for attempting to zero-out critical salmon recovery funds that flow to Oregon.
There have also been moments of levity along the way. On an outing with his editor, Jeff Wohler, and the late acclaimed Southern Oregon fishing guide Denny Hannah, the three fishermen came across a stranded cow on a patch of land in the middle of Smith River. A nearby rancher in a sweat-and-blood-stained shirt (having recently returned home from open-heart surgery) emerged from a rickety house and shouted at the group, asking them to help him retrieve the animal.
They sourced a rope and went to work, with Monroe essentially lassoing the animal’s neck and retrieving it to the side of Hannah’s 16-foot drift boat for the trip across the river. “Once its feet hit the ground on the other side, the cow took off with Bill still clutching the rope,” recalls Wohler. “The rancher was shouting ‘Leet gooo a’ da’ roop!’”
On another outing Monroe was fishing with Governor Vic Atiyeh on the Deschutes during Atiyeh’s reelection campaign. After they retired for the day and were relaxing on the porch of their cabin, a group of beer-swigging rafters floated by, recognized the Governor, and took the opportunity to moon him. “He mocked surprise,” Monroe recalls, but seemed pleased to have been recognized and get some attention.
That was far from Monroe’s only brush with high-ranking officials. As a young reporter working at the Corvallis Gazette Times, Monroe was covering the weekend police report when a Georgia peanut farmer waltzed in to the office, adorned in a ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots, and introduced himself as presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. With no political reporter in the office on the weekend, Monroe kindly shook his hand and asked the future president to come back on Monday.
Monroe also fondly recalls covering an episode of “Fishing the West” with Larry Schoenborn where he learned the industry shortcuts, like dragging a coat hanger through the water to mimic the rod action of a hooked fish, or letting a previously caught fish revive enough to be placed on another line, and “fought” all over again.
Anxious to share these discoveries, Monroe whipped up a story and sent it to press, only to be greeted by a throng of upset readers, who preferred the bliss of ignorance to learning the tricks of the trade. “It was like I had told them Santa Claus doesn’t exist!” Monroe said.
And gentle readers, he hears you. Partly out of a pledge to stay current with new media, and partly from his inner spirit of debate, Monroe reads nearly every comment on his stories, often responding in the thread. “It drives my mom crazy sometimes,” Bill’s daughter Kelli Monroe said. “He’ll be in on his computer for hours.”
In a departure from the modern inclination to hunker down in the comfort of specific interest groups or political camps, Monroe welcomes the messiness of disagreement. “Dad appreciates a good debate, and he’ll let it run its course,” Bill’s daughter Molly said. “There are people on his Facebook feed that I can’t believe he’s still friends with.”
Now in his early 70’s, Monroe is as probing and inquisitive as ever. “He’s much more than a hook-and-bullet guy,” Wohler said. “He’s always curious.” After traveling Oregon for nearly four decades, one frustrating curiosity Monroe has observed in recent years is the growing unawareness and apathy in the Portland area for the everyday lives of rural Oregonians.
That disconnect with rural lives concerns Monroe because rural ingenuity and outdoor awareness are ultimately critical to survival, and Oregon’s unique culture. And Monroe has always demonstrated a fondness for capturing stories in Oregon’s backwaters and lightly-traveled trails.
Wohler recalls a fishing trip on the South Fork of the Coquille River, when Monroe’s fishing rod broke. Wohler approved the purchase of a new rod on Monroe’s expense account, and they dropped into a local outfitter’s shop in Powers, population 678. The shopkeeper recognized Monroe and engaged him in conversation. An hour later, they were still at it. “He’s an everyman,” Wohler said. “He can relate on that level.”
As Monroe’s narrative prowess and ability to set scenes started forming into his signature style, he also introduced the use of characters (always based on real experiences) to convey stories in creative ways. One of his most prominent characters was “Pilgrim” -an aspiring steelhead fisherman who went on a 10-year fishing drought after catching and releasing his one and only steelhead, a spawner, sure he’d get an opportunity for something brighter later in the day.
Pilgrim’s travails became a running parody. “He was credited with shutting down hot bites, skunking some of the best guides,” Monroe recalls. Fishing guides would call Monroe and ask where Pilgrim would be fishing that weekend so they could take their clients elsewhere.
That playful, candid, creative inclination, coupled with Monroe’s curious nature and policy acumen, forged a solid brand over time and enshrined his place in Oregon’s outdoor lore. “What you read is who he is,” said Glenda Monroe, Bill’s wife of 45 years. Glenda also noted Monroe’s ability to “write his emotions” when he may otherwise struggle to convey them.
Monroe’s reports and columns became a coveted Sunday morning tradition for outdoor enthusiast across the state, but building a celebrated career in outdoor reporting also demanded sacrifices along the way.
“I wish I had spent more time with my kids,” Monroe reflected. “We are close, but I wish we were closer.”
Glenda and the Monroe children remember it similarly, though they also recall opportunities for the kids to tag along on many of his projects. There was a steady flow of camping, fishing, and hunting trips for the family, but there were also regular absences as Monroe traveled Oregon in search of the next story.
“We had three kids, two horses, two dogs, two birds -two of everything- and Bill would be gone on a work trip,” recalls Glenda. She’s also tremendously proud of Monroe’s role in evangelizing Oregon’s outdoors, and the prominent way in which he shared their family’s experiences in his reports. “People came to know us that way -me and the kids and all the animals,” Glenda said. “It would be personal, and people liked that.”
Much like Monroe doesn’t find the newsroom to be the best place to discover a story, the Monroe children were raised to understand that the school classroom wasn’t the only place to learn.
“I remember the joy of being taken out of school to actually learn stuff,” said Bill Jr., recalling a trip down to the Rogue River to see Green Sturgeon. Molly added, “The teachers would kind of expect it when elk season was coming up. We’d load up the camper and head across the state to get out in the wilderness.”
All three of Monroe’s children credit their love of Oregon and the outdoors to their father’s influence, and two of the three have chosen professional paths that get them out working in it. Bill Jr. is a successful fishing guide (Bill Monroe Jr Outdoors), and Molly, having navigated Organic Chemistry better than her father, is a wildlife biologist in Corvallis.
They also recall lifetimes of hearing reader-feedback on their dad’s stories.
“Everywhere I go, people see my name and ask me about his columns,” Kelli said. Bill Jr. added, “A boat will come by and tell me that dad’s recent article was terrible, and 30 minutes later, another boat will come by and say they loved it.”
Molly even recalls once getting out of a speeding ticket when the police officer saw her last name and discovered her lineage in Oregon’s outdoor aristocracy. It turns out that cops like to fish and hunt too.
Monroe is not an enigma. He’s spent his career freely sharing his candid personal experiences and perspectives with millions of readers, and in that way, Oregonians know him intimately. He’s a macho outdoorsman and a contemplative birder. He’s a proud veteran and a powerful watchdog. He’s a doting grandfather and a faithful friend.
“He is probably the most dependable and loyal man there is,” Kelli said. Wohler expressed similar sentiments, “When you are an editor or a manager, you cannot have friends because you may need to manage them at some point. After 43 years at the Oregon Journal and The Oregonian, I can say that Bill was one of the very few friends I allowed myself to keep.”
After 37 years of writing about fishing trips and the outdoors, Monroe’s favorite fishing advice sounds something like his writing style: “Keep your line in the water, and don’t be afraid to experiment,” Monroe said. “All of the best guides are willing to experiment and change things. And you can’t be lazy.”
written by Eric Chambers
Eric Chambers is the author of Tidal Grace: Family, Fishing, and Faith on Oregon’s Yaquina River. Available at www.amatobooks.com