"Bob Toman: The Fishiest Guy I’ve Ever Met” by Eric Chambers

bob toman giant salmon 70 lb king chinook

-After 50 years of putting clients on fish, Oregon’s Bob Toman is happiest while tinkering

By Eric Chambers

It’s impossible to imagine Bob Toman becoming anything but Bob Toman—celebrated fishing guide, gear and technique innovator, Purple Heart combat veteran, and northwest salmon and steelhead legend.

Growing up next to a creek just outside of Oregon City, Toman was raised to fish. His first job was stocking the shelves at Larry’s Sports Center in Oregon City, where he was the first employee hired outside of the original four founders. At Larry’s, Bob learned plenty about gear and technique. He also picked up a critical skill for aspiring fishing guides: fluidity with people.

That came in handy when Toman set off for the Babine River after High School, to work the summer at Bob Wickwire’s fishing lodge in British Columbia. Wickwire hired Toman to be a lodge-hand for the summer, mowing the grass, cleaning fish, splitting wood and washing boats. “If I got my list done, I was allowed to fish for the last half-hour before dark,” Toman recalled.

After a few weeks, Toman started to befriend some of the spouses and stragglers, left behind at the lodge while other guests went out with a guide. Toman’s youthful charm and fishing skill paid off, as the wayward guests pleaded with Wickwire to let Toman take them fishing. “It was like the best freaking summer of my life,” Toman recalls.

Wickwire agrees that Toman was a natural. “He’s the fishiest guy I’ve ever met,” Wickwire said. Toman never returned to the lawnmower that summer, and but for a stint in combat with the 5th Mechanized Infantry Division’s “Red Devils” during Vietnam, his tenure of excellence in northwest salmon and steelhead fishing is uninterrupted.

When Toman returned home from Vietnam, he started doing seminars at Larry’s and working with large groups from Northwest Steelheaders. Always a grinder, Toman coupled his work at Larry’s with regular fishing trips, initially charging friends a couple bucks for boat fuel.

Bob Toman starts Guiding

With a knack for putting people on fish, Toman’s “friend list” grew substantially and a line started forming for seats in his $400, 16-foot Smoker Craft. It took a business lecture from Art Jacobs for Toman to realize that his services carried a certain market value. He set his initial rate at $7.50 per person and he’s hardly had an empty seat since.

Toman grew a name for himself on the Deschutes and Clackamas rivers, where he guides trout and steehead trips, and on the Willamette, Tillamook Bay, and Nushagak River in Alaska, where he chases salmon.

big tillamook chinook salmon

His ability to limit the boat is the stuff of legend, but Toman’s proudest moments over the years have come from innovations in gear and technique. Toman’s inclination to tinker dates back to his earliest childhood fishing memories, pounding out fishing lures from tin cans—his favorite being green bean cans because they were gold on one side and silver on the other.

Gear Innovations

Toman famously modified the Cascade Spinner with better brass and a different cup, and popularized it in Tillamook Bay, where it remains dominant over three decades later. Longtime friend and client, Eric Wiegele, fondly recalls fishing with Toman on the Tillamook, and watching the entire recreational fleet follow Toman from one side of the bay to the other.

“I do not make a lure to see if somebody will buy it,” Toman said. “When I’m messing with them, they have to prove-up.”

Toman’s drive to tinker and innovate is certainly not from lack of getting bit—he does plenty of that. Toman’s boat once landed 52 steelhead in a single day on the Deschutes, and he once carried a streak of 596 consecutive fishing trips without getting skunked. But who’s counting?

Still, the kitchen table in his Clackamas River home is covered with plugs, paint cans, and partially-finished gear projects. Toman’s obsession with developing the next-great-thing is something more like Tiger Woods undergoing a dramatic swing change shortly after holding all four Major Championship trophies. It wasn’t about winning—he was having no trouble doing that—it was about owing the sport the greatest excellence he could muster, and being willing to take risks to get there.

Those risks paid off. In addition to inventing the popular Toman Thumper, Toman helped bring the Chetco Diver to market, combining his inclination to tinker with his innovative approach to salmon and steelhead fishing technique.


bob toman kwikfish

Willamette River Spring Chinook Techniques

When Toman first came on the scene, nearly the entire Willamette River spring Chinook fishery consisted of launching in the very early hours of the morning and fighting for a spot in the hog line. Noticing that novice clients had trouble with complex fishing methods like back-bouncing, Toman sought a simpler alternative. He coupled the new-to-the-scene Chetco Diver with sand shrimp, and promptly limited-out the boat. Buzz Ramsey, then a purchaser for Luhr Jensen, bought the production rights to the Chetco Diver and delivered it to the broader market (where Luhr Jensen renamed it the Jet Planer). But for Toman’s curiosity and obsession with inventing “a better mousetrap” the diver-and-bait technique for targeting northwest steelhead may have never risen to prominence.

Due to his work schedule, Toman didn’t always have the luxury of getting his clients out that early, so he improvised and began trolling stretches of the river—like Portland Harbor—that were hardly fished before. Toman shared his trolling strategies with his clients and the customers at Larry’s. Word got around and the entire fleet’s approach to the fishery changed.

To this day, Toman is obsessed with figuring fish out. “Anybody who spends time in the water knows where to find fish,” said longtime friend and client Charles Kaluza, “Bob always wants to know why they are there.”

Detailed Fishing Log

That obsession with data and science manifested in Toman’s detailed fishing log, maintained for 20 years, cataloging every fish caught in the Clackamas. In total, Toman’s log has nearly 5,000 entries, capturing 32 separate factors on each fish, like type and color of presentation, weather, tides, time of day and specific location. Toman’s log is now being reviewed by researchers, attempting to see what such a large sample can teach about fish biology and fishing technique.

Though it isn’t part of his regular conversation with clients, Toman’s service in Vietnam is an obvious subscript. Twice awarded the Purple Heart, Toman still walks with a hitch in his giddy-up, a constant reminder of his combat experience.

Toman’s popular Thumper spinner, for example, was named after the soldier who carries the grenade launcher in combat—the job Toman was doing when he was wounded the first time. The water became Toman’s refuge. “Because of my experience in Vietnam, being on the river is my quiet place,” Toman said. “I am at peace out there.”

Over time, Toman’s reputation grew, sometimes even beyond reality. He once had somebody tell him about a photo he saw of him on ifish, holding up two 50-pound spring Chinook from the Clackamas. No such thing ever occurred, but by “catching” fish when he wasn’t even on the water, Toman achieved legend status. “He’s the Dean of Guides,” said longtime friend and client Joey Sato.

Legendary Clientele 

As Toman’s reputation expanded, so too did the prominence of his clientele. Acclaimed singers like Eric Clapton, Gary Brooker, and Rob Grill have graced Toman’s boat, with Brooker writing a song about the Deschutes, inspired by his experience.

Toman has also guided a crowd of sports stars over the years, like Hall of Fame pitcher, Burt Blyleven, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski, Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox, and Portland Trailblazers greats like Geoff Petrie, Calvin Natt, Dave Twardzik, and Sam Bowie. Toman put Tom Foli’s dad on his first salmon ever, caught on a green/red/gold Hotshot, which is how the “Green Pirate” Hotshot got its name, since Foli played shortstop for the Pittsburg Pirates at the time.

In addition to performing artists and athletes, Toman has also regularly hosted northwest outdoor writers, serving as the guide-of-choice for Don Holm, Tom McAllister, and Bill Monroe. Toman and Monroe became fast friends and have been nearly inseparable for 38 years. “I haven’t seen Bill since yesterday, and I won’t see him again until tonight,” Toman joked, “…He’s getting older, I’m not.” For his part, Monroe observed that Toman is in fact aging, but defying nature, he’s gaining steam as he goes.

Toman’s most prominent client of all time was the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, an avid outdoorsman. Scalia was in town for a lecture at the University of Portland and expressed interest in chasing the northwest’s famous salmon and steelhead. The University contacted their prominent alumnus and Publisher of this magazine, Frank Amato, who in turn called Toman.

Toman recalls being blown away by Scalia’s intellect. “He was the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Toman said, “…he wanted to know everything about salmon and steelhead.” Scalia spent the entire trip—save for a phone call where he refrained from hearing a case to commute a death-row inmate’s life-sentence—peppering Toman with detailed questions.

bob toman chinook salmon

Fishing that day was beyond slow, without even a bite. In the last 10-minutes of the trip, as they passed through the final hole, Scalia hooked a wild spring Chinook on his own rod and successfully retrieved it to the boat for a photo before they released it. “I was really freaking relieved,” Toman recalls. “It’s so hard to catch famous people fish.”

Passion for People

Toman, a kind of quiet extrovert, genuinely enjoys meeting new people and taking them fishing, even if they aren’t yet skilled anglers. “I’m kind of a Chinese puzzler,” Toman said. “I’ve gotten really good at untangling lines.” Wickwire, and clients Kaluza and Sato all noted Toman’s patience with kids and beginners. “Bob spends a lot of energy teaching kids and adults how to fish,” Kaluza said.

Toman intentionally blurs the line between friend and client. After Sato found Toman’s advertisement on the back of the 1997 State Fishing Regulations Manual and first jumped in his boat on Tillamook Bay, Toman gave him spinners to experiment with on his own, and offered to lend him one of his pro rods. Sato and Kaluza both told of getting calls from Toman on his “days off” asking if they’d like to go fishing just for fun, and Toman visited Sato in the hospital when he was recovering from an accident.

Defying the industry standard, Toman doesn’t collect any money from clients in advance of a trip, eating an occasional empty seat from a client who doesn’t show. “He has a strong faith in humanity because he’s just a stand-up guy,” Sato observed. Monroe agreed, “Bob is a man of his word and is loyal to a fault to those who return it.”

For Toman, the best clients are there to enjoy the day, enjoy the company, and catch fish, in that order. The worst clients: “The ones who spend the whole trip explaining how good they are and how much they know about fish,” Toman said. He insists, however, that he can only name a few truly awful clients in all of his years guiding, with the vast majority of folks just interested in a great day on the water.

“Guides and their clients are sort of a matching of personalities, for better and worse,” Toman said. He cautions against choosing guides who advertise themselves as catching more fish than everybody else. They attract clients who are bloodthirsty, and nobody has fun. “He’s a fishing guide, not a catching guide,” Monroe said, “…there’s a difference.”

Guide Ethics

Toman also thinks contemporary guides need to get more involved in professional activities and associations outside of their boats. “The best guides are honest, they don’t cheat, they are respectful of others, and they put back into the resource,” Toman said, “…get involved, or lose it.”

Ocean harvests, dams, degraded habitat, and special interest groups have all played a part in threatening the resource, from Toman’s perspective. “The problems we have now seem bigger than the ones my uncles and grandpa were talking about,” Toman said.

Toman doesn’t look the part of an ecologist. He doesn’t neatly trim his beard or wear Patagonia hats. But he loves fish, and that means caring for their habitat and spawning grounds.

Conservation

Fifteen years ago, Toman drove by the Big Creek Fish Hatchery near Astoria on a hunting trip, and noticed bins full of expired fish carcasses going to waste. He devised a plan to salvage the nutrients and return them to area rivers. He fought through bureaucracy with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and partnered with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to charter a pilot project, getting the nutrients added to the upper Clackamas River—chartering an effective ecological enhancement technique that has now been replicated across the northwest.

Later on, Toman worked with Portland General Electric (PGE) to conduct habitat enhancements on the Clackamas River, below the Barton Bridge, which showed that groundwater streams could contribute to cooler water temperatures. Toman identified 28 other locations on the Clackamas River where groundwater streams, side channels, and braids could improve water temperature, and 11 of them have now been completed. “He was ahead of his time in finding spots to use it,” said Doug Cramer, a retired PGE biologist who worked with Toman.

Cramer recalled a radio telemetry study PGE was conducting on the Clackamas, for which they hired Toman to help collect the fish. They were following scientific best practices in their handling of the fish, but still experiencing unacceptably high mortality rates. Toman interjected and suggested they hold the fish by the front of the jaw area (kind of like a bass) instead of removing them from the water, a technique never practiced in such studies. They gave it a try, and their mortality numbers substantially improved.

For a guy who possesses thousands of fantastic fishing stories, his eyes light up the most when discussing stream enhancement projects and partnering with ODFW to conduct spring Chinook mortality studies, which resulted in the modern resumption of the spring Chinook sports fishery on the Columbia.

Fishing Stories

But the fishing stories are great too. Toman’s client, Kaluza, recalled a trip on the Deschutes, when everybody in the boat was getting bit except him. Toman took the boat to shore for lunch, and pointed at a riffle, telling Kaluza to stand on ledge in the water for his next cast. “In my next six casts, I caught five steelhead and a Chinook,” Kaluza said. Toman’s knowledge of the river and ability to read water came in handy, recognizing a piece of water that could only be properly fished from that specific location and angle.

chinook fishing

On another occasion, Bill Monroe was trolling alongside Toman’s boat on the Tillamook. Toman was looking off the stern of his boat with his back turned to Monroe’s boat when he shouted “Bill, you have a fish on!” Sure enough, Monroe recounts, he had hooked a fish. How Toman saw it with his back turned remains a mystery.

Like any good fisherman, Toman still doesn’t spill all of his secrets, but at this stage in his career, he is willing to put a few tips into the public domain. First and foremost, keep a positive attitude. “You ever notice how people who feel like they are going to catch fish always seem to catch fish?” Toman asked. “There’s something to that.”

Next, keep perfect tension on the fish. There’s nothing new about this tenet, but it is often overlooked. Toman observed how amateur anglers in his boat always reel feverishly on a hooked fish and let the drag control the tension. “When they do that, they never seem to lose them,” Toman noted.

Toman also credits his obsession with sharp hooks for part of his boat’s success, and noted that the color of one’s diver doesn’t make any difference, so long as it’s blue. The guy has a sense of humor.

According to Sato, Toman once suffered the indignity of getting stuck on a sandbar in Tillamook Bay, and promptly fashioned a sign for his boat that read, “Lemonade $0.50” while waiting for the incoming tide.

After five-decades of guiding, Toman doesn’t show much interest in slowing down, retirement but a distant thought: “What would I do, go fishing?” Toman joked. “I don’t really have any regrets,” Toman reflected, “I’ve been able to live my life fishing and hunting... What could be better than that?”


Eric Chambers is the author of Tidal Grace: Fishing, Family, and Faith on Oregon’s Yaquina River. Available at www.amatobooks.com


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