Everybody's gotta start somewhere....
My interest in fly fishing began when I was a middle school-aged kid growing up on Kauai, HI in the mid seventies. I had no direct exposure to fly fishing, but my curiosity was piqued by articles I read in magazines like Fishing World and Field and Stream as well as the occasional clip on fly fishing seen on TV. The tackle and flies used and the surroundings where fly fishing took place seemed so mystical to me.
At the time, my grandmother had an opportunity to purchase a few books at a discount from some publishing house and she purchased titles like The Practical Fly fisherman by AJ McClaine, AJ McClaine's Flyfishng Encyclopedia, and Ray Bergman's Trout. I was very grateful for my grandmother's generous gifts and I poured through these books and learned as much as a budding fly fisher displaced in Hawaii could. Turns out, these books were perfect for a person just learning to fly fish although they were a far cry from what the beginner has today with DVDs and videos on Youtube that provide quality instruction on just about anything. Interestingly, as I look back on those early readings on fly fishing, I recall that the "Umpqua" chapter in Bergman's Trout stood out among all the writing about classic fly fishing for trout. I didn't even have any ready access to fly fishing for trout so the idea of fly fishing for steelhead seemed to be on a higher realm and even further removed from my reality.
I ended up purchasing a heavy Shakespeare glass fly rod and mismatched level line from a sporting goods store in California when our family took a trip to Disneyland and Yosemite National Park in 1976. When I got home I started to learn fly casting from the illustrations and text in McClaine's fly fishing encyclopedia. Surprisingly, I was actually able to get the basic mechanics of fly casting together from the static instructions in McClaine's book, but it was apparent that the heavy Shakespeare fly rod and level line were not doing me any justice. I later ended up ordering a Fenwick FF705 (7' 5wt) glass fly rod, 1494 Pfleuger Medalist fly reel, and DT5F AirCel fly line from Cabela's. When these items arrived I quickly assembled them and realized the joy of fly casting with balanced equipment. I tried fly fishing on some local bass ponds and even in one of our high mountain streams that actually contain rainbow trout (a very limited fishery, but yes rainbow trout on Kauai!), but having no mentor or fly fishing role models on Kauai to help me along, I eventually got frustrated and discouraged and I gave up my fly fishing dream and returned to fishing with conventional tackle for my local game fish.
Fast forward to 1988. I graduated from college at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1986 with a degree in Elementary Education, but before getting a "real job" I decided that I needed to get the bum musician phase out of my system first. I was a drummer in various club bands playing hard rock and heavy metal music in the Honolulu and Waikiki areas. I happened upon hearing of a band from Oregon that was playing in a club near the Honolulu airport. They were in the middle of a six week engagement and their drummer quit on them and returned to Oregon, complaining of the hot stage lights and long sets. Not wanting to give up their gig in paradise, the band starting auditioning local drummers so I auditioned and was lucky enough to get the drumming seat. I had a great time performing with this group and they liked me enough to ask me to return to Oregon with them at least until they found a permanent drummer there or for me to continue on with them if I felt like it. This was way before 9/11 so I was able to fly to Oregon with my new band mates by using the former drummer's plane ticket (that the band had kept since he abandoned them).
After arriving in Portland, Oregon, I continued to live the life of the bum musician and through the course of that journey, I met Wendi, who would later become my wife (we married in 1991). I eventually tired of the "feast or famine" instability of the band life and settled into family living with Wendi and her two daughters who were 3 and 5 at the time. We rented a duplex in Beaverton and I worked at the Epson Computer plant in Hillsboro. Wendi's dad and step mom lived in Bend so we would make periodic trips to visit them. By that time, I had been fishing for trout and steelhead with conventional gear and having some decent success on catching trout with Mepp's spinners and several steelhead on drift gear. Our trips to Bend involved traveling on Highway 26 and we would cross the Deschutes river at Warm Springs and travel along it's length for a couple miles. I would always notice guys fly fishing the "guardrail flat" and my interest in fly fishing was renewed.
I went to the Larry's Sport Center in Beaverton and purchased a few flies and a new fly line for my Fenwick 7' 5wt that I had brought with me from HI. We camped in the Warm Springs area in the summer of 1989 and one evening, I took out my old Fenwick with a #16 hare's ear nymph tied to the end of 5x tippet. I didn't know what I was doing, but fish were rising aggressively on the surface and not knowing any better, I tossed the nymph downstream in front of risers and let the fly sit. To my surprise, I was actually able hook a couple of those spirited resides with my accidental technique that probably resembled emerging caddis pupa. The next morning, I tried a #10 yellow stimulator and caught my first trout on a dry fly - I was totally hooked at that point! With my early fly fishing successes, my course was set and I would seldom use conventional gear from that point forward.
Despite the great fishing I was experiencing in Oregon at the time, I eventually felt the pull of living closer to family, so plans were made to move Wendi and the girls with me back to Hawaii in 1990. In the months preceding my return to HI, I had developed an interest in fly fishing for steelhead and I made a few feeble attempts at steelhead fly fishing after viewing Lani Waller's famous 3M Steelhead fly fishing video series. I was especially intrigued with the footage of steelhead coming up for a dry fly.
During the time that I lived in the Beaverton area, I regularly frequented the Kaumann's Streamborn fly shop in Tigard and while browsing for fly tying materials and other fly fishing accoutrements, I found myself repeatedly drawn to the book Dry line Steelhead by Bill McMillan, a book that stood out to me among all the other fly fishing titles on the bookshelf. Due to the limited budget of a struggling guy working a minimum wage job at the Epson computer plant, I held off on purchasing Dry line Steelhead so I could purchase the bare essentials to keep me fishing. I continued perusing through the book on my regular visits to Kaufmann's and caught glimpses into a steelhead fly fishing methodology that ran counter to what one was commonly taught through the steelhead fly fishing culture of the time (sink tips in winter and often in summer, wet flies, etc). Not much discussion about shooting heads with crimp on weigths (as taught by Lani Waller on parts of his videos) in Bill McMillan's book! I loved the idea of fishing a floating line even during winter and dry flies during summer/fall.
I arrived back on Kauai with Wendi and the girls in August 1990. I ended up getting a "real" job, not as a teacher, but as a Child Welfare worker (the actual thought of managing a classroom of kids day after day ended up terrifying me). After getting settled back into island life, the reality of fishing for steelhead at most a couple times a year set in. My steelhead dreams stayed alive and to help me out, my dear wife purchased Dry line Steelhead for me for Christmas in 1991 as part of a mail order of fly fishing goodies from Kaufmann's. I was thrilled to receive the book I longed for since the time we lived in Oregon. I read and re-read Dry line Steelhead and felt an instant connection with the methods being discussed and I even somehow felt a connection to the man behind those writings, even though I had never met him nor had any thought that I would ever meet him in the future. Most importantly, I learned about significant conservation issues and my eyes were opened to the negative impacts of intensive hatchery management on most of our steelhead rivers. Up to that time, a steelhead was a steelhead to me, whether wild or hatchery, and I didn't realize that hatchery steelhead could be harmful to native stocks. Bill was ahead of his time when he brought this controversial information to light to the fishing public.
I continued to attempt fly fishing for steelhead on family vacations to Oregon when we visited Wendi's family, but under the constraints of being the father of young children (my son was born in 1992) and the time limitations of being on family vacations, I, not surprisingly, did not find any success in hooking a steelhead on a fly.
Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai in September 1992 and dooming predictions of future hurricanes hitting Kauai again sooner rather than later prompted us to move to Montana! In May 1993, we arrived in Bozeman, MT, where Wendi's mother and step dad lived. I got totally immersed in the superb trout fishing on the Gallatin, Madison, Yellowstone, and Missouri. We made a few trips to Oregon and I of course continued to attempt fly fishing for steelhead with continued failure. We struggled under the tough economy in Bozeman so we again returned to Kauai in late 1994.
A magazine article I read in Fly Rod and Reel just before leaving Bozeman prompted my interest in the Bulkley River, BC and it's free rising steelhead, a paradise for getting steelhead on dry flies. A plan was hatched and arrangements were made for me to fly to Smither's to meet up with my father in law Jim and his friend Toby in late September 1995.
I arrived at the Douglas Motel in Telkwa several hours before Jim and Toby were due to arrive. What was I supposed to do but go fishing! I got my license from Maxine Douglas and took off on foot to a run in town. I had a brand new Sage 9140-4 brownie that I had just built from components purchased from Angler's Workshop in Woodland, WA. I was just learning to speycast and had a Cortland DT9F single hand rated line spooled on an Orvis Battenkill 10/11 disc reel to use with the rod. Little did I know that this line was a very poor choice for a beginning speycaster, but then, spey line choices were very limited in 1995. At the first run I fished, I was managing to get reasonable spey casts out and actually raised a steelhead within my first half hour of fishing to a modified Waller Waker that I had tied. I had the writings of Dry line Steelhead etched in my head and actually managed to at least do nothing when the steelhead came up to the waker. It would not return on subsequent casts so I finished out the run and hit another run downstream with no result. Nearing dusk, I returned to the run where I raised the fish. As I got to the spot where the steelhead came up earlier, a friendly native boy named John came by and started chatting as I fished. He asked if he could have one of my flies and as we spoke, he proceeded to cast his lure right over my fly line with his spinning outfit! Just then, a steelhead boiled at my fly early in the swing, then it came up again and missed the fly, then when my waker was near the dangle, the steelhead came up and took the fly solidly. The steelhead leaped and ran several times, giving me a spirited battle. I managed to land the beautiful wild hen of about 8lbs and John helped me snap a few photos (of course on film in those days). I marveled at hooking and landing my first steelhead on a fly, on a dry fly no less! I felt like I skipped past the evolutionary steps of sinktip/wet fly fishing that some go through before even trying surface fishing for steelhead. At that moment, I felt nothing but joy and gratitude for what Mr. McMillan taught me through his book. My course as a die hard surface steelheader was set at that point!
The remainder of that week on the Bulkley provided 5 more steelhead hooked and landed on my modified Waller Waker. I managed to raise several more steelhead but could not get them on the hook. Hooking and landing my first six consecutive steelhead on surface flies would prove to be my best string of hooking and landing steelhead to date. My current hooking to landing ratio is more like 60-75%. The aggressive surface responses of those BC steelhead brought my steelhead fly fishing dreams to life, just as I had visioned them through reading and meditating on the writing in Dry line Steelhead. While getting 6 steelhead in a week of fishing in BC is not spectacular by most travelling fly fisherman's standards, each encounter with those surface grabbing steelhead stood out as a special event to me and worth more than greater numbers of steelhead caught otherwise.
After returning from that first trip to the Bulkley, still brimming with excitement and gratitude for the wonderful fishing I experienced which provided my initiation with surface steelheading, I thought to write a letter to Bill McMillan through Amato Publications to thank him for the inspiration he provided me through his writings and to ask him further questions about his methods. To my great surprise, I received a letter from Mr. McMillan a couple weeks later! More surprising was that Bill didn't just provide brief cursory, superficial remarks to my letter, he warmly provided thoughtful responses which he obviously put some time into. I was truly impressed by Bill's humble and unassuming manner conveyed in that letter.
My beat up copy of Dry line Steelhead, held together by binding glue and packing tape:
Some chapters which left a profound influence:
I remained on Kauai until early 2009. During that time, I took 5 more trips to the Bulkley and made regular trips to Oregon to fly fish for steelhead. I actually managed to get more steelhead on surface flies and continued to fish them with strong conviction even considering the time limitations of being on vacations far from home. I just didn't want to catch a steelhead any other way.
After living in Hawaii with my family for nearly twenty years, I continued longing to return to Oregon. We purchased a home in Springfield in late 2008 and moved in early 2009. I got a Child Welfare job with the State of Oregon with all the stress that goes along with it. But, here I am, living in steelhead country with the McKenzie and Willamette in my backyard and the North Umpqua and coastal rivers a couple hours away. I've been living the dream, typically fly fishing for steelhead several times a week, often some part of consecutive days during the summer/fall.
Since late 2008, I've been blessed to maintain email communications with Bill McMillan and through these communications, we have become friends. I met Bill in person at the Steamboater's winter event in 2011 and was again able to visit with him at the Federation of Fly Fishers Fly Tying and Fly fishing expo in Albany, OR this past March where he was promoting his and son John's current book "May the Rivers Never Sleep".
It is great thing when a person's hero or mentor lives up to the vision we have of them - this has certainly been the case with Bill McMillan. Bill continues to be the humble, unassuming person in that letter I received in 1995. When speaking to Bill you would never sense any bit of celebrity status coming from him, instead you would be greeted with warm, sincere conversations. We regularly have spirited discussions about our respective fishing experiences and of course we also talk about current issues impacting our beloved wild steelhead. Bill has even accepted some of my crude flies, fished them, and caught steelhead on them - a high honor for a purely functional tyer such as myself!
Bill has worked tirelessly in scientific study in the name of protecting wild steelhead. Even though Bill retired as the president of the board of the Wild Fish Conservancy in 2011, he continues to be actively involved in ongoing studies on wild salmonids, especially in the Skagit basin. Bill has generously shared his scientific documents with me and I will posting them here in the near future.
In summary, the obvious point of this long post is to pay tribute to Bill McMillan. As my blog description states, my fishing life is truly inspired by Bill's writings, methods, and conservation work., thus my fishing style and ethics can be traced to this singular source. I fish a dry line almost exclusively. I prirmarily fish surface flies in the summer and fall and continue with the dry line throughout the winter and spring, using heavy irons or lightly weighted patterns.
Many thanks to Bill for all he has contributed to the sport of steelhead fly fishing and for his years of dedicated scientific study aimed at educating fisheries managers and the public alike in the name of protecting wild steelhead. Most of all, I am so thankful to have Bill as a friend and mentor who has far exceeded the visions and expectations any student of steelhead fly fishing could have - for this I am ever grateful.
July 6, 2013