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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Howard Miller, Steelhead guide

By Ron Strickland, River Pigs and Cayuses, 1984
Some fine steelhead specimens hooked on the Skagit River

      Introduction: Steelheaders are not ordinary fishermen. They're crazier. December to March is prime steelhead season, the time when the ocean-going trout temporarily return to their spawning grounds in Northwest rivers and streams. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning steelhead then swim back to their lives in the sea.
      Say the word "steelheader" and most local people will think of freezing rain, icy mists, and bone-chilling winter storms. Steelheaders themselves tell gleeful stories of times when there was so much floating ice that they had a difficult job finding open water for casting.
      The Skagit River is to steelheading what the Kentucky Derby is to horseracing. The sport began on the Skagit in the early '30's and some of its elite early-day pioneers like Bud Meyers still fish the river regularly. Once Bud explained to me how modern steelheading with a rod and reel began:

      "My grandparents homesteaded in Lyman in 1876," he said, and my aunt was the first white child born there. My dad loved to trout fish with a little trout wheel and one hundred foot of line. Mother, though, never would use a reel in trout fishing. She just had an eight-foot line on a pole. Well, almost a mile up from Lyman, on Jim's Slough, about eighty Indians lived in a longhouse. When I was eleven I found an Indian dugout canoe in a logjam after a flood. My dad was about the first man to use a rod and reel for steelhead. and he and I steelheaded out of that dugout. I used to pole it standing up like an Indian."
      Bud's friend Howard Miller was an insurance man for thirty-five years until his steelhead hobby and his political interests turned him toward full-time guiding and politicking.
      As we drive to a river landing to "empty in," I wonder about the attraction of these dark, icy February mornings. Howard's conversation is a mixture of thinking out loud about the county road's potholes and enthusiastic fish tales. He is 68, has lived in the county all his life, and is more comfortable in the outdoors than behind a desk dealing with government red tape. I trust him completely with our lives on the often treacherous Skagit.
      At the landing preparing the boat Howard is as at home as any man can be. Why is he a steelheader? "I like the outdoors," he explains as the flat-bottomed square-ender floats off its trailer. "The birds and ducks and deer and otter and beaver. There's so much to see.
      A definite understatement, I learn as we speed noisily upstream past the Hanging Cedar — Howard and his friends have names for everything on the river — looking for some good "holes." A "hole" is an area of slower, deeper water beside the fast currents, probably less a physical feature of the bottom than an amalgam of tradition and hope. "Holes" are part of steelheading's mystique, like bait and the weather.
      I hunch my shoulders against the cold rush of dawn air. Ahead of us, golden eyes hurriedly take flight while others wing in singly to land astern. Mists rise and shift to reveal and then recurtain the rugged landscape. The dark blue mountains abeam and upstream gleam with snow. Mount Sauk's lookout cabin is a tiny speck above us. Glinting dully on the water, the sun barely shines through the Low, gray sky. Even my heavy clothes feel inadequate until the motor stops and we begin to drift.
      The silence is very welcome. Jams of mottled driftwood crowd the sandbars. Crossing our bow to a tall alder, one of the river's many wintering bald eagles begins a vigil for dying spawned-out salmon. And beneath us the bottom's rocks and pebbles are surprisingly visible in water which I always associate with summer's greenly murky glacial melt.
      We drift to a new hole along banks thickly lined with cedar and fir. Two great blue herons flap ponderously past and a colorful Steller's jay comes to pick at moss on an alder limb. The morning grows more and more beautiful. Howard's sinker bumps along the bottom about twenty feet away. Imagine drifting or "boondoggling" like this every winter day. These grown men are Huck Finns, but hard-working ones.
      A water ouzel flies by and stops to bob on the gravel bar opposite us. His happy, bubbling call pervades the river. Sure, steelhead are delicious to eat, and there is the camaraderie of the men in the boat, and Howard with thirty fish this season is a phenomenal guide . . . my reservations vanish. Maybe I am crazy, too.

By Howard Miller
(Howard as guide)
Howard Miller guiding, in background

      The Skagit is one of the few streams on the West Coast that has all the species of salmon — sockeye, humpback, coho, silver, chum, king — and the steelhead. It's one of the great streams of fishing. In the early days people just didn't bother about the steelhead. They didn't have the time or the equipment, and it wasn't the sport it is now.
      This river is a very dangerous river. It looks so beautiful that we have a lot of newcomers and ecologists that just get very poetic about how peaceful and wonderful it is and they don't know what they're doing and we have to go looking for the bodies. Recently a man who had guided on the river for twenty-five years flipped his boat over. It was just a miracle that he lived. This river is an extremely fast river. The size of it fools people, but some of these riffles go eight or ten miles an hour. That amount of water can sink a large boat so fast you wouldn't even realize it. Looking at the water where it's running calm and smooth they think it's very safe out there. But the minute you hit a stationary object you've had it because that water piles right up and comes right in your boat and pulls it under. Years ago they didn't have good boats and people fished from the bank.
      That's what the plunkers still do in the lower stretches of the river. They plunk their bait out. They use six to eight ounces of lead, whatever it takes to hold their lures. They'll throw it out with a heavy sinker where the fish'll be going by and that anchors their bait. If they use a lure instead of bait, they have what we call a wing bobber, a colored piece of balsa wood with little wings on it to make it turn in the water where it's anchored.
      The plunkers are usually older people who can't stand the rigors of being out. They'll take a few boards and make a cabin of some kind with a stove made of an old oil drum. They can look out at their pole propped up at the edge of the water with their line out in the current. Sometimes they tie a white rag around the pole, and if that's jerking they know they have a fish. Or a turkey bell. It's like a cowbell, about an inch and a half through.
      I think it's great. I seen men out there seventy-five years old that's retired and they can gather in the morning and get their poles set out. They play pinochle or cards and every once in a while they look out to see if their poles are bobbing. Of course, the plunkers don't do as well as we do up here with our drift boats drifting from hole to hole. They're waiting for fish to pass their stationary bait.
      The steelhead is a very elusive fish which never goes in big schools. He's very wild and shy — never plentiful and never running like the salmon. I can remember the salmon coming up this river and crowding each other out on the bank. Never the steelhead.
      Our drift boats have a better chance than the plunkers because we might cover ten miles of river in one day. We float from one hole to another and anchor at the edge of the hole and throw our bait or lure in with a lighter lead on, maybe a half ounce. That lead will bounce along on the bottom and you can just feel it tick, tick along the bottom. Your bait drifts down in the current to the fish that might be resting in the pool.
      You stand up to row using about eight- to ten-foot oars. You have to have a little muscle behind you because when you lean into those oars there's quite a lot of pressure. Of course, you don't row against the current. You row sideways and the current carries you into position
      Awful hard work! You take off about daylight. I don't know why. You don't usually catch any fish then. Maybe there'd be snow on the ground, but when you're guiding you go out every day anyway, in all kinds of weather. You get out there on a windy day in that big boat with four people standing up in it and you just about pull your insides out trying to maneuver that boat. You don't work eight hours a day. You start at daylight and you end up when you get home and get gas for your motor. In those days you had to get your eggs ready for the next day, and all your gear, and attend to your other business. But it's fascinating out there in the open and I enjoyed it very much.
      The boats as we see them now have only been in use forty-five to fifty years. Bud Meyers was one of the first men who guided on the Skagit in 1933. In those days you didn't use any motor. Someone would drive you up to put the boat in to float down three or four miles of river and fish the various holes. Then you'd load your boat on your trailer at the end of your drift.
      That was still the custom when I started guiding in 1951. I had a five-horse motor but I couldn't go upstream with that. But in 1962 I became the first guide on the river to use a big motor. That twenty-five-horse motor with detachable tank would propel a boat upstream ten or twelve miles n hour. That revolutionized things. When I started in 1951 I might see four or five other boats out on a good weekend. Now they're be seventy-five on the same stretch of water.
      Steelheading has gotten more popular as the equipment has improved. Its evolution has been amazing. I can recall as a boy my dad telling about fishing for six to eighteen-inch fall and winter trout in nice little eddies and hooking into one of these steelhead. He'd set the hook and that steelhead would take off and wreck all his rigging. People couldn't hold 'em then because they didn't have the right equipment.
      I was talking to an old-timer who used to go out in 1905, 1910 on a small river just west of here called the Samish where there was a three or four-foot-high dam for floating shingle bolts to the shingle mill. Trout could jump over but they'd pile up by the dam. People would ride their bicycles out to fish there, but they didn't want to throw their lines too far out in the stream because those big fish would get ahold of 'em and they'd lose all their rigging. These fish are strong. I've been told by the fish biologists that the steelhead is the strongest species of fish that comes up the river.
      In the early days we had bamboo rods, Calcutta bamboo they called it, that they brought in from over in the Orient country. And our reels weren't near as good equipment as we have now. Also, we used what they called a Japanese gut line, very brittle, and you had to soak it for several hours before you went fishing. When it dried out it was just like a coiled spring on your reel. So if you decided to go fishing tomorrow, you'd better take your reel and set it in a bucket of water overnight to soak up that line. Otherwise you couldn't cast it much over twenty or thirty feet. Also, the Japanese had a braided silk line, which was very expensive, and a braided cotton line they called cuttyhunk line, which wouldn't cast very good because it would soak up water. I can recall being amazed by the first nylon line after the war. It completely revolutionized fishing.
      In the early days the only thing we used for bait was salmon eggs. We'd take cheesecloth and put the eggs up in a little bag we'd call strawberries. You cut a two-and-a-half-, three-inch square piece of cheesecloth, put some eggs in that, pulled it together, tied it, cut off the end, and it'd look just like a strawberry. About the size of a filbert nut or a little bigger. You'd put that on your hook and the fish would bite it because steelhead, being a trout, a lot of times will get behind where the salmon are laying their eggs and eat them. Of course, nowadays we also use lures with bright colors.
      I like the feel of the bite. You fish maybe all day and you're feeling this sinker bouncing along in the water and all of a sudden it doesn't feel right. You feel a little bit of a tug. Sometimes you feel quite a jerk. Other times it'll just stop and you'll feel a little bit of a springy action on there and you'll realize that the fish got your bait. There's no flags go up in the air. No lights shine or blink or anything. You've got to feel it and very quickly jerk on that rod to set the hook into the flesh. So you have to be alert at all times for the bite. It's a challenge. I'm getting older and slower, but I wouldn't take my hat off to anybody on handling rigging and equipment.
      A steelhead is a very difficult thing to land. There's no finer trophy fishing in the world. It's what you'd call the Rolls-Royce of sports fishing. You don't just hook a steelhead and drag it in and flip it into the boat. You have to tire that fish out before you can land it. And if you have your thumb hooked on your reel too tightly, your leader snaps and he's gone. I've seen strong men sit down and nearly cry. They didn't realize that they were holding that fish too tight. I've seen steelhead jump at least four feet. Ping, your leader snaps and they break off and they're gone.
      I can remember the first one I ever caught when I was ten or twelve years old. You could get a couple of dollars for a muskrat hide then and I had a few traps along the ditches and small creeks. One day I spotted a steelhead and chased it to where it disappeared under a bank. When I saw it again in the weeds and bushes at the edge I speared it with my trap- ping knife. When I go out now I still have that same thrill.


Bud Meyers
      Bud was a descendant of one of the earliest upriver families. We are just now updating his profile and will re-post it soon. For now, you can read more about his family at this Journal website about the origins of Lyman. His wife, Maxine, was a longtime postmaster for the town and Bud was a former mayor. [Return]

Political office
      Howard was an elected Skagit County Commissioner from 1966-1984, setting a record for longest tenure. [Return]

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Story posted on Sept. 11, 2000
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This article originally appeared in Issue 49 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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