In Alaska and the US states that verge on the mighty Pacific, fishing for that ocean’s largest salmon is the sportfishing of kings.
We Canucks know the creatures as chinooks for etymological reasons whose roots I tapped into last week. Regionally, we call them springs for the time of year when the first of them return to the Skeena, the Nass and a host of smaller rivers that irrigate the coast line. Scientists, with that fondness categorization their professional methodology demands, file the mighty fish under Oncorhynchus appending the breathy tshawytscha , just to be precise.
King Salmon, Tyee Salmon, Columbia River Salmon, Black salmon, Chub Salmon, Hook Bill Salmon, Winter Salmon and Black Mouth Salmon, no matter what you call them, Chinook Salmon are magnificent brutes.
From their log books and diaries the men in wooden ships who first found their way to this coast were astounded both by the size of the salmon and their abundance. Used to populous, sparsely-treed landscapes where river fishing for salmon was tightly regulated, skippers like Captain Vancouver were stunned by the fecundity of the seemingly boundless riches of the coastal fisheries.
It wasn’t long after settlement that the lustre began to wear off the promise of the new salmon fishery, for these New World salmon proved to be completely unimpressed with the flies and Old World approaches that worked so well on the Atlantic salmon.
Eventually sports fishers and their descendants discovered the steelhead, a salmon that would bite every bit as readily as an Atlantic salmon, and they learned how to take his less aggressive cousins with Devon Minnows, then later, with a glittering array of spinning and wobbling lures, and bait, of course.
Still, the Pacific salmon were standoffish when it came to the entreaties of fly fishers, especially so in the case of the mighty Chinook. For the most part, it remained that way until the middle years of the last century when some men in Northern California, using a large dollop of American ingenuity and taking advantage of the fact the rivers near their homes – the Smith, the Eel, the Russian, the Chetco and the Gualala and the Klamath – had giant runs of steelhead the giant salmon, began hooking and landing enough king salmon to move the feat from fluke to achievement.
Foremost among these men was Bill Schaadt. A sign painter by trade, Schaadt worked just enough to keep body and tackle together as well as to pay for a small pram and keep his old pickup from getting thirsty. Using one piece glass fibre rods purchased at yard sales and cheap and sturdy reels like the Pfleguer Medalist, which he loaded with lead core trolling line and a lot of monofilament, Schaadt probed the deep green pools of his home rivers with small sparse flies.
Schaadt’s flies were small and spare. The most famous of them, the Comet, was tied on a six or eight hook, the size most fisherman associate with trout fishing. After attaching a long tail of coastal bucktail or polar bear, dyed yellow, to the small iron, Schaadt wound a body of gold tinsel on the shank then fronted the dressing with a few turns of cock hackle, also dyed yellow. With this pattern and ones like it, Schaadt landed literally hundreds of chinook, many of them in the 40 to 50 pound range, the largest tipping the scales at 56 pounds.
Except for special holidays, which he set aside to visit his mother, Schaadt devoted all his spare time and some of the time he couldn’t spare, to fishing. Since his career extended over 50 years, that’s a lot of fishing.
Schaadt didn’t write about his fishing or brag about his prowess. He was a solitary bachelor who compared notes with his few fishing companions. His accomplishments were so remarkable they simply couldn’t be contained. Passed on in reverential tones by word of mouth, they finally surfaced like breaching salmon in the works of Russell Chatham and, later, Trey Combs. To dispel any doubt of Bill Schaadt’s prowess, Chatham’s work Angler’s Coast is replete with black and white photos of him hoisting giant salmon in the air, usually with a few more strewn about at his feet.
Because fish stocks were thought to be limitless in those days, men strove to kill their limits. When men fished as well as Bill Schaadt, they limited often. He achieved this prodigious success in an age when you had to go to Arkansas if you wanted to shop at a Wal-Mart, an era fishermen wore wool in the winter and waded rivers in heavy rubber boots with treads like truck tires on their soles. By today’s standards, fish tech was low tech. How did he do it? Find out next week.