Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bill Bakke, Trey Combs and the Evolution of our Angling Ethic

Native Perfection

Reading through Comb's classic "Steelhead Fly Fishing" for the zillionth time last night and I noticed a passage I thought I'd share. Let me first preface this by saying that while I love Trey Comb's books I've long been puzzled by their only passing mention of the threats facing wild fish. By the time Steelhead Fly Fishing was published in 1991, wild steelhead were in deep trouble throughout most of their range. While he does discuss dams at some length in the chapter on the Clearwater, Combs mostly chooses an uncontroversial tact, focusing primarily on the fishing prospects of our storied rivers, effective flies, and angling lore.

That's all well and good, but its been done. If the culture of steelhead fly fishing is to survive in the 21st centurry it will take all of our will and dedication to protect the wild fish which are the fabric of our sporting culture. I see hopeful signs, yet collectively we remain woefully slow to transcend our techno gagetry, spey casting, fly marketing, story telling and resignation to failure and enter the ring for our wild fish. So while I will always love Trey's books I look to Authors like McMillan and Roderick Haig-Brown as the godfathers of our modern sporting traditions and ethics. Both of these men have written extensively on intricacies of fly fishing for steelhead and both were decades ahead of their time in recognizing the growing list of threats facing wild steelhead. Not only did they recognize these threats but they became ardent advocates for the fish they loved.

While he has not written extensively on steelhead flyfishing, Bill Bakke has made his dedication to wild fish his life's work and Steelhead Fly Fishers all over the world owe him a debt of gratitude for it. He has been working on behalf of wild fish for 30 years and the Native Fish Society, an organization he founded in 1995 is one of the most effective and consistent advocacy groups in the Northwest. In our culture of steelhead hero worship, Bakke sometimes doesn't get all the credit he's due, he was also among the first in our region to experiment with waking flies for steelhead. His classic pattern the Dragonfly remains extremely effective and that brings me to the passage in Combs book,

Bill tied the first waking dry I ever saw
. We were fishing the Wind River, and he showed me a new pattern he called a Dragon Fly. It had the spun head of a muddler, deer hair wings that stuck out from each side nearly horizontal to the water, and a deer hair tail. It floated well, but extremely low, and then came alive under tension. The wings became little paddles as the fly rocked back and forth and churned a bubbly wake through the swing. Steelhead devoured his entire supply that day. It seems like one of us was into a fish constantly. The flies were a wonder. It was years before I heard about Bombers.

Bill Bakke was ahead of his time in other ways too. Twenty-five years ago, the Kalama River already had a ten year history of stocking hatchery steelhead. The first plants were a mixture of Cowlitz and Elochoman winter steelhead. And in 1957, the Kalama received Washougal and Klickitat summer stocks, those selectively bred Skamania stocks that came to be planted everywhere, even in the Great Lakes.

The Kalama naturally had fresh steelhead every month of the year. It was famous for its springers, sexually immature summer-runs that came in as early as March, with the winter fish. The main summer-run month was July, the perfect fishing month in the Northwest. Upriver, in the area of Pigeon Springs was a short fly-fishing only section. Add to these resources the prospect of an ambitious hatchery program, and you have angling Nirvana. Send a tiny fish to sea, argued the hatchery proponents, and get back a steelhead weighing seven or eight pounds. This arrangement with Mother Nature would be a bargain at half the cost! Hatcheries were nothing less than an integral part of the American way of guaranteeing that more anglers would catch more steelhead. Punching your card out meant your annual limit of thirty steelhead had been realized. This is what your license money paid for, and a skilled angler expected his money's worth. The Good Old Boy network could tell you who was and wasn't.

Bill Bakke spoke to me in a strange reactionary tounge. He talked of catch and release, gene pools, racial diversity, and why he hated hatcheries. In his mind, they were a covenant with the Devil, the state getting off cheap for sucking the life's blood from the watershed. Whether is was dewatering, deforestation, dams, or the kind of massive erosion that turns spawning gravel into concrete didn't matter. Native steelhead were races unique to each river, ten thousand generations had seen to that. The most perfect Kalama River steelhead was a wild fish, naturally born and bred. They existed and flourished because of the pristine watershed. Dumping a weird genetic mix of hatchery steelhead into the Kalama - and a hundred other rivers as well - was rape of the native strain's genetic integrity. Bill believed that. In time, I believed it too.

Check out the Native Fish Society's Website:


  1. Thanks for bringing this up.

    "The most perfect steelhead is a wild fish, naturally born and bred" Cheers to the wild fish.

    Thanks to Bill and the NFS for their continued work in this area. Support the NFS

  2. Geat topic. We all need to become active advocates for wild fish. But I contend that we conservation-minded anglers spend too much of our energy preaching to the choir. We also have a tendency (speaking of myself here) to lose our cool when we do reach out to our hatchery-addicted brothers. What wild fish need more than anything is ambassador/advocates who can empathize with the concerns of the public and meet them in a positive, constructive manner. The more we talk down to people, the more we widen the divide.