Here’s one movie I wish I’d see come across my desk for review: Rivers of a Lost Coast. It’s a documentary chronicling the Golden Era of Pacific Coast steelhead fishing, the larger-than-life characters who inhabited it, and the rapid decline in the quality of the fisheries.
Fly fishing legend Bill Schaadt is at the center of the movie, and though I never met the man – and I don’t do a lot of steelheading – the stories about him still circulate freely around here.
Some seem so far fetched that they couldn’t possibly have been real – until someone you know says they are.
A case in point are the steelhead flies Schaad was rumored to have tied with a razor blade in the bend of the hook. When cast over somebody’s line, a quick jerk would sever the line from the fish.
I figured them for urban legend – until a recent conversation with someone who had held one in his hand.
Naturally, Schaad’s more extreme behaviors have become the unfortunate focus, which is inevitable, but sad. After all, more than a few suggest he was the best fly fisherman who ever lived.
Russell Chatham wrote a lengthy article about Schaadt for Sports Illustrated, which served to humanize the legend a little, though Schaadt remains – and always will be – a larger than life figure:
My cousin and I spent part of each summer in his parents’ cabin on the Russian River. It was during our first shad season in the early ’50s that we started hearing of a fisherman named Bill Schaadt. The name is pronounced “shad,” like the fish, and not knowing at the time about the German spelling, we thought that man and fish were named alike. Besides, Schaadt is a sign painter, and his trademark SHAD SIGNS appears on all his work.
In the Russian River resort area there are numerous billboards along the roads. Everywhere we went there was a SHAD sign, and the work was distinctive. You could spot it easily from a distance, and it was always a thrill to discover a new one. One year Schaadt repainted all the store fronts in the town of Guerneville, leaving behind to the citizenry an open-air gallery of his art.
When we went fishing on the Russian River we would often be asked: “Have you seen Bill Schaadt?” An article appeared by the venerable Ted True-blood telling about the new sport of fly-fishing for shad on the Russian, and in it Schaadt figured impressively, further fueling our imaginings about the man. We began to stalk Schaadt, who at the time drove a distinctive 1937 black Dodge that he had elaborately striped. After a time he was forced to hide his car and take other measures to avoid people like us who followed him, primarily hoping he would lead them to fish.
But my cousin and I were not particularly interested in being led toward good fishing. In fact, it would have been an embarrassment. For us, Schaadt himself was the subject of the quest. When we would see his car parked along the river, we would stop and peer through the trees searching for the solitary figure who practiced the art of fly-fishing so dynamically. He was our hero.
One spring much later, I was shad fishing on the Russian with a friend who was older and had known Schaadt for years. “I think you should meet Bill,” he said. “Let’s go down to Monte Rio.”
While the movie recounts the rivalry between Schaadt and Ted Lindner, the real message is one of failure – the collapse of some of the richest fisheries in the world.
A couple years ago, word got out that people were catching steelhead on the Trinity again, and soon the turnouts were so clogged with angler’s cars that many couldn’t find a place to park.
That so many anglers would react to the presence of fish that way speaks volumes about the current state of our fisheries; when confronted by even a small fraction of their former abundance, our rivers are considered recovered.
In truth, it’s our perceptions that are damaged – skewed by years of fly fishing unhealthy rivers for the small handfuls of steelhead and salmon that remain.
Rivers of a Lost Coast will likely correct those impressions while introducing us to the original “extreme” fly fisherman.
See you at the movies, Tom Chandler.