What's in Store: It's a cutthroat business out there

Jan Halliday
Posted 10/30/12

Bob Triggs hangs off the side of his dad’s skiff as they troll the lake, his head down in a blue cloud of exhaust from the Elgin outboard motor. He’s wearing an orange kapok life …

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What's in Store: It's a cutthroat business out there

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Bob Triggs hangs off the side of his dad’s skiff as they troll the lake, his head down in a blue cloud of exhaust from the Elgin outboard motor. He’s wearing an orange kapok life jacket.

Hatchery rainbow trout snap at air bubbles in the water, and as Bob leans closer to look, his life jacket straps dangle and bounce off the surface. A trout nibbles. He slips his hand under it, lifts it out and puts it in the bottom of the boat, shouting to his dad.

“Be quiet, you’ll scare the fish,” says his dad. This irony arouses in Bob what he now calls “a viral interest in fishing.” He becomes a boy who plays hooky to fish. He gets away with it by reading John Steinbeck and writing papers on the art of bass fishing.

A Jefferson County resident for the past 12 years, Bob is a professional fishing guide and blogger at Washington Fly Fishing. He has led trips on the coasts of North America, Alaska and Russia. Once supporting himself by restoring antique firearms, small boats, architectural objects and furniture, he now guides fly fisherman from all over the world for cutthroat trout, steelhead and salmon on the wild rivers and beaches of the Olympic Peninsula.

During a couple of hours last week, we talked about dams, aquatic insects, oxygenation, large mouth and striped bass, pickerel, spinners and spin rods, jalopy Piper Cubs and De Havilland Beaver float planes, Long Island Sound, the Catskills, lures, species collapse, the Clean Water Act’s role in fish recovery, “A River Runs Through It,” sturgeon eggs, clams, grizzly bears, fish camps, stream restoration, Teddy Roosevelt and his niece Eleanor, Yup’iks, rainbows, the Pew Oceans Commission, Rutgers biology classes and Bob’s abandonment of bait fishing as a young man.

Bob is 12 years old and truant in the boatyard. It’s stormy. A ray of sun strikes a fly fisherman standing hip deep in a bed of eelgrass where Bob has been scrounging for sunken boat junk to resell – oars, life jackets, boat parts. The fisherman catches a huge striped bass on a two-handed salmon rod. “He picks it up by the lip; it must have weighed 60 pounds, with a tail a foot wide – caught on a fly! The whole universe is distilled for me in that moment; it shakes me up.”

His universe spins, unravels and rewinds itself as his focus narrows. His dad, James, who works as a freelance illustrator in Manhattan, drops his son off at Abercrombie & Fitch’s fishing department while he meets clients. There are cases of dry flies, racks of rods and reels, hip waders, fishing vests, and pictures of Hemingway and Zane Grey, posing with giant billfish, framed and hanging on the wall.

Fly-fishing pro Leon Chandler gives casting demonstrations at noon on the roof. “There I am among the Wall Street gentlemen,” said Bob, “a kid in my torn pants and holey shoes, enthralled.”

Other defining moments: Bob stops at a gas station near a creek during a mayfly hatch. Seeing a line whipping over the tops of bushes, he scrambles down the bank to watch a fly fisherman land a trout on a barbless hook and let it go. “I am stunned,” Bob said. “You could do that – play this game and not hurt the fish.”

A friend gives him a rod and reel.

He learns more at the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum, and with Joan Wulff, one of the greatest fly fishers in the world and owner of the Wulff School of Fly Fishing. “She’d have a fly rod in each hand, whipping the line through the air and bouncing the flies off a target,” he said. “She tore me down and retrained me, just like in the army.”

In 1999 he is certified as a fly casting instructor. “It’s a handicap method of fishing,” said Bob. “It’s an art in which you allow your prey to decide whether the fly you’ve tied is real or not real.”

The Olympic Peninsula offers a unique opportunity to catch truly wild fish on flies – cutthroat trout Oncorhynchus clarki clarki, “which are gregarious and capable survivors, smart and quick and who fight like lunatics,” said Bob. Their nearest cousin, Oncorhynchus mykiss, are sea-going rainbow trout, the famous twist, leap and run fighter: steelhead.

Bob tracks weather, rainfall, snowmelt, adjacent watershed conditions and storms to estimate streamflows and water conditions. He spends more time scouting and reading rivers, he said, than actual guiding.

“You don’t want a person flying in here from Norway for a week of mud flowing by,” he said. “Some will spend $100,000 a year to travel the world for a trophy fish, and some will save six months, and bring their own sandwich, to fish for one day.”

Either way, they hope to catch one.

 

As a kid, Jan Halliday slipped minnows she caught into her brothers’ water glasses. They paid her back in snakes.

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