Meeting Mr. Ironhead - local steelhead fishing lessons
"The Fish Journal" Issaquah Press, Published March 23, 2010

By Dallas Cross

In the last article, I hoped to show the frustration that most beginning steelhead fishers have when they first set forth to catch this spectacular, sea-run rainbow trout. Not being very successful myself at catching them, I set out to meet local fishermen in Issaquah to learn how they kept filling their freezers and smokers with this elusive fish.

Bill Arndt married an Issaquah coal miner’s daughter and started his window washing business in town. I often met Bill at local watering holes where fishing was almost always a topic of conversation.

Bill was known for prolific storytelling and per his own hyperbole was a gifted golfer, sure-shot hunter and premier steelhead fisherman. Ron Powell, manager of the St. Regis Lumber Co., always challenged Bill’s stories, being certain he stretched them out to unbelievable lengths.

One evening, Bill came into the Elk’s Lodge, where Ron and I were talking. Bill loudly exclaimed that he had really scored by catching a couple of large steelhead. Ron immediately confronted him and asked where they were.

Bill didn’t miss a lick and said he had tied them up in the Raging River to keep them fresh until he could fetch them. Ron, immediately said, “Sure, let’s go look at them.” Bill wavered a bit before he responded, “Well, alright, if you don’t mind going way out of your way.”

Later on in the week, I met Ron and asked how calling Bill’s bluff had worked out. Ron sheepishly said, “We went to the river and I’ll be damned if he didn’t have two nice hens tied to a log.” It was then I resolved to secure a spot as Bill’s fishing companion and learn how to remove the accumulating skunk flags in my quest for local steelhead.

Bill’s gear was basic. He had a 6-foot casting rod and insisted on using line that did not stretch. His favorite bait was salmon eggs that he had cured in borax until the skin on them was tough enough to hold on a hook. He also used a very short leader with a Corkie bobber and a piece of yarn on the snelled loop tied to his barbed hook.

The loop was opened with the yarn through which the eggs threaded. So, when the leader tightened through the eye, the eggs were snugged to the hook. An inch-long piece of lead in a rubber tube holder on the leader swivel completed the rig.

I always marveled at the ample supply of salmon egg skeins Bill had for bait. After Bill passed away, his neighbor informed me that he used to see mysterious lights at night in Issaquah Creek when the salmon were running. Because the lights were next to where Bill lived, the question of bait source may be answered.

Bill would frequently and dramatically set the hook during drifts of his cast. I questioned him why so often. It was then I learned from him that steelhead don’t usually grab bait, but just gently “mouth” it and when they feel unnatural texture or resistance, let it go.

Bill kept his stiff fishing line tight with the bait just skimming the bottom and would set the hook to any change in vibration or a pause in the float. His Corkie acted as a bite indicator, giving him sight cues as well. An epiphany – I had actually been getting steelhead bites all this time, but had not recognized them as such.

After catching a couple of steelhead under Bill’s tutelage in the Snoqualmie River, I gladly accompanied him to fish the Raging River just upstream from its mouth. Bill was confident the fish were in there and we took turns drifting our eggs through a nice stretch with a lot of bottom structure for them to hang out.

After several fruitless passes through the drift, Bill became disgusted and exclaimed, “I know they are in there. They just need to be wakened up.” Whereupon he grabbed some head-sized rocks and heaved them into the river right were we had been fishing. He laughed at my amazement and said we should wait a few minutes and try again.

After 10 minutes, Bill led off and immediately was onto a nice buck, which he landed. I followed and also got my fish. Bill grinned and said, “Sometimes, you have to get their attention.” He certainly got mine.

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