My childhood was characterized by two obsessions: painting and fishing. The first was a rather private deviation, part of the family tradition. The second manifested itself in the form of a large account at the local sport shop.
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."
I looked forward to the meeting with unabashed excitement. We pulled up in front of a small house set back against the hill beneath a massive oak tree. In front were numbers of boats and old cars. The yard was full of lumber and signs, some finished, some in various states of completion and some discarded. From beneath a canvas awning where he had been working, a tall, dark, curly-haired man ambled forward to greet us. His manner was guarded. Then he offered his immense hand, and the legend had come to life.
It was long before dawn but Schaadt was moving around the trailer with a sense of urgency. He had already dressed, shaved and made coffee.
"Not much time," he said sternly as he whisked a frying pan onto the stove and began fixing bacon and potatoes. While these cooked he made us both a lunch of leftover chicken, cheese, apples, cookies and a thermos of coffee. In moments the table was folded out, toast made, plates heated and eggs fried. I knew better than to offer assistance. In more than a decade and a half of fishing with Schaadt he has always cooked the breakfast and seen to it that I had a lunch, not because I couldn't do these things for myself but because he is organized to do them more quickly. On rare occasions helping with the dishes is permitted.
Over coffee, Schaadt was like a general mapping out a campaign. We would fish the Early Hole, at the time the finest pool on the river with its 100-foot depths and mysterious grottos. The road into the Early was private, and only by promising he would not bring anyone else did Schaadt himself have access.