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The dugout canoe and the smoky bark pavilions of the benighted Siwash are long gone from the shore of Puget Sound. So is Chinook jargon, the forgotten trade language of the Northwest coast, with which the white settler dealt for a land of rain-dimpled tidewater, matchless rivers and dark fir jungles. The fir has been pushed back by farms, by smoking cities, by nets of concrete highway. The streams have been fished and refished for a century. But last week the steelhead—the great, winter-running sea trout of the north Pacific—were swarming into western Washington rivers in schools such as were never seen even in the day of the Indian.
It seemed like a miracle to Washington's dedicated and multiplying clan of winter stream fishermen. The greatest steelhead run of all time was materializing, not only despite the encroachments of civilization but despite the fact that fishing pressure in the Northwest, as elsewhere in the U.S., has doubled and redoubled since World War II. The fish were bigger as well as more plentiful; 15 years ago, when only a relative handful of men braved December, January and February weather, for them an average fish weighed from six to 10 pounds. This year most steelhead (10,000 of them were caught on opening day alone) have been running from 15 to 28 pounds.
This fabulous renaissance on the Green, the Skagit, the Stillaguamish, the Puyallup and dozens of other coastal rivers is due almost entirely to a profane and overwhelmingly enthusiastic ex-football player named Clarence Pautzke, who has devoted himself to steelhead with single-minded passion for almost 20 years as chief biologist for the Washington State Game Commission. The stocking program by which he has made it possible may very well prove to be the most spectacular development in the centuries-old history of artificial propagation; its success implies that even more fantastic fishing is quite possible, that Northwest streams can be filled, perhaps every month of the year, with almost limitless numbers of enormous, seagoing trout.
If so, some of the credit will belong to the steelhead itself, for only a man under the curious spell which the big fish casts on anglers would have persisted year after year in the face of the discouragements and difficulties which Pautzke has faced. The steelhead is a rainbow trout, with all the rainbow's dash, fire and propensity for aerial acrobatics, but it is a rainbow with a difference. When it is two years old or about 7� inches long it heads downstream (steelhead run in streams all the way from Alaska to California's Sacramento River) and out into the Pacific. After it returns, usually in a little less than two years, to spawn, it has turned bright silver and has grown to enormous size.
Few fish are harder to hook and harder to hold than the inspired steelhead and it must often be pursued in freezing weather when the streams are low, when mountains stand icily against the sky, when the hands ache and grow numb with cold and the line comes to the reel stiff and white with rime. But even the fishless steelheader seems to glory in his martyrdom, and the man who has felt the awesome surge of a steelhead's downstream rush, has endured the aching sight of a steelhead's flashing leaps and has landed it, is changed for life.
Pautzke's moment of revelation came exactly 21 years ago on the Skykomish River—he hooked and landed a seven-pound female steelhead, a fish whose every combative eccentricity he still remembers with excited clarity. He went on fishing all that winter, but never saw another steelhead and by spring was full of an indignant feeling that the world deserved more of so wonderful a commodity. He set out to do something about it—and in doing so found a goal toward which he has been groping during most of his life.
As a boy in the town of Auburn, Wash. he had been fascinated by a near-by trout hatchery and when he went to the University of Washington he enrolled, without really knowing why, in the School of Fisheries. He was a tough and burly youth who played end on the football team, toiled as a boilermaker's helper during the summer and earned tuition money by working weekends as a bouncer in a Seattle dance hall.
He often came to science classes black and blue from midnight combat and the rigors of biology almost killed him—and his teachers. Once, after surveying him carefully, the head of the school suggested in a tired voice that he switch to the field of physical education, like the rest of the University's muscle men. Pautzke refused. "I still can't pronounce ichthyology," he confesses, "but I wanted that degree."
Even when he got it, however, the world seemed more interested in his back than in his mind. The state gave him a $70-a-month job as a game warden and set him to work in midsummer heat hauling sacks of feed to camps in the steep Cascade Range wilderness. "My God," he cried in protest, "if they're going to pay me and work me like a mule I'm going to go around like one." He took off his clothes and resumed his toil in hairy nakedness. And as a law enforcement officer he was capable of being carried away by his own enthusiasms—once, after catching a man illegally shooting bufflehead ducks, he grew so excited at the hunting prospects that he grabbed his victim by the arm and said: "Come on—let's shoot ourselves a passel of those little bastards." When the game commission finally gave him a job as a biologist he did not abandon his unorthodox ways.