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BILL SCHAADT IS A SIGN PAINTER, BUT HIS TRUE ART IS DISPLAYED ON THE RIVERS OF THE WEST, WHERE HE WIELDS A FLY ROD LIKE NO MAN ALIVE
December 02, 1974

If you drive north from San Francisco on the Redwood Highway, you pass through the alluvial landscape of Marin and southern Sonoma Counties quickly and come upon the broad Santa Rosa plain with its scattered oaks, rows of eucalyptus and occasional evergreens. The road parallels the Russian River near Cloverdale, slicing through lush vineyards, and then the mountains rise sharply in ever-thickening stands of fir and redwood. Beyond Willits you begin to drop into the implacable Eel River Canyon, where northern California really begins.

One night some years ago I sped up this road at 80 mph in a newly acquired Citroën sedan. The trees stood blackly against a lucent sky, the highway reflectors blasted by in continuing scintillas, reflecting my eagerness to reach the Smith River and join Bill Schaadt for a week of salmon fishing. I twisted through the Prairie Creek groves, careened irresponsibly around a log truck and pressed into the dark. When I finally shut the Citroën off, it exhaled and settled in the manner of its breed and the metal tinked and creaked with relief. Schaadt's trailer was dark. All was silent except for the distant sounds of the mill away to the north in the town of Smith River.

Suddenly there was a squeal of tires and spray of gravel as a green Plymouth skidded into the narrow road and veered in beside the trailer. The door flew open, and Bill Schaadt came striding out, manic and thrashing.

"When you get in?"

"Minute ago."

"You hit it! Look."

He opened the car trunk to reveal three immense king salmon, the smallest of which would weigh at least 35 pounds.

Inside the trailer it was warm and familiar. Fly lines hung from pegs and flytying tools lay on a shelf cluttered with boxes of flies. Half a dozen rods were tied to the ceiling.

Schaadt began making coffee as he recounted his day with infinite and dramatic detail. His hands soared about the cramped enclosure like bats as his gestures of casting, hooking and fighting many large fish made the events come alive.

His eyes would focus on imagined water somewhere beyond the bed. Transported, he would turn to follow the progress of his line downstream until a salmon took, then he would outline the peculiarities of the struggle as he battled the lunging monster to a standstill near the sink. Once again I was under the spell of the only man I know whose every thought, action and possession is a cohesive, unified extension of himself, like the spokes of a wheel coming into contact with the encompassing rim.

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.

"My boat's already there," he said. "We'll take your boat on my car around to the Walker Hole and row down. After today we'll walk in from the other side, and no one will know how you got in. I've got another boat down at the Bailey Hole big enough for both of us if we decide to fish there later."

Bursting out of the trailer, he rummaged in his car for rope while I untied my boat. We lifted it onto his racks and Schaadt lashed it down. As we drove along the narrow North Bank Road at an intimidating speed, I thought about the time Schaadt had rolled his car over down on the Eel. He crawled out, dragging his fly rod with him, and hiked to the spot he had chosen on the river. It was not until that night, the fishing over, that he summoned help to right his car.

It was still dark when we turned onto the rutted road that angled through immense redwood groves to the river. Within moments after we arrived Schaadt had wrested the boat off the car single-handed. Upriver the sky was beginning to lighten as we rowed the slow stretch from the Walker to the Early Hole. "Easy! Easy now," he cautioned as we neared the pool. "Fish were in the top end yesterday."

He lowered an anchor and I did the same in my boat so we were both in position to cover the water. Some time passed without a strike or a fish showing. Then, some distance below us, in the deepest part of the hole, a big salmon erupted against the surface. We drifted down. Our anchors hit bottom at 30 feet, and in the full light of dawn you could see them sitting down there at the ends of the lines.

Within a few minutes Schaadt hooked a salmon. It was a smallish fish, no more than 15 pounds, and he slipped his fingers under the gills to bring it to the side of the boat. In the next few hours he caught half a dozen more, including one beautiful bright male over 40 pounds.

"Using lead?" he finally said to me.

I nodded.

"You must be going under them," he said. "I've taken some of the lead out of my line in sections so I don't go too deep. Plastic sinks too slow and plain lead line too fast. Here, try this."

He tossed me a line wrapped around a piece of cardboard that I substituted for the one I was using. Lead core line is often a necessity in fly-fishing for salmon, but it is a specialized piece of equipment and difficult to manage. Schaadt carries a variety which sink at different rates. Taking pieces of lead out in sections is only one of his inventions. He has also made a line he calls "the cable" by removing all the wire from a 30-foot section and substituting .30 lead fuse wire. This line weighs close to 800 grains, whereas the heaviest fly line on the standard scale weighs only 380 grains. Some water on the Smith River is so fast that only this big line will cut through it, and since Schaadt is the only one who has such a line and the only one with skill enough to cast it, there are places where only he can fish.

With the borrowed line I soon had a strike, and drifted over to the cliff to play the fish. Here a rock projection formed a right angle to the current, and the resulting swirl had dug a pocket more than 90 feet deep. As I played the salmon straight up and down, I could feel him going into underwater caves, sawing the line on sharp rock.

Finally the line snagged, so I took the boat far back into the corner, and the line came free with the fish still on. I stepped out of the boat and onto a tiny outcropping just large enough for my feet. Then I turned to see the boat drifting away, leaving me stranded.

The morning sun slanted into the clear water where I watched my salmon twisting far below. He looked about six inches long. As I worked him up he became a foot long, then two, three and finally close to four, wallowing at my feet. But now I was in more trouble. If I leaned over, my backside would hit the wall and I would be swimming in the Smith. All I could do was reach sideways and grab. I was caught by my salmon.

"What the hell are you doing over there?" Schaadt shouted.

Knowing he would have to help me, I was mortified. Asking Bill Schaadt to stop fishing was unthinkable, but I couldn't move a muscle.

"I'm stuck," I said.

"Be right over." He laughed.

He took my 45-pound fish into his boat with a powerful sweep and I toppled in beside it. We retrieved my boat and started fishing again.

After a while he looked at me and said, "If you hook another one, take it to the beach."

Angling is not really a competitive sport. In fishing contests and tournaments the winners never prove themselves to be the best fishermen. And what does it matter who the best fisherman is, and how could this be determined if it were important? Most anglers who place a high value on their activity are contemptuous of the competitive approach and look upon the "experts" with grave suspicion. Serious angling attracts an inordinate number of boobs. The reason could be that it is entirely possible to become widely known as an authority strictly on the basis of fiction, luck or hearsay.

It may be accurate to say that if golf were to be likened to fishing, the hole would have to be a living thing with an appetite and a temperament that varied widely from green to green and course to course. The golfer would then try to tempt the hole to accept his ball by perhaps alternately shooting a MacGregor Tourney, Titleist or Dunlop Maxfli. It would often turn out that no matter how crafty the golfer, the hole might simply eye the ball suspiciously, then sidle away. Or the hole might even charge from the green into the rough, root around in the underbrush and grab the ball, whereupon the most inept player would have shot a hole in one. And some holes might gain a reputation for being especially difficult, as in fly-fishing for permit, and would be eagerly sought after by a certain class of golfer interested in esthetics and hardship no matter how high a score they shot.

There are a lot of myths surrounding fly-fishing and its attendant difficulties. Surely the percentage of excellent casters among fly-fishermen is lower than the same level of competence found in most other sports. Perhaps this is because the rewards are private. Put a few hundred grand on the line and no doubt some very cool hands would begin appearing at the casting tournaments.

The Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club in San Francisco is famous for having produced many great casters. I spent a lot of time there when I was younger, and while my abilities never progressed much beyond high mediocre, I did gain a very clear idea of what can and cannot be done with a fly rod. You cannot, for example, stand in the stern of a fiats skiff and cast a tarpon fly a hundred feet into the wind. No matter who you are.

Bill Schaadt has more physical ability and coordination than any fisherman I have ever known. I am often embarrassed to cast alongside him because he is so superior. Jon Tarantino, until his death last year, was considered by many to be the greatest distance flycaster who ever lived. He was the only man clearly the equal of Schaadt.

Schaadt's tackle is inexpensive and shabby. He uses one-piece fiber-glass rods fitted with rough thick handles and with guides that are crudely lashed to the rod. His equipment would shock an Abercrombie & Fitch salesman. In spite of this, everything Schaadt uses functions smoothly. There is no naiveté in its preparation or application.

Most well-known anglers have gained their fame by catching large fish, and Schaadt has caught more big steelhead and salmon than any man who ever lived. Included is a 56½-pound king salmon, the largest ever landed on a fly, but this does not seem to be the criterion by which to best judge his merit as an angler. His overall sense of understanding, deep love of the natural world, energetic effort and his style are the qualities that set him apart from his contemporaries. "We're in the bucket!" Schaadt exclaimed, lacing another cast over the Early Hole.

The intensity with which he fishes is inspiring. He began to eat his lunch one-handed. He would cast, then in the several seconds it took for the line to sink, he would take a quick bite of a sandwich, set it down and retrieve the fly, cast again, take another bite. He fishes from dawn to dark with no stops in between for food or conversation. One time he was fishing a run so wide he had to wade within two inches of the top of his chest-high waders and then make 100-foot casts. Realizing this effort was far too strenuous to maintain for long, he went up to the car and brought down his sign painter's step ladder, which he then carried out to where he had been wading. He climbed up on it and fished in comfort. And when Schaadt arises tomorrow or the next day, or next year, it will be with the same enthusiasm for fishing that he had 20 years ago. When he hooks a fish he often screams and yells. Fishermen nearby who don't know him figure, "Boy, that must be the first one that guy ever caught."

Fishing slowed to a standstill under the brightness of midday, but Schaadt did not think of taking a break. Instead, knowing salmon were still milling in the pool, he tied on a 20-foot leader with a light tippet and a No. 10 fly, hoping to get a take from the reticent fish. Strain your imagination and visualize this outrageous tackle behaving perfectly in the air, landing in an immaculate turnover with the nearly invisible fly extending itself to the end of that unlikely leader.

An hour of casting produced nothing. When I reeled in to eat lunch, Schaadt threw me an accusing stare. He reeled in his line with blinding speed, wrenched his anchor up and began churning toward the corner.

"Sometimes they go back in here during the middle of the day," he said, surging across the pool. He backed up his boat against the cliff and tied it to a rock. I was not paying close attention as I ate my lunch. Soon I became aware of something peculiar going on. Schaadt was making long casts, but this did not seem possible because his back was to a high cliff. I began watching intently. I could see violent slashing motions, water flying everywhere, then an incredible drive that seemed to miraculously lift the line into the air, sending it out a full 80 feet. He was making a kind of roll cast. Every fly-fisherman learns to roll cast as a means of bringing a sunken line to the surface or simply making a very short throw when there is no room for a back-cast. But this was something far beyond that. Schaadt had discovered a method of building line speed with a series of circular lifts while keeping a precise amount of drag on the front of the line, which remained in the water. On the final lift, line was allowed to sag slightly to the rear so that the double haul could be used. Ultimately a tremendous drive forward and a strong pull with the left hand lifted the shooting head cleanly into the air, putting a point on it to deliver a fishable cast.

I've practiced this in the years since that day on the Smith, never fully admitting to Schaadt I could not manage what to him was a routine cast. I get about two-thirds of his distance. Nor have I ever met another fisherman who has mastered the cast.

Schaadt moved to the Russian River from San Francisco in the mid-'40s and took a job in a garage in Guerneville. He loved the river so much he bought a lot in the tiny town of Monte Rio and built himself a place. Unable to tolerate the restrictions of regular employment, he took up sign painting and opened the only shop in the area.

In a resort community all effort is directed at the summer trade, so Schaadt would be busy during the late spring and summer painting signs and have the fall and winter off—the best time for fishing.

When I first met him I was interested in learning the sign painter's trade, and spent a lot of time at a sign shop near my home. I soon realized I had neither the hand nor the patience for the work, but I never tired of watching Schaadt. His natural ability gives his work swing, as it is called in the business, which means that his letters and words move well together.

Suppose he was painting the word REAL ESTATE, the final effect of which was to be a casually vigorous script. Using a wide, square-tipped sable brush called a greyhound, Schaadt might first cut in the letter E in the word REAL. Then he might do the L. From there he might go to the last E in ESTATE, while next would come the first T of the same word.

Until the last few minutes the whole thing might more closely resemble an abstract expressionist painting than a sign. The reason for working this way is that the air, or space, between the letters is as important as the letters themselves. Many signwriters use this system, but few with Schaadt's flair.

Schaadt was raised in San Francisco and briefly attended San Francisco Junior College (now City College of San Francisco) but lost patience. Once he showed me a sketchbook with a few nudes he had done that appeared to be studies after Rubens, but he seemed to have little interest in them. He is not the contemplative type. His day is filled with a multiplicity of projects. His cars alone are more than an ordinary person could handle. There always seem to be about three in his yard that run and at least that many that do not. These are usually in the process of being rebuilt.

Similarly, six or eight boats are stored on the rack just inside his yard. Some of these need annual attention and there is inevitably some newly acquired craft being rebuilt or fiber glassed.

The sewing machine is one of his most frequently used tools. Schaadt remakes all the upholstery for the cars, sews leather, awnings, tarps, and keeps his own extensive wardrobe in tidy repair. It is typical that while doing some mending he will get carried away and begin embroidering designs or maybe his name on a garment.

A few years ago he built a handsome and serviceable workshop in his yard. As might be expected, he split the redwood shakes that cover it himself. Inside the shop, leaning against the walls as well as tied to the rafters, are an astonishing number of bicycles. There are motorcycles and scooters, too, some of which Schaadt built. He is a bike freak, selling and trading them, and he can be prevailed upon to repair them—if the pleas for such aid are properly delivered.

Once he and I were standing in his yard talking when there was a clatter of young sounds outside the gate.

"Schaadt," a tiny voice called out.

"Hey, Schaadt!"

"Shhhh," Schaadt whispered. "Quiet, they'll beat it."

"Schaadt! Hey, Schaadt! Jimmy's bike broke on the front. Can you fix it, Schaadt?"

"Damn!" Schaadt said. He swung open the gate and half a dozen kids swarmed in. Schaadt was all friendliness, and 20 minutes of hard work fixed the bike. The group rode off.

"Damn kids," Schaadt said, fooling nobody.

Bill Schaadt has been the one constant factor in California's coastal fishing over the last quarter of a century. He has rarely missed a single fall or winter's day on the water in all that time. He used to go to the Klamath in September and stay until the lower Eel got good, and when that was rained out he would go back home and fish the Russian all winter. But the California fishery is almost a thing of the past. In 1956 Schaadt landed between 650 and 700 steelhead in the Russian. Fishing the same number of hours today he would feel lucky to catch 20.

The only really prime stream left in California is the Smith River, which is located in the extreme northwestern corner of the state. It remains undammed, its drainages have not yet been too badly spoiled by logging and it runs an exceptionally large strain of both steelhead and salmon. Today Schaadt confines almost all of his fishing to this river. He takes his small trailer up from Monte Rio early in the fall and stays until the heavy winter rains make fishing impossible.

His knowledge of the river, and especially of its salmon, has reached the profound. Much of what he does is so obscure that only the most advanced fisherman could detect it. On the other hand, the essential thing he does is so simple it is inclined to be overlooked: he fishes the longest and the hardest.

Not only that, he fishes the longest and the hardest in the most productive spots. One verity in this type of fishing is that there is almost always a best place. Each hole has its "bucket," and when fish are holding they will favor one hole or another. It is axiomatic that Schaadt will be in the best place in the best hole.

This is one reason many people do not like Bill Schaadt. He does not view the situation democratically. He feels that if he is willing to get up every morning at 3:30 in order to plant his feet or his boat in the precise location of his choosing, then he is entitled to fish there forever—or as long as he does not leave. And he does not leave until dark.

One day last fall a group of us were fishing a certain pool. You could get your fly into the salmon from any one of half a dozen positions, but there was one prime spot and Schaadt was in it every day. Since people gravitate toward him, the pool was becoming more and more crowded and Schaadt was having to get up earlier each morning to be sure of fishing exactly where he wanted.

One morning he got down to the river about 4:30 to find a spin fisherman in his spot. The man had been watching Schaadt the day before, and had gotten up unreasonably early (more unreasonably early than Schaadt in this case) and arrived at the river first.

All morning Schaadt worked around the spin fisherman, whose technique left much to be desired. The rest of us could see the frustration building as the spin fisherman flung his bait fecklessly time and again into the choicest water. After some hours he finally hooked a salmon, which took him several hundred yards down the pool. Meantime Schaadt slid into the spot to get himself a little fishing.

Of course, after landing his fish the spinner came back and stood for a moment behind Schaadt. "Excuse me, sir," he said, "but I think that's my spot."

"Yes," Schaadt said. "It is your spot, and I'm moving. But let me tell you something. To ever get this spot again, you're going to have to get down here at midnight!"

The man's eyes widened.

"And another thing. If you leave this spot today to eat lunch, when you come back you're going to be out. Do you understand that? Out! Out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out, out...!" And he gave the man about 50 outs, all the while gesturing like an umpire calling a player safe at first.

A silver dusk was settling on the Early Hole. I was weary from a long and fishless afternoon. My casting had become more like halfhearted throwing, and I would have been glad to quit right then.

Schaadt stood eagerly in the stern of his boat making the same long, graceful casts he had in the first light of dawn. If anything, he was more intense than he had been. I think toward evening he becomes impatient with nature because the night shuts things down and he has to go home and sleep a while before he can fish some more. When we were in the Florida Keys together, where much fishing is done at night, he fished all day and all night, catching little 15-minute naps like Thomas Edison used to do when he was working in his laboratory.

"It's grab time," Schaadt stated with perfectly unwarranted enthusiasm.

We fished until it was pitch-dark and the salmon started to roll, but we caught nothing. I reeled in, pulled my anchor and started rowing back.

Bill took his regular fly off, replacing it with a large black one, made a cast, then pulled his anchor and began rowing slowly out of the pool.

"Got one!" I heard him yell somewhere in the dark. I rowed back, and he was all excited and laughing.

"Thought I'd troll out," he said. "You see, it's never too late!"

PHOTOSHEEDY & LONGHis big king salmon shows why Schaadt is the king of the river.
PHOTOSHEEDY & LONG

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)