On The Scene

March 16, 1981

It was a fine day for fishing and the river seemed in perfect shape. The current carried my fly down through a long, deep, promising drift. No trout took hold, but as I followed the progress of the fly I noticed a metallic glint underwater.

Wading downstream to investigate, I could see the outline of a large object on the river bottom, mostly hidden by a layer of fine gravel swept over it by the current. I kicked at the object with my waders until enough gravel had fallen away to reveal what it was: a penny gum-ball machine.

It wasn't the only one. In a short stretch of river I came across four others. Each had its coin box pried open, its pennies long gone. A thief apparently had collected them somewhere, rifled their coin boxes and then dumped them off an upstream bridge.

The gum-ball machines were in the Cedar River, southeast of Seattle. The Cedar remains a fairly pristine river, but because it is close to an urban area it inevitably attracts some of society's debris.

In fact, it's a rare river anywhere these days that doesn't contain at least a couple of rusting automobile hulks, a few old bedsprings and lots of beer and soda-pop cans and other miscellaneous trash. Some of it is dumped there on purpose and some by accident, and sometimes rivers scoop up a lot of it on their own when they overflow their banks.

One result is that if you fish rivers a lot, you come across some pretty odd things. A friend of mine once noticed a shiny object on the bottom where he was fishing. Thinking it was a marble, he stooped to pick it up. It turned out to be a glass eye. Another angler I know reported finding a trombone in a river, perhaps disposed of by a student who had grown weary or frustrated with practicing.

Most of the odd things I've found have been in the North Fork of the Stillaguamish, a famous steelhead river north of Seattle. I own a small fishing cabin on the North Fork and spend much of my time there. One day I was wading the river near my cabin when I noticed a round green object on the bottom. It was a pool ball—the No. 6, to be exact. Within a short time I found 10 other object balls, plus the cue ball.

I don't know what happened to the four missing balls; being round, they were probably washed downstream, perhaps as far as Puget Sound. If I pick up a newspaper someday and read that a fisherman has landed a big Chinook salmon with a 13 ball in its stomach, I won't be surprised.

Sometimes things get into rivers out of plain stupidity. One summer weekend an intrepid camper drove a brand-new truck onto a Stillaguamish sandbar and parked it. It was a customized pickup with a roll bar and a gleaming finish, complete with a spectacular flame painting radiating from the wheel wells. The camper pitched his tent on the bank overlooking the sandbar and, satisfied that all was well, settled down for the night. It rained hard that night and the river came up rapidly. Next morning the camper crawled out of his tent just in time to see the river closing over the hood of his new pickup.

Some years ago the North Fork acquired a manure spreader. It was either dumped into the river by a farmer or was swept up in a flood. Eventually it became lodged in the Deer Creek Riffle, one of the most popular fishing spots on the river.

Within a season or two, anglers discovered that the best place to fish the riffle was from the middle of the spreader. If you waded out and stood right in the center of its rusting frame and then cast downstream, your chances of hooking a steelhead were good. The manure spreader became an important local angling landmark. Alas, a year ago the river flooded again. The manure spreader now lies buried under gravel.

Golf balls are common in the river near my cabin. One of my neighbors has a tee set up on the bank and uses the North Fork as a driving range. His son-in-law, who works at a commercial driving range, keeps him well supplied with balls. His best drives carry over the river and through the woods on the other side. Steelhead and salmon dodge his hooks and slices.

Occasionally, fishermen end up dodging, too. Once I was walking behind a screen of alders across the river from my neighbor's cabin when golf balls suddenly began ripping through the foliage. There were a couple of near misses, but fortunately no hits.

Getting bombarded by golf balls is a relatively minor tribulation compared to what I might have faced if I'd been fishing the North Fork on Oct. 19, 1959. That day the river acquired its most spectacular bit of debris: a Boeing 707. It was on a test flight and clipped the tops off several trees on the lot next to mine and crash-landed right in the middle of the Elbow Hole.

Even now you still find bits and pieces of the airplane scattered in the alder thicket, but salvage crews long ago removed the bulk of the wreckage from the river.

Thank goodness. It's bad enough having to cast from the middle of a manure spreader, or trying to tease a steelhead out of a submerged 1968 Oldsmobile. But trying to catch a fish that is hiding out in the tourist-class section of a 707—that's ridiculous!