The General Speaks, Bill Herzog, Part I of II

Editor’s note: The following article by columnist Terry Wiest appears in the May 2017 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine. Part II in the series will appear next week and in the June issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine.

By Terry Wiest

I’ve been friends with Bill Herzog for a while now. The dude just flat out cracks me up. One thing I don’t think anyone denies is that he is a true master of the art of fishing. He loves being in the spotlight while teaching his craft, but isn’t one for bragging – he doesn’t have too. If you’re fortunate enough to fish with him, you’ll notice he’s super intense, yet calm, witty, hilarious, and always making the best of any situation. Most often, not only will you leave with fish, but also a side ache from laughing so damn much.

Smart as hell, Herzog gladly shares his knowledge when asked (he’s authored hundreds of fishing articles, including several in Northwest Sportsman). Even with his rock-star status in the fishing world, he remains very approachable, and is more than willing to share his stories of a life spent angling. In part one of this two-part series, I talked lighter subjects with my friend, “The General,” and next issue we’ll tackle some of his current projects, including his part in the “Four is Enough” campaign and a recent video series entitled “Steelhead Country.

Bill Herzog began his steelheading career during the golden age of the fishery in Western Washington, and was able to hit rivers that are now closed to angling for winter- and summer-runs. As he tells tales of a life spent on the water, he’s also working towards a sustainable future for the fish and fishery. (WILDSTEELHEADERS.ORG)

Terry Wiest: OK, why do they call you The General?

Bill Herzog: Oh my, it really happened by accident about 15 years ago or so. I was writing a section in Salmon Trout Steelheader called “How To,” where each issue I would explain, well, just like the title said, how to do something fishing related. I was also on the radio at that time, so a listener called in and said he liked my advice and looked forward to each issue. He said the only thing missing was a good tag line, so he asked what we could call him. Being the smartass that I am, I just said, “Oh, call me General Zog, man of steel, caffeine monster,” and a few other adjectives that just ran off my tongue. It was in reference to General Zod from Superman. For some reason listeners were paying attention and the name stuck.

TW What is your first recollection of wanting to fish?

BH I can’t remember when I didn’t want to fish. Growing up I had two uncles who lived for fishing. I can remember going to my Uncle Bob’s house and seeing a photo of him holding two steelhead from the Lyre River, rubber hip boots and all. I always thought to myself, “Man, I want to do that.”

Herzog considers himself lucky to have fished British Columbia’s Babine and Kispiox Rivers before their “discovery,” staying for a week and catching many over 20 pounds. (BILL HERZOG)

TW Tell me about your first steelhead.

BH I’ll never forget. It was 1971, fishing on the Puyallup River with Uncle Bob. He handed me some big black plastic rod with an Ambassadeur levelwind reel. I’d never cast a levelwind before, but Uncle Bob insisted only girls, beginners and Dallas Cowboy fans used spinning reels. I hooked an 11-pound chrome-bright hen and landed it using a red-and-white Dardevle spoon. That set my future of fishing in motion. My only regret was I never got a photo of that fish. Uncle Bob wasn’t into bragging and he thought photos of dead fish was nothing but that, bragging.

TW We all did things as kids we’d never think of doing now – care to share any moments?

BH I had a very fun childhood. I remember growing up we lived on the top of a huge hill in Tacoma. My cousins and I would take this huge mirror on a sunny day and then reflect it on the windshield of a car coming up the hill. You could see the cars swerving and tires were screeching, then we’d run and hide in the garage. I’m not sure how many wrecks we caused.

TW What about some fishing-related stories?

BH Never really did anything bad. I don’t think I ever broke any fishing laws intentionally. Probably the worst thing I did was skip school to go fishing. I went to Bellarmine Prep. I used to skip out and run to the Nisqually River to fish. But then it was only math class, so it was worth it.

TW You used to guide – how was that?

BH You know, I enjoyed it for a while.

I got into guiding because of an experience I had on the Cowlitz River with a guide I’ll not name. The guide basically set everything up, handed us our rods, we caught some fish, he collected his money and left. To me, I was expecting to learn something. He not only failed at this, but he barely spoke the whole time on the river.

It was then I told myself, “You know, I can do this and I can do it a lot better.” In my opinion, I did. I think a good guide needs to interact with their clients, needs to be a psychiatrist, a teacher, needs to teach technique, talk about history of the fish, the river, and, of course, make the clients comfortable and make them laugh. At the end of the day hopefully they caught fish, hopefully they learned something and, above all, hopefully they had a great time and want to continue fishing, whether with a guide or on their own.

TW Did you ever want to throw a client overboard?

BH Plenty! Yeah, it was those clients who, when they called back to book again, I’d say I was full but then give them a name and number of a guide I couldn’t stand.

There was my UPS driver. He’d deliver all my fishing gear and want to talk fishing. He’d never steelhead fished before but would always say he wanted to go. Finally he booked a trip on April 1, 1997, just him for the boat. The Skagit had been blown out for four days straight and it was just coming into shape, but probably a day early (I thought). I told him we’d at least look at the river, and if it wasn’t fishable, we’d reschedule.

So I took the sled and we headed downriver. Things weren’t looking good. But as we approached the Sauk, the river was this gorgeous steelhead green. There was a no-fishing-under-power rule, but I was a wee bit younger then, so I could actually row the boat so we could fish plugs. I put the dude’s plug back, set the rod in the holder and almost instantly it doubled over. He sat there and reeled it in like he was in his office. No expression, just kinda ho-hum. I almost sh*t; it was a chrome-bright 18-pound hen.

We did this eight straight times, hooking up within minutes of setting the plug back out. All the fish were between 16 and 19 pounds and they were all hens.

Another guide was coming downriver, so I motioned, let him know the hole was full of fish and let him have it. We’d already done our damage there and I wanted the other dude’s clients to experience it as well.

We headed down to the “Leaning Cedar” hole. It was by far the best day in my entire fishing life. We hooked another 25 fish! Total for the day was over 40 by 1:00. I decided we’d had enough and went in.

While I was ecstatic, the dude was pissed! Yes, pissed! He was even throwing expletives around because I didn’t give him a full day of fishing. He gave me my money, no tip mind you, and walked off.

I was dumfounded. This was my best day by far, ever, including Canada, and the dude was not happy. Wow.

About a month later there was a knock on my door. The dude showed up with a case of Henry Weinhards and a hundred-dollar bill. All he could say was, “Man, I’m so sorry, please, please take me again, I’m so sorry.”

Turned out, the day after fishing when the guy went to work he told his coworkers about our day. They said he was full of sh*t! It was only then that he realized this was not normal and he’d never experience a day like that again, ever. He thought my whooping and hollering the whole day was just an act and a way to get a tip.

OK, OK, I got another one.

I had an Asian father and son fish with me one day. It was really tough fishing but I worked my a** off. The whole day the son was nothing but smiles, the dad had on his angry face and didn’t speak hardly a word.

We were fishing plugs, so them being inexperienced I gave them both a demo on how to lift the rod from the rod holder. Sure enough, the old man’s rod doubles over. He reaches for the rod, grabs it by the label and pulls straight back.

All I heard was, “Crack, crack, snap” as the rod broke in two places, and then the line.

The old man looked at me and said, “Rod not strong.”

The kid was mortified.

At the end of the day we managed to catch a single fish. Like I said, it was tough fishing. The old man gave me $100 and walked away. This didn’t even cover my daily rates. The son followed him up and wrote a check for the difference, plus the cost of the rod and a nice tip.

As they drove by, the old man rolled down his window and yelled, “You not good guide, you only catch one fish.”

TW Every think about guiding again?

BH OK, here’s the deal. There are already too many guides on the river for the limited amount of fish we have in the rivers these days. I have too much respect for them, and they work their a**es off to get clients fish. Why would I join that pool and increase the number of guides?

Herzog provides instruction on a “steelhead river” at a sportsmen’s show. By one recent count, he’s authored over 500 articles, as well as a handful of books, and was a longtime cohost of Northwest Wild Country. “When I go out I know I’m going to catch fish; it’s getting others fish that satisfies me,” he says. (DR. BACKLASH)

TW Have you ever taken a dump in the river? Er, let me rephrase that – have you ever fallen in the river?

BH Haven’t we all! Yes, a lot.

My most recent was last year while fishing the Queets with Ashley (Nichole Lewis) and Richie (Underwood). I was in the middle of the river and hooked a chrome-bright summer-run. As I was backing up, a boulder let loose and I found myself sputtering and spitting water as I continued to hold my rod up. My immediate thought was, “Is this it? Should I let my rod go because I’m going to die?” Just then, as I was tumbling down the river, I felt something grab my neck. Luckily, Richie is a strong dude. He plucked me out. And, yes, I landed the fish.

I did an incredible Wile E. Coyote imitation once while fishing with Nick Amato. We were hiking through some thick brush up above the river. Then it happened – I took a step and there was nothing there. I plummeted about 20 feet straight down, Wile E. Coyote style, right into the roaring rapids. The only thing that saved me was a single rock that was above the water line that I was able to grab hold of. If not for the exact position of the rock, I don’t think I’d be here any more.

I will offer this advice: Always wear a wading belt and use a staff. Always!

TW How many 20-pound steelhead have you caught? What’s your largest ever?

BH Two hundred and thirty-one, including many over 30 pounds. I was very lucky and used to fish the Babine and the Kispiox before they were discovered. I’d stay for a week and it was nothing to catch 20 over 20 pounds in a week. In 1986 I caught 27 steelhead over 23 pounds in my weeklong stay.

Now if you want to go and stay a week it will cost you $10,000. Ridiculous, and not in my budget.

My largest ever was 44×24 inches, which computes to 35 pounds. It was a monstrous buck on the Babine River. Funny thing is, it took all of five minutes to land. One screaming run and that was it.

TW Favorite place to fish?

BH The rivers! That’s it. I love them all.

TW Now, I have some inside scoop. I met your ex. She said I could always believe how many you said you caught and what you caught them on, but never believe where you said you fished. Is that true?

BH OMG, yes, back then that was true. I’d fish the Dosewallips, Duckabush and the Skokomish – yes, the Skok. We’d absolutely annihilate the fish. It was so good and we’d never see another soul on the river. People would see photos and I’d say, “Oh yeah, the ’Nooch was good to us.” They’d study the picture, trying to figure out exactly where on the Wynoochee it was. LOL, they never could figure it out.

Now, heck, who cares. There’s no reason to try and keep secrets. No one is going to steal my fish. If they use my techniques, well, good for them.

Herzog at home with wife Brenda. These days the couple lives in the Wenatchee area. (BILL HERZOG)

TW Now, we’ve all been skunked; I’m assuming that’s true with you?

BH Umm, a lot. Hell, even Buzz Ramsey gets skunked – ask him. Especially these days, if anyone tells you they don’t get skunked, they’re full of chocolate hotdogs.

TW Funny, I already knew that because I’ve asked you before how you did and you’ve told me when you’ve gotten the goose egg. Admirable.

BH Yep, I’ve already been skunked twice this season. Not proud of it, but it is what it is.

TW We all know you love to chuck metal. Other than that, what’s your favorite technique.

BH Plugs! There’s nothing like a plug strike. They are so dang effective too. If you know how to pull plugs correctly, it’s what you need to do.

Bobber and jigs are also a favorite – even if I have to use a spinning reel, LOL. In fact, I think more people should use bobber and jigs. Not only are they incredibly effective, but they are also the most delicate on the fish. When was the last time you saw a fish bleed out after being hooked by a jig? Never.

TW Besides steelhead, what’s your favorite species to fish for?

BH Wild, nasty, midteener, ballistic coho. I love them and they love spoons and spinners. Man, when they hit, they’ll practically rip the rod from your hands. Whew, what a rush.

I also love fishing for cutthroat – any kind of cutthroat. One of the most gorgeous fish, and just a blast to catch.

TW Most of us have heard you on the radio and you seem a natural in front on the mic. I’ve been on air with you and you’re a machine, even while cracking everyone up. Were you the class clown?

BH Absolutely, you know it! I was a little dude in high school. I didn’t grow until a few years later. So here I am, this little dude with a mullet, you know, looking like Bud Bundy. I was either going to be the funniest kid in school or get my ass kicked. It was an easy choice.

TW I hear you do a pretty mean standup. Where can we catch you, if not on the river?

BH Oh, sh*t yeah. I’ve done several open mic nights in Seattle. I love being in the spotlight and making people laugh. It’s how I approach my seminars. Even while providing good information I get a high from hearing people laugh at what I’m saying.

I’ve worked hard to come up with a great routine. It’s funnier than hell.

If I could do it all again, I would have gotten more into comedy in the 1970s and ’80s and concentrated on a career other than fishing. I could see myself doing a show like Seinfeld; we have similar styles of humor. I would have been killer. But it didn’t happen.

TW You’ve caught a few fish so far in life. What’s the single most important thing you would tell someone just getting into fishing?

BH Don’t get caught up in all this social media crap. OMG, it’s rampant and it doesn’t accomplish getting you on more fish. Ha-ha, this is from a guy who’s on the radio, TV and in magazines.

You know, if you’re good, help others. Teach others how to fish; that’s what it’s all about. Have a great time, have fun, laugh. To me it’s more important to watch others fish and get them fish. Yes, I’ve caught a few. When I go out I know I’m going to catch fish; it’s getting others fish that satisfies me.

Fishing is very therapeutic. I spend a lot of time fishing by myself. It’s helped me out in life. It keeps me sane. It keeps me from shooting more people. Joke – that was a joke there, kiddies. NS

Editor’s note: In part two of this series, Bill Herzog gets more serious, talking about the state of steelhead in Washington, the stock’s future and projects he’s working on to help out the resource.

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