George McLeod, who took inspiration from the light over Washington’s Cascades early one winter morn decades ago to create one of the most enduring steelhead patterns, passed away last weekend. He was 95.
“He was an expert fly fisherman and steelheader — his Skykomish Sunrise wet fly he created in the 1930s is perhaps the most widely ever used steelhead fly — a long-time avid outdoorsman, small business owner, vegetable gardener and B-17 bomber pilot with 30-plus combat missions in World War II,” reads an obituary from son, Ken James Jr., and daughter, Sue.
He lived his last 40 years in Anacortes and died peacefully Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016.
McLeod was born in Seattle in 1921, and his early years were spent poking around small trout streams running through Woodinville and Bothell with his father, Ken McLeod.
But the family name is most strongly connected with the North Fork Stillaguamish and its summer-runs.
From his father’s camp at the mouth of famed Deer Creek by Oso, George landed his first steelhead at age 8 on the river, and then from the creek in 1933 as a 12-year-old, he took what would be the largest caught on a fly that year by members of the Steelhead Trout Club.
The McLeods weren’t strictly flyrodders. At the time there weren’t the fly line choices of later years that allowed patterns to stay down in the strong currents, so they used to go steelheading on the Sky with bait, hitting the river’s holes everywhere from Monroe on up to Index.
“They not only fished and hunted for enjoyment,” Ken Jr. recalled about his father and grandfather to this magazine for a 2008 story, “but for survival too. It was the Great Depression. They designed and implemented techniques to catch more fish.”
It was that kind of mindset that led to creation of the Skykomish Sunrise.
“On one particular trip we were headed over [to] the Skykomish,” George recalled in a 2006 interview with Danny Beaty and Tamara Belts. “[It was] one January morning, and as we approached Cottage Lake on the highway from Bothell to Duvall, there was the most beautiful sunrise you’d ever want to see. My dad pulled over on the shoulder by Norm’s Resort and we sat there watching the sunrise for about ten minutes. It was so beautiful. He remarked to me, ‘George, if you can tie me a fly with those colors, it‘ll really catch steelhead.'”
Back home, George sat down at his vise and tied what he thought matched the scene — “a splendor of red, yellow and white” — that morning (and not far from where this blogger did some growing up and on the lake this angler first recollects fishing) for his father.
“A day or two later, he went over to the river — it was during the week — and he used the new pattern, the Skykomish Sunrise. He hooked seven fish, and landed a 13-pound, 13-ounce chrome-bright buck that was the largest fly-caught steelhead up until that time for him. From then on, we really caught fish on that fly; it became real popular with everybody and is to this day!” George recalled 10 years ago.
The pattern he invented would also put him in the fly fishing record books. In October 1955, he caught a 29-pound, 2-ounce steelhead on British Columbia’s Kispiox.
George might have owned the record longer, but on a trip back to the river seven years later, he helped out a fellow angler in need of a strong tapered leader to go after a particularly large steelhead the man had seen roll.
“Karl Mausser caught his 33-pounder the next day and broke Dad’s record,” Ken Jr. says. “Needless to say, if Dad hadn’t given Karl that strong blood-knot leader, Karl might not never have broken the ol’ man’s world record.”
A happy accident led to George’s creation of another renowned steelhead fly, the Purple Peril.
“My dad used to do a lot of dry fly fishing for summer-runs in the North Fork of the Stilly, especially in late July, August and into September,” George said during that 2006 interview. “One of his favorite patterns was the Montreal, which was a claret color, sort of a wine color. I ordered the claret Montreal hackles from M. Schwartz and Sons in New York, fly material suppliers, and by mistake they sent me purple hackle. I tied up some purple, bucktail dry flies, and lo and behold, they turned out to be really a killer on dark days, especially for (a) dry fly.”
George and his father also came up with the McLeod Ugly, and they are mentioned in Trey Combs’ classic Steelhead Fly Fishing.
A champion fly caster, he “pioneered” the development of coho flies and was instrumental in coming up with new kinds of fly lines, as well as owned a sporting goods store in Kirkland.
Along with steelhead and fly fishing, the McLeod name is strongly associated with Washington fisheries management.
Ken is considered to be the father of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s forerunner. Tired of how corrupt local officials were managing fish and game, Ken founded a magazine — The Northwest Sportsman — in 1930 in part to move that authority to the state of Washington. It worked too. Initiative 62, largely written by McLeod, was passed by a vote of the people in 1932 and a statewide game agency came into being the next year.
Four years before that saw the creation of the Steelhead Trout Club, and George was a longtime member. A recent newsletter noted that he was “still an active member of the Club and manages to out-fish most of us on an embarrassingly regular basis – George just turned 90.”
In a post on Washington Fly Fishing forum, one angler recalled watching him fish years ago “with a poetry of motion and efficiency. Stoic, strong and serene, he was one with the water.”
In December 2014, the Steelhead Trout Club honored him at its annual dinner, noting that he was both a legend and that steelhead feared him.
The summer- and winter-runs may be breathing a little easier now, but his family and friends are wiping away tears while smiling as all the memories come flooding back.
Announcing the news of his passing online, former WDFW North Sound fisheries biologist Curt Kraemer said he was honored to have counted George as a friend.
“During the 1980s almost as much as the regularly free-rising Deer Creek steelhead, the highlight of fishing the Deer Creek water was those days that I was able to talk steelhead with George,” he remembered.
George McLeod leaves behind three children, five grandkids and four great grandchildren.
“His storytelling and smiles,” reads Ken Jr. and Susan’s obituary notice, “will live on as he fly fishes into eternity.”
And may the sun always rise over his Skykomish, North Fork Stilly and Deer Creek steelhead.