Bob Toman, an iconic Pacific Northwest fishing guide, fisheries advocate and my longtime friend, passed away in early December of 2019, just shy of his 71st birthday.
Born Robert Norris Toman, Bob grew up near Oregon’s Clackamas River where his father instilled in him a passion for fish and fishing. After his graduation from high school, Bob attended a year of college and guided in British Columbia before being drafted into the U.S. Army and deployed to Vietnam. Stationed at a forward fire base near the demilitarized zone, Bob earned two Purple Hearts before his honorable discharge.
Upon his return home, Bob worked many years for the old Wigwam Store and Larry’s Sports Center (now Fisherman’s Marine & Outdoor) in Oregon City, Oregon. It was during this time, in the mid-1970s, that I met Bob and when he began guiding on the Willamette, Clackamas, Columbia and Deschutes Rivers and Tillamook Bay.
He was tireless in his effort to find a way to catch more and bigger fish. I remember him tracking every conceivable factor in a log book whenever he and/or a client landed a fish. That book had columns for every conceivable aspect: air and water temperature, turbidity, water level, time of day, overcast, cloudy, sunny, rainy, barometric pressure, humidity and other variables I can’t remember. After a few years he had some computer expert (remember this was back in the 1980s) enter all the data in an effort to discover what environmental factors triggered fish to bite.
When I later asked him what all the data revealed he laughed and said, “When they bite, they bite; and when they don’t, they don’t.”
It was his constant tinkering with lures that did make a difference, though. He was the only salmon and steelhead angler I knew who experimented with plug design. Back when I worked at Luhr Jensen we often relied on Bob for his input on lure design or modifications to improve existing ones.
But it wasn’t just plugs, Bob understood spinners and had dissected them to the point he had discovered that the right number of blade revolutions per minute appealed to fish more than a blade revolving outside the desirable range. His designs proved so effective that Yakima Bait began marketing a series of Bob Toman-branded spinners.
One spinner blade that he called Thumper was designed to drag more so that he could get it out and away from the boat when trolling shallow-water estuaries on the coast — all while maintaining the right number of revolutions per minute, of course.
It was Bob’s influence that inspired me to take the lead on plug and lure design. Given my belief that two heads are better than one, I’d often send lures to Bob for his evaluation before committing to the final tooling.
He was always experimenting with lure color. After all, as most fishermen know, there are days when having the right color has everything to do with success. Working for a company that makes fishing lures we were/are always in need of high-quality photos. Bob would often send me images of fish he’d caught but in a color Yakima Bait didn’t offer. I finally said, “Can’t you catch one on a color the company actually makes?” He did send me a few images, but never quit experimenting by painting his own.
Bob tirelessly supported conservation, restoration and both wild and hatchery fish, and worked with many state, federal and private biologists to better understand fish and improve runs. His endless curiosity and expertise on fish and fishing were frequently tapped by his many friends, fellow fishing guides, and me.