Guide, conservationist, fisheries advocate – there are many pieces to the subject of this month’s feature in our continuing series on all-around Northwest anglers.
By Andy Schneider
God, no, I’ve never looked back!”
So exclaims Bob Rees, the executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, Northwest Oregon and Columbia River guide, and fish and fisheries advocate.
“Besides my gray hair, I’ve got no regrets,” he says. “I owe my entire life to salmon. The best lesson my dad ever taught me was to get a job you love. It’s been a wonderful journey, meeting some incredible people and having some incredible opportunities.”
IT’S THE LAUGHTER coming from Bob Rees’s boat that usually gets your attention. Rees has a way of trolling right up behind you without attracting much attention – that is, until the laughter breaks out. You glance back and see Rees standing at the tiller making minor adjustments to the motor, while leaning in and telling his clients something that sets them off laughing again. As you think to yourself that it’s good his clients are having so much fun but they must not be taking the fishing too seriously, someone hooks one almost on cue to a punchline of a joke just out of earshot and the entire boat erupts in uncontrollable laughter again.
Fish around Rees enough and you begin to see the pattern: This guy is having a good time, and it’s infectious to his clients. At first encounter with Rees, you wonder if it’s just a show that he puts on to be a good businessman; no one could be that easygoing, quick-witted and fun all the time, could they? Well, I hate to break it to you, but yes, Rees is the real deal. He truly loves what he’s doing and is glad to share his good fortune with pretty much everyone.
“People come out fishing to have a good time,” explains Rees. “And I can easily accommodate a group of folks looking to have an enjoyable time on the water. It actually makes my job pretty easy. Sure, I’ve been stuck on a sandbar or two – or three – but those are usually the highlights of the trip!”
GROWING UP, REES was lucky that a friend of his father’s was a good fisherman and willing to share his knowledge.
“No one in my family really fished, so when my dad’s friend Gerry Lake took me salmon fishing for the first time, I was pretty ecstatic. It was early September and I had just started eighth grade when Gerry took my dad and I fishing out of Astoria. It was one of those flat-calm days on the ocean and when the rod started bouncing up and down, Gerry told me to just keep my hands off it. It didn’t take long before that rod started bucking and I thought for sure it was going to break in half. But with Gerry’s advice I was able to land my very first salmon. We only caught three that day, but I couldn’t keep the lid on the fish box – I just wanted to look at them all day.”
With the flame kindled, Lake fanned Rees’s fishing passion by taking him down to Diamond Lake fishing many times.
“He was my hero. Gerry was my gateway to sport fishing in Oregon, there’s no doubt about that. I now take his four daughters fishing on a regular basis; they participate in the Buoy 10 Challenge every year. Even though Gerry has passed away, it’s evident that he made a strong connection to fishing with his daughters and me.”
Rees believes that it’s extremely important to pass on your knowledge and passion for fishing to the next generation, whether you have children or not.
“If parents don’t support that passion, that energy is going to go somewhere else, and not necessarily good,” he says.
When we talked in late February, Rees had just wrapped up a new two-day event put on by the Steelheaders. Called Family Fish Camp, it was held near Rockaway Beach for families wanting to find out more about the sport, or if they’re already anglers, how to refine their skills.
“We had over 100 anglers and 30 volunteers in attendance – not too bad for our first year,” says Rees. “Saturday was some classes and then fishing for trout. Sunday was trout fishing, breakfast and then more trout fishing. Everyone really liked being able to go out and catch some fish.”
“One of the great moments of the camp for me was watching a 12-year-old, who incidentally has caught way more steelhead than me this season – way more. Anyway, he really wanted to help other kids catch fish. It was pretty neat watching this young angler in action and already passing on his knowledge.”
By building the next generation of anglers, Rees believes you also recruit the advocates who are going to fight for the future of our fish.
“We didn’t know where to start, so Family Fish Camp was a start,” he says. “And it turned out great – the thirst is definitely there. Sometimes parents just don’t have the time to invest in learning a new hobby. We hope we can jumpstart everyone’s passion and create future foot solders for salmon advocacy.”
REES’S INTEREST IN fish increased in high school, when he contemplated running a guide business from shore. But he really got serious when he entered college and got his fisheries degree.
Shortly after graduating he got a job as an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish checker in Astoria.
“I started meeting guides and talking with them and realized that was the direction I wanted to go. I never thought I was going to be rich enough to be able to buy a boat – thank goodness for credit!”
“I’ve since graduated towards fish advocacy and it’s been the exclamation point on my career. Working for the Northwest Steelheaders has been great and I’ve got a very understanding board of directors that still allows me to guide (northwestguides.com). I wake up pretty excited everyday to go to work and get a chance to work on some challenging issues. Northwest Steelheaders is 56 years old and stronger than ever before. I’m really excited about the direction we are heading.”
His career so far has provided some very rewarding moments.
“The most memorable fishing trip was when I took Governor Kitzhaber fishing in Tillamook Bay, October 23rd, 2002. The governor was considering closing salmon hatcheries due to budget cuts and deferred maintenance costs. That day the governor got his limit of salmon, one even being a hatchery fish. The day perfectly demonstrated how much local communities depend on commerce that comes from having salmon to catch in our oceans, bays and rivers.”
“Oh, and it was my very first freshwater double on salmon – that made it pretty memorable too.”
But even more important than standout days is the graduation of fishermen Rees has seen over the years.
“Anglers who I took out fishing for the first time caught the bug, then started buying their own boats and now show up at meetings fighting for salmon restoration. Looking back, you see this change in folks from not just being a consumer of the resource, but a steward. That is one of the most rewarding things to have seen in my career.”
Still, there’s work to do, and Rees is willing to do it.
“As humans, we truly don’t know what is possible. We thought that a human couldn’t run a 4-minute mile, but we are doing it. We never thought we would see salmon runs top 1 million fish, but we’re doing it. How many fish is our ecosystem currently capable of holding? Can we have 2 million fish this next fall? I think our next big step will be seeing a 12-month consumptive Chinook fishery on the Columbia – is it possible? I landed my first triple just this last fall. With good fishing like we’ve had, it feels like we are making progress. Oh, and let me tell ya’, a triple sure helps get a six-fish limit in a hurry!”
As much as he enjoys battling for the resource for all of us, fighting fish is just as important to Rees.
“I’m heading to the Wilson tomorrow to see if I can enjoy some of the great run we’ve been having. Work has been busy this winter and I haven’t been too disappointed missing the steelhead season so far, but I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”
We all should be with angler-conservationists like Bob Rees working for the fish and fishing opportunities. NS