SNOHOMISH — When members of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club recently planted 20,000 small coho salmon in area creeks, it was their first such project without Bob Heirman. A man who knew every stream, river and lake in these parts, a man who loved his lifelong home, Heirman died Saturday. He was 84.
“He loved the earth and all of God’s creations,” said Erin Aber, one of Heirman’s daughters. “My dad is irreplaceable and truly a Snohomish icon.”
His legacy lives on at the Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve at Thomas’ Eddy, a fishing spot at a peaceful bend in the Snohomish River. The county park isn’t far from Heirman’s home at Blackmans Lake. Heirman, with the Tulalip Tribes’ help, fought to stop gravel mining at the eddy and to save it from development.
Heirman also was involved in helping secure for Snohomish County the Lord Hill Regional Park land from the Department of Natural Resources and Washington State Parks.
He was an advocate for planting hatchery fish, especially steelhead smolts, in the Pilchuck River. It’s a practice of the past, and his position put him at odds with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife. An author of several books, including “Snohomish My Beloved County: An Angler’s Anthology,” Heirman wrote many articles defending his views. He cited fish counts from records he copiously kept.
“Can the Pilchuck be returned to its former glory? Yes it can but not by the present methods,” He wrote in a 2013 opinion piece published in The Daily Herald.
“Bob was just a part of Snohomish County history. It’s kind of the end of an era,” said County Executive Dave Somers, who before a career in politics spent many years working as a fisheries biologist for the Tulalip Tribes.
On Saturday, Somers will deliver a eulogy at Heirman’s funeral at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Snohomish. Heirman had battled cancer since last fall.
Recalling a recent conversation with Heirman, Somers said his friend “reminisced about the golden age of steelheading,” and about his early days with the Northern Pacific Railway on a rail line out of Darrington.
Somers spoke about Heirman at the County Council meeting April 24 before the council approved a resolution designating Earth Day as Bob Heirman Day in Snohomish County.
More than a sportsman and preservationist, Heirman was a tenor who sang at retirement homes, an artist whose paintings decorate his home and an author dedicated to local history. His book “A Railroad Runs Through It” centers on his 43-year career with Burlington Northern, from 1951 to 1994. In all those years, he didn’t miss a day of work.
Nor did he ever miss a meeting of the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club. Mark Spada, club president for three decades, said Heirman was secretary-treasurer of the group for 57 years. He was the keeper of fishing data dating back generations.
“I never met a man who had more passion than he did. He would disarm people who disagreed with his viewpoints, but with such a good sense of humor,” Spada said. “And he had so much factual stuff nobody else had.”
In Herald writer Chris Winters’ 2016 profile of Heirman, Jennifer Whitney, a biologist with the Department of Fish & Wildlife, described Heirman as “an incredible resource.” Although state officials didn’t share Heirman’s views, Spada said, “they had the utmost respect for him.”
Heirman’s encyclopedic knowledge came from years spent with “his fishing mentors — older guys,” said Spada, adding that Henry Grill was Heirman’s longtime fishing partner.
Robert Joseph Heirman was born Nov. 20, 1932, to Edward and Hazel Heirman, and spent all his life in Snohomish. He graduated from Snohomish High School in 1951. He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Clara Jean Heirman; children Robin Devon, Jo Morken, Sandee Garcia, Barbara Schwab, Craig Marker and Erin Aber; by 14 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
“He cared about everybody, those who are here and those who have gone,” said Ralph Dahlquist, Heirman’s close friend. Dahlquist, of Snohomish, said he and Heirman started playing cribbage several times a week “when steelhead fishing got poor.” Heirman talked about a favorite Canyon Creek fishing spot. “He called it Shangri-La,” Dahlquist said.
“He was such an easy gentleman,” Dahlquist said. “There was never an argument on the river. He could mediate. He was always that way, nonconfrontational.”
Dahlquist said it was Saturday when the club planted 20,000 coho. “It was the first time we’d ever done it without Bob,” he said.
Martha Jordan, executive director of the Northwest Swan Conservation Association, saw Heirman’s cooperative qualities when they worked together to save the Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve.
“He was passionate about preserving that place,” said Jordan, who lives in the Mill Creek area. “Bob wanted to preserve access to the river for steelhead people,” she said. Her priority was saving nearby Shadow Lake as a sanctuary for trumpeter swans.
“It became the largest night roost for trumpeter swans in Snohomish County,” she said. “Bob’s legacy went way beyond fishing.”
“He was a remarkable guy,” said Cliff Bailey, a lifelong Snohomish farmer who served in the Legislature and on the County Council. In Bailey’s view, Heirman’s historical perspective put him way ahead of others in his approach to local fisheries. “He had ideas how to fix things, and yet preserve the environment,” Bailey said.
With Heirman’s crackerjack mind and his way with people, Bailey said, “he would be an amazing politician.”
Heirman was also a fine singer, Bailey said. At Tillicum Kiwanis Club meetings in Snohomish, Bailey said members sing the national anthem. “It sounded so bad without Bob,” he said.
On a business card, Heirman described himself as “poet, historian, naturalist, sportsman, artist, tenor and guide.”
Somers offers another description: “He really is to me the heart and soul of old Snohomish County.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Herald writer Noah Haglund contributed to this story.
A funeral Mass for Bob Heirman is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, 1512 Pine Ave., Snohomish, followed by a reception. Donations in Heirman’s honor may be made to St. Michael’s Catholic Church, the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club or Providence Hospice & Home Care of Snohomish County.