The fish stories of Snohomish writer Bob Heirman are true

SNOHOMISH — The basement of Bob Heirman’s home above Blackmans Lake is packed to the ceiling with mementos of a lifetime spent fishing local rivers and lakes.

Heirman, 83, has lived in Snohomish his entire life. As the secretary for the Snohomish Sportsmen’s Club for almost 60 years, he’s accumulated a treasure trove of records and data going back a century.

Heirman’s basement is a library, archive and shrine to local fishing history, everything labeled in his careful block lettering.

His home lies about seven miles north of the 340-acre wildlife preserve that bears his name. He led the effort to save the land from being turned into a housing development. In 2015 he was commended by the Legislature for his work, and the Sportsmen’s Club gave him the award he’s most proud of, “Old Timer of the Year.”

Those plaques share Heirman’s daylight basement with stacks of books, journals, albums, poster board placards from recent talks he’s given, file drawers and boxes full of clippings of newspaper columns he’s written over the decades.

Several copies of his book, “Snohomish, My Beloved Country: An Angler’s Anthology” sit on a shelf above his desk. A collection of favorite bobbers and flies hang from another shelf. A couple of rods once used by local angling legends adorn the walls, partially obscured by yet more books and files.

“There’s so much history laying around in here,” Heirman said.

When showing visitors through his records, he punctuates his stories with jokes and anecdotes about people he’s known and fished beside. He talks about his days as an engineer on the Northern Pacific Railway, or recites a poem he’d written years before.

The walls of his home are hung with about 100 oils he painted of nature scenes.

Heirman’s obsessive record-keeping is part and parcel of his life as an angler and an environmentalist.

“If you’re a poor historian you can’t be a good fish biologist,” he said.

Whether it’s 101 years of records of fish plants for the Sportsmen’s Club, photos of caught steelhead larger than anything in the waters today or his encyclopedic knowledge of historical fishing spots, it’s all done in the service of the fish.

Heirman and his basement are legendary among the fisheries community. He claims to have more records than the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the department’s staff, if not in total agreement, are at least impressed.

“I think Bob is an incredible resource,” said Jennifer Whitney, a biologist with the department’s Mill Creek office.

“He has a near photographic memory, and backs it up with those records in his basement,” she said.

Many staff hired by the department end up visiting Heirman at some point. Kye Iris, a lands agent with the department, got to know him soon after arriving 13 years ago, when she was assigned to locate and rehabilitate state-owned access points to fishing areas.

“When I first came on board Bob showed me a lot of the access sites that had basically been neglected over the years,” Iris said.

Her position hadn’t been filled for a decade, so a lot of the institutional memory had been lost. Heirman provided that connection to the past.

One of the first sites Heirman pointed out to her was the Ray Gray Road access point along the Pilchuck River in Granite Falls. The neighbors had encroached on the state’s easement. A school bus was parked there.

“The neighbors came by and tried to throw us off the property,” Iris said. “He stood his ground and helped me reclaim it.”

Most recently, the state came up $5,000 short in its attempt to buy property to access the Wallace River.

“We called up Bob, Bob ran around, got us the money, and we were able to close the deal, and now we have access on the Wallace River,” Iris said.

Despite this, there are areas where Heirman and state policies are not in total alignment. For example, he said that wild runs are the descendents of hatchery-raised fish from generations ago, and points out that Chambers Creek steelhead are currently spawning naturally and thriving in the Great Lakes.

“I was privy to the golden age of steelhead,” he said. “It was all made possible due to hatchery fish.”

He and the Sportsmen’s Club still plant trout in area waters.

Mark Spada, the president of the club, said Heirman is the driving force behind the club’s fish stocking.

“We’ve got a plant coming up here in a couple of weeks and he’ll be right there in the middle of it,” Spada said. “He’s really the one who keeps the club together.”

Spada said that one reason that Heirman has been so influential is that he has a great sense of humor and never comes across as confrontational.

“You don’t get into a situation where you don’t respect Bob for the opinion he has,” he said.

Heirman indeed has strong opinions. One recent bone of contention is the 2014 lawsuit by the Wild Fish Conservancy, and Fish &Wildlife’s decision to not fight it and instead cancel the release of hatchery steelhead in most rivers until the federal government issues the state a permit.

“I have a great deal of admiration for him, and where he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the current policies of the department, I still respect his knowledge,” Whitney said.

Another issue is the overall decline in many wild salmon and steelhead runs. Fisheries managers are expecting a very low run of wild coho salmon this summer, and it’s possible the Sportsmen’s Club will have to cancel its annual coho derby, which provides funding for the club’s scholarship program.

“We’re bracing for it,” Heirman said. “It’s sad that we’re in such a bad scrape.”

Heirman no longer fishes himself (“I’ve caught enough fish in my lifetime,” he said, “especially the mediocre ones here”) but he remains active and said the primary focus these days should be protecting and restoring “jump-over” creeks, the upland tributaries of rivers where salmon and steelhead lay their redds.

“That’s where it’s all at,” he said. “If you don’t take care of the land you won’t have any fish.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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