When you think of what California is best known for, obvious answers might include Hollywood, surfing, giant redwoods, the Golden Gate Bridge and maybe Yosemite National Park. As a lifelong fly angler intimately familiar with many of California’s famous fisheries, I was stunned to find out I had missed something huge, iconic and pitifully overlooked about fishing in California.
“Rivers of the Lost Coast” is a documentary film chronicling the evolution of fly fishing for wild salmon and steelhead in a handful of northern California coastal rivers from the 1920s through the 1970s. More importantly, it is an intimate testimony to the small cadre of utter fanatics, anglers who devoted their lives to these fish above all else while pushing the fishing tackle industry to develop the tools we now consider “required equipment” for pursuing large, ocean-going salmonids.
The story is told chronologically beginning in the 1920s firmly establishing how different the Eel, Russian and Smith Rivers were in those days compared with today. The salmon and steelhead runs were so vast, so unimaginably huge that literally everyone saw them as infinite resources impossible to degrade. By the 1970s we had discovered that wasn’t true, but the ride toward reaching that inevitable conclusion included decades of some of the most fantastic fishing in angling history.
The film includes a wealth of old black-and-white images and grainy film clips promoting the notion that viewers are in fact looking back in time. It wasn’t just about the rivers, or the fish either. The story is told by people who were part of the story, people who were there. Most have become older gentlemen themselves whose names have also become famous. Hal Janssen, Lani Waller, Russell Chatham and Jim Adams are a few of the names anglers are likely to recognize and they all contribute to this story.
Entwined into the story are the sagas of several key players forever associated with these rivers. Jim Green helped in the development of the shooting-head lines needed to make ridiculously long casts. In 1947 he set the world record by making a 206-foot cast. New lead core lines allowed anglers to better fish deep rivers like the Smith. Grant King, owner of Kings News and Tackle in Guerneville, CA, was well-known as the primary promoter of the Russian River. The San Francisco Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club (still in existence today) was considered the “epicenter” of the movement to unlock the secrets to these fisheries, and it didn’t hurt that the Russian River was only one hour away from San Francisco. But more than anyone, there was Bill Shaadt and (to a lesser degree) Ted Lindner who became the deans of these rivers.
Bill Shaadt “the guy who knew where the fish were,” was a fanatic’s fanatic. Bill fished all day every day, never had a job, never bought a piece of equipment, and always caught fish. He collected all kinds of junk and often paid for goods and services with fish he had caught. During those Golden Years some of the rivers eventually got tremendously crowded. Shaadt famously welded a razor blade to one of his flies so he could cast over another angler’s line, and by retrieving it sever the other guy’s line. Shaadt was known to tie a rag on tree branches to mark places he had found a lot of fish. When other anglers discovered his system they would slip into those spots in the middle of the night before Shaadt could get there. So Shaadt would often return to the river in the dead of night and move his rags to unproductive stretches of water.
It started out that Bill Shaadt and Ted Lindner were fishing friends. But eventually egos got in the way and the two eventually became bitter enemies, almost rivals. Lindner had put in enough time that he was also considered to be an expert, but in Shaadt’s mind there was room for only one expert on the river. Some anglers report that Lindner tried to mend fences with Shaadt in their later years, but Shaadt wouldn’t hear of it. Cancer was the only thing that could get Shaadt off the rivers, and it did.
The film does a good job of portraying how truly magnificent the fishing was in those rivers for much of fifty years. It also names the handful of events that changed that beginning with the Christmas flood of 1955. After World War II logging went unfettered in the region and zero consideration was given to protecting the fisheries. The attitude really was that the fisheries were so tremendous that nothing could ever take them down. All but the Smith River ended up with dams on them blocking off critical spawning habitat. There was overfishing in the ocean, another flood in 1964 followed by years of drought. Hatcheries were considered a good solution to declining native fisheries, but the runs continued to decline. California finally evolved away from hatcheries toward habitat protection and restoration, but a lot of damage had already been done.
The film is elegantly made, and as good as any documentary I’ve ever seen. I found myself hanging on every word and feeling like the anglers telling the story were my brethren. The film is enormously entertaining and a “must watch” for anyone interested in salmon and steelhead fishing with a fly rod or California history. I even recognized some of my own fanaticism for fishing in Bill Shaadt. I can heartily recommend watching this film. You can find it here.
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.