Milt Keizer - A true-steelheader and author

Posted by Nick Amato on


Milt Keizer was born in Settler's Township, Iowa and grew up fishing the streams, large gravel pits and Big Sioux River near Hawarden. From there his angling spread across the state and to South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin before being interrupted by ser­vice with the U.S. Marines during the Korean conflict, University of Iowa schooling, business employment in the U.S. and province of Ontario and a final year of Journalism School at UL In the late 1960's he and his wife, Joelle, and four children moved to the state of Washington and steelheading became his prime passion for the past 25 years.

Milt is a freelance outdoor article and book writer, has newspaper and magazine reporting, editing and publishing experience, has fished extensively in the western states and province of British Columbia and is a member of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

Although this book is dedicated to fishing partners old and new, the author also says, "Without strong family support and encouragement, I would not have had the freedom to fish or time to write, so I feel this book belongs equally to Joelle, Colin, Robin, Lance and Wendy. Thank you, family!"  


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Steelhead fishing is a magnificent malady from which the one in four or five western anglers who tries it never recovers. It runs its course through the receptive cells of an angler's body in strange and un­predictable fashion. The affliction is wildly variable as to effects and length of its stay. Some anglers may fish for as many as five years before landing their first steelhead, while other beginners may catch one or more steelhead on their first trip. Early settlers along the west coast swiftly discovered that the "little salmon" encountered by ex­plorers George Rogers Clark and Meriwether Lewis and named so by Indians who netted, smoked and traded dried steelhead along with salmon was neither little nor a salmon. By the late 19th century, sport anglers were taking the migratory rainbow trout on hook and line on a wide variety of baits. Efforts to in­terest steelhead in artificial lures bloomed in the decades from 1910 through 1930 after the conception of the Apple Knocker and Cherry Bobber, two ancestors of the myriad of lures developed since then to deceive wary steelhead into striking. Steelhead have captured the imagination of anglers as almost no other sportfish has done. Big and wild as the country in which they were found, swift, strong and glittering bright on arrival in natal streams from the ocean, this largest of the rainbow trout (Salmo gairdneri) clan has birthed new methods of fishing and created an ultra-dedicated and devoted breed of fishermen. True steelheaders readily admit they would far rather catch just one steelhead than a hun­dred of their miniscule rainbow, cutthroat, brook and brown trout cousins.

Few other fishing pursuits can persuade otherwise fully sane, adult men and women to spend long hours (and whole days aren't unusual) standing thigh deep in near-frigid, deep, swiftly moving rivers, enduring chilling rain and the stabbing bites of wind piercing the fabric of their clothing, all in the hope of catching one fish.

And then, when the gods and odds of fishing choose to smile on a fortunate fisherman, the sheer shock and sudden surprise of being attached to a rampaging fish a yard or more in length and wildly upset about the situation often causes beginners, and sometimes veteran anglers, to exhibit character quirks that might otherwise qualify them for an extended trip to the local loony bin but are clearly understood, often shared, and readily forgiven by fellow steelheading fraternity members.

Consider the case of the housewife who, in an at­tempt to understand her husband's fascination with steelheading, purloined his tackle one morning and headed for the nearby Cracker Bar to try this sport. The fishing gear was complete, having been left intact from hubby's last venture, so she found an open area between other patient steelheaders and began casting, allowing the bobber/yarn-bedecked hook to skip and bounce downstream in imitation of the nearby fishermen who, incidentally, had not seen a strike oc­cur in the past hour-and-a-half of angling.


Fishing for winter steelhead on Washington's Cowlitz River.


Of course, as you no doubt expected, there was at least one suicidal steelhead in that drift, which laun­ched itself upon her lure and hook so savagely it firm­ly impaled the hook past the barb. She pulled. The steelhead pulled harder, leaping and rolling on the surface to further distract the now-thunderstruck young lady. With a wild shriek of, "I've got one!" the thoroughly unnerved heroine turned her back to the river, propped the rod over her shoulder and, firmly clenching the rod handle, dashed across the bar until about 45 feet away from the river. Reaching a steep gully and heavy growth of brush, she halted and wheeled around.

"Is my fish still on?" she implored of the startled anglers who had spun to observe her flight.

An elderly and amused oldtimer she'd nearly run over 10 feet back from the water by a warming bon­fire took it upon himself to give her an answer.

"Well, Ma'am," he dryly confirmed,"It was ... when it went bouncing past me!"



In all fairness, lifelong fishermen also can take tem­porary leave of their fishing acumen when they fall under the spell of steelhead ... even those who have caught them for 45 years, as has my fishing partner, who may X me from his companion list after I relate one particular incident. The pool we fished deepened greatly after a sudden drop from a riffle and ran bet­ween a ledge on the far side and a huge boulder near us. At our feet was a slow eddy only four to five feet deep. He dropped a too-short cast into the eddy and began picking a slight involuntary overrun from his reel while watching the large ball of cluster eggs he'd baited on his hook roll around bottom in the swirling, clear water. I too, noted with great interest the softly tumbling eggs AND the large, bright, buck steelhead that slid out of the current, timed perfectly the next bouncing roll of the bait and matter-of-factly engulfed it.

"Strike! ... hit it!" I screamed, waking my bemused partner from his wide-eyed trance. He belatedly splashed backward several feet, cranking on his reel and sawing at the air with his rod, trying to get enough slack out of his line to set the hook ... gone! Pa­tiently, I explained to my partner (who's caught as many steelhead as I have seen) that the purpose of the day's venture was to put the little, bent, pointy things on the end of our lines in the fishes' mouths and then pull hard on them so as to coax one or more said fish to climb up on the bank for a nap, and not to watch them dine uninterrupted. "I know you saw it too," I said. 'Why didn't you strike?"

"I saw it," he readily admitted "but I didn't BELIEVE it." The confident approach and calm, unhurried, mouth opening-mouth closing action of the fish had enthralled him so deeply that, as a clinical observer, he'd completely forgotten the baited eggs were HIS!

Even regularly catching huge steelhead cannot pro­vide steelheaders with an anti-toxin against this in­sidiously enjoyable fishing fever. The 32-pound, 10-ounce winter steelhead that held sway as Washington's record fish in the early 1970s was only one of several giant steelhead caught by Clifford Aynes, who in that era fished the Cowlitz River regularly and was acclaimed as a near-expert. When he later helped net a mid-20s steelhead for his fishing companion, Buddy Rogers, though, the steelhead fever blazed bright and, had we watchers on the far bank recorded the action on video, the tape sales (or hush money) would have made us rich!


Dave Kaffke hooked this eastern Washington summer-run steelhead with a spinner.


Oops!. .. SPLASH! Unstrapped hip boots awash with full loads of water after slipping on the rocks and missing the fish on his first netting attempt, Cliff sloshed deeper over the slick bottom, making a se­cond pass with the net at the rolling, thrashing fish. Down he went again in a welter of spray. But he had pinned the fish between the net and his leg and was able to inch, crablike, successfully to the bank as all hands raised a rousing cheer!

Steelheading has evoked both the epitome of praise for a gamefish and creation of some of the best prose ever written by America's sportswriters. The mysti­que of challenging broad rivers rolling beneath ma­jestic evergreens and through untrammelled wilderness to yield silver-bright steelhead giants has been extolled by some of the finest sportsmen ever to take rod and pen in hand. Legendary Joe Brooks, a supreme fly-rod angler who lovingly and thoroughly roamed the known fishing universe, once said of steelhead fishing on the Thompson River simply that, "Heaven is a steelhead." The incomparable writer and angler Zane Grey was so enthralled by steelheading that he would abstain from his beloved saltwater angling for months at a time to haunt the banks of the Rogue River, where he was one of the earliest practi­tioners of fly-fishing for steelhead. Roderick Haig­Brown adopted British Columbia's Campbell River as his home stream to study, cherish, protect and fish and became famous for his detailed biologic knowledge, strength, color and clarity of writing and his angling skill. Eastern trout angling luminary Ray Bergman of fly-fishing fame came west to know with intimate passion steelheading streams and some par­ticularly memorable spots, such as the Sawtooth Pool on the North Umpqua in Oregon.

Having absorbed by osmosis the steelhead virus via the captivating, superlative writing of these outdoor titans, what would-be fisherman would not want to angle the same waters, catch or lose the same breed of battling fish and drink the same wine of wilderness experiences? These gurus of sportfishing and outdoor writing were the heroes of my midwestern boyhood and they could magically transport me from the pan­fish ponds and streams that I could touch to the banks of deep, green, cold and rushing rivers about which I could dream. One distant day the dream ripened into reality and I was in their world, catching the great, silver-clad giants about which they had written. On the bank of a cool and liquid, emerald river there finally came the day of the big fish that is and forever will be indelibly etched in the window of my mind. "Oh God!. . .It's huge!" Nothing about the strike or first few runs and shakes of the steelhead had alerted me that the fish I had hooked was more than a good, large one. But long minutes later it finned a few feet below the surface at the center of the river, clearly visible in the translucent water, gleaming silver bright, longer than my leg and as deep as a quart vacuum bottle. Huge? It was colossal! Through my mind flashed the dozens of ways sadly learned of how to lose a big steelhead, the fear my leader and bobber/yarn rig might have incurred slight damage from yesterday's six-pounder, and despair there was no one else on the steep and lonely streambank to see the fish before it broke off or to help me land it.



One on one, we tested each other and the fabric of dreams, the fish and I. Again and again, the deep­bellied hen steelhead determinedly drove for upriver and downriver distance, yielding reluctantly to the in­sistent urging of my long rod, until the mother fish of all fishes lay on her side, gasping, at my feet. The sharp point of the tiny gaff slid faultlessly into her tough pectoral area and I went up the 50-degree riprapped bank like a scalded cat, not stopping until reaching level ground 20 feet above me. (My angling partner later told me he could point out the exact place where I'd taken that whopper. "You left a blood trail through that brush like a mountain lion dragging a stolen pig!" he advised.)

That fish made my whole day, even though our state allows an angler to take a daily limit of two. One of that size was enough. One big steelhead can fill all my personal needs for a long, long time and, given the opportunity, many other steelheaders also will stop at one or release all other steelhead caught.

Once, sitting by a warming campfire and sipping a hot cup of coffee to take the day's chill from my body, I was startled from behind by the quiet approach of a small, very tired elderly man returning from far downstream.

"Any luck?" I asked as he eased onto a big rock close to my fire. In response, he slid a cord from his shoulder and allowed a giant, newly-minted female steelhead to swing into view and to the gravel bar.

"This one," he sighed. "It took me 25 minutes to catch it...wouldn't stop fighting, and my double hook almost pulled clear through her lower jaw ... see there?" and his finger traced the long slit from the middle of the over-20-pound hen's mouth to a bare 1/8-inch of unbroken lip through which his silver Sammy Special's hook had not cut. He continued,"I'm not going to fish anymore today ... I've had all the luck I could hope for."

Luck perhaps attends the first catches of budding steelhead fishermen, but acquired skills certainly can influence the success rate of anglers who continue to catch dozens of these sportfish each year. Sure knowledge of the tackle needed, how to rig in a varie­ty of ways for a day's fishing, lures and baits that ap­peal to steelhead, and knowing when and how to fish particular rivers all pay handsome dividends too.



Steelhead can be caught by the book if the book is a log or record of your and your fishing companions' trips, water levels and conditions, weather and temperature and the lures or baits you were using. In addition to these records, dedicated steelheaders will obtain from their fish/wildlife agency all the informa­tion available to the public on steelhead hatchery plants and wild fish programs, plus monthly catch summaries on individual rivers or estiillp.tes from previous seasons. Knowing when steelhead are most likely to be in certain rivers and then fishing the streams with greatest potential returns at the peak of timing for maximum numbers will help you take steelhead.

Other informational aids are newspapers, which often provide fishermen with data on river levels and flow changes, as well as weather reports and up-to­-date angling news. Steelhead guide and how-to books can illustrate the basics for beginners and perhaps ex­pand the angling repertoires of experienced fishermen. Reading fishing and general outdoor magazines (especially periodicals that show maps of the stream areas), too, can provide valuable how-to and where-to tips on where to find steelhead. Best steelheading success often comes to the anglers who learn all they can about the species, its habitat and life cycle.


Editors Note: In our "modern world" it's sometimes hard to find people who inspire us to learn more about our favorite pastimes. Learning from and listening to others is what makes a human whole. You can be an artist, scientist or hobbyist and find inspiration from others. Milt Keizer was one of Bill Herzog's inspirations to be a writer. 



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