A LEGEND CUT SHORT
Milton Fischer ’87, an internationally known fly fishing guide, died last winter, leaving much behind him: his family, his long-time girlfriend, two dogs, a house on an Oregon steelhead river, a legion of friends, and the bones of the many creatures he’d lovingly dispatched.
But Milt was more than a fisherman or deerslayer. He was the life force unshackled. At well over six feet, two hundred and many pounds, he was an imposing figure who took it upon himself, as if through divine appointment, to fight for the Northwest’s salmon and steelhead. Milt had spent his life in the wild before Reed, but his concentration in biology —his thesis was on reproduction in the vine maple—gave him the components of a far more sophisticated weapon. And he used it, as he did all weapons, to great effect. He was the large, implacable man arguing policy at Fish and Wildlife meetings, the one chewing out a road crew for filling tributaries with silt. He probably did as much as any civilian in recent years to draw attention to his cause.
Milt was hardly the no-kill type, yet his respect for his prey was bottomless: coming upon someone fishing with illegal gear or simply violating his highly evolved sense of the way things ought to be, he would hitch up his waders (his “Italian pants” he called them—crusted with salmon roe, fish slime, traces of wasabi), launch his great form from his raft, and correct the transgressor. To get his point across he’d invoke fish and game regulations, statistics on spawning success, the restorative properties of silence, anything that made an impression. Recidivists were uncommon, certainly more careful.
From Alaska and British Columbia to Idaho, Montana, and his home streams in Chico, California, Milt devoured the Northwest. His ability to collate geographical information—watershed by watershed, across thousands of square miles of territory, taking seasonal and myriad other variables into account—was a marvel, the genius of the hunter-gatherer dressed up in a gamy piece of fleece. And while he shunned large groups, hardly surprising in a man who spent most of the year outside, Milt also had a way of collecting people, sucking them in by ones and twos with his enthusiasm, his charm, his cooking, his raucous one-liners. (When his now-departed dog, Drew, hoisted a leg over the opponents’ beer cups after a rugby match, Milt famously remarked: “He’s not my dog. We might be friends, buthe’s his own dog.”)
Near-legendary status never changed Milt, though he didn’t exactly shy from it. He gave the same attention to a tiny child on her first day on the river as he did Tom Brokaw or the other posh figures he sometimes guided. Squeamish urbanites would crawl from their tents to find a perfect camp commode built into a stand of alders, with flowers, mosquito repellent, and a book of piney philosophy alongside. In southeast Alaska, Milt once met a young Eyak man glumly spin-fishing for sockeye salmon; he promptly gave the man a 30-minute lesson and a spare fly rod to use for the day—and saw him land several bright fish before fading away upriver.
Milt’s skill and dedication took him places the rest of us rarely see. He introduced the current governor of Oregon to the “slack-line” method of steelheading that made him famous along that coast. After his death he was saluted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives: “Mr. Speaker,” the statement read, “very few people rise to the top of their profession. The consensus among both amateur and professional anglers is that Milton Fischer was among a handful of the most elite fly fishermen in the world. Please join in honoring the memory of this outstanding American.” It was an event that would surely have provoked a snort, and not a little pride, in the honoree.
Over the last few years, Milt had all but checked out
of the “cash economy,” largely due to his growing distrust
of business interests and their effects on the balance of social, political,
and ecological power in the United States. Instead, he preferred to grow
and kill as much of his food as possible—bartering for pigs, making
his own pickles and Canada goose pastrami, packing his smoker and freezer
like some survivalist epicure. About the only thing he needed money for
was to maintain the much-put-upon Suburban that finally crushed the life
out of him, an irony lost on no one who’s still standing.