Every year growing up Clancy Holt and his family would spend two months camping on the banks of the Sacramento River near Redding, California, to fish salmon for every day.
They would tie salmon on a rope through their gills, stake it to the ground and keep them alive for four or five days until they had enough to can with a pressure cooker.
“I got good at it,” Holt said. “As I got to my early teens, I got very good at it.”
One day, in 1955, when Holt was 16 years old, a man walked up on their camp site and asked if any fish were around. Holt’s father told the man to walk down to the bank and pull on a rope staked to the ground. The man pulled on the rope, which had a 40-pound salmon tied to it, was splashed with water and nearly pulled into the river.
The man asked Holt’s father if he would take him fishing. He politely declined but offered to have Holt take him if he paid Holt money. The man asked how much.
“I said, ‘I don’t know. Nobody ever paid me to catch fish,’” Holt said. “My dad said, ‘Give him $5 and he’ll catch you a salmon.’”
Holt took the man about a half mile down the river in the family’s boat and pulled into an eddy where he knew a bunch of salmon were. Holt threw out his line, hooked a salmon and handed the pole to the man who fought it and landed it. The man was ecstatic.
“He says, ‘That was fun. I want another one. How much?’” Holt said. “I said, ‘$5 more.’”
Holt made $15 that day. It was prior to any guide licenses in California. Soon Holt began taking people on trips from daylight to 11 a.m., then working in a grocery store from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Within a year, in 1956, he had established Clancy Fishing and has been guiding full time ever since.
Holt, now 81 years old, has led thousands of fishing trips in his 61-year career as a guide, and Clancy Fishing has moved from Redding all the way up to state Route 12. He’s guided the entire Pacific Northwest, from the Sacramento River to northern Washington, and has even led trips for salmon in Chile, South America.
“I’ve been guiding for a lifetime,” Holt said.
He stopped guiding trips three years ago at 77 years old, and now has a staff of four guides, including his son, Ron Holt, as well as Steven Hammond, Richard Hassett and Blair Johnson. Now Holt books the trips, arranges the schedules, meeting locations and so forth.
Clancy Fishing’s website says the business has guided more than 10,000 trips, but that hasn’t been updated in years, Holt said. Clancy Fishing keeps three guides busy most of the year and clients come from as far away at Latvia.
“I don’t know how many thousands and thousands of clients that Clancy Fishing has guided since it’s been in business,” Holt said. “I have no idea.”
The business has 10 boats, ranging from 26 feet that are used for big rivers, like the Columbia River, down to 18 feet that are used on smaller rivers, such as the Wynoochee River and the Satsop River.
Clancy Fishing guides trips for mainly salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and Kokanee lake trout. The most requested fish by his clients are winter and summer steelhead, fall king and silver salmon and sturgeon.
Holt discovered Lewis County while on a vacation from Redding. He was on his way to Alaska to check out the fishing up there but had to make a pitstop when he reached southwest Washington.
“As I got into Washington, I saw all the rivers and opportunities,” Holt said. “Every 10 miles there was another river you could go fishing on.”
He checked maps and noticed all the lakes in southwest Washington, then saw the amount of rainfall the area receives. Fishing at that time was excellent. Plus, there were steelhead in nearly every river and no size limits on sturgeon at the time.
“The Cowlitz River was probably the best river in the northwest,” Holt said. “The Columbia River was full of fish.”
He stopped in Lewis County and just fished for a while. It didn’t take him long to realize there was no need to go to Alaska. He went back to Redding, packed up all his belongings and set up his headquarters along state Route 12.
For a time, he didn’t need to go anywhere other than the Cowlitz River for nearly 365 days a year, barring a storm. Eventually he started hitting the Columbia River, too.
There were fishing opportunities everywhere,” Holt said. “You could take your clients fishing every day knowing they had a good chance at success. But it’s not that way anymore.”
When Holt first arrived in Lewis County, he looked at the pristine waters and an abundance of fish and figured it would stay that way for as long as he was around.
“I thought, ‘Nobody can ever destroy this resource, with all this beautiful country, water and fish,” Holt said. “I was wrong. Man’s doing a good job. They’re wiping this resource out.”
Salmon are still on the decline in the state, even after $1 billion spent over the last 20 years on salmon recovery programs, according to the 2018 State of the Salmon report by the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.
Salmon habitat is being decimated by the construction of roads and housing and commercial development. Coho salmon being caught have dropped from nearly three million fish in 1976 to less than 500,000 in 2017, according to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
The Cowlitz River, which used to be one of the crown jewels of salmon fishing in the state, now has three hydroelectric dams on it that cover up native spawning beds. Historically low numbers for Chinook salmon have prompted the closure of fishing for them in the Cowlitz River in 2020.
“Poor management from the WDFW and very poor goals,” Holt said. “They’re slowly wiping out every run of fish that we have in the state. Washington could be the fishing capital of the world, and Lewis County could be the hub of that if we just managed and developed our resources properly.”
Holt is still making the most out of the current fishing situation in the state, and there are still nice fish to be caught. His business books clients from all over the world and he has at least one guide on the river nearly 365 days a year.
“You do that by treating your people good and keeping them safe,” Holt said.
More Information on Clancy’s Fishing
Owner: Clancy Holt
Location: 910 U.S. Highway 12, rural Chehalis