A new short film celebrates Bill McMillan’s commitment to citizen science and the Skagit River’s wild steelhead

Early in A Steelhead Story: The Legacy of Bill McMillan, the new film from North Sound TU, the camera follows Scott Willison and Bill McMillan hiking up a tributary of the Skagit River as they search for spawning wild winter steelhead or recent evidence of redds. The narrow freestone creeks flowing off the North Cascade Mountains make for tough wading, but they provide critical coldwater habitat for endangered Puget Sound wild steelhead.

Narrating the scene, McMillan succinctly spells out the importance — and a bit of the magic — of what motivates his years of volunteer spawning surveys in the watershed. “There is personal satisfaction of coming to know ecosystems better because you’re out there,” he explains. “You’re listening to what the fish are trying to tell you. What nature is trying to tell you.”

Watch A Steelhead Story at the WCTU’s homepage.

Among steelhead anglers and conservationists, Bill McMillan needs no introduction. He is the author of the iconic book Dry Line Steelhead and Other Subjects and the creator of the beautiful Winter’s Hope steelhead fly. For decades, he has been one of our loudest advocates for wild, native salmon and steelhead and the epitome of a citizen scientist and ecologist. TU members might also know him as the father of John McMillan, the former science advisor of Wild Steelheaders United, and a passionate advocate for wild salmonids and science-based fisheries policy in his own right.

For over a decade, Bill McMillan has conducted extensive annual spawning surveys across several key spawning tributaries in the mid-Skagit basin as an independent volunteer. His years of collected data and photographs comprise a fundamental understanding of wild steelhead populations in the watershed as the fish fight to recover their numbers in the face of a changing climate and generations of overexploitation, hatchery influence and habitat degradation. His insights into the crucial ecological role the early-returning winter fish play in the Skagit System, especially regarding intermittent streams, is critically important for conservationists and fishery managers to understand.

Bill McMillan and Scott Willison. Photo by Joey Mara at Waist Deep Media.

Passing the Torch

To ensure a comprehensive steelhead spawning survey, McMillan committed to hiking each of the designated tributaries every couple of weeks for a six-month window of time between mid-January and mid-June. He completed 100 – 200 surveys a year. It is hard work, and for all his dedication, he recently began to realize he couldn’t maintain the rigorous schedule forever. As he says in the video, he is now 77 years old.

Word of his impending retirement traveled fast among friends and supporters. Two things happened: First, members of North Sound TU and the Washington Council of TU decided they should find a way to celebrate McMillan’s commitment to wild steelhead, the Skagit River and angler-driven science. Along with the support of Wild Steelheaders United, they worked with Joey Mara of Waist Deep Media to make the film.

Second, Scott Willison, a member of North Sound TU and the owner of The Confluence Fly Shop in Bellingham committed to carrying on the spawning surveys to ensure the body of knowledge provided by long term data collection would continue.

“Well, Bill keeps saying he is winding down, but I don’t see him slowing down…” Willison laughs, speaking from his shop.

“The data gathered is important and the longer we can build a record, the better picture we get of population trends and responses to environmental changes. We need to be making decisions impacting wild steelhead management and recovery based on the best science and observations available, and Bill’s work contributes to that effort in meaningful ways,” Willison explains.

The work also provides an important way to stay connected to wild steelhead, even when angling opportunities aren’t available due to low numbers of fish and closed seasons. “Even though the surveys are long days, rough on waders and boots, and exhausting, I’ve found that they provide the same solitude and excitement I get from fishing for steelhead,” Willison explains. “Finding a pair of wild fish spawning in these creeks is just as thrilling as hooking and landing a steelhead to me.”

Overhead view of a steelhead spawning survey. Photo by Joey Mara at Waist Deep Media.

McMillan’s Legacy Carries Forward to a New Generation

North Sound TU debuted the film in January at a screening at the Kulshan Brewery in Bellingham. It is now available online at the Washington TU Council’s website. Willison has been pleased with how the video has inspired interest in the opportunities for anglers and non-anglers to get involved with the surveys or even look to create similar efforts in their home rivers. “I’ve gotten dozens of calls since the film came out,” he says. “I’ve been really happy to see how many younger folks want to learn more about these fish and ways they can help. They might not have understood that we have needs for more data collection, or that we still have a great deal to learn about these dynamic watersheds, but once you ignite that spark of curiosity, it is unstoppable.”

“And that’s a good thing! After all,” he laughs, “someday I’ll be Bill’s age and hopefully there will be someone to continue the work then, too.”

Tough wading on a Skagit tributary. Photo by Joey Mara at Waist Deep Media.

Jon Luthanen echoes the sentiment. He has served on the Washington Council’s leadership team and is currently the Conservation Chair of North Sound TU. He worked as the chapter’s project manager for A Steelhead Story.

“We knew we wanted to celebrate Bill’s work, but we also wanted to help educate people about how spawning surveys work and why this type of citizen science is so important,” he explains. “The film has really struck a nerve and I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to help contribute. Bill had gathered 13 to 15 years of data, and Scott is going to keep building on that. Who knows what we’ll be able to learn from this work or how it will influence future decisions for the Skagit’s wild steelhead? Or who it will inspire to get involved or start their own program? All of the impacts that grow from here will be the real legacy of how this project lives on into the future.”

A Steelhead Story: The Legacy of Bill McMillan is a film by Joey Mara of Waist Deep Media. It was made possible with support from the Washington Council of Trout Unlimited, North Sound Trout Unlimited, and the Wild Steelheaders United. It is available to watch on the WCTU website.

Everyone involved with the film production and the spawning surveys thanks Bill McMillan for his tireless work, leadership and advocacy.