Near centenarian wades into a fly fishing course with Spokane Fly Fishers

Muhammad Ali won a gold medal in the summer Olympics, the Cold War was in full freeze, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ was released and Bob Stephens learned how to tie a fly.

“I took my first fly tying lesson in 1960,” said Stephens.

The then 39-year-old Stephens was living in Michigan working for Kaiser Aluminum when the life-long angler decided to take up fly fishing.

Nearly six decades later the 99-year-old fisherman is wading back into the classroom.

Stephens is one of roughly 20 enrolled in the 2018 Spokane Fly Fishers fly-fishing school.

Although he’s enrolling “for the comradeship and to look for a fly fishing partner,” Stephens said he could use a refresher on the basics.

“I’m a better talker than fisher,” he said. “I would like to get out more.”

He won’t be wading through waist-deep water or stumbling over slick river rock. Arthritis in his left ankle prevents that. And, “you lose your balance a bit when you get older,” he said.

Other than that, he’s a spry man. Especially when one remembers that he’s just three months shy of his 100th birthday. A good excuse as any to stay in a boat.

“I haven’t aged, fortunately, like a lot of people,” he said. “I’m lucky to be able to do this at my age.”

Stephens was born June 5, 1918, and grew up in the Yakima Valley. His father was a farmer, who died in his 70s from cancer. His mother lived until she was 94. Stephens doesn’t credit his longevity and vitality to anything special other than “good genes.”

He served in the navy during World War II as a diesel engineer. Afterward he stayed in the reserves for almost 30 years. His non-military career was spent as an engineer for Kaiser Aluminum. He retired from Kaiser 37 years ago.

Since his retirement he’s led international trips with his first wife, who died in 2002. He’s become an avid wood worker and, of course, continued fishing.

At the beginning of this year he went on a two-week Chinese cruise, by himself.

In 2005 he remarried, this time to his Washington State University sweetheart, who he reconnected with after his first wife’s death. The couple lived in Portland until she died in 2015.

“We had 10 good years together,” he said.

That’s when Stephens moved back to Spokane to be closer to his son, Randy Stephens.

The two fish together, making trips to Browns Lake semi-regularly. In fact, Stephens favorite fishing memory is from that lake one September day several years ago.

“The fish were in a feeding frenzy and we really had a good time,” Stephens said. “You couldn’t put anything on the water with out the fish hitting it.”

Randy said some of his earliest memories are fishing for brook trout with his father near Chewelah.

“If my dad was ever stressed out or something, to relax him fishing was always the answer,” Randy Stephens said. “I fished with him a lot. And it doesn’t matter what type of fishing it is, he’s happy to do it.”

For years Randy said his dad tied his own “beautiful and elaborate” flies. And even in his old age his father’s energy is remarkable.

“He dances twice a week. Plays bridge twice a week,” he said. “And he travels still, quite extensively.”

“He is super, super social,” said Jesse Stephens, Randy’s wife.

She remembers a family white-water rafting trip on the Clark Fork River two years ago. Bob Stephens refused to come unless he could bring his fishing pole, she said.

“My father in law is truly an amazing man, mostly because of his desire to connect with other people,” she said in an email.

At the Spokane Fly Fishers fly-fishing school, Stephens will have a chance to connect with other anglers, said Claude Kistler, the club’s former president. The school started in 1977, 17 years after Stephens took his first fly fishing class.

Kistler is in charge of this year’s fly fishing school. During the course of the eight-week class participants learn the basics of fly fishing – equipment, moving water and still water, insects, water safety and casting, Kistler said.

The class tries and caters to all ages, interests and experience levels, Kistler said. Some participants are experienced anglers looking for a refresher and fishing buddies. Others are newbies. And while many of the participants are older retirees, Kistler said Stephens is by far the oldest.

“I can’t see him accessing the river and streams,” Kistler said. “But if he can get out with a partner and…a boat, he could have a fun time.”