May 01, 2015
By Matt Straw
Getting paid to spend life on the water isn't always glamorous. For instance, cameramen always want retakes. Lure testing has nothing to do with catching fish. And staring at lures wobbling through the water for hours causes migraine headaches. But, as long as a river runs through it, Buzz Ramsey wouldn't be anywhere else.
Ramsey has been the face of Northwest salmon and steelhead fishing for decades. In addition to being a columnist with Northwest Steelheader, Ramsey has long served as lure designer and field strategist for industry heavyweights like Yakima, Berkley, and Luhr Jensen. Along the way, he has appeared on all of the major shows and in most of the major magazines.
Easily identified in his wrapped boats, Ramsey is on the water up, and down the West Coast, every month of every year. A familiar face out there and in the media, Ramsey is a celebrity to all who chase silver fish that run in from the Pacific. He grew up with a passion for everything with an adipose fin, yet received scant fishing tutelage as a boy.
Ramsey was born in Toledo, Oregon to Lee R. Doty and Eloise Richardson, who later divorced. His subsequent stepfather and namesake was James A. Ramsey. "My real father was a fisherman," Ramsey said. "He lived on the end of the road to a coastal stream called Drift Creek. Some famous anglers fished down there with him. Jim Conway had a fishing show way back in the 1960s. He later told me he'd never seen a steelhead stream so full of fish. They fished together quite a bit with a number of locally famous anglers. I lived in the city at the time and had no idea. I found it all out later."
Ramsey grew up in Portland. "I was nuts about fishing, but I rarely got to do it," he said. "My mom sometimes dropped us off to fish for steelhead. At first I tried plunking with Yakima Sin-N-Glos on the Columbia River. Later we started drift fishing (ticking bottom) with Yakima Lil' Corkies or Oakie Drifters. If we had bait, we tipped the rig with egg clusters. That was how I caught my first steelhead."
When Ramsey obtained a driver's license, "look out," he laughed. "I started chasing fish like a mad man, landing over a 100 steelhead that first year. My head was way into it—to the point where I thought there was something wrong with me. I got involved with fishing clubs like Northwest Steelheaders. Doing so and my unique name kind of led me into the industry."
Like most industry standouts, Ramsey had dues to pay first. He landed an apprenticeship as a sheet-metal worker before he was "discovered" and recommended for promotional marketing in 1974. "Bill Jensen called me to work for Luhr Jensen full time," Ramsey said. "I started promoting, putting together catalogs, and developing new products. Some of the Hot Shot sizes I developed are still around. The Jet Diver was a product we renamed and remarketed. I worked with Luhr Jensen for over 30 years. My biggest accomplishment there was introducing the J-Plug into the Great Lakes."
In the late 1970s Luhr Jensen, struck gold after the introduction of salmon caused a wild resurgence in Great Lakes trolling action. At the same time, biologists in Puget Sound (Washington) started holding salmon past the smolting stage. "Those salmon stopped going on that long journey to Alaska," Ramsey said. "The interception rate was high all along the way. That smolt program still goes on today. Bigger Chinook run deeper, so anglers would use downriggers. But these new trollers in Puget Sound were getting stripped and the interest in plugs began to grow. Some people were putting glow paint on them. At the same time, in Lake Michigan, coho numbers dropped off. The states upped plants of Chinook. All these charters started crossing over from flies and plastics to plugs."
Suddenly, the J-Plug phenomena was hotter than a ghost pepper. "So hot," Ramsey said, "that we had to ration them out. Springs Sporting Goods in Muskegon, Michigan, actually had a riot when the J-Plugs came in and sold out the same day. Word got around town that the shipment came in late, so the next day there was a line. When they ran out, the police had to come in and break it up. We had a hard time keeping up with the demand."
Among his many accomplishments, Ramsey designed the Luhr Jensen K-11 X Kwikfish, the Berkley Gulp! Sand Shrimp, and the Gulp! Salmon Egg Cluster. He also designs rods. "I went to work for Yakima in July, 2009, as brand manager," Ramsey said. "I left Luhr Jensen just prior to the sale of the company, and started promoting Berkley products, helping design a lot of Series One and Air Series rods for salmon and steelhead."
Designing, testing, and tweaking lures, however, comprises a huge portion of the Ramsey legacy. Right now, his attention is fixed on the new Yakima Mag Lip. "It has the most unique action I've seen in a bait of that kind," Ramsey said. " It wiggles then darts to the side, making it highly erratic yet incredibly stable. The lively wiggle hangs in there at speeds over 4 mph. People think lure testing is glamorous, but you really don't want to hook anything with a $1200 prototype. You just want to tweak the lure to do what you want it to do. Like the Mag Lip, any new plug or crankbait has to have a lifelike, erratic action. And it has to handle current speeds up to 4 mph. Get it to do all those things, then you go to tooling. Then you make a run of parts, then you can fish 'em and find out if your observations and all the time spent amount to anything."
For years, Ramsey spent a month each fall on the Oregon Coast hosting outdoor writers and visiting dignitaries while testing lures for Luhr Jensen. "Every time I caught a fish I put a file mark on the lure," he said. " Pretty soon you could see who the real fishermen in the tackle box were, and they were always the radical baits. You would think you can just scale a good lure up or down to create the different sizes, but you can't. Each size demands a different lip angle, a different diameter—a different something. But once we had all those variables wrapped up, the Mag Lip always kicks out to the side. It's radical—like any good lure should be."
"I don't know how it happened, but I was always fascinated with fish," Ramsey said. "I would race home from school to watch the guppies in our aquarium. I caught my first trout in a pay-to-play trout pond and I thought it was incredible. My uncle took me fishing sometimes, and my mom would take me to the Columbia by the Interstate Bridge and drop me off. I put a Spin-N-Glow out on a set rod. That's how I caught my first spring Chinook—fishing from the bank."
Like so many kids growing up, Ramsey followed the television shows and local fishing heroes of the day. "I joined Northwest Steelheaders when I was 14," he said. "I was just looking for any opportunity to fish I could find. After getting a driver's license and broadening my horizons a little, my reputation started growing around steelhead fishing. But I love salmon, too. I like it all. I'm always impressed by size and strength of salmon."
Ramsey's favorite fishing story orbits a 30-pound steelhead. "I went up to the Thompson River in British Columbia with Bill Jensen one year," Ramsey said. "We were on the usual rounds, promoting tackle, but decided to spend a morning on the Thompson. Backtrolling a Hot Shot, I popped a 25-pound, 13-ounce steelhead. I was fired up after that, so I was right back up there a few weeks later. We landed 24 steelhead in those 5 days, and released them all, but I hooked and landed this obese 30 pound, 5-ouncer. A friend convinced me—while the fish held fast under the boat—it was over 30 pounds. So I taped it and thought he was right. I ended up having it mounted. I broke two line-class world records that year, and that one held for 9 years."
Ramsey now lives on the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia in south-central Washington. "I'm fortunate to live on the Klickitat," he said. "I can walk down and fish steelhead from my back yard. But fisheries come and go. One that's really up this year is the Columbia. Last year we had a record run of fall Chinook, and we're predicted to have 900,000 run this year. So I like to fish the mouth of the Columbia these days, especially during the last two weeks of August. It's a trolling fishery. The mouth of the Columbia is 4 miles wide with daily tide fluctuations, so trolling is the most efficient approach."
The kings of the estuaries come in on the high tide. "That's when you fish the upper end of the estuary," Ramsey said. "At low tide, you fish the lower end. Salmon flood in on that rising water. When the tide ebbs, fish turn and face the other way, and you find the direction of your trolling pass becomes critical. A 20- to 30-pound fish isn't uncommon on the Columbia, but some 50 pounders are caught every year. It's a hot fishery right now. Can't wait to get back up there."
Ramsey may not have a choice in the matter, but it's ok with him. "I have to be in the field," he said. "People often think I'm a guide. Sometimes I wish they were right. But testing lures, getting them right before we go to tooling, it keeps me out there. I enjoy fishing through the different seasons and experiencing all the unique opportunities each one offers. My job is promotions, so I'm constantly reviewing and upgrading existing lures. It's not fishing. Typically we're off in some slack water where we don't expect to encounter fish, testing prototypes. When we finally get to fish these baits, we have dignitaries, writers, and other management people on board. A lot of it involves staring at lures in the water for hours on end. But that's our goal—to help people catch fish. That's why Yakima is made up of anglers that spend time in the field and know how to catch fish.
"Spending the extra time to get a lure really right is a sacrifice," Ramsey added. "But I know it's going to help a lot of anglers find success. So I'm into helping the lure designers get it right. Some of these products I've helped introduce—I look at those as my biggest accomplishments."
The corporate part is fine, Ramsey said. But only if a river runs through it. "I love floating rivers," he said. "Winter steelhead on the coast, summer steelhead on the Klickitat, tolling salmon in the estuaries— love it all. I have a 24â€“foot jet, an 18-foot Willy Drift Boat, a couple of pontoon boats, and two kayaks. But just getting in a drift boat and slipping down a free-flowing riverâ€¦Wow! It always knocks your socks off. Fish or no fish—what a rewarding adventure."