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Rogue boat builder passing an 'end of an era'

Nobody told Willie Illingworth what to do, said Jim Bittle, who now runs Willie Boats in Medford, Ore. "He was his own person. He was no follower, and he didn't have a problem stepping out, be it right or wrong. " 

Illingworth's drift boat basics

Do's and don'ts | River courtesy

MEDFORD, Ore. — Boat maker Willie Illingworth's life was a lot like the Rogue River he loved so much.

Both were wild, full of momentum, and each changed the landscape in their wake.

The Rogue continues to channel waters from the Cascade Mountains in Oregon to the Pacific. But Illingworth, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer two years ago, died on March 27 in Medford, Ore. He was 64.

"Willie liked to be the center of attention, and when he got it, he was pretty good at keeping it," said his fishing buddy and business partner, Jim Bittle.

In 1971, Illingworth was a car dealer and a part-time fishing guide when he asked well-known boat builder Glenn Wooldridge to build him a McKenzie River-style fishing boat from aluminum rather than the traditional wood.

Wooldridge refused. After all, the flat-bottomed drift boats had been made from wood since the 1800s. So Illingworth got to work.

The shiny, metallic result was at first scoffed at, then slowly accepted and now is pretty much the only kind of drift boat you'll see on the rivers. That first boat was the beginning of a company called Alumaweld.

Illingworth parted ways with that company in the late 1970s, and in a contentious arrangement, agreed not to make aluminum drift boats for four years.

In 1981, Illingworth started Willie Boats, Inc. The company thrives to this day and every year builds more than 300 drift boats and another 100 power boats.

In more than 35 years since the first aluminum drift boat arrived on the scene, Illingworth remained a focused innovator and revolutionized the art of drift-boat fishing on the rivers of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

"It's the end of an era," said Oregon fishing guide Buzz Ramsey in an obituary in the Medford Mail Tribune.

Chine design
I fished out of an aluminum drift boat on the North Umpqua River in southwestern Oregon earlier this year. Despite raging high water from weeks of snow and rain, the dory fished dry, maneuvered perfectly to hit the steelhead trout holes and was as comfortable as an easy chair.
Even if I had not caught an 8-pound steelie on fly, the float would have been memorable because of the river and the craft.

Like hundreds of other anglers and guides, I could thank Illingworth for his moxie.

Aluminum boats are more durable and allow skippers to wait till the last possible moment to call "Lines in!" and quickly row away from approaching rocks.

Smacking boulders in an aluminum craft is a lot better than doing the same in wood.

Illingworth's unique chine design and rounded bottom gives anglers a stable ride while they fight salmon or trout, and makes it easier for the rower to control the craft and access it in tight spots where steelhead and salmon hold, waiting to head up stream to spawn.

"He had a knack for designing great boats, and coming up with new ideas," said Brad Staples, a drift-boat fishing guide from Soldotna, Alaska, who uses a Willie Boat about every day on the Kenai River.

Staples said Willie's aluminum boats combine sexy lines and function in a way that could only come from a designer who has an acute attention to detail and who knows the daily grind of river fishing.

Childhood tragedy

As a boy in Tillamook, Ore., one day Illingworth found a blasting cap and tried to hammer it into a whistle. It exploded and blew off most of his left hand. Doctors saved the wrist.

Kids made up nicknames for him, like Bandit, as in one-armed bandit. But with that nub of a hand, Illingworth did some things better than any whole man.

"I fished with him for years and never once did he ask me to thread an egg sack onto his hook, tie a knot or fight a fish," Staples said.

One time, Staples, Illingworth and Illingworth's second wife (he had three over the years), were fishing on the Kenai. Illingworth's rod doubled over with a 60-pound king salmon, which he landed by himself, holding the rod cork with his half-left-hand, and reeling with his right.

He wanted to keep it, but they didn't have a club to knock out this strong beauty. So Illingworth demanded they empty his half bottle of tequila. There was no arguing with Illingworth. They drained it, and Illingworth smacked the flopping king on the head, flipped it into the cooler and later grilled it for dinner.

Most of the memories people recalled in interviews for this story revolved around Illingworth telling X-rated jokes, passing gas, making people laugh and going to the bathroom.

For example, he never went to the bathroom on the bank. He has to use a 5-gallon pickle bucket on board the small boats, and he didn't care who watched or where the paperwork ended up.

Illingworth had fun with his vices. His favorite drink was a Chilly Willy, made with Jose Cuervo and a splash of Squirt. He smoked, but only tugged on American Spirit cigarettes because, he said, "They were the healthiest."

There were also a few tales of Willie's extreme efforts to get his fishing clients off the water. Often he distracted them with hard liquor. Sometimes he would get a buzz going, then inflate condoms with helium and let them go off the stern. Then he'd pull out of BB gun and knock them down, just for fun. After a while, they'd have enough, and he'd point the bow toward the boat ramp and go home.

It's true that the one-handed, barrel-chested, Oregon fishing guide always had a wise-guy remark ready to pop from his mouth.

But virtues dwelled within the black-bearded rogue as well.

People often talked about the wink or boyish grin that followed a room-quieting remark or off-color joke.

Illingworth had big heart, they said, and would be the first to help a friend or stranger in need.
Dramatic in life, Illingworth's hyperbole lives on in death.

About 75 of his closest friends are each about to get a vial filled with some of his ashes to take with on their next fishing trip and spread out over the waters.

One of his three sons, Matthew Illingworth, 38, will have one of the vials. He might empty it at Salmon Rock. That's a spot on the Rogue River where as a boy Matthew caught his first chinook with his Dad.

Then again, Matthew, called Matty by his father and friends, soon is headed up to the family's trailer at a campground on the Kenai Peninsula. So the famous Kenai, with its run of powerful kings and silvers, may be the final resting place of at least a small part of Willie Illingworth.

"If I picked up anything from my dad, I hope I have his loyalty to friends," said Matty, who was one of three people who cared for Illingworth in his last months. "Yeah. Loyalty, and telling it just like it is. He had a lot fun with that one."