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Papa’s Waters: Sun Valley, Idaho

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

My 10th-grade journalism teacher taught me that words can deliver salvation. Until I began to write sports for my high-school newspaper, writing had only served utilitarian purposes – essays written solely because they had been assigned and “thank you” notes scrawled because they were expected. Yet with Mr. Sherwood’s nudges and tweaks, my prose began to transport me, to provide hope, to grant escape. Of course, for all I knew, the teenage readers of my words may have blown their noses into my stories, but that wouldn’t have mattered, since I’d found a passion, a path, a calling. I would be a sportswriter.

That dream lasted only until I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Basketball scores and player profiles were rendered meaningless next to the transcendent prose Papa had created. I read most of Hemingway’s other works, then pored over Papa Hemingway, by A.E. Hotchner, for insights into Ernest that his fiction did not necessarily provide. And yet as powerful as I found Hemingway’s prose to be, his larger-than-life persona, his adventurous spirit and his unmitigated brio turned him into a hero of mine. He devoured the safaris and expeditions most of us only dream about; he embraced the sloppiness of life that most of us cower from. He was an iconic American – raw, bold and talented. I knew he hadn’t won awards for his domesticity, and I speculated that his rough edges likely led to his untimely end, but I admire him, and what he stands for, to this day.

As a writer of an adventure column and as a fan of Papa’s words, I was excited when the opportunity arose to fish some of the waters Hemingway had. I was on assignment in Sun Valley, Idaho – the oh-so-ritzy enclave of affluent, beautiful people that also happens to be an adventurer’s nirvana – and I thought I might have time to settle a fly into the riffles of the nearby Big Wood River before the rains came. I asked the guides in Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters how to reach the river and which flies to use once I did.

He had walked the halls of Sun Valley Lodge and admired the black-and-white photos of celebrities hanging on the walls. And the inviting bar seemed a fine place to quench one’s thirst, but this was not a day for nostalgia or liquor, at least not yet. First there would be water. Today he would test himself against the fine Idaho rainbows, made strong and taut by the Big Wood’s quick, cold water. He would study the clear liquid that ran through the small town of Ketchum, searching the eddies for telltale snouts and studying the pools for dorsal fins that broke the mirrored surface.

I parked the Xplorer within earshot of the kids shredding the cement features of the nearby skate park, then stepped into my waders, pulled on my boots and threaded my fly rod. According to the fishing guides at Sturtevants, the numerous rivers that surround the Sun Valley area do not receive nearly the acclaim they deserve and, although the trout in these
Idaho waterways are generally smaller than those in Montana’s famous rivers, anglers who ply the Big Wood and the area’s other rivers usually find the experience worthwhile enough to return time and again.

His boot splashed into the water between boulders, and his day had officially begun. The dark gray sky above held the promise of certain rain, but he had not heard thunder yet, so he picked his way upstream towards a shimmering pool, across which floated a single leaf from a birch tree. He let the line load behind him after he snapped the rod back over his right shoulder, then, summoning what he hoped would be a degree of finesse, he shot his arm forward then stopped it abruptly. The barbless beadhead at the end of his yellow line soared above the water, being pulled forward in an arc by the weighted line, the whole assemblage eventually settling gently on the surface of the Big Wood. One second before the line and fly contacted the water, a small trout had dimpled the surface mere inches from where the fly now drifted. He wondered if the fish would rise again.

The action was slow at first, cast after cast resulting in little more than frustration. It felt odd to be fishing while trying not to look into the living rooms of the mansions that line the river, and I wondered how developed this section had been when Hemingway delivered his flies here.

The more the rain bounced off the surface of the river, the more the fish rose. He never minded the rain, liked it most of the time, and knew the raindrops always stimulated the fish. He presented his fly accurately but not softly, and the fish he was targeting had no trouble ignoring it. He tried again, and this time his presentation was what he wished it could always be, delicate. A trout pounced on the offering, and the fisherman got the fight he wanted when the rainbow flashed upstream, racing towards the submerged log that could release him.

I had no experience using barbless hooks, so I chalked up the first five fish I missed to my callowness and my barblessness. I eventually learned to set the hook immediately, managing to catch and release six trout, including one of decent size, in 15 minutes. I rendered this success moot when I struggled to walk upstream. My boots slid off boulders, my steps stumbled. I must have looked like a vertiginous drunk on roller skates.

The good, strong trout slowly revived in his hand, then swished his way back home. The first peals of thunder came soon enough, and he knew lightning was not far away. A man did not want to be on the water when lightning was near, so he bundled up against the rain and headed downstream. There would be other days.

The words are mine, but Hemingway provided the inspiration.

 Idaho Division of Tourism
, (208) 334-2470, www.visitidaho.org.
Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters, (800) 252-9534, www.fishsunvalley.com.

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