My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.
—NORMAN MACLEAN, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
There's no one more silly than a fisherman.
—MEGAN BOYD, RENOWNED SCOTTISH FLY-TIER
Winter Without Tolstoy on the Big Wood River
He was fond of angling, and seemed proud of being able to like such a stupid occupation.
—LEO TOLSTOY, ANNA KARENINA
Stepping into the Big Wood River on a winter day, I feel the current wrap around my legs like the embrace of an old friend. That an icy river can have a warm embrace is one of nature's ironies.
Ernest Hemingway fished the Big Wood River and even chose its bank as the place to die. He understood. Tolstoy, who understood so much about human nature, just didn't understand, or at least he created a character who didn't.
In Anna Karenina, he wrote of two brothers who were wealthy landowners. To the first brother, there was nothing better than working in the fields. He could not understand why the other wanted to go off and fish for perch. At the end of the day, he would meet up with the second brother and be mystified at how happy that brother was after fishing all day even though he hadn't caught a single fish.
It is not an uncommon divide: the one who fishes versus the one who doesn't. The one who does can never explain the urge to the one who doesn't. Every winter in central Idaho while the smart set is gliding down the mountains of Sun Valley experiencing their own version of exhilaration, I make my way down snowy banks into the freezing Big Wood River in the hopes that a large and handsome rainbow trout will pull on my fly. There are days when I catch a dozen fish and days when I catch none, but I always return to town filled with the sense of peace that comes after having had a great day. If I catch no fish, if my fingers are so cold that they have turned bright red and no longer work—no matter. Any day spent fishing on a wintry river is a great day. How is it possible that someone who could write Anna Karenina couldn't see that?
It was my interest in the Basques that first brought me to central Idaho, to the town of Ketchum. Earlier in my career, I had written a book about the Basques and spent much time in their homeland, which in their language is called Euskal Herria, in northern Spain and southwestern France. The Basques herd sheep on their farms, which is what had brought them to central Idaho a century before I arrived.
The practice of bringing outsiders into the rugged, remote mountains near Ketchum to herd sheep had begun in the nineteenth century, when local sheep producers brought in Scots, because, due to the expansion of the cattle industry, there were not enough shepherds to tend to the area's huge flocks. The sheep industry was replacing mining in central Idaho. Scots knew something about tending sheep, but soon they assimilated and educated their children, who became economically successful in other fields or moved back to a newly industrialized Scotland. At this same time, in the beginning of the twentieth century, Basque farms in Europe, especially on the French side, were in crisis, and so the Idaho community was able to lure Basque farmers, who also knew something about sheep—housing the farmers in a building in Greenwich Village in New York until a suitable flock for them to tend could be found and they were placed on westbound trains. The Basques then went the way of the Scots, building a large, successful community in central Idaho, and in the late twentieth century the Peruvians were brought in.
Because of my Basque connection, I was asked to speak at the sheep festival held every fall in Ketchum. My wife and daughter came with me, and all three of us were immediately taken by the area's semi-wilderness. We decided to return in the winter for some world-class skiing, oddly forgetting that we were not world-class skiers. I liked cross-country, and had skied a few mountains in far tamer Vermont, but was not fond of riding a chair or gondola to a mountaintop, rushing down, and riding back up again. It seemed to me that the greatest moment in skiing was when you finally got to take off your boots.
I skied a little during our first winter in Idaho, but then I was told that there is winter fly fishing on the Big Wood River and that was the end of my skiing. My wife, Marian, continued to ski and my daughter, Talia, skied some days and fished others and was remarkably good at both. I have tried to get back to fish the Big Wood every winter since.