He wants his picture taken in front of a sign that reads: “Idaho … Too Beautiful to Litter.” The ground around the sign is covered with empty bottles, rusted beer cans and something that looks like the dust-collecting end of a Swiffer WetJet. He thinks this is funny.
“It’s not funny,” I tell him, “it’s ironic.”
I regret saying this immediately because any disagreement with Tommy, even one that is semantic, will launch us into another of the million arguments we’ll have today — the day I’ve been waiting for all winter, my guided steelhead trip. As many years as I’ve been booking this trip, there are still only two things I know for certain about it: Arguing with Tommy is part of the process, and Tommy, as contemptuous as he is, always finds fish. Always.
I’ve driven in early morning darkness over Galena Pass to Stanley, Idaho — dodging deer and elk all the way — to the Mountain Village Lodge and Restaurant, where Tommy meets me. There are a number of reasons I choose not to ride in Tommy’s car for the hour-plus drive it takes to get us to the Salmon River, and the least of these is because once we’re in it all he wants to do is argue; his car is at its rattiest, dirtiest and smelliest during steelhead season because he basically lives in that rancid Suburban during the months of February, March and April, driving along the Salmon River, spotting moving fish and looking for redds. I’m treating myself to a nice breakfast when he walks into the restaurant.
“Did you bring your gear?” he asks when he finds my table.
“Aren’t I paying you to bring everything for me?”
“My ex-wife took all of my rods and reels last month.”
“Which one?” I ask.
“You have flies, at least … right?”
Tommy smiles but doesn’t answer, and I don’t know if this means yes or no. As I take another sip of coffee, he looks back over his shoulder and yells across the restaurant for a half coffee/half hot chocolate in a big to-go cup and an egg biscuit. Surprisingly, the waitress comes running over with his drink, and a few minutes later, a grease-stained paper bag. Tommy hands me the check and walks to the door, holding it open to the brutal cold wind and snow, oblivious to wincing patrons.
“Let’s go,” he says, “We’re burning daylight, and just because it’s the end of the season doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be a hundred guys out there camping in my spots, although none of them know jack-shit, compared to me.”
He walks out the door, finally closing it behind him, but whether he’s aware of the pain he’s inflicted on the diners is anyone’s guess. The door slams in my face just as I reach it.
Each year in March, I call the fly shop to book a guided steelhead trip, but in exchange for one of the best days of fishing I’ll ever have, I’ll have to put up with Tommy’s enormous ego. I’ll put up with his cigarette smoke. I’ll prepare myself for conversations that border on hostile debates because there is no discussing anything with Tommy, and I’ll even have to steady myself for possible physical altercations on the river because Tommy is very territorial when it comes to steelhead spots. He spends days charting beds, counting hens, finding the tucked-away places along the river to fish that most people don’t take the time to look for or know about, and it sets him off to see out-of-towners driving up for the weekend, poaching his best spots without paying their dues.
As we drive by one area he calls “Red Ball,” hidden around a bend behind a grove of Aspen trees and willows, there is an out-of-state car parked suspiciously near the path to his honey hole. Tommy likes to call the non-locals names, especially the guys from Utah. “U-tard!” he yells out the window as we cruise by their vehicle.
The first year I booked Tommy, we met at the fly shop. He was rude and terse, walking around the fly bin, throwing various patterns at me to buy for the day. Then I had to race behind him, trying to keep up as he headed to his rig. As soon as I opened the passenger door it hit me — fish guts and stale cigarettes. There was so much trash on the floor that I couldn’t set my feet down. And it was cold. I wanted to ask him to turn on the heat, but the thought of those smells intensifying didn’t seem like a good idea, so I just froze all the way to the river, hoping it would help acclimate my body to the extreme temperature of Stanley, Idaho.
There’s a limited amount of comfort I feel I can ask for, or expect, as a girl who sometimes books a guide, but in exchange for that awful, long ride to the river that first day, Tommy put me on fish — a lot of fish. And I was hooked. Still, it’s because I love steelhead fishing and hate steelhead fishing that I continue to book Tommy every year, which when I stop to think about it is exactly the way I feel about him. I have fished for steelies on my own and with other guides plenty of times, but it’s never amounted to much except an occasional fish and the more than occasional freakish whiteout snowstorm, miserable almanac-worthy freezing weather, frostbite and frozen eye guides on my fly rod. And although Tommy and I don’t see better weather in Stanley, we do see fish — lots of them — and that’s the difference.
Stepping into the cold, dry mountain air of Stanley, I put my waders on next to Tommy’s car. We are standing under the Sawtooth Mountains — the American Alps, their jagged peaks cutting into the dark snow clouds above us — and I shiver because it’s a balmy 10 degrees. My retired father likes to call me from California with weather updates, and I frequently hear how Stanley is the coldest spot in the nation. It’s always cold in Stanley, and the locals — all 63 of them — have a phrase they like to float around: We had a great summer one day in July last year. I start to string up my rod, but Tommy pulls a rigged rod out of the holder in his car.
“Use this one,” he says.
“I thought you lost all of your gear?”
He puts his finger up to his lips to shush me. “Just pay me in cash today,” he says.
We walk downstream, and Tommy stops, puts his cigarette out on a rock and tells me to cast out about 40 feet, slightly to the right. I squint but see nothing. I cast.
“Do it again, a little more right this time,” he grunts. “Same length.”
I cast again, and my line comes tight to a fish.
“Set it,” Tommy says nonchalantly, and I feel the hook set deep as the fish rips downstream like a slalom water skier pulling a towrope. It’s not a huge fish, but it’s my first steelhead of the year. I smile and look over at Tommy, my hands shaking a little and my cheeks now more red from the excitement than the cold, but his back is turned and he’s walking away from me. I sense some disappointment in him, so I play the fish quickly. It’s a nice big male, bright and strong, and we release it.
“There are two or three more males moving up on that redd,” he says, “but we’re heading to another spot. I’m sick of catching hatchery fish. We’re going for B-run fish today.”
Here is my one and only rule about fishing: You don’t leave fish to find fish. But I am uncertain of knowing anything for sure about steelhead fishing on the Salmon River, and as much of a pain as Tommy is, I kind of trust him — I never saw that first fish until I had hooked it.
We head north on Idaho 75 toward the booming metropolis of Challis. There are feeder streams that split off from the Salmon before it gets to the fish hatchery in Stanley, and the biggest wild fish run up those streams to spawn. Tommy drives us upstream to a dirt turnaround and pulls over so we can get out to look at the river. We’re high up on the bank, and the river is big and wide here. On the far side, unreachable by car, there are fish porpoising, their big backs and shoulders coming out of the water as they fight to reach the eggs ahead of them. It’s a majestic, impressive thing, watching steelhead do this, knowing that they travel thousands of miles from salt water to fresh water, surviving logjams and dams and predators to finally return to the very place where each was born, to renew the life cycle.
And this is when I love steelhead fishing: Tommy, as egotistical as he is, has done his job once again, putting me not just in front of fish, but also in front of bigger fish. Yet the rest of this story is mine. I know I will have to cross the strong current and more than half the width of the river to catch these fish. I know that Tommy will walk ahead of me, not taking my arm like most guides do with a client, and he will not help me negotiate the slippery rocks or consider the fact that I’m shorter and weigh at least 40 pounds less than he does. And maybe in some way this is a compliment.
I know that once I get halfway across this river, if I get halfway across without it rushing over the top of my waders, I still might not be able to reach those big fish and could easily lose my footing and get washed downstream. But this is why I’m here. I’ve come a long way and put up with subzero temperatures and an unfriendly environment because, more than anything else, this is something I have to do. It’s an irrepressible force driving me forward. I am compelled, inexplicably and uncontrollably, to try to catch these fish, and then do it all over again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
“Let’s go,” Tommy barks at me. He’s already halfway down the bank. “Get the lead out. We’re burning daylight.”
I turn once again to follow him.