Reflecting on the Tetons: Fly Fishing.

This weekend I put on snow pants and winter boots and spent about 45 minutes trying to untangle a fly fishing reel that had sank to the bottom of my pile of stuff, prematurely retired for the season almost two months ago. With rod, reel, and makeshift tackle box I went to my “spot” on the Snake River to try to catch something, if only branches and memories.

It’s not a very good spot. I’ve never brought home anything from that part of the river that I was terribly excited about. But it’s one of those spots that seeps into your bones, and you store it in a little box in your brain. A little stone box with elephants and rhinos carved on it, given to you specifically to help store the memories of places like these. Filing the whole essence of the place on a mental note card labeled “that spot on the Snake River past the willow thicket and before the old railroad pilings.”

The note card is mostly factual. Descriptions of things that you would see if you stood in my spot. There’s the pool and riffle in front of you. The one you casted into endless times and reeled in without a bite even more times. The cottonwood behind you with yellowing leaves that hang low enough to catch your brand new flies unapologetically, but somehow high enough to give you the illusion of a safe casting area. To an experienced fisherman, it probably would be. But I just learned, so the alternative casting technique just snags me in the driftwood below the riverbank every time, and those flies are even harder to retrieve.

There’s the bikepath on the far side of the river, where Joanna, her awful bicycle, and I, explored during our first week in Wilson, only to discover that the path is gated off half a mile ahead. I can see the boat launch on the far side of the river where I would practice the andante of the Arutunian trumpet concerto, or, if confident enough, the opening fanfare. It was a place where I couldn’t be heard by anyone that I knew personally, but I could still anonymously serenade dog-walkers and ducks.

And of course, beyond the river, the Teton Range, with Rendezvous Peak and the resort’s Tram summit. This mountain is dwarfed by the Grand, which erupts from behind it as if it were from a Thomas Cole oil study of contrasting landscapes, rudely interjected in what would otherwise be a fairly peaceful scene. And yet despite the intimidating statement it makes on this “spot,” it always seems bathed in a light coming from another planet, or at least another age. As if the best and softest light was reserved only for the peaks tall enough to penetrate the heavens.

And then there are the parts of the memory note card that are a bit embellished. A painter would never paint the scene this way, but you would feel it if you walked into the canvas and looked around the corners. Like the nine otters that came writhing down the Snake in a big pile, next to that boat launch where I played trumpet. I haven’t seen otters since that first night when they stopped and watched us for a moment before being carried downstream. Them, a family that has (at least in my imagination) swam and played up and down the river together for years. And us, a collection of brand new housemates who now dwell just a few hundred yards from these otters’ home, yet are completely bewildered and entranced by each other and this place.

There is the swimming hole “beach” on the walk out to my spot where this same collection of housemates played in the water and on the round-rock shore months later, drinking piña coladas on beach towels over an extra-long lunch break, and treating this eddy of the Snake like the paradise that it is. And rightly feeling like those otters did months ago, when they seemed to be inviting us to play in the river with them.

From my “spot” one would paint Phillips Bench, a short ridge in front of the Tetons. But you wouldn’t see the opposite side of the bench where the limits of my locomotory abilities were tested, climbing up and down a seemingly endless array of steep hills while looking for radio-collared deer and not finding them. At the very top of the tallest, steepest hill, we encountered a mother moose and calf calmly eating forbs and wondering why I looked so exhausted after climbing up something so benign. They invited me to try the endless crop of raspberries up there. I obliged voraciously while my research partner fussed with the telemetry reciever.

Then there are the parts of that memory note card that wouldn’t appear anywhere near a painting of my “spot.” Memories and episodes that connect only tangentially to what’s happening in the scene itself, yet are profoundly important to its context. My roommate graciously taught me how to cast, and how to, in theory, think like a trout. This was, after all, the whole reason why I was out there casting into trees, snags, and occasionally fish mouths.  I would have thought that a neon swimsuit would just distract the fish, but she still landed the biggest catches of our season ( least 7 feet long, I swear). My lessons started in the lawn, with curious neighbors assembling to show me how to do it “right,” which, by the way, there seems to be no consensus on. Those non-fishermen around the green looked on while cooking elk burgers on charcoal grills or fixing holes in bird nets, strung up on poles just outside of back-casting distance.

The one or two fish that were brought home from the “spot” were cleaned and cooked in the bunkhouse kitchen under harsh fluorescent lights but the warmest of company. Finally, tasting that same stuff the otters lived on (though they were probably catching bigger fish), and knowing that the water this fish was pulled from was under my feet on an 11,000 ft peak just a few months ago.

Next year’s waters are already draped over the Tetons, and I skied across them this weekend. They also blanket the path to my “spot.” Hopefully I’ll be able to come back here next year and feel a little more like the otters and moose, with some claim to this place that was earned by a little experience and time and camaraderie.

One more week in Jackson Hole, then back to VT for the winter.