And then one day in late spring the last drop of snow melts off the valley floor and trickles into the Teton River. Up in the hill caves black bears open their heavy eyes and yawn and wonder where the fat has gone, and red foxes romp about in the meadows and exchange coy premarital glances. Pocket gophers turn to their summer-long task of aerating the soil, one hole at a time, and coyotes howl from the heights, harrowing the souls of sheep and dogies out to graze unguarded. The river is milky and full with the spring runoff rolling down from the glaciers and snowfields of the Grand Tetons and welling up through springs and pouring in from feeder brooks. But somewhere beneath the surface a logy-winged mayfly manages to wriggle out of its shuck and pop up to the top, where it vibrates and tries to twitch life into its wings when—splat!
The trout season is on.
In this Teton valley of southeastern Idaho, just over the mountain range from the Jackson Hole country of Wyoming, you are nobody unless you are a trout or a potato or Alma Kunz. The trout are cutthroats, rainbows and brooks; they live in the whole 60-mile stretch of the Teton River and keep it aboil with the intensity of their feeding. The potatoes are the money crop for valley farmers, who celebrate the lowly tuber by naming their drive-in theater The Spud and by eating quantities of a local candy bar called Idaho Spud. Alma Kunz is like Faulkner's Dilsey: he endures. For 58 years now, Alma has fished the moss-ridden reaches of the upper Teton; it is commonly believed by the local folk that Alma could catch trout in the swimming pool of the Flamingo Motel in Idaho Falls, an opinion which I have learned to share, and his fame has spread so far that fishermen from thousands of miles around come to Alma's Lodge near the village of Driggs, Idaho to "Contest" (accent on the first syllable in the local vernacular) Alma, betting him $1 a fish and driving back home on their credit cards. Men like the chairman of American Airlines, the presidents of Richfield Oil and General Dynamics and other fat cats of big business drop everything to come out and fish with Alma; California lawmakers have been known to visit him and then introduce resolutions about him into the Legislative Record.
But Alma Kunz (pronounced, Germanically, koontz) is no snob; indeed, to tell the awful truth, he is nothing much at all to look at, and one's first impression after talking to him is that Alma is a man whom greatness has been thrust upon simply by virtue of the fact that he lives close to a stream full of trout. A devout Mormon, he is likely to arise in the morning, look at a sky full of dirty black clouds and intone, "This is the day that the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." One can't help respecting a religion that teaches one to admire such a day. As for Alma, he means what he says. He goes about his morning chores, rejoicing in the day, and Teton valley weather being what it is, the clouds likely will be gone by the time he steps into his 20-foot johnboat for another river float for trout. It is then that Alma Kunz—age 66, with thinning white hair and the trace of a potbelly, dishwater-blue eyes on a narrow slant like those of cowboys' in cigarette ads, wearing a disheveled old red shirt, unpressed pants and battered city shoes—poles his johnboat into the middle of the Teton and metamorphoses into a legendary figure in fishing and casting. And catching.
May 15, 1966
"I'll tell you something about Alma," says Schoolteacher George Pehrson of Springville, Utah. "He can see a trout coming before the damned thing even starts. And he can put that fly right on that trout before the trout even knows where he's gonna be. Not only that, but Alma can teach you or anybody else to cast a dry fly and catch trout till your arm falls off. He took the Queen for a Day—now get this! He took the Queen for a Day winner—she'd never seen a fishing rod in her life, and a trip to Alma's Lodge was one of her prizes—he took her out and taught her to cast, and she caught the limit, 15 fish, on her first day!"
Alma employs six or eight guides who are miniatures of him: they know the 15 miles of the upper Teton River minutely, and they fish dry flies only. Every year Alma puts up $10 and "contests" his guides en masse. They pick out a fly, any fly, for him to use, and they fish the stream with whatever flies they choose for themselves, matching the hatch as it changes or using old faithful Teton flies like the Renegade and the Adams. Last year the guides made Alma use a fly called the Warbonnet, tied by Snake River Sam ("Flies for fishin', not wishin' "), a monstrosity without hackle or wings, really nothing but a No. 10 hook with deer hair applied to it. The guides call it the killer-diller as a joke. Alma tied the joke on and caught a limit of fish in less time than any of the guides, thus retaining his $10 and his record of never having lost. "Now boys," he said, "you needn't be ashamed. You did real well. I just lucked out." Alma lucks out every year.
In some ways, Alma Kunz is like a black bear. Winters are to be borne; life is lived in the summers only. When the first snows of autumn hit the Teton valley and the fly rods are stored away, Alma begins to fidget. He hunts some and visits a few of his fishing friends around the country and studies catalogs and catches up on his paper work, but he is only marking time. And when spring comes and that first trout goes splat! Alma leaves his house in the valley, drives the four miles to his unpretentious little brown-and-green lodge and begins to live. "I can't explain it," he says, "but coming back to this place excites me. Just turning on the water is a thrill, and seeing the lights go up again after they've been out all winter. I can already taste brook trout in my mouth. You know, the trout are friendly around here. They don't get up till 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning so we all can sleep. This is a rest camp, not a labor camp. But on opening day I'm out there at 4 o'clock in the morning. Four o'clock in the morning, freezing my bottom off! Because I want to have trout for breakfast." On opening day last year Alma and his son and partner, Lyle, and two doctors from Salt Lake City had caught their limits of 15 each by 5:30, and were enjoying the first trout breakfast of the year an hour later. After almost six decades of fishing the Teton River, Alma still gets trout fever, the piscatorial equivalent of buck fever.
I was with him one day when a typical Teton River rise began. One by one the rings dappled the surface; as more and more flies came up the trout became bolder, and pretty soon the river looked like the surface of a giant glass of Alka-Seltzer. "Oh, my goodness," said Alma, his hands shaking. "Oh, look at that! Would you believe it?" He cast and nailed a one-pound rainbow. "I can't stand it," he said. "My heart just won't put up with all this excitement. This is more fun than I can take." When the trout are on the rise, Alma Kunz is 8 years old.
The trout of Alma's river are neither as large as those in rivers like the Snake nor as sophisticated as those in rivers like the Test. What they are is there: thousands upon thousands of them, lashing the surface when the bugs rise, dimpling pockets and corners all day long, guarding their own tiny domains against intruders. The rainbows were planted by the state; the eastern brook trout came over the spillway of a fishpond dredged by Alma's father in 1908 to make money raising fish for the market—the project failed (there were too many wild fish available to the local residents) but the brooks caught on and flourished in the river—and the cutthroats are descendants of Pacific coast fish that centuries ago made the long journey up the Columbia River into the Snake and thence through the driving rapids of the lower Teton canyon into Alma's stretch below the headwaters of the river. Through the long generations they have kept the bright-orange slashes of color that characterize the breed, but they gradually have changed from the steely hue of the Pacific cutthroat to a golden cast with orange spots on belly and fins. Occasional naughtiness with the rainbows of the Teton sometimes results in a crossbreed: a rainbow cutthroat with an orange-slashed jaw and a bright reddish-purple stripe down the side. The biggest fish in the upper Teton are cutthroats; they have been taken up to 12 pounds, but nowadays a two-pounder is considered a prize, and the best fish of each season is seldom over four or five pounds. "Size is not the point," says Alma. The point is sport, and to this end Alma conducts a holy crusade against the use of anything but dry flies in his river. This is, perhaps, the only subject on which Alma Kunz has ever been known to raise his voice.
"We were fishing in the lake, and I had a spinner on," Rex Miller said loudly one day at the lodge.
"Hey, hey," said Alma, "will you please watch your language? Can't you see there's young boys here?"
"What'd I say?" asked Miller, a guide and distant relative of Alma. "What'd I say?" "You said 'spinner'!"
Without being a prig about it, Alma Kunz means business, and his attitude has permeated the Teton valley to such an extent that even local meat fishermen ("belly fishermen," as Alma calls them) are reluctant to dunk a worm in the river. Under Idaho law one can use almost any bait in the Teton short of minnows, which might get off the hook and grow up to be big bad egg-eating carp or suckers. But Alma's example has been so strong that, for all practical purposes, the 15 miles of the upper Teton are as fly-only as Pennsylvania's Fisherman's Paradise or the private stretches of New York's Neversink.
"I suppose it all goes back to Karl Musser," Alma explains. "He came to this river in 1937 from Peterboro, N.H., as fine a man as I've ever met, and I guided him. Right away I noticed he was a purist. If he happened to drag his fly till it went under the surface and he'd hook a fish with a submerged fly, he'd release him right away. I'd say, 'Mr. Musser, why did you release that fish?'
"He'd say, 'Well, I caught him foul. I hooked him underneath the surface.' He was that much of a purist. He set an example for me. Every fisherman should meet Karl Musser. That first day we ran into a worm fisherman on the stream, and that's where I learned the words 'belly fisherman.' Mr. Musser said, 'That man's a belly fisherman,' and he let out an oath and he said, 'I don't know why they'd contaminate a stream like this with that kind of fishing.' "
Not that it required Karl Musser to introduce Alma to flies; he had been using them himself a long time, but he had been fishing them both wet and dry. "People thought I was silly at first," Alma recalls. "I guess it was around 1910 when I came across an old Grizzly King, a wet fly, and I tied it on a coarse gut leader and threw it in the river just for the heck of it, and before the fly had a chance to get wet I caught a 2½-pound cutthroat. So then I began to get away from bait as much as possible. I got hold of a Queen of the Waters, and then I added the Royal Coachman and the Gray Hackle, and that's about all I used for years. People used to laugh at me, but then they began to notice I was catching more fish than anybody else. I used to run a milk route, and it got so bad that people would go out on the route to help me so I could finish in time to take them fishing for money. Imagine that! They'd drive up here and carry milk all morning for me, and then I'd take 'em on the river and charge 'em. So in 1937 I got rid of the milk route and started guiding full time."
From the instant Alma met Karl Musser in that same year and came under the influence of the New Englander's sportsmanship rampant purism has been the rule at Alma's Lodge. A fisherman who goes out with one of Alma's guides and pulls out a baitbox or a Mepps spinner or a Flatfish finds his reservation canceled as soon as he returns to the lodge. "There's a lot of reasons," says Alma. "In the first place, a skilled dry-fly fisherman will catch a lot more fish in here. This is a weedy river, and the bait fisherman spends half his time cleaning grass off his hooks. A bait fisherman kills a fish whenever he hooks one. That's another drawback."
How can he tell that a man has been bait fishing? "I can tell in a second—by the looks on their faces and by looking at their tackle. I met a man the other day was sent over here from one of those lodges in Jackson. He came in with lures; he never caught a fish, and when he left I called up the Jackson Lake Lodge and I said, 'This is the first time you've ever sent a man in here with hardware.' I said, 'I feel sorry for the man, and I feel sorry for the son he had with him. Why, that boy was getting a bad example. He was big enough to learn dry-fly casting.' So they told me on the phone, they said, 'You know, Alma, you did something to that man without ever saying a word to him.' And I said, 'What was that?' And they said, 'Well, the second he got back here he put those two casting rods away and bought two fly rods.' " Alma recounts the story like a Mormon missionary who has just converted a wild tribe of Bombo-Bombo Indians, and the listener breathes a sigh of relief for the child spared a lifetime of horror: worms and hellgrammites and minnows, Rapala lures and streamers and Hawaiian Wigglers. "And anyway," Alma goes on, "in all my years on this river I've never known a heel who fishes dry. In all these years I've never been beat out of a dime, I've never had to make any collections, and I think that's quite a record. It's a class of sportsmen you only get through dry-fly fishermen. Wet-fly fishermen I can respect somewhat; it's a tough way to fish, especially here after the vegetation comes up. But the dry-fly fisherman is the true gentleman."
Within this confraternity of purists there remains plenty of room for deviation from the norm, as Alma learns every year. Opening day is the test. "I get 'em driving in here with the shakes," Alma says with compassion, since he is likely to have the shakes himself on opening day. "You've got to hold 'em back. They don't even want to go to the bathroom; they want to get on that stream. I tell 'em, 'Relax! It'll be a few minutes before the guide's ready. Just go out and wax your line.' See, the thing is, you don't catch trout on a dry fly when you're tense and nervous like that. It takes a day or two to get the kinks out of your cast, to get rid of your jumpiness and to get used to seeing so many feeding trout at one time." Some never get used to the sight of the upper Teton at a boil. George Pehrson, the schoolteacher, has fished 27 consecutive opening days out of Alma's Lodge, a 600-mile round trip from his home in Utah, and he still is capable of losing all sense and sensibility when the trout come up. A few years ago Pehrson was casting a dry fly below the lodge, while his patient wife poled the boat. Pehrson hooked into a 5½-pound rainbow, and he soon realized that he was not going to be able to bring the fish to the net on his light leader. "Here!" he said, handing the rod to his wife and jumping into the chill water (average summer temperature: 52°). Fighting the current in water and moss up to his neck, Pehrson waded 75 yards downstream, following his line. Whooping and hollering, he netted his trout on the dead run in the shallows. "I realized later what a crazy thing I'd done," Pehrson said. "There are some deep holes in the river, and a man can go into shock from that cold water. But I never felt a thing!"
Alma remembers a boatload of newcomers who floated into a mad hatch and began beating the surface to tatters in their eagerness to make a killing. "They got so excited they tipped the boat, and one of 'em fell in," Alma says. "He hollered. Tell Martha I love her!' and the guide shouted, 'For hell's sakes, get up and walk! The river's only waist-deep.' There was a man and his son tipped the boat the same way and hung from an old wooden bridge to wait for help. One of our local farmers walked over the bridge, and they called up to him, 'Help, help, what are we gonna do?' and the farmer said, 'Well, you might try lowering yourself down; the river's only about two feet deep there.' They felt pretty stupid."
There are varying degrees of "trout madness," as Judge Travers has dubbed the disease that befalls fishermen in the spring, and Alma and his guides have seen (and suffered from) them all. A few years ago Guide John Pehrson, George's son and one of Alma's most trusted hands, took out a magnate of industry from the East, a man so feared and famous that his name must go unreported to protect both me and young John. "He wanted a big fish," says the guide, "and he wanted it so desperately that he made a nervous wreck out of me. He blamed me for everything. So I put him onto a big fish, and he hooked it. He brought it in, horsed it badly, and I was terrified because I knew he'd blame it all on me if he lost it. He got it right up to the boat and he said, 'All right, John, net it!, And I picked the fish up and put it on the boat seat and laid the net down—a two-pound cutthroat, a real nice fish. And the man hollered, 'We got it! We got it!' And I hollered, 'We sure did! We sure did!' And we both were yelling as loud as we could, and that fish took one flip, and he was off the fly and back in the river. That guy called me about five names, and he said, 'Look, let's get the hell off this river.' I took him back to camp, and he got in his car and drove away as fast as he could!"
Sometimes Alma and his guides have only themselves to blame for the exuberance of such fishermen. The guides keep up a running spiel as they pole one along the river, and the gist of it is that around the next bend is the biggest trout in creation, a trout so huge that etc., etc. I went fishing with Alma one day and almost suffered a nervous breakdown from anticipation. I am not the most stable living human under the best of circumstances, but imagine sitting in a boat with trout rising all around you and Alma saying, "Now get ready! There's a three-pound trout feeding just ahead! We're floating right into him. Get some line out now! That's it. Steady, steady. Take him! Too bad, you struck a little too soon. You have to wait for these big cutthroats. Say chimpanzee, and then strike. That gives 'em time to suck the fly down. Oh, my goodness! Did you see that swirl over there? He had a back like a steer! Get ready. Shoot a little line. That's it. Perfect! I really admire your fishing. Yes, sir! Hit him! Oh, too bad, you waited a little too long that time. Say cow and then strike. Chimpanzee takes a little too long. Now get ready. I want you to put your fly right under that willow bush on the bank. There's a three-pound rainbow been living there all spring. You can do it. It's a one-cast proposition now, so make it right. You've got the skill for it. Ohhh, too bad! You've spooked him now. Well, never mind, just around the bend here...."
Do not assume from this that Alma is dishonest. No, sir, Alma can abide dishonesty no more than he can abide worms. It's just that Alma is, sometimes, a little overenthusiastic. "The anticipation is the main thing in fishing, anyway," he rationalizes, "and I just try to heighten it. And when I say that there are big fish in here, I'm only telling you the truth. The fact that the fisherman seldom catches 'em is only because the big fish are smart. That's how they got to be big fish."
One behemoth took up such residence under the bridge downstream from Alma's Lodge and tortured fishermen for a whole season. "The kids used to get up on the bridge and lie on their bellies and look at him," Alma says, "and they'd come running back home and tell me he was so old he had whiskers. So one day I said let's go and catch that big fish, and I put on a Male Adams, the one with the gray body, and I came down the river in my boat and put a cast right in between the piers where he was. I only had about two feet of free float, and he took it. I ironed him fairly solid, and he fought deep, a typical cutthroat, and I played him right between those two piers, trying to keep him from wrapping around one of 'em. And finally I landed him. He only weighed 3¾ pounds, but what a fighter he was! He had two wet flies in his mouth, a Royal Coachman and a Gray Hackle, and a little bit of a dry fly that was almost wore out. One good fisherman had had him on and lost him. Those flies in his jaw were what the kids thought were whiskers."
Alma's son, Lyle, a political-science graduate of Brigham Young University who teaches school in the winter and partners his father's business, fought a running battle with another Teton monster for five years. "Dad worked on him, too," Lyle remembers, "but he was too tough a fish. A rainbow, weighed about 10 pounds. Lived in that same hole under the bridge, like the other one. We used to fish him through cracks in the bridge, drop the fly right down on top of him, and he'd ignore it. Every first of July he'd turn up in that same hole. I had him on twice. The first time he hit a fly and snapped it off in about a second. The second time I had him hooked better. Heavier line and leader. That fish came out of the water twice, and there was another fisherman watching me from his boat, and he got so excited when he saw my fish jump that he had a bad attack of asthma. That man went down like a sack of meal. So I wedged my rod in the bridge and drove the poor man three miles to the doctor's and came back two hours later, and my fish had broken off. Three days later the big rainbow was back in the same hole, feeding on flies. Several people had him on after that, but he was never caught. He's out in that river right now, I'll betcha."
By the end of every spring, Alma and his guides will have 10 or 20 such fish spotted, not necessarily all 10-pounders, but fat, respectable trout of three pounds and up. "They move about till they find a home," Alma explains, "and then they stay right in that spot for the whole summer. Once you see him you can depend on it, he'll be there the next time you cast over him. But every time you put a fly on a fish he gets a little smarter, which makes it harder but also makes it a little more interesting. Remember, a fish looks out of a window, sort of. In shallow water, his window's about eight or 10 feet forward at most, but in deep water it's only about three or four feet across, so you have to put that fly right in there. If you put it in back of his window or over his head you've only spooked him, and you'll never catch him. By the time the summer's over, my fishermen'll have made contact with every one of these big fish—Livermouth, Scarface, Ironsides, Big Pete, Old Blue, River George, half a dozen fish like them—but more often than not they won't catch 'em. The trout have too many things going for 'em in this river: moss they can tangle the line around, and currents they can buck against, and the simple fact that they can bust a light leader without straining a muscle. To make matters more difficult, each of the three types of Teton trout has a different type of strike, and the fisherman must learn to tell the difference in a split second.
"The rainbow's very quick in his strike," Alma goes on, "but you have to hesitate on the cutthroats. Except you can hit fast on the smaller cutthroats. And the brook strikes quick—fast, but not as fast as the rainbow. You learn to tell 'em by size and type. A large fish makes a slow rise and a deep wake. A small fish flips his tail and makes a splash, which sometimes fools some of the fishermen. Sometimes a big fish will give the impression that he's a small fish by straining for a fly when he's out of position and making a splash. But mostly, a big fish uses his mouth like a suction cup. He opens it and draws in some water, and the bug goes right down. But the little fish snaps at the fly. So when you get a strike here, you have to figure out what kind of fish it is, whether it's a big one or a small one and so forth. The average here is about one fish caught for every 10 strikes, and even the better fisherman can't do much better than that."
Something else the better fisherman should practice before he goes to Alma's Lodge is the delicate art of fly-lying, a subspecies of prevarication that is not only countenanced by the ultramoral Alma but enthusiastically practiced by him. Fly-lying consists of misleading your fellow fisherman as to what fly is taking fish. Sometimes Alma deals in the simple and forthright fly-lie:
Fisherman: What fly are you taking 'em on today, Alma?
Alma: The Pink Downright.
Fisherman: What's that?
Alma: It's the opposite of a Blue Upright.
Fisherman: What's the Pink Downright do?
Alma: It sinks down right to the bottom.
At the end of such an exchange, the fisherman knows Alma was lying, but what of the more sophisticated colloquy where Alma deals in the lie within a lie, or the lie upon a lie? One day we returned to the lodge with a string of trout as long as your surf-casting rod to find Alma's son Lyle awaiting us at the dock. "What'd you get 'em on?" Lyle asked.
"Well, Lyle," Alma said, "we had to tell George that we were using a Corey Ford, but I'll tell you the truth. It was a Beaverkill." It was, in fact, a Blue Wulff, which looks as much like a Beaverkill as a Dual Ghia looks like a Volkswagen.
Another time Alma and I came in at noon with a nice string, and veteran Teton Fisherman Herb Hardy, a lawyer from Portland, Ore., asked Alma what we had been using. "An Olive Dun," Alma said. I gasped. An Olive Dun was what we had been using, and now Herb Hardy would go out and take all the big trout we had spotted. "Don't worry," Alma confided when we got out of Hardy's earshot. "He knows I lie all the time, and now an Olive Dun is absolutely the last fly he'll use this afternoon!"
I cannot think of Herb Hardy without a twinge of conscience, the result of a dirty rotten Teton River fly-lie of my own, and one which I am certain will effectively bar me from the gates of heaven. Herb Hardy can fly-lie with the best of them, but at heart he is a fine, generous, friendly man. One evening he and his brother Ted came in with the best string of trout I had seen on the Teton: one cutthroat of nearly three pounds and about a dozen in the pound-and-over class. "Holy obscenity!" I said. "What did you use, Herb?"
"The Tup's Indispensable," he said without batting an eye. "I tie it myself, with a pink body."
I can go along with a gag as well as the next guy, so I said, "Boy, I wish I had a couple of those."
The next morning Herb proudly handed me a pair of Tup's Indispensables, pink bodies, sizes 12 and 14. "Tied 'em for you myself last night," Herb said.
As luck would have it, Alma instructed me to put on a Blue Wulff. "Herb tied a couple of Tup's Indispensables for me, Alma," I said. "Shouldn't I at least try 'em?"
"Listen," Alma said. "Herb is a good fisherman, but I knew him when he fished with worms. Tie on a Blue Wulff."
I put on a small Blue Wulff and, as Alma and I worked upstream, I took a dozen nice trout in about 50 casts. Those fish were breaking their necks to snap at that Blue Wulff. Plainly, this was no day for the Tup's Indispensable or any other fly except the one I was using. I looked up to see Herb Hardy's red-and-white boat dead ahead. "How are you doing?" he called.
"Crazy!" I shouted.
"What are you using?"
I blurted, "The Tup's Indispensable." Well, what was I supposed to tell him? That I had spurned his gift? That I didn't value his advice? That he had sat up all night tying those two flies for an ingrate fink? Listen, when Herb Hardy asked me what fly I was using, he posed a philosophical question that would have disturbed Kant or Voltaire or even Ann Landers.
For a second, he was speechless. Then he said, "Well, now you know some fishermen are honest about flies."
I said, "At least you and I are." Lightning should have struck me. I saw Herb clip off the fly he was using and tie on a new one.
That noontime I pulled in with nine keepers and a sore arm from the other dozen or so I had returned, all caught on the small Blue Wulff. Herb chugged in a few minutes later, and I asked him how he had done. He held up two fingers in disgust. Herb Hardy, one of the master dry-fly fishermen of all Teton River history, had practically been skunked on a morning's fishing, and all because I had touted him on his own fly.
I now keep those two Tup's Indispensables, still virginal and pink, affixed to the wall of my office, where they serve as reminders of the continuing need for honesty and forthrightness in our dealings with our fellow man. And this year when I return to the Teton River to fish with Alma, I am going to tell Herb Hardy, for one, exactly what fly I am using. I have discussed the matter with Alma by electric telephone, and we have already selected the fly we will open with. I pass it along to Herb Hardy and all others who would like to have an edge on opening day.
We are starting with the Pink Downright.