People with money build houses on the river because they love it. But there are few things more destructive to a river, especially a fly fishing river, than houses along its banks. Building destroys the insect habitat, and insects are essential to a fish's survival.
Stone flies and small black midges are among the most common insects found along the Big Wood, and artificial flies made to resemble them are the ones I use most when fishing there. The stone fly is one of the oldest fly fish patterns we know of. It was described in the 1486 English book Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, which recommended wrapping the fly's body in black wool with a touch of yellow wool under the wings, and using drake feathers for its tail and wings. Today's stone flies, made of woven black and brown feathers, resemble the actual long, slender insects much more than the fifteenth-century one did.
Stone flies, known to science as plecopteran, are found almost everywhere in the world except Antarctica. A female lays up to a thousand eggs, dropping them in running water or on rocks or branches on the riverbanks.
I can sometimes catch a trout in Ketchum with an artificial stone fly, but to see the real ones, I have to be on less populated parts of the river. If stone flies were allowed to flourish in Ketchum, people would be miserable, plagued by thick clouds of insects everywhere they went, and so a compromise has been reached. The insect population is kept down to a bearable level in town but is allowed to thrive enough outside town to sustain a trout population.
Farther out of town the mountains are enormous, the wildlife thrilling. My boots crunch through snowy banks as I make my way down to the Big Wood and carefully lower myself into its clear, rushing stream, to become part of something magnificent. The trout are there, they jump up and laugh at me, showing off their rainbow colors, but in less than a second they are gone, like a dream you recall that might have been real. Sometimes one will grab one of my ridiculous-looking fake insects and, despite its small size, put up a long and powerful fight. When I finally catch one, I admire its colors, carefully remove the hook, and gently return the fish to its river. On days when I catch a few and on days when I catch nothing, I leave the river a happy man. What could possibly be a better day?
Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU
I had taken seven fish. The takers were all solid, confident, and deep. I released all the fish, and by the time I'd hiked out of the boggy forest that night, I could feel glory all around me.
—THOMAS MCGUANE, THE LONGEST SILENCE
Two difficult questions that I am frequently asked are why do I write and why do I fish. I would like to be able to say that the two questions are related, but I don't think that is true. All they have in common is that they are both activities that I have been impulsively drawn to for as long as I can remember. I started both when I was a boy, writing longhand with a pencil and fishing with a reasonably straight stick from a tree branch, some string, a hook, and some earthworms dug up for bait.
While some writers famously fish, many just as famously don't. Tolstoy, Steinbeck, and many other writers have judged fishing harshly. Being a good writer will not necessarily make you a good angler and there is certainly no guarantee that being skillful at fishing will make you a good writer. The only thing the two have in common is a love of solitude and a tendency for reflection. They often, but not always, attract the same type of people.