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Lessons learned fly fishing in Idaho have applications in life


KETCHUM, Idaho

Lovers of Ernest Hemingway sojourn to the great writer’s grave here, and Amelia and I have been there a time or two during our annual visits to one of the West’s last best places.

Some folks leave hand-written paeans to the late literary lion. Others pour whiskey on his grave.

But that’s too heavy for us. We prefer sitting in the shade not far from the Ketchum Cemetery, chowing down on some positively heavenly hamburgers at Grumpy’s, where the scent of sizzling Angus beef surely stirs old Ernie’s restless spirit.

The playfully ornery sign greeting customers at Grumpy’s says, “Sorry we’re open,” but that dissuades no one from gorging on the grub served up at the venerable tavern. Next to fly fishing the waters of the EE-DA-HO Ranch with her friend and guide Big Pete DeBaun, my daughter’s favorite spot in all of Idaho might be lunch under an umbrella at Grumpy’s.

Although Ketchum is best- known these days as the town that plays host to skiers who flock to the Sun Valley resort for some of the best snow in the United States, fly fishermen make their pilgrimage to nearby Silver Creek and the Big Wood River in all seasons to catch and release a variety of trout. (Amelia is still trying to fully accept the whole catch-and-release thing. She appreciates the environmental argument, but some days she just wants to go home and pan-fry those fish.)

Hemingway, of course, was an avid outdoorsman, and you will occasionally hear visitors mention him with reverence. The Iconoclast, a truly fine independent bookstore, keeps plenty of his novels and short story collections on its shelves. But just as often you will hear the fly-fishing crowd quote from Norman Maclean’s great story “A River Runs Through It.” Although it never hurts to have a story made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, folks seem to especially like the end of the tale in which the narrator is “haunted by waters.”

The waters near Ketchum have become Amelia’s personal fly-fishing scrapbook thanks to Big Pete, who doesn’t so much catch trout as pluck them from the streams and lakes like notes in a symphony of motion.

In addition to guiding an eclectic and occasionally famous clientele, he devotes many hours to bringing the joy of fly fishing to our country’s wounded warriors. He also leads fly-fishing expeditions in Africa and elsewhere that help support the Mapolo Orphanage in Ndola, Zambia, (givehopeforlife.org). The down-to-earth guy is a larger-than-life hero to those children. And to my child, too.

When Amelia met Pete, the bond of friendship was instant and transcended a simple fishing lesson.

“Pete is more than a friend,” Amelia says. “He’s like a family member.”

One of the Silver Creek Outfitters guides featured in Mike McKenna’s great new book, “Angling Around Sun Valley,” DeBaun knows the waters of the Wood River Valley better than most. Not that you will get him to admit it.

As DeBaun says, “Fly fishing helps people become better people, better friends, better fathers, better humans.”

It’s not about the fish, you know. It’s about appreciating nature’s rhythm and time well- spent.

“The joy of fishing is when you keep it simple,” Big Pete says.

Although we sometimes must relearn the lesson, the same goes for life.

At the end of a long day, we are left with priceless snapshots. The sight of a rainbow rising to a well-placed fly, a flight of ducks lifting off the water, elk browsing in clearing, and of course the intoxicating taste of a hamburger from Grumpy’s: A river of grand memories runs through our time here. A day in the Wood River Valley is like gold in your pocket.

If we are haunted by anything in this last best place, it is only by the knowledge that a golden Ketchum summer cannot stay.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.