Fish Guy

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Outside magazine, May 1994

Fish Guy

Reviver of rivers, assembler of streams, creator of piscine worlds–when you get down to it, Steve Fisher is a little crazy for trout
By Donovan Webster

An April blizzard is dumping snow on Montana’s Bitterroot Range, and in a backyard garage near Missoula, a building that Steve Fisher has converted into an office, the trout are swimming contentedly in their stream.

They slide and shift in the moving water, a scattering of torpedo shapes holding near the bottom. Some are brilliant silver, others are a dark, chocolaty brown; a few hover just above the pebbled streambed, hiding behind the rocks and aquatic vegetation that Fisher has added, and they nose lightly against the fluttering underwater leaves. It’s compelling. Realistic. And except
for the modern office that surrounds it–and the fact that it’s only five feet long–Fisher’s trademark Indoor Trout Stream could be confused with a similar-size chunk of Montana’s trout-laden Clark Fork River, which flows past Fisher’s office a hundred paces outside the door.

Fisher–a gangling, dark-haired 45-year-old with a Vandyke beard–strolls toward his homemade stream holding a Styrofoam cup filled with night crawlers. “Watch this,” he says. He extracts a worm from the cup, raises the stream’s oaken lid, and slowly opens his fist over the water’s glistening surface. The worm extends slowly downward, and SPACK! In a flash, a brown trout
a–nine-inch, tiger-striped beauty–zips from behind a rock and snatches the night crawler from Fisher’s grasp; the part not eaten drifts downstream for a second before being pounced on by another trout, a chubby, foot-long rainbow.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Fisher says, his gaze fixed on the brown trout as it resettles above the streambed. “Every time I watch them, I’m amazed.”

Two years ago, Fisher tells me, when he first introduced trout into his new stream, the fish vanished. “They were brown trout fingerlings,” he says, “and I came out the next day, and phwiiit, they’d disappeared. I thought, well, they ate one another. Or the cat got ’em. So I began dismantling the stream to find out what’d happened. I drained it
about halfway and started removing the river stones–suddenly there were fish everywhere! It took me a minute, but I finally realized what was going on. They’d buried themselves! It’s a survival behavior that biologists have noted in the wild, but I never thought I’d get it under my own roof. I felt my stream was already a success.

“Every fish is different,” Fisher continues. “I once had this one, a rainbow, and no matter how I tried to alter its behavior, all it wanted to do was sit upside down between two rocks. I finally put him back in the Clark Fork, but I still imagine him out there, upside down along an eddy line, waiting for dinner to float past.” Fisher pauses and shakes his head. “They’re weird,
weird animals.”

More than almost anyone else, Steve Fisher is entitled to his opinions on trout. As proprietor of Fisher & Associates, he is becoming increasingly famous across the West for his three-pronged career–as inventor of the Indoor Trout Stream, as a contractor who reclaims and improves trout streams, and as a consulting aquatic biologist to public and private concerns from
Montana to New Mexico. Fisher is also a Pisces and drives a road-battered Honda Accord whose Montana license plates read FISH GUY. Then there’s the coincidence of his surname. Of these coherences Fisher says, “What is it? Nature? Nurture? Who knows?”

A quick inventory of Fisher’s office shows that he certainly honors his self-imposed Fish Guy title. The floor is a mosaic of biological abstracts and fly-fishing magazines; the shelves are lined with textbooks and sheaves of research; graphite rods and neoprene wading boots are stacked near the door. The monster-megabyte computer is Fisher’s tool for home-brewing his
topographic maps, examples of which are thumbtacked to the walls. These maps, some the size of bedsheets, are blueprints for his current river-reclamation project; they sketch, in scratchy, precise detail, the dry gulch outside Ketchum, Idaho, that he’ll resuscitate over the coming summer. With the help of a dozen earth-moving machines and a half-million square feet of plastic
sheeting, he plans to recontour a bone-dry, mile-wide valley, tap into water supplied by Sawtooth Mountain snowmelt, and conjure a vital, five-mile-long trout stream from what’s currently dusty earth.

It’s a job that will demand an entire summer’s worth of waking hours, and one that bumps up against a central environmental issue: How much can wilderness be manipulated before natural systems are damaged? Still, despite this titanic task and the questions it raises, Fisher is more interested in showing me how his Indoor Trout Stream works. He’s folded his six-and-a-half-foot
self in half to kneel beside the oak cabinet that supports his stream, which is actually a five-foot-long, two-foot-wide, two-foot-deep Plexiglas tank. He swings open the cabinet’s door to reveal the stream’s guts: all wires and hoses and motors. “Here’s the pump to keep the water circulating,” he says, pointing. “And here’s the chiller unit.” His finger taps a small metal grid
that resembles a miniature automobile radiator. “The biggest problem with indoor streams is keeping the pump motor from heating up the water. Optimally, trout need 58-degree water to flourish.”

To create a riverine current, Fisher explains, water is pumped through the tank in two ways: It spills from behind a large, mossy rock at the tank’s front, creating a splashy waterfall and a realistic-looking riffle. It is also spit from a perforated hose beneath the river stones, causing a substreambed flow that keeps wastes moving toward filters at the rear of the tank.
“That’s the way real streams work,” Fisher says. “In the wild, water doesn’t just flow in channels; it moves through the streambed, too, working between the rocks and keeping things clean and aerated.”

Fisher sells his contraption, or a custom-designed one like it, for $1,000 per foot. Of the six installations he’s done in the past three years, the longest has been 30 feet. “My favorite one,” he says, “was an 11-footer I put into a private home in Seattle. It’s set into a wall, and it turns a corner.” He recently finished an 18-footer for the Aspen Center for Environmental
Studies, in Colorado, and a 30-footer for the Deaconess Medical Center in Billings, Montana. “I can do whatever a client wants,” he says. “Wild or conservative, that’s an Indoor Trout Stream.”

He picks up the Styrofoam cup from where he left it on the floor. “Trout are just a metaphor for something larger,” he says, extracting another worm. “That’s why, when I tell somebody they can have trout inside their house, they go crazy for it. It’s something they want, even if they don’t know why.”

A second later, another earthworm is dangling above the water. Once again, it’s feeding time at the Fisher River. SPACK! A sleek, foot-long rainbow has snatched the whole worm from Fisher’s fingertips. Then, in the blink of an eye, the trout is back behind its home rock, moving effortlessly in the artificial current.

It’s two months later, a Saturday in June, and Fisher has relocated to Idaho. He’s housed on the ranch of his client, a Los Angeles businessman who’s planning to retire someday to this golden-sloped valley outside Ketchum. For the meantime, the magnificent 7,500-acre spread, including its ranch house, has been turned over to Fisher, and he and the ranch manager, Jay Sevy, have
the place to themselves. The smooth, tawny mountains are covered with sagebrush and, at the higher elevations, stands of aspen and Douglas fir. In the early light of morning, you can hear elk bugling.

Fisher is seated at his computer, sipping coffee and entering surveyor’s distance and elevation points into a three-dimensional model of the valley. “The boss called the other night,” he tells me. “It was really late, after midnight, and he said he couldn’t sleep because he wants bigger ponds.” Fisher shrugs. “He keeps rethinking the ponds because he can. It’s the old story–a
boy and a mud puddle. Man loves to improve nature in his image; it taps into something eternal. We all want to adjust the world–because, under the right circumstances, we can.”

I look through the living room’s large windows at the valley outside, and then back to the computer screen. The two shapes are virtually identical, but the electronic version is in black and white, a gridlike plane bent and folded into seeming valleys and peaks. Fisher is instructing the computer to execute his boss’s instructions, and the enlarged ponds blossom in white on the
floor of the computer-generated valley. He’s testing their capacity, making sure that the creek–on the computer screen, anyway–will supply enough water to keep them full and won’t stray from its proposed bed during spring flooding. It’s just a model, but it’s an important one, since nearly half a million dollars’ worth of river-reclamation work rests on whether Fisher maps the
ponds correctly for high water and low.

“My client is one of America’s premier businessmen,” he says, glancing away from his computer for a second. “He’s advised presidents, for Christ’s sake, and he can’t fall asleep without telling me he wants bigger ponds.” Fisher taps a few more keys and then–a big smile crossing his face–says, “You get their ponds, you own their minds.”

For his water source, Fisher will use the 10,000-foot Sawtooth Mountains at the valley’s western end, channeling their torrent of melting snow into his creek system. As a contingency against drier years, he plans to divert one of the ranch’s irrigation ditches near the headwaters of the stream so that, in emergencies, he can water his trout in much the same way that a farmer
irrigates his crops. At the moment, however, the project isn’t as far along as Fisher wants it to be–especially since he must now revise his construction and water-rights permits for larger ponds. “The permitting is always half my work on these jobs,” he tells me. “My fee on these things, 70 bucks an hour, isn’t based so much on hours eaten in construction and planning; it’s in
ramming through all the permits and revisions.”

So today, rather than taking me on a tour of a dry valley and the stake line of the proposed creekbed, Fisher has suggested a road trip. About 30 miles from the ranch is a spring-supported creek that he reclaimed a few years ago. As part of the monitoring he offers with his services, we’re going to give this creek a checkup. “We’ll mostly be conducting a water-flow test,” he
tells me, shutting down his computer. “But we’ll also do a hook-and-line census,” he adds with a hangdog grin. “Hey,” he says, shrugging, “we have to see how the fish are doing. It’s part of my job.”

A few minutes later we’re in the Fish Guy’s Honda, rolling out of the Sawtooths and onto a volcanic plain called the Camas Prairie. “Millions of years ago, this prairie was volcanic caldera,” Fisher says. “It was a hot spot between the earth’s plates. You know, lava jetting to the surface, and geysers. Today, that spot has shifted east. It’s now under Yellowstone National

The Camas Prairie rolls flatly away to the eastern and western horizons–nothing but flat gray rock interspersed with pastures and fields of alfalfa. “Snowmelt seeps underground up in the Sawtooth Range,” Fisher tells me as he steers the car from one empty two-lane to another. “And that water rolls downhill in the substrate, then bubbles back to the surface here on the
prairie–in thousands of little springs.”

The creek we’re visiting is on Spring Creek Ranch, owned by Bob Davis, who bought the property in 1980 for cattle ranching and irrigated alfalfa growing. At that time, the creek channels on the property had been straightened over generations to prevent flooding and create more farmland. But Davis, a fisherman as well as a rancher, decided to change them back to their natural
state, and it became Fisher’s job to turn ditches into creeks.

When we reach the ranch and emerge from the car, I’m blinded by the sun’s full midmorning glare. The air is parchment dry, and all across the prairie basin the sky is empty and pastel blue. Fisher has opened the trunk, and is removing a pair of thigh-high waterproof boots, two wooden stakes, a rucksack, and a flowmeter, a steel apparatus that measures flowing water in cubic
feet per second.

He hands me the stakes and the rucksack, and then hoists the polelike flowmeter to his shoulder. As we walk downstream along the creekbank, he says, “By the time this water’s here, the creeks have mostly braided together, creating a single channel–hundreds of little springs join it per mile. This ranch doesn’t grow only cattle, it grows water.”

We walk past three water pumps, each the size and shape of a pharoah’s sarcophagus–the irrigating engines for the ranch. Fisher’s mission today is to find out exactly how much water they remove from Spring Creek. To do this, he’ll measure the creek’s flow with the pumps on, then turn them off and measure the flow again, subtracting the first number from the second. “We’re
allowed to take five cfs from the creek by law,” he says. “It’s what’s been allotted the ranch by the Idaho Department of Water Resources. Even though the water grows on this ranch, it runs into the Wood River watershed and belongs to somebody downstream.”

We search the grassy bank, ironically enough, for a spot where the creek runs particularly straight in order to take our measurements. Fisher points out just one of the means he used to bend the backhoe-straightened creek into a semblance of its former self. With his free hand, he gestures toward a slight jog downstream. “See the logs extending like a V out into the channel?
That’s a deflector. We bound those logs with their common point out in the water, then filled the interior with rocks and earth. In a year or so, the vegetation had grown up inside the thing, and that shored it all in.”

Fisher snakes his hand through the air, showing me how the creek’s channel bounces from one side of the stream to the other. “Moving water is powerful stuff,” he says. “It’s a mix of hydraulics and ballistics. You’ve got to find ways to slow down the flow, make the water pile up. Bends. Pools. Riffles. These make a healthier watershed, which means it’ll support more fish.”

He points to some long, pastel-green tresses of aquatic vegetation waving in the current. “Spring Creek reclaimed itself. By adding the bends, we gave it a head start, but unless a battle had been waged with heavy equipment every ten years or so, this stream would have developed new bends anyway. Nature doesn’t like straight lines.”

We continue our search for a straight section of creek, sidestepping slowly through deep-green, knee-high grass along the bank. Finally we find a place where the water moves evenly and squarely downstream. Wearing the waterproof boots, Fisher works his way across the stream, dipping the flowmeter beneath the water at several points. The instrument, with its ring of five chrome
cups, looks like an inverted wind-speed indicator, and gives us a reading of the water’s flow.

Half an hour later, we have our data, and as I rig up my fly rod for the hook-and-line census, Fisher grabs his laptop from the car and tells me he’s going down to the ranch house, where he’ll enter his findings into a special program and learn that the irrigation pumps are sucking just under five cfs from Spring Creek. But before he goes, I have one last question. All this
bend creation and revegetation and water monitoring is interesting, but what about the fish? Did he stock the reclaimed Spring Creek with trout?

“Stock it?” Fisher says. “No way. If you want a surviving population of fish–you know, one that won’t die over its first winter–then you don’t stock streams. Scientific studies have proved, again and again, that stocker fish are all ways inferior to wild ones. They’re basically glorified water pollution. They don’t exploit survival possibilities. They die at temperature
extremes. They don’t reproduce well. Nope, on all my river reclamations, all I do is create an optimal environment for fish to live in–lots of available food and cover–and the native fish find it. It’s the Field of Dreams premise: If you build it–and do it right–they will come.”

I lift my rod and begin casting. My fly hits the water, floats downstream, and is quickly taken by a trout. The fish jumps a few times–it’s a silvery little rainbow, maybe ten inches long–and I coax it to shore, unhook it, and return it to the creek.

“Not bad, eh?” Fisher says. “One cast, one fish.”

Fishing was all Steven Wayne Fisher seemed to care about while growing up. He was born in 1949 in Eugene, Oregon, and when he was eight years old the family moved to Roseville, California, in the foothills of the Sierra. “Fishing, fishing, that’s all he ever wanted to do,” his father, George, says. “We had a stream behind our house, Dry Creek, and he’d spend day after day down
there. He’d come back to the house for dinner and tell his mother and me how the sawmill upstream was messing up the water. He’d tell us about animal behavior. And the strange part is, he didn’t get this interest from us.”

When Fisher was 18 he enrolled at Chico State University, but he grew bored by college within a couple of semesters and enlisted in the navy. He spent some time in the nuclear power program in Vallejo, California, and worked as an electrician on the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier whose home port was Pensacola, Florida. After the four-year stint
ended in 1972, Fisher went to work for the family printing business, which was now in Placerville, California, just west of the Sierra divide. “I worked in the printing plant for five years,” Fisher says, “and though it was a good business, one my father had built into something valuable, I didn’t enjoy it much. It was work, and I’d rather have been fishing. When my dad retired,
we sold the plant.” Fisher had met his wife, Celine, by then, and with his cut from the sale he and Celine moved to Hamilton, Montana, just outside Missoula, where he fished hard and supported his habit by continuing to work as a printer.

In 1978 Fisher started studying for a B.S. in aquatic biology at the University of Montana, graduating three years later and toting his dream of a private trout-stream reclamation company out into the workaday world. His adviser at the university, Andrew Sheldon, a biology professor, says of Fisher, “He wasn’t interested in graduate degrees. He’d identified a need for
entrepreneurial aquatic biology. I was a little doubtful at the time, but now it makes sense, since much of what Steve does is self-taught. We always knew that as a biologist Steve would cut his own trail.”

In 1981 Fisher and Celine moved to Bozeman, Montana–the heart of trout paradise–where he had found a job as an aquatic biologist with a now-dissolved concern called Timberline Reclamation. Four years later he was fired (“for philosophical differences,” he says), a year before the company’s dissolution. “Steve is a strong personality,” says Dale Miller, a former Timberline
hydrologist who is now part owner of Inter-Fluve, another river reclamation company in Bozeman. “He’s at his best out on the stream.”

Since then Fisher’s firm, Fisher & Associates, has been “blowing and going nonstop.” He’s had more than 55 clients in nine years, with much of the business coming from referrals. “I kept Steve on as my biologist after Timberline dissolved,” Bob Davis says, “and Spring Creek Ranch is better for it. There are a lot of stream reclamation companies out there these days, but
there’s only one Steve Fisher.”

The next time I arrive at the Idaho ranch, on a Sunday in early September, most of the ponds have been excavated; a few are lined with black plastic sheeting. It’s just after sunset, and a full moon–edibly big and white–has emerged from behind the rounded peaks of the Pioneer Range, to the east.

Fisher is driving me up the macadam ranch road from Sun Valley’s airport, and before turning up the graveled driveway to the ranch house he points up-valley to one of the ponds that has already been lined. The black plastic reflects both the sunset and the moonglow: It’s a radiant, ghostly white. “Look there,” he says. “It looks like the thing already has water in it.”

By 11 the next morning, my knees are hurting and my hands and forearms are sore. Stream-building, I’ve learned over the past three hours, is not for the faint of strength. We’re in the early stages of lining Pond Number Six with a huge sheet of polyvinyl. From one end of the valley to the other, a dozen oval ponds are laid out along the stream’s length like pearls on a string.
All have been excavated to ten feet–deep enough, according to Fisher, that they won’t freeze solid in winter, yet shallow enough that there’s little danger of striking groundwater, which in Fisher’s words “opens a shiny universe of new problems to the pond-lining process.”

All around us, backhoes, dump trucks, and road graders are coming and going, leaving dusty diesel-smoke wakes in the air. Today Fisher and his crew will finish carving the watershed: They’re excavating the final, down-valley pond–Pond Number Ten–and this afternoon they’ll cut a spillway into its lower end and etch the final length of the channel, connecting the dry creekbed
to the Big Wood River.

Of all the things Steve Fisher has to contend with while building this creek and its ponds–the revised permits and water leases, the excavation changes, the short construction season (“We’re building a river in four months, for God’s sake,” he says), the exile from his family–none is as challenging as the arid, high-desert soil of central Idaho. It’s one of the paradoxes of
Fisher’s work that the same thirsty earth that promotes Camas Prairie spring creeks now thwarts his efforts on this project. Not that this creek is totally without water. High in the mountains, it’s a rollicking, vital stream the width of a suburban side street, but this bounty is useless in the valley below, since the water percolates into the ground two miles above the ponds. To
make the creek’s lower reaches capable of holding water, Fisher has staked his reputation on plastic liner a quarter-inch thick. He’s ordered 8.5 acres of the polyvinyl sheeting, which is now sitting on pallets that have been dropped in strategic spots around the valley. Fisher is gambling that when the system of liners is pieced together with the seams glued tight, it will hold
and transport any water that flows across it.

But first there’s an interim step. Fisher points to Pond Number Five, where three college kids are hard at work. They’re unspooling a ten-foot-wide roll of white felt, pushing it with their feet, along the pond’s 80-yard length. “That white stuff,” Fisher says, “is industrial microfiber, used generally to hold soil runoff at construction sites during rainy periods. But I’m
using it as a buffer. It’s not woven–it’s a single fiber–so it’s really puncture-resistant. They’ll cover the pond bottom with it, then we’ll lay down the plastic, then we’ll put another layer of microfiber on top. Extra insurance against abrasion, you know? I’m paranoid as hell about holes.”

From where we’re standing, I can see that three men are working in the depths of Pond Number Four, the smallest and roundest in the valley; two of them are ranch hands from the nearby town of Bellevue, and the third is Mario Pina, the ranch’s full-time hand. I stare across at the pallet load a quarter-mile away, held tight by a pair of glinting metal straps, and as I watch, the
men in Pond Number Four walk to the pallet and pop the straps free. The plastic responds immediately; it relaxes and begins to slide in all directions at once. It lolls across the golden dirt like a tired jack-in-the-box.

As I ask more about the construction, Fisher grudgingly acknowledges that the plan has one enduring liability: holes and tears in the plastic. Though everyone is taking great pains to treat the liner gently, undetected holes–or future tears–could have disastrous consequences. A single manhole-size puncture might, over time, start a flow of water beneath the liner, forming a
growing rivulet that could undermine the whole creek system through erosion.

But given the way the plastic is being protected by layers of microfiber and dirt, Fisher claims that things should be OK. “This technology’s been used on impoundments before, at Army Corps of Engineers reclamations and commercial fish hatcheries,” he says. “It works–provided it goes in right. And once in the earth and buried, it won’t degenerate. It’ll be there for a long,
long, long time.”

I ask Fisher how he feels, from an environmental perspective, about committing half a million square feet of plastic into the earth, where it’ll sit for thousands of years. He stares at me. “Well, Don,” he says, exasperation clouding his voice, “God gave man dominion over the earth and the animals. We’re improving this valley, making it more livable for every plant and animal
here. So,” he says, turning and beginning to walk toward Pond Number Four again, “that isn’t a philosophical issue with me–or my client.”

But local environmentalists fear that plastic liners might eventually prevent snowmelt from filtering into the substrate, drying up hundreds of spring creeks and injuring the Camas Prairie’s aquifer system. “Good grief, there’s enough plastic in the ground already,” says Richard Hauer, of the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. “If it were me lining that
creek, I might have tried using fine clay or something more natural.”

As to the broader question of how far we should go in manipulating our environment, Suzanne Wilkins, director of education at American Rivers, says, “Humans have the ability to tinker with Mother Nature and the technology to do so, but you can’t fool Mother Nature. When you start changing nature you often end up with more than you bargained for. Just look at the Mississippi
River and the floods last year.”

I ask Fisher, can’t he see himself, a year or so from now, having to divert the creek to re-excavate a punctured liner all over again? He turns, walking backward now. All his worries grow visible at once; he’s a virtual ant farm of concerns. “You sure as hell ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” he says. He lifts his hands, palms pointing skyward. “Well hey, man, here’s a news
flash: I don’t have all the answers. I’ve never built a stream like this before. I can’t anticipate every problem this thing will have over the next millennium.” Then he turns and keeps walking.

By the time we arrive at Pond Number Four, the liner has been partly unfolded along the far bank. From where I stand, the plastic resembles nothing so much as the tarps used to protect major league baseball fields. As we lift the sheet’s leading edge in unison, then pump the plastic up and down to get a layer of air underneath, I look down the line of workers. We’re a Yankee
Stadium ground crew as the rain begins to fall.

Fisher’s right-hand man, Trent Stumph, tells a few of the workers to wait on this side of the pond and act as anchors. Then he says, “Everybody readyyyy? Go!” and the rest of us start walking across the softly crunching microfiber carpet, crossing the excavation’s depths toward the far shoreline, still pumping the sheeting up and down. There’s lots
of straining and tugging and pulling. We are, after all, dragging 2,000 pounds of soft plastic, a sheet larger than a basketball court, on a layer of air. A few minutes later we’re at the far side of the pond, and we drop the edge of the liner inside a two-foot-deep trench; the anchor people, who are now distanced from us by a sea of black plastic, do the same. The liner settles
slowly toward the ground, and the air we’ve trapped beneath it gushes away, flapping past the free edges of the sheeting.

Using shovels that Stumph has supplied, a few of us begin spading up piles of dirt, tossing them into the trench to hold the plastic firmly in place. With the liner down and a topping layer of microfiber about to be added, the plastic-and-microfiber sandwich is nearly set to be delivered into the earth for all the years to come.

Fisher tells me that soon the liner will be completely installed in all of the ponds. “I figure eight more days of this,” he says. So eight days from now the lower drainage will be connected to the upper one, and it’ll be like turning on a faucet?

“Not exactly a faucet,” Fisher says. “Right now, the flow in the upper drainage is pretty light, and since most of the precipitation falling from now till spring will be snow, I think the ponds will keep fairly dry this winter. When the snow starts running off, though, we’ll have a going concern.”

When we emerge from the hole at lunchtime, I see that the college kids are already eating; they’re sitting in the shade of their Volkswagen Rabbit, passing around apples and peanut-butter sandwiches and a gallon jug of water. Fisher and I head toward his car and I hear a beep-beep-beeping noise far up-valley. Stumph is standing at the edge of a faraway pond, directing a
pale-blue dump truck as it backs into the hole. The pond’s upper layer of microfiber has been applied; it’s dazzlingly white against the earth. As I watch, the forward end of the truck’s dumper box rises higher into the air and a steady, foot-thick ribbon of dirt rolls from beneath its outswinging tailgate. Dirt coats the fabric like an instant roadbed, and the microfiber suddenly
seems violated; it’s being drowned in soil. When the truck has finished and the liner is covered, the steel treads of a Caterpillar will tamp the pond bottom solid. Fisher notices me watching the burial. “Yep, there it goes,” he remarks. “Say good-bye.”

In mid-March, after a long winter of waiting, the day of reckoning is finally at hand. Fisher and I meet in central Idaho to see whether his ponds project holds water. Driving toward the ranch, we cross the bridge spanning the Big Wood River, and Fisher peers down into the water. “The river’s perfect for fishing,” he says. “It’s clear, and it hasn’t come up yet with the melt.”
We round a few more bends in the road, and as we crest a hill the snow-patched valley opens ahead of us; it’s still a mile wide, but now there’s a creek running down its center. In the morning sun, under a clear blue sky, the ponds glisten like jewels and the spillways shiver with whitewater. Fisher smiles. “Look at that!” he says, pounding the steering wheel. “Look at that!”

It’s prettier than I’d expected, more natural-looking. The creek and its ponds look as though they’ve been in place forever. I watch a coyote running through the sagebrush, its furry tail flying, retreating from the water’s edge.

I tell Fisher his creek is beautiful. He’s grinning a Victorian novelful of emotions. He gears the Honda to a stop, shuts the car off, and steps from it into the sunshine. The air smells damply clean, like fresh water and mud. “You know,” he says, his voice a little shaky, “it just goes to show I’ve got to trust myself more. I get all these people telling me I can’t do this
stuff, and I end up doubting whether my projects are gonna succeed. Well,” he says smiling, “they do.”

I ask Fisher if he thinks there are any trout in the stream yet. “Don’t know,” he says. “There’s only been water here for a few days, but trout are magicians when it comes to exploiting survival potentials. That’s one of the nonscientific things I know about trout. Let’s find out.”

We drive a few miles upstream, stopping at a narrow riffle above where the creek enters Pond Number One. “Maybe a few fish have worked their way downstream to here,” Fisher says. “If they’re not here, then we’ll try the other end of the system, down near the Big Wood. They’ve got to be down there.”

On his fifth cast into a swirling eddy on the upper creek, Fisher hooks an eight-inch trout. “Ha!” he says, but as the line tightens, with the fish momentarily fighting and flashing at the water’s surface, the fly pops free. “Well, at least we know they’re around,” he says. After 20 more minutes of fruitless casting, he suggests that we go down to where the creek joins the Big

This time I bring my rod, too, and as we walk upstream along the lower stretches of the creek, we find that the valley’s beavers have been hard at work. Dozens of saplings–alders, cottonwoods, and mountain ashes–have been gnawed into pointed stumps a few feet tall; their upper reaches are mysteriously absent. But when we round the next bend, we see that the sapling tops have
been knit into a beaver dam of ambitious proportions. “Well, well,” Fisher says, smiling as he examines it. “Look at that. We’ll get after this later in the week.”

I scan the pond above the dam for beavers and small trout, but see none. When I catch up with Fisher, he’s already wetting a line. I begin casting, too, working the area beneath a rocky shelf in the current. A minute later I hear Fisher whooping and hollering. “Come on!” he’s shouting. “Get down here if you want to see a fish! Got a nice one on!”

I reel up my line and scramble through the underbrush. There in the sunshine, near where his creek meets the Big Wood, Steve Fisher has hooked an enormous rainbow trout. It jumps and dives. Fisher, knee-deep in the water, chases it up and down the bank. Finally, in a deep pool, the trout digs in, shaking its head at Fisher, who reels it slowly toward him. Minutes later he has
the trout in his hands. Its sides are crimson with a deep black slash, its belly glistens silvery white, like mother-of-pearl. “Look at the richness of that color,” Fisher says as he holds the fish against a tape measure. “Twenty-two inches. That’s one healthy fish.”

Then, with the businesslike delicacy of a tailor plucking a stray thread, he unhooks the trout in a single, gentle motion and returns it to the creek. He points the fish upstream, letting water from the high Sawtooths pass across its gills until it regains its strength and swims off. As the trout leaves his grasp, easing its way toward the greenish depths of a nearby pool, the
Fish Guy looks up and grins. “Vindicated,” he says.

Donovan Webster, an Outside correspondent, wrote about the Gulf Stream in the February issue.

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