Outside magazine, May 1994
Reviver of rivers, assembler of streams, creator of piscine worlds–when you get down to it, Steve Fisher is a little crazy for trout
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
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
“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
“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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
Donovan Webster, an Outside correspondent, wrote about the Gulf Stream in the February issue.