Seeing the River for the Fish, Seeing the River for the Waves

The ground has just begun to stretch awake from winter in Beartrap Canyon of the Madison River. Although free of snow, the trail rings frozen under my boots and the wind stings my cheeks. I’m following the flapping windbreaker of a friend, C, who I’ve just recently started calling “boyfriend” instead of “that boy I hang out with sometimes”.  The b-word still makes both of us nervous. We stop at the first narrow constriction of the river, pop open a trail beer, and watch the water thunder around rocks, push to the streambed, then rush back towards the surface.

“Hey Emerald, see that quieter water behind that rock? There are probably so many rainbow trout in there…”

I nod, but all I can do is imagine pulling my boat around the entrance rock, punching the green, rolling wave in the center and skirting around the nasty keeper hole on the bottom left. He smiles when I explain my boating technique, but fish are swimming behind his eyes.

Uh oh.


C and I are different, to say the least. Sometimes all we can do is stare at each other in disbelief, having no idea where the other is coming from. We have been able to reconcile many of our differences (I still can’t believe I am dating an introverted, snowboarding Bobcat from southern Idaho). I wonder, however, if we will be able to compromise about rivers. He lives to dip flies into trout-laden water, I live for weeklong trips through the deep canyons and sandbar banks of Idaho’s warmer whitewater meccas. Is it okay to love whitewater more than you love your boyfriend? Will he choose fishing at a time when I need him most?

I begin to fly fish. At first, I spend a lot of time waving my rod around, tangling my line, and drinking beer. Then, on an icy day on Rock Creek, a sympathetic brown trout latches on to my fly. Suddenly, the dark creek explodes into layers and depth. No longer can I see the water only for its surface. Because of fishing, I see whitefishes hovering near the streambed, nymphs floating slowly to the surface, grasshoppers and mayflies falling to the water and trout rising to gulp them down. Just like the spotted creature that wriggles at the end of my line, I am hooked.

C visits a river with very slim fishing opportunity (the Lochsa during spring run off). He rows a couple of the class IV rapids, and pulls over to the bank with what can only be described as a shit eating grin.

“That water was BIG!” he exclaims. “Can we do it again?”


 Throughout the summer, we still fight about water. I have a hard time handing him the oars, he struggles to explain the technique of using a fly rod.  I want to push our boat down the current and through the waves, he wants to pull along the seam of an eddy and see what fish lie below. We are suspicious that the other only pretends to like the opposing sport, and isn’t actually having fun. We are often selfish and quick to frustration. I grab the oars before big rapids; he grabs my fly rod when a big fish splashes the surface.

It isn’t until August that I realize something has changed. Approaching Snow Hole, one of the grabbier rapids on the Salmon River, C asks if I want to row.

“No” I reply, surprising even myself. “I think this one is yours.”

Suddenly I know that I will receive more joy from watching him row the rapid than I would get from rowing it myself. I want him to feel the exhilarating rush of pushing through big waves and making technical moves. I want him to fall in love with this river the way I have.

Two weeks later, fishing on the North Fork of the Blackfoot, C and I spot a pool with three cutthroat trout swirling in the frost green water.

“I’m not putting my fly in the water until you catch a cuttie, Emerald,” he states. “It’s so fun to watch you land fish!”

It’s these August moments when I realize I have overcome my fear of the b-word, and have graduated to the even more terrifying l-word.


I will always love whitewater rafting more than I love fishing. C will always feel the opposite. We wont always invite each other on our respective adventures. But what we disagree on in style we compromise on with a simple love of rivers. We are both happy when we can hear the rumble of a rapid or smell cottonwood leaves submerged against rocks. It’s not really about the fish that bite, or the way a rapid opens itself at a certain flow. It’s about drinking morning coffee with your toes in the water, hearing a canyon-wren’s song on a warm afternoon, and the way the sunset paints the ripple of an eddy line pink and orange. It’s about learning to set your ego, desires and selfishness aside, and feeling a river-washed hand in your own.