When I was still a University of Utah student I took a class on entomology from Dr. George Edmunds, foremost in the world on mayflies. I asked him during class one day what he thought of Ernest Schwiebert's works on the subject, in particular his acclaimed book Nymph's. Typical of Dr. Edmunds he sarcastically responded with “you mean Saint Ernie". According to the good Dr., Mr. Schwiebert often took liberties in his writings creating a few extra mayflies after the guy above called it quits on the 7th day. Before he passed away I ran into the man I'd idolized as a young fly-fisher on several occasions, but we'll get to that.
Ernest Schwiebert was a legendary fly-fisher who many of us, vicarious lived through. Photos of him frequently found Mr. Schwiebert posed with some ginormous salmon or brown trout dangling from his hand in some far off corner of the world. His two volume book, Trout I still feel is one of the most entertaining and exhaustive works done on the subject. His flair to spin a tale on paper accompanied by his lifelike illustrations made his works captivating. His literary prowess and records of his travels definitely influenced me, often evoking images of far off places, foreign languages, waters and desolate landscapes.
I first met Mr. Schwiebert at a show. A young Mark Forslund, one of our Green River Guides, was with me. After my brief introduction and ensuing short discussion with the man I turned to Mark and asked him if he knew who that was? When he answered no, I told him it was Ernest Schwiebert, expecting a little light bulb to go off. Instead he looked at me unknowingly and remarked "who’s that". I just shook my head.
Some years later I had the good fortune of being Marc Bale's guest on a trip to Russia's Kola Peninsula. Mark in 1997 was Sage Fly Rod's VP of Marketing. It was a trip of a lifetime to fish for Atlantic Salmon, yet I was as exited to fish in Russia as I was to spend time with someone so well-traveled in his own right, and share in an adventure that Marc had taken before.
It was on this trip that I again crossed paths with Mr. Schwiebert. Gathered in this Throwback photograph is Ernest Schwiebert holding court, as usual, with my traveling partner Marc Bale to his right contemplating his morning words of wisdom. I believe the gentleman next to Marc on the couch is Herb; an older man who exemplified character. To his right, Mr. Peter Stroh, Chairman of the Stroh Brewing Company. Mr. Stroh's Midwest beers were our beverage of choice when I was a teen growing up in Dayton, Ohio. We thought so much of his fine brews that we named a cul-de-sac where we frequently played stickball after them; Stroh's Sewer Front Stadium. The two gentlemen on the couch to Mr. Schwiebert's right owned one of the largest lingerie fabric companies in the world. They were always smiling for some reason. We were enjoying our morning shot of Stoley's, lox and toast prior to breakfast. In the early part of the trip that’s how we began each morning.
From the minute we landed in Murmansk it was obvious we weren't in Kansas anymore. Upon arriving we were escorted by armed guards to a vacant bar, curtains were drawn with no explanation as to our prolonged detainment. My guess is they had no one to process us. It’s not like there were a lot of arrivals on any given day to this distant dilapidated city. This strange encounter seemed more like a Humphrey Bogart movie than the beginning of an epic fly-fishing adventure. And this was just the beginning.
By the time we boarded one of Russia's large antiquated helicopters the peninsula was shrouded in a dense fog. I remember lifting through the dense bank of clouds before quickly popping out into brilliant sunlight just as another helicopter replicated our maneuver a short distance from us. It was close enough that it was a little unnerving knowing these guys had limited communications. As we neared our destination we dropped down through the enveloping fog and ran at tree top down several canyons before finding the one where our camp on the Kharlovka was located. Although it was a white knuckle ride, one had to be impressed with the agility of these old birds in tight quarters and the skill of our pilots from the time we left Murmansk to when we hit terra firma. I've flown a fair amount in Jet Rangers before, but flying in one of these cargo vessels gave me an entirely new perspective on helicopter flight.
The week started off cool and wet. Given we were above the Arctic Circle one would expect that, yet within a day summer hit the artic. During our stay the landscape went from a drab brown with patches of remnant snow to the most vibrant greens one could imagine. The tundra’s billions of mosquitos magically appeared and what better blood sucking target than a bunch of pale white guys wandering around hoping to catch a salmon or two. With the weather being unseasonably warm and the rivers somewhat low, the fishing was tough, but I was too enthralled with the entire experience to be influenced by just this, yet there would be changes ahead that didn't involve the weather that would have an effect on us all.
The first sign of things going array impacted our pre-breakfast ritual of Stoley's, lox and toast, but by the middle of the week we noticed that the Stoley's was no longer available. Not that there wasn't Vodka to be had, after all we were in Russia, but the good stuff suddenly had dried up. The food took a significant nose dive as well, and portions were definitely getting smaller. Due to a lack of helicopter fuel by weeks end we had to walk to what few beats on the Kharlovka River we could. For several of us this wasn't an issue. For some of the older clients, it significantly limited the waters that they could fish.
As these series of events were unfolding I had my second conversation with Mr. Schwiebert. To this day, I have no idea what it was about. Up to this point we'd exchanged some pleasantries, but that was the extent of our dialog. I was working on my morning constitution when the man seated in the stall next to me starts a conversation. It was Saint Ernie himself. While he's carrying on, I'm sitting there trying to put perspective on this awkward moment. Here I am having a conversation with one of my fly-fishing idols, a respected author, fly fisherman extraordinaire, legend and of all place seated in a Russian outhouse. My perspective of the man from this day forward hasn't been the same. I still admire and read his eloquent writings and marvel at his artistic abilities, but my impressions are tainted somewhat by that occasion.
Sometime after arriving back in this country, Marc Bale gave me a call to fill me in on the continuing saga of our Russian adventure. Behind us, Mike Michalak flew a group in to the Kharlovka. When his party arrived the cupboards were bare. Mike flew back to Murmansk and had to purchase supplies to get his group through their week. Knowing him, that's the very mild version of what took place. It also came to light that the camp manger, when he wasn't sneaking off with eligible bachelorettes, was skimming his share of the proceeds off the top. Looking back, we were the lucky ones.
I've found events such as these are just some of the rewards of memorable travel when you head out in the world with a fly-rod in your hand, but that too depends on how you look at things. For Marc and me, I don't know if we would have changed a thing. You can always catch fish, but it's those intangibles that come into play, the people you meet and travel with that makes a trips like this that much more memorable.
This Throwback piece won't do the "Big Guy" justice. It would take more than these few words to describe Emmett Heath, what he's meant to Western Rivers Flyfisher, to those who know him and how he's revered on his beloved Green River. Emmett Heath, or as he's more widely known "The Dean of the Green", which is a name he' s not to fond of, for a rather soft spoken individual has become one of the more recognized characters in all of fly-fishing. That's not by accident. In 1992 Rod and Reel magazine recognized him as their Guide of the Year; an award that was well deserved. He was not only an accomplished guide and flyfisher, but a man with great character, sense of humor and passion for life.
I first met Mr. Heath when he worked for Anglers Inn at their Sandy Store in the late 70's. I remember how intimidated I was by him initially. That was probably a combination of his reputation, his size, his quiet disposition and the fact that I didn't know much about the game at that point. Unlike many of todays know it all's, who think by their mere abilities to catch a fish or two they deem themselves as knowing a thing or two. Emmett by contrast was truly a student of the game and worldly in regards of his craft. His expansive fly-fishing library was evidence of this, so was his impressive collection of his prized rods and reels. His skills with a fly rod in his hand were second to none. Past or present I've come to know few who were as versed in the sport or as accomplished as Emmett is. He is a vacuum for knowledge and to this day he loves sharing that wealth with those he meets. These are just a few of the qualities that Emmett has that separates him from many who professionally have taken to the sport.
It wasn't until I saw him cast at an exhibition that I really got a sense for Emmett's talents as a flyfisher. Actually he was probably the first flyfisher that I saw cast a fly rod with any kind of proficiency. For those of you who were born with a PC, tablet or Smart Phone in your hand, this was before CD's, YouTube, Vimeo and fly-fishing film tours were common place and a decade prior to when PC's were available at even the most basic level.
At the time unless you had someone like Emmett to learn from you picked up fly-fishing from the spoken word, stick figures on paper, or photo's and text in a book. Looking back I don't know if I and those who knew him then realized how fortunate we were to have someone like him as a fly-fishing resource. Whether it was casting, understanding hatches, tying flies or the many nuances that are incorporated into fishing with flies, Emmett had command of them all.
That impressive casting demonstration took place at a local pool. At his back side was an 8' cast iron fence. While he talked about fly casting he held an inordinate amount of fly line in the air. He easily cleared the fence behind him while unfurling these incredibly long beautiful loops of line out over the clear waters of the pool. I don't think many of us took stock in what he said since we were so transfixed on his effortless casting abilities.
From the time we met to when Emmett, Dave Lattimore and I created Western Rivers Flyfisher I was fortunate to fish a fair amount with the Big Guy. If you considered all the great waters we'd spent time on prior to starting the shop; Strawberry River, Strawberry Reservoir, Provo River, Silver Creek, Henry's Fork, Madison, Firehole, Gallatin, it’s a long illustrious list, yet of all these waters he would put the Green River as his favorite. He loved the country it dissected, its emerald gin clear waters, it's incredible diversity of trout, and wildlife. Emmett to this day feels most at home when he's alone immersed in all it's splendor. It's why he still lives there today and after all these years I can't imagine him ever moving on.
Looking back there are so many stories, but these few really stand out. Emmett was first and foremost and incredible athlete. Big as a bear, yet agile like cat. As powerful as he was, the Big Guy was all finesse. His abilities were easily evident in the way he cast a fly rod, tied the tiniest of flies with his huge mitts, deftly rowed a boat or simply carried himself. At one point in his life he mastered how to throw a sling; not exactly your average past time entertainment as a guide, but then this was very much in character with who he was. In ancient times this was a formidable weapon. After watching Emmett handle this apparatus I saw why.
The best way to picture him throwing this ancient weapon is to envision a shot putter, how they wind their power bodies like a coiled spring, then launch into a powerful pirouette before hurling the shot some inordinate distance. This is basically how one maneuvers to use a sling, except rather than cradle the shot in the nape of ones neck, with a sling you swiftly rotate it overhead while your body swiftly uncorks before letting one side of the sling slide precisely from your hand releasing the projectile with incredible velocity towards the target. This wasn't an easy thing to do. In fact I remember one night almost taking Emmett's head off in a attempt to learn how to use it properly. It required power, sensitivity and skill.
One incident involving this contraption comes to mind in particular. Emmett and I had set up camp in Pugh Mire on the south side of the river one evening. As we were getting ready for bed we could here a number people on the other side of the river carrying on. It turns out they were bait fishing for the rivers prized trout. The night was so dark and still you could hear the bodies of the trout thrashing in the plastic buckets they had been dumped in. From across the river you could easily make out here every word the anglers were saying. Emmett was enraged when he figured out they were poaching.
This being Emmett's river, he wasn't going to tolerate this wanton abuse. He loaded his sling, let it gently sway from his hand with the weight of the rock cradled in it, before completing a single violent revolution of his body and letting it fly. As the rock made it's way through the darkness to the far side of the canyon it sounded like an artillery round in flight before it shattered on the red rock cliff some distance behind the poachers. They turned off their flashlights and in an instant the canyon suddenly went quiet. Emmett loaded another rock in the sling and launched another round. The sound of it shattering on the canyon wall could be heard echoing up and down the river corridor. The next thing we heard was the sound of these guys trying to exit the canyon as fast as they could in total darkness not knowing the source of the assault. At that point Emmett and I couldn't hold our laughter back any longer. It was simply awesome.
Not soon after this Mother Nature had a little "Come to Jesus" with Mr. Heath one bright and beautiful sunny day. He was guiding on section B, just above Red Creek rapids when one of his customers got their fly stuck on a ledge over the river. He rowed over to the ledge, rested one hand on the gunwale for balance of his infamous yellow dory while reaching with the other to retrieve the fly. As he did so, a large section of the ledge broke loose and landed on the hand that rested on the edge his boat. If he'd been in an aluminum boat he would have lost his hand. Fortunately the fiberglass boat took the brunt of the impact. He was lucky, they all were lucky the boat didn't capsize or sink from the impact or that someone didn't get more seriously hurt. When I got the opportunity to see the damage to his boat I saw the scaring from the incident covered 2/3's of the gunwale. Later when I floated over the submerged boulder, I couldn't believe the how big the piece of ledge rock was.
Alan Woolley, another one of Western's guides, was just a short distance away and rowed over to see what the commotion was about. One look at Emmett's mangled hand soon showed Emmett was seriously hurt. Typical Emmett, not wanting to be a hindrance to anyone , he simply told Alan and his clients that he'd be fine and would row out. Actually, looking back if anyone could it would probably be him. They did get out of the canyon, but it was a group effort, one that Emmett was embarrassed by. Needless to say his hand was never the same, but it didn't slow him down much. Even with the feeling and strength in his hand being compromised after it healed he was still the best guide on the sticks on the Green when it came to skill and power. Like everything else he did, he was an incredibly talented oarsman.
I mentioned earlier in this piece of Emmett's affection for the Green River. I'm sure at this juncture that's become fairly obvious. However, looking back as a flyfisher we all have home waters; rivers, streams, places that are special to us, yet in most instances we don't work on those fisheries. Typically these home waters are places we escape to that provide solace from the day to day that consumes so much of our lives anymore. In Emmett's mind there was only one place that offered him such contentment and it was the Green. That should tell you something about how special and unique this resource is, not only in his, but others eyes. Evidence of that was one of the first times Emmett took some time off.
Emmett rarely took a break from guiding during the season. He loved guiding and sharing this river with his numerous clients. After a number of seasons he finally took some time to himself. He had offers from clients to come visit them, other rivers he enjoyed, but when it came down to it he just wanted to spend time relaxing on his river. I remember seeing some humor in this act originally, but later realized how lucky he was. Not only did this river provide a livelihood, but it also offered him so much more than that. I don't there are many of us who could say that about where they work.
He spent much of that time off wandering around in the shadows of Matt Warner, Butch Cassidy, Ann and Josie Bassett and other notorious outlaws who took up winter residence in Browns Park or section C as it's commonly referred to on the Green. One of Emmett's qualities that I appreciated and what sets him apart from many other guides or flyfishers is his knowledge of rivers, and not just as fisheries. He new of this rivers rich history, its abundant flora and fauna, and had an intense understanding of the delicate balance the river played in all of this. If you were fortunate to have him as your guide, especially one you spent some time with over the years, you know what I'm talking about. He not only had an intimate understanding and respect for this resource, but he also recognized his place and the impact he and his clients had on the Green.
The first time I ever went fishing with Emmett I learned of his aversion to vegetables. I don't know if that was the cause of his heart failing him, but we'd goad him into thinking so. Eleven years ago Emmett needed a new heart. After two years of waiting he almost ran out of time before one was available. Thanks to that new lease on life, today he still runs Western Rivers Green River Guide service. Although he doesn't have the strength to row a boat anymore, it doesn't keep him from sharing his knowledge of this river with the great clients we have fishing with us, or enjoying this incredible resource with his fly rod, or his camera. And, although he no longer man's the oars, you will frequently still find him bouncing down some dirt road checking out a the river or some forgotten canyon in hopes of uncovering a part of this remote corner of Utah that he hadn't discovered yet.
Thanks to Emmett when it comes to flyfishing guides I have a rather critical eye. He didn't work a clock, but gave his clients a day on the river that allowed them to appreciate a river for what it was; one of the world's most incredible rivers and fisheries. If you fished with him often, he'd pull out his journal the night before you'd meet so he could relive previous experiences he had with you. Evidence of his patience, skill, knowledge and unique qualities as a guide and human still roll of the tongues of those who have come to know this man. As they say " they don't make them like they use to". I probably feel that way because of the fortunate relationship I have with the Big Guy and a personal bias, but having been around the block now a time or two, I know this to be true and I know there are others who feel the same.
Needless to say, I think a lot of this man. He's was and still is a great mentor to me, our staff, guides and others in this business. I am fortunate that for over 30 years to call him my friend, the Dean of the Green, the Big Guy.
I'll never forget our first customer at Western Rivers Flyfisher. He was not what I would call our typical customer then or today. In fact after I became more familiar with this great man, I'd say there was little anyone would find typical about him. Shortly before opening our doors in 1986, Emmett Heath and I were sprawled on the floor processing our inventory in preparation for our the Western Rivers Flyfishers grand opening. A little after noon this grizzled old man walks in the door; white unkempt hair under a well seasoned hat, white scraggly beard, and lines on his face and hands that showed a life of either hard work or spending a fair amount of time outside. In fact, the photo of him here is pretty much how he looked the day he walked into our lives. Maybe he looked a little younger, but not by much.
He saunters over to where Emmett and I are seated says hello and introduces himself as Art, then promptly asks if we're selling any of the fly tying materials that are spread upon the floor before us. We explained that we weren't open just yet, didn't have any cash or means of taking a credit card in order to perform a transaction. He smiled, said that wasn't a problem, he had cash and could make the proper change for whatever his purchase might come to. After we totaled up the items he selected, he pulled a wad of bills from his pocket, some spare coins and the rest his history. Emmett, Dave and I were in business. Just a little sooner then we anticipated.
That man was Art "Whitey" Dittman; Utah legend, man extraordinaire and a colorful character to say the least. For you see Art wasn't just an accomplished flyfisher, which we never would have guessed at the time of this random early encounter, but he was also the state's marbles, chess, checkers and horseshoe champion. He could also quite easily take a buck or two from you on a billiard table or on the links. Looking at him, you'd never perceive him to be so accomplished, or as someone who had such a passion for fishing with flies or tying them. In his 70's Art could still add to the wad of bills in his pocket through a friendly wager of horseshoes or billiards. He could also short change you at the register if you weren't careful. I used him to train my new employees. Those sessions always made for a good laugh. Art's no longer with us, he passed away in 1999, but stories of him still permeate the shop. Those that I share with you here only scratch the surface of this wonderful mans life. The "Coffee Crew" I'm sure could fill up an entire morning with stories of Art's legacy.
I first met Art on the Strawberry River. Yet on that fateful day when our paths crossed in our shop soon to be, I didn't recognize him. Previously we bumped into each other along the narrow path that runs juxtapose to the water at the bottom of the narrow Strawberry River canyon. He smiled and introduced himself as Whitey. After exchanging pleasantries, and listening to my struggles and sharing in those struggles, he gave me a few flies to try, yet several years would pass after we met in Western Rivers before I would realized that Art was Whitey; the old man I met on the Strawberry River.
When Art was younger, he would get dropped off in Kamas and spend several weeks fishing and hunting in the Uinta's before being picked up at a designated location. He took little in the way of supplies, or necessities, and pretty much lived off the land. He was a true outdoorsman. As a flyfisher, to his dying day, he was a student of the game, a consumate learner who loved to teach. I remember just before he passed away he gave me "Art's Ten Commandments of Casting". I still have the original pieces of paper he wrote these wise words upon.
For over a decade Art taught many of our casting classes and he was always coming up with incredibly creative ways to teach people that which he loved. He could throw a fly line as effortlessly as anyone. I remember when he was in his mid 70's when I watched him throw an entire fly line. I had seen him do that many times, but as he got older to witness this feat with such ease was impressive. He never did it to show off, just as a matter of fact.
Like a cat, Art had a life or two live. He took ill shortly after we moved from 9th and 9th to our current location. On our visits to see him the doctors felt that he wasn't long for this world, but to the doctors surprise the tough old guy pulled through and again took up residence in the fly shop. Even after this he would on occasion head off to Vegas to play in pool tournaments, so when he was absent for a time one winter we didn't think much of him being gone. A week or two went buy before he wandered into Western Rivers with a neck brace on. He was crossing the street on a snowy day when he tripped on the curb, landing on his chin. A nurse saw him seated on the curb, blood on his face and hands and asked him if he was ok. Art replied, no I broke my neck. She promptly took him to the VA. When he arrived at the emergency room the nurse asked him what he was there for, he again replied, "I broke my neck". Sure enough, he had.
In this business, you run into some really incredible and special people. Whitey was one of them. He had a laugh you'd never forget, the smile you see on his face in the photo was rarely not there. This is the only photo I could find of him, but it's all I need to conger up a lot of great memories of this grizzled old man who is still very much a part of the fabric of Western Rivers Flyfisher.
If you fish you have hats. Hats for fishing, worn out hats from fishing, and then there is that growing pile of hats that remind you of place and time you don't want tot let go of. The ones your significant other wishes you'd discard. My old Resistol is one of those hats, one that I still have, yet one that these days just keeps a peg in my house company. Over the years of serving me quite well it's earned that.
I remember taking this photo like it was yesterday. It was in the late 80's at the take out below a place we fondly knew as Seaton Camp. I helped build this steelhead camp back in 1986, the same year I started Western Rivers Flyfisher after returning home from that incredible fall experience in BC. The two Bulkley Mice, one tan, one black, that adorn the greasy hat band became permanent additions in 1986. The steelhead pin would become a fixture a little later.
That fall of 86 I was fortunate to guide a group who lived in the east; Stan, Marty, and Giorgio in particular. Giorgio was probably one of the best dry fly steeheaders I've ever fished with. I learned a lot from this guy. I remember our last day together we were paired with this ass who kept accusing me of putting Giorgio in all the buckets, when in fact he got all the buckets that day. The problem was this guy couldn't fish, had no MoJo and he just happened to be paired with a guy who had all these qualities who made him look like the fool that he was. Giorgio fished shit water that day, which I let him know in advance, and he still had a 5 fish day. Our disgruntled companion for the day managed a big fat zero. It was well deserved.
Marty was a decent stick and he'd had a good week, but going into our last day poor Stan still hadn't caught a steelhead. If you fish for these fish you've been on that receiving end and know full well what it feels like to be in that situation. It happens to us all, but in this particular circumstance for Stan his misfortunes carried more of a burden.
Stan pulled me aside that final morning at breakfast and said he wanted to go out with me for the day. We'd already spent a day together, and I really enjoyed this kind old gentleman. With Giorgio now out of the equation; fishing was so good he left early to be with his girlfriend, it would just be Stan and I. Although I wouldn't have called myself a seasoned steelheader at this point in my life, I know enough to understand that the more you want one of these fish, the harder they are to come by. Going into the day, I understood this all too well.
Like the photo of the hat, I remember the day well. Before lunch Stan hooked a big fish, one that he struggled to handle. At his age he simply wasn't strong or agile enough to put much pressure on the steelhead, yet I had hope. After a long fight, it came unbuttoned. I buried my face in my hands, the weight of the burden becoming more pressing. In the morning sun we stat down to contemplate our misfortune and the opportunity lost. As we got up, Stan turned to me and made an emotional request. Before heading home he wanted just one steelhead, no more. Given his age, I knew this would be a trip he'd probably not do again. I believe he did as well.
In the next piece of water, Indian Summer, with much relief Stan caught his fish. After tailing it, I carefully handed the fish to him to hold for a photo and to give him the opportunity to feel what it's like to have one of these incredible fish in ones hand. After he let it go, with tears in his eyes, he walked over and gave me a hug. It was a special moment, one in life I'll never forget and one now that I'm getting older becomes even more meaningful.
But, there's more to this story. Remember the pin? We'll in the summer of 87 Stan sent me that gold pin in memory of that day, and that moment that we shared. Unfortunately, the pin no longer sits in that old hat. The day I returned home from putting my dad to rest and settling his affairs someone broke into our house. Upon first inspection it appeared they didn't get much that was worth getting riled up about. Several months later I realized that by happenstance they ended up with the first nice reel I ever bought myself. It was an old Hardy Marquis. Several more months passed when in the middle of the night I woke realizing they'd gotten my steelhead box. That was pretty devastating, especially since the bulk of the flies in the box I'd tied and knowing they had no use for any of them. Several years had passed before I noticed that the gold pin was missing from my hat. I stared at the small black dot in the center of the hat where the pin once was in utter disbelief when I made that discovery.
I remember looking through my old photo's for this Throwback project and coming upon this photo. There were a lot of mixed emotions that came out when I saw the photo of my old hat with the pin. At first the anger from it's loss takes hold, but as time has passed the bitterness has subsided some, and the memory of a very kind man, and the day we shared together rises just as Stan's one steelhead did to take his dry fly on that very memorable day.
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"Western Rivers Flyfisher is so great. Shop employees are beyond knowledgable and will tell you where and how to land the fish in the local rivers (hard to say that about other shops). They'll welcome you in for free coffee to chat about fishing. It feels like a crew of your fishing pals, even if you you just met them. Great people, awesome gear." - Vanessa