And then one day in late spring the last drop of snow melts off the valley floor and trickles into the Teton River. Up in the hill caves black bears open their heavy eyes and yawn and wonder where the fat has gone, and red foxes romp about in the meadows and exchange coy premarital glances. Pocket gophers turn to their summer-long task of aerating the soil, one hole at a time, and coyotes howl from the heights, harrowing the souls of sheep and dogies out to graze unguarded. The river is milky and full with the spring runoff rolling down from the glaciers and snowfields of the Grand Tetons and welling up through springs and pouring in from feeder brooks. But somewhere beneath the surface a logy-winged mayfly manages to wriggle out of its shuck and pop up to the top, where it vibrates and tries to twitch life into its wings when—splat!
The trout season is on.
In this Teton valley of southeastern Idaho, just over the mountain range from the Jackson Hole country of Wyoming, you are nobody unless you are a trout or a potato or Alma Kunz. The trout are cutthroats, rainbows and brooks; they live in the whole 60-mile stretch of the Teton River and keep it aboil with the intensity of their feeding. The potatoes are the money crop for valley farmers, who celebrate the lowly tuber by naming their drive-in theater The Spud and by eating quantities of a local candy bar called Idaho Spud. Alma Kunz is like Faulkner's Dilsey: he endures. For 58 years now, Alma has fished the moss-ridden reaches of the upper Teton; it is commonly believed by the local folk that Alma could catch trout in the swimming pool of the Flamingo Motel in Idaho Falls, an opinion which I have learned to share, and his fame has spread so far that fishermen from thousands of miles around come to Alma's Lodge near the village of Driggs, Idaho to "Contest" (accent on the first syllable in the local vernacular) Alma, betting him $1 a fish and driving back home on their credit cards. Men like the chairman of American Airlines, the presidents of Richfield Oil and General Dynamics and other fat cats of big business drop everything to come out and fish with Alma; California lawmakers have been known to visit him and then introduce resolutions about him into the Legislative Record.
But Alma Kunz (pronounced, Germanically, koontz) is no snob; indeed, to tell the awful truth, he is nothing much at all to look at, and one's first impression after talking to him is that Alma is a man whom greatness has been thrust upon simply by virtue of the fact that he lives close to a stream full of trout. A devout Mormon, he is likely to arise in the morning, look at a sky full of dirty black clouds and intone, "This is the day that the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." One can't help respecting a religion that teaches one to admire such a day. As for Alma, he means what he says. He goes about his morning chores, rejoicing in the day, and Teton valley weather being what it is, the clouds likely will be gone by the time he steps into his 20-foot johnboat for another river float for trout. It is then that Alma Kunz—age 66, with thinning white hair and the trace of a potbelly, dishwater-blue eyes on a narrow slant like those of cowboys' in cigarette ads, wearing a disheveled old red shirt, unpressed pants and battered city shoes—poles his johnboat into the middle of the Teton and metamorphoses into a legendary figure in fishing and casting. And catching.
"I'll tell you something about Alma," says Schoolteacher George Pehrson of Springville, Utah. "He can see a trout coming before the damned thing even starts. And he can put that fly right on that trout before the trout even knows where he's gonna be. Not only that, but Alma can teach you or anybody else to cast a dry fly and catch trout till your arm falls off. He took the Queen for a Day—now get this! He took the Queen for a Day winner—she'd never seen a fishing rod in her life, and a trip to Alma's Lodge was one of her prizes—he took her out and taught her to cast, and she caught the limit, 15 fish, on her first day!"
Alma employs six or eight guides who are miniatures of him: they know the 15 miles of the upper Teton River minutely, and they fish dry flies only. Every year Alma puts up $10 and "contests" his guides en masse. They pick out a fly, any fly, for him to use, and they fish the stream with whatever flies they choose for themselves, matching the hatch as it changes or using old faithful Teton flies like the Renegade and the Adams. Last year the guides made Alma use a fly called the Warbonnet, tied by Snake River Sam ("Flies for fishin', not wishin' "), a monstrosity without hackle or wings, really nothing but a No. 10 hook with deer hair applied to it. The guides call it the killer-diller as a joke. Alma tied the joke on and caught a limit of fish in less time than any of the guides, thus retaining his $10 and his record of never having lost. "Now boys," he said, "you needn't be ashamed. You did real well. I just lucked out." Alma lucks out every year.
In some ways, Alma Kunz is like a black bear. Winters are to be borne; life is lived in the summers only. When the first snows of autumn hit the Teton valley and the fly rods are stored away, Alma begins to fidget. He hunts some and visits a few of his fishing friends around the country and studies catalogs and catches up on his paper work, but he is only marking time. And when spring comes and that first trout goes splat! Alma leaves his house in the valley, drives the four miles to his unpretentious little brown-and-green lodge and begins to live. "I can't explain it," he says, "but coming back to this place excites me. Just turning on the water is a thrill, and seeing the lights go up again after they've been out all winter. I can already taste brook trout in my mouth. You know, the trout are friendly around here. They don't get up till 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning so we all can sleep. This is a rest camp, not a labor camp. But on opening day I'm out there at 4 o'clock in the morning. Four o'clock in the morning, freezing my bottom off! Because I want to have trout for breakfast." On opening day last year Alma and his son and partner, Lyle, and two doctors from Salt Lake City had caught their limits of 15 each by 5:30, and were enjoying the first trout breakfast of the year an hour later. After almost six decades of fishing the Teton River, Alma still gets trout fever, the piscatorial equivalent of buck fever.
I was with him one day when a typical Teton River rise began. One by one the rings dappled the surface; as more and more flies came up the trout became bolder, and pretty soon the river looked like the surface of a giant glass of Alka-Seltzer. "Oh, my goodness," said Alma, his hands shaking. "Oh, look at that! Would you believe it?" He cast and nailed a one-pound rainbow. "I can't stand it," he said. "My heart just won't put up with all this excitement. This is more fun than I can take." When the trout are on the rise, Alma Kunz is 8 years old.
The trout of Alma's river are neither as large as those in rivers like the Snake nor as sophisticated as those in rivers like the Test. What they are is there: thousands upon thousands of them, lashing the surface when the bugs rise, dimpling pockets and corners all day long, guarding their own tiny domains against intruders. The rainbows were planted by the state; the eastern brook trout came over the spillway of a fishpond dredged by Alma's father in 1908 to make money raising fish for the market—the project failed (there were too many wild fish available to the local residents) but the brooks caught on and flourished in the river—and the cutthroats are descendants of Pacific coast fish that centuries ago made the long journey up the Columbia River into the Snake and thence through the driving rapids of the lower Teton canyon into Alma's stretch below the headwaters of the river. Through the long generations they have kept the bright-orange slashes of color that characterize the breed, but they gradually have changed from the steely hue of the Pacific cutthroat to a golden cast with orange spots on belly and fins. Occasional naughtiness with the rainbows of the Teton sometimes results in a crossbreed: a rainbow cutthroat with an orange-slashed jaw and a bright reddish-purple stripe down the side. The biggest fish in the upper Teton are cutthroats; they have been taken up to 12 pounds, but nowadays a two-pounder is considered a prize, and the best fish of each season is seldom over four or five pounds. "Size is not the point," says Alma. The point is sport, and to this end Alma conducts a holy crusade against the use of anything but dry flies in his river. This is, perhaps, the only subject on which Alma Kunz has ever been known to raise his voice.
"We were fishing in the lake, and I had a spinner on," Rex Miller said loudly one day at the lodge.