The letter isn't dated, so I don't know when he wrote it. But it had to have been back when my grandfather still filled the space my real dad left when, in June of 1971, he died of a brain aneurysm on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
My grandfather, Howard Sprague Ross, was born in Contact, Nevada, during the Depression. He attended the University of Southern California on a mechanical engineering scholarship. During his years at Boeing he invented reading lights, air valves, and part of the 747 engine. But most importantly—to him—he designed and fabricated the Ross Bait Baffler, a metal contraption you can still buy online (starting bid: $14.99 on fish-pennsylvania.com) that fishermen wear on their belts. A hinge on the side meant you could always flip your worms to the top.
My grandfather was my absentee dad until my stepfather came along and ruined everything. During the summers when I was young, he took me fishing on Idaho rivers. We fished the Henry's Fork, Salmon, and Wood, and when he didn't want to travel far from his small, two-bedroom house in Twin Falls (where I slept, frightened and confused, in my dead father's childhood bed), he packed up my brother and me and hauled us onto the sagebrush-covered plains 30 miles from Sun Valley, to a place called Magic Reservoir. At full pool, Magic has an area of 3,700 acres and a depth of 120 feet. While my grandparents drifted in their float tubes, alternately fly casting for rainbows and sipping blackberry brandy from leather bags, my red-headed, freckle-faced brother and I drank lake water out of rose-flowered teacups and nibbled on gritty mud cakes. If my fish-worshipping grandparents worried that we'd slip off a slick shelf and sink into the clear water, they never made a show about it. They were too busy casting long, gossamer arcs across the water in the hopes of making their wooly worm wet flies sink beneath the surface and entice the next 20-inch trout.
Howard, as he wanted us to call him, was passionate about many things including the radio broadcaster Paul Harvey; politics (an Eisenhower Republican, Howard supported both the NRA and the Wilderness Act); and his obsessive quest to build a perpetual motion device, an engineering impossibility in which hypothetical machines produce more work than they consume indefinitely. According to modern science (because I never asked my grandfather when he was living) there is now consensus that perpetual motion would violate the laws of thermodynamics. But although he didn't have success with perpetual motion, Howard found ways to make the hypothetical work for our family. When, as a 10th-grader, my brother got caught smoking pot in an old Studebaker my step-dad abandoned in front of our house, his punishment was to walk to Howard's house after school and sit at the kitchen table while Howard drew sketch after sketch of the impossible machine and argued for the viability of his plans.
Howard was both innovator and throwback. During the energy crisis of the '70s he became the first person in Twin Falls to buy a diesel-powered Volkswagen Rabbit, while his neighbors—and much of the nation—pumped premium fuel into their muscle cars. Though my grandma was from Beverly Hills and Howard worked for a company that made fast and safe travel around the country possible, he wanted to scalp any Californian who would dare encroach on Idaho. But his real passion was keeping native anadromous steelhead and salmon swimming back to their Idaho spawning grounds at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. The fish having been blockaded by the four dams the Army Corps of Engineers built for shipping on the lower Snake River.
It was, of course, a selfish mission. He wanted the fish for himself and his fly-fishing buddies. Thanks to the dams, as of 1975, sport fishing for anadromous fish no longer existed in Idaho. Most of the fish that remained went to Native American gillnetters, downstream fishermen, and sea-going commercial trawlers. Howard was upset that the "Indians" had been given broad, superior rights by way of a 1974 Supreme Court decision that allowed them to gillnet in my grandpa's favorite fishing waters. They took 50 percent of all off-reservation catch.
He saw, in this decision, the denial of his rights as a man who moved to Idaho to live off the land—and an affront to his conservationism. "Idaho sport fishermen are opposed to Indian use of gillnets," he wrote, "which exterminate remnant runs of anadromous fish with no regard for attempts to save, conserve, or improve the sport fishing. I have seen plenty of Indian gillnets in the Columbia River, out of season, tended by Indians who sell their catch, much of which isn't fit to eat due to lack of care after they were caught."
Clearly, my grandfather felt cheated by laws created to right a far more severe injustice that dated back a hundred years before he stumbled upon his own personal Eden. But his anger is understandable. For many years in the '50s and '60s, he had stood in waters where salmon ran so thick they hid the bottoms of his waders in shimmering red. By 1975, the southern Idaho runs were in severe decline. In the two decades to follow—due to the dams, commercial fishing, logging, warming temperatures, and the so-called subsidies by Idaho Power and other companies—they would all but disappear. In 1995, long after Howard wrote his last letter to the editor and died from cancer in 1987, only one fish made it back to the base of the Sawtooths. Because of this, it doesn't matter to me that my grandfather might have been insensitive to Native rights. To me, he was a fallen crusader for all that is important about the West.
Now, there is reason to hope. Thanks to improved fish ladders, an eco-system wide management approach to the Columbia River Basin, and regulation of the fishery, anadromous fish are making a comeback in southern Idaho. Slowly, sockeyes have been finding their way to a place called Fishhook Creek. During their long trip back, they stop eating, change shape and color, and begin the slow decline toward death. At her spawning ground, a female fish will find an area in a streambed that has an upwelling of water through the gravel. Aligning herself with a male fish, she will drop her eggs, which will be fertilized as they float downward, into the depression she created. A crucial player in an ecosystem that once supported thousand-pound, salmon-fattened grizzlies and eagles by the thousand.
I am only a wannabe fisherman, but I love fish, particularly as they relate to my grandfather and a healthy West. Thinking of him, I know he would be happy with what I'm about to report. In 2007, four Snake River sockeye returned to their spawning grounds near my favorite childhood campground on the shores of Redfish Lake. Then last year, a staggering 1,500 made it back. I don't know how or why they're suddenly refilling the streams beneath the razor fin of the Sawtooths. But I'm certain that my grandpa, wherever he is, is toasting them with a swig of his favorite blackberry brandy.
by Tracy Ross
From the Spring 2011 issue.