The author at the Hemingway Memorial on
Trail Creek near Sun Valley, Idaho
July is the anniversary month of Ernest Hemingway’s birth and death. The author was born on July 21, 1899 and died on July 2, 1961. I met him at the Sun Valley resort in Idaho, and the month of July gives me an excuse to write this recollection. It’s based on a conversation I had with Hemingway about fly fishing, a passion with both of us.
I suppose in most cases it’s the father who turns his kid on to fishing. In my case it was Ernest Hemingway. My dad had a lot of passions, but fishing wasn’t one of them. When I was a kid, I read Hemingway’s In Our Time with its Nick Adams stories and The Sun Also Rises, both with powerful trout-fishing episodes. It wasn’t long before I got my first fly rod, an old, whippy split bamboo pole that I still have. I’m a saver.
Hemingway was my idol. That wasn’t unusual for my generation. His work spoke to many of us, and it still does.
Beginning in 1939 the already-famous writer went to Idaho and stayed frequently at the legendary Sun Valley resort as a nonpaying celebrity guest. That’s where he wrote most of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Back in the fifties, I worked as publicist for Sun Valley and one of my friends there was Taylor “Beartracks” Williams, the famed hunting and fishing guide. Williams was a great friend of Hemingway, and the author gave him an annotated set of galley proofs of For Whom the Bell Tolls – a priceless legacy. Later at the suggestion of Williams, Hemingway autographed a first edition of The Old Man and the Sea for me. It’s signed “To Ernie Beyl from Ernie Hemingway.”
One day Williams came into my Sun Valley office carrying a fly rod. He said he had constructed it for Hemingway – a seven-and-a-half-foot, black fiberglass rod with red wrappings and a cigar-shaped cork handle. Apparently Hemingway didn’t like it. It was too stiff he felt, and besides, by that time he was into marlin fishing in the Gulf Stream. I gave Williams $25 for the rod and tried it out fishing Silver Creek, the demanding, spring-fed trout stream near Sun Valley. No strikes, no fish. I stuck the Hemingway rod (as I had come to call it) away in a closet.
A few years later, when I was a Hollywood press agent, I went back to Sun Valley for a visit and hosted a cocktail party. Hemingway, his movie star pal Gary Cooper, and their wives were staying down the road in Ketchum, so I invited them, and they showed up.
When the foursome walked into the Eddie Duchin Room at Sun Valley Lodge where I was having the party, Mary Hemingway and Maria Cooper saw some friends at the other end of the room and joined them. Hemingway and Cooper hung back near the entrance, and I decided to take drink orders. Cooper wanted a Scotch on the rocks.
“And what would you like, Papa?” I asked.
“Well, I’d like a Scotch too, but if Mary sees me with one she’ll kill me.”
“OK, why don’t I get you a small glass of wine?”
“Get me both. You hold the Scotch. I’ll hold the wine.”
And that’s what we did. From time to time Hemingway looked over at Mary, and when he thought she wasn’t observing, took the Scotch glass out of my hand and gave me the wine glass. Then it was Scotch, wine, Scotch, wine, back and forth, and the conversation picked up.
“I have a fly rod Beartracks Williams made for you. He said you didn’t like it because it was too stiff, so he sold it to me for 25 bucks,” I said as I handed off the glass of Scotch and took the glass of wine.
“Probably was. Catch anything with it?” Hemingway asked.
“I tried it once on Silver Creek and didn’t get anything. Too stiff I guess.”
Hemingway laughed loudly.
As we stood there, a waiter came by with a few things to nibble – nuts and olives I recall. Hemingway and Cooper both grabbed a handful of olives and set about inventing a cocktail party game.
Separated by three or four feet, they tossed olives into each other’s wide open mouths. It was a sport of a highly competitive nature. Hemingway was soon ahead by several olives.
Then suddenly Mary and Maria were in front of us, and the game ceased. Fortunately I was holding both the glass of Scotch and the glass of wine.
That was the last time I saw Hemingway.
A few years later I took my son Jeff to Sun Valley to fish, and I decided to use the old Hemingway fly rod. The first afternoon there, just to get in the mood, we visited Hemingway’s grave in Ketchum Cemetery. Taylor Williams, who died in 1959, is in the same plot. Then we went to see the handsome Hemingway Memorial up on Trail Creek and finally, we peeked at the house on the Big Wood River where Hemingway shot and killed himself on July 2, 1961.
Silver Creek is a hard place to fish – at least for me. It was a fine, sunny day with no wind. The fish spooked easily, and the old rod made casting difficult and quickly tired my arm. My hand ached from gripping the big cigar-shaped handle. It was like tossing a tiny trout fly with a telephone pole.
Neither Jeff nor I did any good in the morning with flies called Parachute Hoppers and Caddis Emergers, which were supposed to work. After lunch we fished the same stretch of water and saw iridescent winged insects known as Damsels hovering just above the creek. Some were floating along the seams and dimpling the water. I was determined to stick with the Hemingway rod, so I fished with a dry fly called a Blue Damsel that imitated the insect. And that’s when I began catching fish on Hemingway’s fly rod. In a few minutes I had hooked a few active – maybe I should say careless – rainbows. They weren’t terribly large, but respectable nevertheless. Jeff caught a few, too, using a Blue Damsel fly. We both breathed sighs of satisfaction, and that’s the way our day ended.
That evening Jeff and I went to a restaurant to celebrate. We were told that when Hemingway lived on the Wood River in Ketchum he liked the place and ate there frequently. The bartender was friendly and knew we weren’t locals. I told him about the Hemingway rod and the day’s fishing. He had a few words with someone and soon we were seated at what we were told was Hemingway’s favorite table. Jeff and I toasted the absent author and the Blue Damsels with cold vodka.
I’ve still got the Hemingway rod.
Ernest Beyl is a fly fisherman and Hemingway enthusiast. He doesn’t fish with Hemingway’s rod anymore, but it’s not for sale. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org