This story was written by Matt Labash.
At the risk of being publicly ridiculed, quarantined, or stoned, I'll just say it straightaway: I really like Dick Cheney. Don't get me wrong, I feel sick about it.
Not because I've ever held anything against the guy personally. In fact, many of the parts of Cheney's public persona that repel others, I rather enjoy. I've always liked his ruthless non-sentimentality in an age of lip-biters and tear-squirters. I like that you're never apt to hear him invoke "the children" as a reason for peddling some unrelated initiative. ("I'm not a baby kisser," he once said on the campaign trail.) I like that he doesn't seem to care about being liked, which is lucky for him, since his approval rating hovers at 18 percent. But let's just say I haven't cared for many of his signature projects as vice president. It is not for nothing that the wags suggest that Cheney keeps George W. Bush one heartbeat away from the presidency.
But Cheney is also known as a fisherman, and I am a fishing slut with little or no moral center.
Last September, I attended a book party on the roof of the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., which Cheney was to attend. I showed up early and, seeing there were two open bars, availed myself of both. By the time Cheney arrived, I had a bellyful of truth serum.
I made a beeline for him, squared up, looked him in the eye, and said, "I understand you're an avid fly-fisherman."
"Yes," he replied.
"So am I," I responded.
From there, we were off. We might've talked five minutes or we might've talked five hours. It's hard to recall now. Fishing-related happenings tend to occur outside of time. Herbert Hoover, a noted fly-fisherman, was fond of quoting an Assyrian proverb that went, "The gods do not subtract from the allotted span of men's lives the hours spent fishing." I believe the same is true of talking about fishing.
Cheney, a surprisingly attentive listener, asked as much as he answered. He was fascinated by an experiment I'd been conducting for some time: catching catfish on a fly. This isn't typically done, since catfish most often reject artificials. Many fly-fishermen recoil at such an ambition, since telling trout purists you're chasing lowly catfish with a fly rod is tantamount to telling Heidi Klum that what you're really attracted to is bearded women with no teeth. But Cheney evidenced genuine curiosity. Perhaps he sensed a kindred spirit. Remaking the Middle East as a Western democracy vs. chasing catfish on a fly--each of us is addicted to some pet implausibility.
He asked where I fish, and, when I gave generalities, he pressed for specifics. So much so that I was worried I might show up the next day to find the vice president taking largemouth in my favorite spot. So I lied slightly about the locales. You can't be too careful about such things.
As we talked, my wife sidled up to me, elbowing my ribs for an introduction. I told Cheney this was my fishing widow. He said hello to her and that he had one, too. We immediately resumed the fish-talk and ignored her. I was in good standing and hoping for an invite to fish his home river, the majestic Snake in Wyoming--an invitation I was convinced was forthcoming, but which never materialized after Cheney was interrupted and pulled away.
After our conversation, second thoughts started nagging. Maybe Cheney was misunderstood. Maybe he wasn't BeelzeDick or Darth Vader, as his critics would have it. How could someone who spends so much time seeking out beautiful creatures in beautiful places not have the sensitivity of a naturalist and the soul of a poet? (As I said, there were two open bars.)
A year after the book party, with time running out on the Bush administration, I took another crack at Cheney and proposed to his people that I go fishing with him on his preferred home water near his Wyoming residence, which turns out to be the South Fork of the Snake River. Though Cheney grants few interviews, his people were uncharacteristically agreeable. Perhaps it's because after eight years, they were just weary of saying "no." Perhaps it's because of the heartfelt piscatorial nature of the request.
While fishing doesn't occupy Cheney's every waking moment--according to his estimates, he only spends about 10-12 days a year on the water because of his job--it still takes up plenty of space in his consciousness. This I learn from visiting the library at his official residence at the Naval Observatory.
The shelves of his library contain the art books, histories, literature, and presidential and vice presidential material (including the complete works of Dan Quayle) that one would expect. But many of these are shelved high and out-of-reach. Most accessible, on the shelves above the television, is a fly-fishing library within a library, books on every subject from entomology to minor tactics of the chalk stream to practical dry-fly fishing.
All the greats are represented: Lee Wulff, Izaak Walton, G.E.M. Skues, Lefty Kreh, Roderick Haig-Brown, and the not-so-greats as well. There are lush, leather and gilt-edged collectibles with gorgeous frontispieces of men in tweeds casting bamboo rods on placid streams, and dog-eared paperbacks intended not for decoration, but to acquire hardcore fishing knowledge.
When I pull down an old volume of Ernest Schwiebert's classic Trout, I find discarded Hershey's mini-candy-bar wrappers behind where the books sit, perhaps from surreptitious snacking during a less health-conscious time in the now-trim Cheney's life (friends say he's lost around 25 pounds in the last year). In all, there are 37 fishing books on the shelves, and 43 more in stacks. This doesn't include whatever books he has in Wyoming or at his weekend place on Maryland's Eastern Shore. You can say many things about Dick Cheney that have no chance of leaving a mark. But say he fishes thoughtlessly, and one might wound him irreparably.
I learn from current and former aides just how obsessed the man whose Secret Service handle is "Angler" actually is. One directs me to a passage in Bob Woodward's Commanders, which tells how when Cheney was being confirmed for secretary of defense, he told his vetters in the first Bush administration that they should be aware of some "youthful indiscretions." He wasn't just referring to two drunk-driving arrests from over 25 years prior, but also the time he'd been fined for fishing out of season. Not a catch-and-release man back then (he tells me he hasn't killed a fish on purpose in roughly 15 years), "The $25 fine was not the worst part," he said. "They took my f--ing fish."
Another aide tells me that early on, those in the administration wishing to cut through the clutter of Cheney's daily barrage of mail would take to sticking flies in the envelopes knowing his staff would make sure he received them. I am told how he fishes in rain and snow, and how once his mind is set on fishing, he will not be deterred, even by bloodletting.
Former aide Brian McCormack, now special assistant to the president for strategic initiatives and external affairs, says several years ago Cheney took him fishing on a drift boat on the Snake River. Relatively new to the sport at the time, McCormack, trying to adjust his cast on a windy day, ended up hooking the vice president. "The hook did not set," says McCormack. "But it smacked him on the back of the neck. I don't know how exactly one describes a vice presidential yelp. He let out a 'yooooowwww.' The trees came alive with Secret Service. He leaned forward with a grimace, like he got stung by an enormous bee. I'm in the back of the boat saying, 'What the hell did I just do?' He turned around, and looked at me. I said, 'Sir, I am reeeaallly sorry.' He said, 'Don't worry. I've gotten it in the ear before.' And he just went on fishing."
According to those who fish with him, Cheney is also quite competitive on the river. When I ask his daughter Liz about this, she downplays it, speaking of his grandfatherly attributes: his teaching members of the family to fish so they can enjoy "the magnificent beauty of the places you get to do it," showing the grandchildren how to cast, rig their lines and remove their hooks. "I can't imagine a better, more patient guide or teacher."
His friends take an earthier view. "Is he competitive?" laughs Dick Scarlett, one of Cheney's closest friends and chairman of Wells Fargo, Wyoming. "Oh, I think so." Scarlett heads up a group of eight friends, including Cheney, who for over a decade have annually put in two days on the Bighorn River in Montana, before coming back to Jackson for a few more and then a two-day float down the South Fork, while camping overnight in the canyon.
The group calls itself "The Great Release," though Jay Kemmerer, a member and owner of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, originally pushed for "The Rainbow Coalition" (after rainbow trout, of course). The camp, nicknamed the South Fork Hilton, is hardly roughing it. On some of the most productive dry-fly trout water in the west, the camp contains wall-tents, cots, fresh linens and towels. There is wine and whisky (Cheney is a Johnny Walker Red man, though these days he rarely drinks more than a glass of wine). The Great Release even imports its own personal chef.
Everyone calls the vice president "Dick"--even the guides. Current events are often discussed, though there are no prosecutorial arguments, as his friends reason Cheney gets roughed up enough in the outside world. And there is lots of entertainment. In fact, there is an entertainment committee. While what goes on at the South Fork Hilton is supposedly cloaked under a code of silence, a few details are forthcoming.
There are skits, Kemmerer tells me, often with elaborate props. "We clearly tell the Secret Service what we're doing," says Kemmerer, "because some of it--well, they might shoot us." Cheney laughs readily as an observer at this campfire Friar's Roast/Gridiron Dinner and is open to the same ribbing as everybody else. Kemmerer says there have been hanging chads strewn about the grounds, and that he personally has played John Kerry and John Edwards.
Rich Santore, an orthopedic surgeon and chief of staff at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, became a member of the group after replacing Scarlett's hips. As one of the unofficial heads of the entertainment committee, he takes it even further. A couple of years ago, he had to buy a whole bunch of dresses, bras, panties, and such for skit-time at the South Fork Hilton. At the checkout line, after asking the clerk what dress size would be right for him, he felt compelled to tell her "It's not what you think." ("That's what they all say," said the clerk.) When I ask who on earth was being portrayed, Santore says he'd better not disclose. "Janet Reno?" I ask him, figuring she has even odds if drag is involved. "Well," he says reluctantly, "that was one."
But these are all sideshows to the competitive main event: the daily Big Fish contest. Members ante up 10 bucks a day, and the biggest fish takes the pot (Cheney used to pay by check, but since Scarlett kept one as a souvenir, refusing to cash it, Cheney will now only pay in cash). According to the estimates I gather from friends and guides, Cheney is the pot-winner anywhere from one quarter to one-half of the time. Scarlett, who is equally competitive, and who's been fly-fishing since he was a small child, does not mince praise for the man who is often his boatmate.
"Dick Cheney is an excellent fisherman," he says. "He throws a mean dry fly. He goes in where the big fish are in the most difficult places. He can place a fly from 40-50 feet out, into shrubbery, in between bushes where the big fish lay. Where most people are fishing two or three feet away from the bushes so they don't hook up, Dick can place a fly on a saucer at 40 feet. He is very, very good."
"The guides will tell you he's one of the best fishermen they guide on the river," Scarlett continues, and indeed, several do. "Other than myself," Scarlett hastens to add, ever the competitor.
While his friends say Cheney isn't a trash-talker like some, they concur that he takes the Big Fish contest very seriously. Cheney later admits to me that, one year, "I had a picture taken of a brown trout I caught up here, blown up, life-size, and sent it to [Kemmerer], as a reminder of who caught the big fish that year."
Sensing my work is cut out for me, I head out west a day early to fish solo with a guide and acclimate myself to the South Fork, presumably lessening the vice president's chances of outfishing me. I drive about an hour outside of Jackson, through the switchbacks of the Targhee National Forest, to Irwin, Idaho. There I will launch with the same outfit that we will be using the following day (and which Cheney has been using for years), the pristine Lodge at Palisades Creek.
All knotty pine and rustic cabins (decades ago, the laundry building used to be a house of prostitution servicing the itinerant workers who helped build nearby Palisades Dam), gourmet meals and single malts are served up in their Liar's Den restaurant, and there's a full-service fly shop on the grounds.
My guide for the day is Jaason Pruett, a 34-year-old former college hoops player, who is not some delicate Orvis-catalog-issue trout teapot, but a take-no-prisoners river rat. The bed of his pickup truck is littered with Twisted Tea and Budweiser empties. His dashboard is carpeted and stuck with many of his sentimental-favorite flies. He wears a denim bucket hat from a car dealership, an "Abercrabby and Fish" T-shirt, a red swimsuit, and green Crocs for wet-wading.
The South Fork of the Snake is a tailwater that runs fast and cold out of the Palisades Reservoir. The guides here double as rowers for the ClackaCraft drift boats which, in addition to the middle bench for the oarsman, have swivel chairs for two fishermen in the bow and stern, along with leg brackets so you can stand and cast without falling into the drink, as the river is often rough. (Pruett says he's saved drowning people multiple times, and that less adept civilian rowers see the river eating about four boats a season.)
We do a 10-mile float through what is truly God's country. It is wallpapered with wildflowers and golden willows, mountain maples and cottonwood forests, populated by bobcats, moose and black bears. Red-tail hawks and bald eagles patrol the skies overhead.
More important, however, the river is thick with trout--browns and cutthroats, rainbows and hybrid cutbows--about 7,000 fish per mile. These aren't the SNIT's (standard 9-inch trout) I'm accustomed to back east, either. There, the relative scarcity of good water means that our overpressured streams hold fish that are bombed with so many flies they ought to be issued hardhats. On the South Fork of the Snake, trout are 15-17 inches on average, with 20-inchers not out of the question. They feed aggressively, and they are slutty for dries (flies that sit atop the water, which make fish rise so you can see the take). It makes perfect sense that this is one of Cheney's favorite runs.
As Pruett rows and sets me up on fish, he speaks of the hazards of being a guide: of the yuppies who spend all this money to come out and avail themselves of his services, but who then spend all afternoon telling him how to catch fish in his own backyard. Sometimes, he has to teach them a lesson, such as the know-it-all "who thought he was the cat's meow. So I cut the hook off his fly, and he didn't know it. After about the sixth fish in a row that he missed, I said, 'Man, I thought you were good--why aren't you getting these fish?' He's like, 'Jaason, what am I doing wrong?' I said, 'Do you wanna listen to me? Let me change your fly out.' He listened."
Pruett and his guides have no such problems with Cheney. There are inconveniences, to be sure, such as having to sweep his truck and boat clean of any mysterious herbal substances and leave behind his gun, which he otherwise likes to pack on the river--just in case--in order to pass muster with the Secret Service. But Pruett says the guides regard Cheney as a gentleman without pretense, who's a pleasure to row.
Cheney isn't some fussy streamside entomologist, either, sifting water with a cheesecloth to see if he can match the hatch. But he knows his stuff, and when he doesn't know something, says Pruett, he is eminently coachable and invariably polite, even if he's not renowned for his smalltalk. He takes both fishing and solitude seriously, and the river is his place to escape. Other drift-boaters will often float by having no idea that they just passed the vice president of the United States. ("We don't have a sign on him," Dick Scarlett tells me).
Pruett says that the sight of Cheney on the river is so unexpected to some that, once, he even saw a young man who worked for Idaho Fish and Game, who was checking fishing licenses, "but in sneaky spots," head out of the brush, walk right up to Cheney, ask to see his license, and still never put together to whom he was talking. "Clueless," says Pruett.
Pruett is not just a guide, it turns out. He is a stalker of fish. If trout had access to the courts, they'd hit him with a restraining order. He knows their names and unlisted addresses, and he constantly says things, like, "We're gonna get out of the boat here, I have to check on this fish." He puts me onto many. I catch a smattering of cutthroats, browns and rainbows, along with several whitefish (which the locals derisively call "Rocky Mountain bonefish"). But I'm slow on the trigger today and miss many more.
Blessed with x-ray vision, Pruett even has me cast to a pet brown he's been stalking that I can't see, a 24-inch monster laid up against the head of an island. I float a hopper over him, he explodes on it, then books down-current with line screaming off my reel behind him. Trying to slow him, I'm forced to follow on foot as he's too strong to reel. He finally snaps off after nearly finishing my twig-like 4-weight rod. My expletives would curl his gills if he were still around to hear them.
Pruett is generous about the few fish I catch that come off as he's about to net them. "It counts," he assures, "you had control." I tell him he would say that. It's probably in the Fishing Guide Rulebook to always give the fisherman the benefit of the doubt. "Of course," he admits. "Is that a 20-inch fish, or 26? That's 26. What's six inches between friends?"
But he tells it straight when I ask him how he thinks I'll do against Cheney. "First of all, he gets the front of the boat," says Pruett, meaning Cheney's fly gets first pass at all the fish. "Second, this is pretty much his backyard. I could candy-coat it, but I'd be lying. He's going to smoke your ass."
Back in Jackson the next morning, I drive to Cheney's house in the golf-course community of Teton Pines. It is not a "ranch," as is often misstated (his neighbors are close enough to hit him with a rock), but rather a tastefully unostentatious place in a zip code where captains of industry often pay for extras like heated driveways so that their car tires never suffer the inconvenience of snowfall.
Cheney is dressed in zip-off cargo pants and a fly-fishing shirt given to him by one of the lodges where he fishes. (It has "Vice President Dick Cheney" stitched above a breast pocket.) I take a backseat with him in a black Suburban. For the next hour plus, his motorcade will retrace the trek I made the day before.
Many had warned me of Cheney's lust for silence on the river. Ken Adelman once wrote, "Despite pleas over the years, [Cheney] adamantly refused to take me fly-fishing in Wyoming. When pressed, he finally explained, 'You talk too much to go fly-fishing.' "
With an unavoidable stretch of conversation before us (though Cheney did bring two books, which worries me until he tells me they are for the ride home), I probably should have gone the responsible-journalist route and grilled Cheney on matters of electoral politics and world affairs. But all either of us really wanted to talk about was fishing. So we did.
It was a lightning round of fishing-talk. Cheney could even have passed as excitable. Though even on excitable, his voice doesn't vary much from the low hum of a room dehumidifier. I ask him if he's worried that our fishing trip will infringe on him getting back in time to watch that night's festivities at the Democratic convention. He smiles an unregretful smile, and says, "It's been my good fortune to go fishing at crucial times in my career."
One of those times was before the vice-presidential debate in 2004, when he and his debate-prepper, Rob Portman, decided, in Cheney's words, "to hell with it," and instead went fishing on the South Fork. "The most important thing you can do before one of those debates, is to be relaxed. I couldn't think of a better way to relax than to just tune it all out and go spend a day on the river." (Cheney also skipped the 1996 Republican convention, because he was, in his own words, "probably fishing.")
Cheney inherited a love of angling from his family. His grandfather "was a nut on going after catfish . . . one of these guys who was a great believer in stinky, smelly bait." He mixed his own, says Cheney: "chicken guts marinated in blood for a week, or something like that." Once, his grandfather took a trip some place and left his bait mix locked in his old Buick. "He took the keys with him, and we couldn't get it out. . . . The whole neighborhood was rank by the time we got through."
Both of his parents were avid "worm fishermen." His dad, he says, "propagated nightcrawlers. He had--probably dangerous as hell, but he did it--a copper rod that was wired to an electric cord, which you could stick into the socket and a rubber hand line. He'd jam it down to the ground, and nightcrawlers would just pop out."
Cheney first fly-fished when he was 16 years old. Just before football season started, he and three friends threw their bedrolls into a 1948 Ford and took off for a week to the Middle Fork of Wyoming's Powder River, which cuts through a deep canyon. He went down to the hardware store, picked out a fiberglass rod and a half-dozen flies, made the steep descent, and set about "catching trout . . . in this deep canyon. I couldn't even get into it today. But it's a beautiful stream."
Years later, as a congressman, he became much more serious about fly-fishing. According to my colleague Stephen F. Hayes's recent biography of Cheney, one day the congressman was interviewing Merritt Benson for a state rep's job in his office. Benson had worked for Outdoor Life magazine before taking a Wyoming Department of Fish and Wildlife job. Cheney glanced at his résumé and got down to real vetting.
Cheney: "I bet you know a few fishing holes in this state."
Benson: "Yeah, I do."
Cheney: "Well I never travel anywhere without my pole in the trunk."
The job was Benson's without delay ("He had some special qualifications," Cheney told me). Under the tutelage of Benson, he started fly-fishing with conviction. Benson introduced him to the legendary guide Don Daughenbaugh, a former ranger at both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Daughenbaugh used to guide Jimmy Carter, and up until this year, still rowed Cheney when he hit the Bighorn, though Daughenbaugh's now in his 80s.
I ask Cheney if fishing was ever a consideration in selecting his "undisclosed locations."
"No," he says. "But I have my regular schedule. . . . Your undisclosed location could be a secure facility some place, or it could be a corn field in South Dakota where you're hunting, or the South Fork of the Snake."
Being the second most powerful person in the free world has its drawbacks, and work does tend to make its way to the river. His people ask me not to reveal security specifics, but I beg off when I'm told there are divers in trailer boats, as they could interfere with our fishing. I ask him if they're there to sweep the river for possible explosives. He's amused by the paranoia. They're rescue swimmers, he tells me, "in case I fall out of the boat."
His friends say that even on the South Fork Hilton trip, Cheney digests intelligence and wakes up before the rest of the camp to make secure calls back to Washington, never telling them of what transpired before he shows up to breakfast. Cheney admits, "I was over here on the South Fork when the Russians invaded Georgia, so I got word on the river that day. I've always got a communicator with me. . . . We actually carry a satellite dish with us so we can pull over and set up on the sandbar. . . . Stuff happens. Especially in August."
Because of his workload, Cheney can't fish nearly as much as he'd like. He has gotten out with the president in Crawford. "We fish for bass on his pond down there. It goes fine," Cheney says with the air of a man itching for faster, more interesting water. Cheney stays on the fly rod, while Bush chucks "bubba bait," as Cheney calls it, not so masterfully suppressing a fly-fisherman's elitism. I ask Cheney who outfishes whom, and he looks slightly insulted. "He catches more fish out of his pond than I do. Because it's his pond."
Cheney sticks with a fly rod at all times (he has so many, he's lost count), because "to do it well, you have to concentrate. It's a way, when you get out there on the river, to sort of cleanse your mind of whatever other cares or concerns you've got. It's a place I [can] go and totally relax, set aside whatever issues I'm working on at the time and just focus on fishing."
He speaks wistfully of fishing for sea-run browns in Tierra del Fuego and taking a rickety cargo helicopter, with benches for seats and all the luggage piled in the middle of the floor, to pull salmon out of the remote and untouched Ponoi River in Russia. There, with the sun not setting north of the Arctic Circle, a fisherman can put in a good, clean 16-hour day.
But it's steelheading in British Columbia that is his absolute favorite. He likes the challenge--you have to work, and you can go all day without a strike. "It's basically a sea-run rainbow trout," Cheney says. "I have a lot of respect for the fish, the acrobatics--a 10- or 12-pound steelhead tailwalking down the water, taking out all your line. Catch them, and you're a serious fisherman." He used to fish the Babine River for a week every year with a group of friends who live in the northwest. The place they go is reachable only by air. "They've got about 25 or 30 miles of the river all to themselves," he says. He's been unable to join them for years, but "They're still saving my slot," he says, chomping at the bit.
Our convoy reaches the South Fork, where we put in next to what feels like a wind tunnel right beneath Palisades Dam. Cheney changes into his chest waders, hauls all of his own gear and rigs his own rods, one of which is a fine Sage 6-weight, with an ivory inlaid trout on its reel seat. His Abel reel, too, is a thing of art, decorated with the colored spots of a brown trout.
"What do you fish?" he asks, curiously.
I tend to go with the ghetto set-up: dull black, retro-looking $20 Pflueger Medalist reels--turned backwards because I'm too lazy to switch them from right-hand to left-hand retrieve--and my beat-up L.L. Bean 6-weight, which has plumber's tape secured around a hairline crack under one ferrule. "I'm low-tech," I tell him, by which I mean I'm cheap--though the fish don't seem to know the difference.
He winces when I pull my tape recorder out of my chest-wader pouch. "I don't want to be on all day," he says. And he suspiciously eyes my beyond-raggedy, lucky fishing cap, which I have on backwards. "They ever offer to buy you a new hat, Matt?" Staying on the theme of my employers, he adds, "You know the only reason I agreed to this? I wanted to see what kind of reporter had the cojones to convince his editors to pay for him to come fish the South Fork."
Our guide, Pat Kelly, shoves us off into the chop, and despite all the forewarnings of sacrosanct Cheney silence on the river, he keeps up a steady patter over the next eight hours. He inquires about my kids and asks Kelly about his offseason employment. He tells me what he likes to read (Fly Fisherman, Gray's Sporting Journal, the Economist, raw intelligence), as well as what he doesn't (the blogs). "I don't blog," he says, as if clearing up a misconception. In April, though, the blogosphere was obsessed over a photo of Cheney fishing on the Snake. Many held that a reflection in Cheney's sunglasses revealed not a hand casting a flyrod, but a naked woman. When I ask Cheney about it, he breaks into a trouble-making grin. "I had a great guide that day."
He also offers several candid, and often funny, impressions of current political figures. Then immediately puts them off the record. Trying to drag them back on the record, as I attempt to do several times, proves futile. When I suggest to him that such secrecy and circumspection is precisely why his media image is in the crapper, he is unconcerned. "If I was interested in servicing my image," he says, "I wouldn't have become vice president. I had a good job."
That much-discussed job was one he was offered after impressing Halliburton executives while chewing the fat with them in the mid-90s at a fly-fishing camp. Loyal to his friends--some say to a fault--he gives a spirited defense of how unfairly his former colleagues have been publicly denigrated from their association with him. But he doesn't want me going into the particulars. "I didn't come out here to piss and moan," he says. "I came out here to fish."
And fish he does. Kelly feeds us many different flies throughout the day, but the money set-up seems to be a Rainy's hopper pattern on topwater with a lightning-bug nymph dropper dangling beneath it. (Pruett calls these the "Coors Light Cans," as its red and silver sheen looks like every college girl's favorite beer.)
Cheney is a good fisherman. A really good fisherman. We're not in the water 10 minutes before he's already had two hookups, while the only thing I've caught in the same duration is a stick that I mistook for a whitefish and the vice president's line.
As I'm in the back of the boat, it's my job to time his backcasts so that we keep firing like alternating pistons--a rhythm that takes some getting used to in such tight quarters, especially since he is a fast and frequent caster. There are no catastrophes, à la the hook in the neck, unless you count me wrapping a fly around the guide's glasses. (No skin was touched.) Another time, trying to set the hook on a fish and missing--something Cheney rarely does-- his Copper Bob rubber-banded out of the water and came within inches of my face before wrapping around my rod as I was trying to get out a tangle, nearly turning me into the fly-fishing equivalent of Harry Whittington, Cheney's less-fortunate hunting partner.
I go fishless all morning, as Cheney hits for the cycle: browns and rainbows, cutties and hybrids. It makes me nostalgic for the day before, when I had the front of the boat. I remind Cheney and Kelly that I'd had a 15-fish outing on their river just yesterday. Nobody seems remotely impressed.
As we break for a fried-chicken boxed lunch on a gravel bar, I start feeling desperate and am thinking about turning to my big gun: the Pistol Pete, a woolly bugger-like fly that effectively mimics baitfish, but that has a little extra action with a propeller on front. I picked a brownie up near this spot on it the day before. I ask Cheney what he thinks and if he'd ever fish it. "If I had fished every other fly in my box, and none of them worked, then maybe," he says, as though I was defiling his water by chucking the equivalent of bubba bait.
Shamed, I still break out of Kelly's recommendation cycle, and pick a green Thompson's Hopper of my own, all foam and hackle and rubber legs. I immediately take a cutthroat out of a riffle as Cheney is still finishing his lunch. "I'm back," I say to nobody in particular, as if I'd been there before.
But I wasn't back. Cheney goes back to catching fish, I go back to getting skunked. While Cheney is not a braggart in the least, he is a proud fisherman, and so he appreciates the White House photographer, David Bohrer, following behind in a trailer boat, taking snaps of his catches before he cuts them loose. "Where's David?" he says after one cutthroat. "He's bored, he's off taking pictures of flowers," offers Kelly. "You can tell he's a short-timer," shrugs Cheney.
I step into the White House photographer role when Bohrer isn't present with my CVS disposable camera ("Let Matt get a picture of this," Cheney takes to telling Kelly) and start a loud patter of bellyaching about my bad turn of luck (refraining from the usual string of expletives, out of deference to Cheney's office). "You've got the same hoppers on that he does," Kelly offers, perhaps still stung that I briefly went outside his advised patterns or still ruffled that I almost blinded him in one eye. But I am beginning to see how it works: Cheney doesn't need to talk trash. He has people to do that for him.
Not that he doesn't talk any smack. At one point, when Kelly is netting one of Cheney's fish and about to cut it loose, Cheney says, "Wait a minute, do you want to let Matt get a look at that so he can see what he's missing?"
The fish deficit is starting to grow ridiculous.
I have time to think of all the reasons Cheney is outcatching me. For one, my drifts are getting screwed up by the oar and Cheney casting at too high an angle into my water, forcing my flies to drag more often than they should. For another, the guide seems to be setting him up on all the fish when the boat holds position. Then there is the front-of-the-boat problem. If it doesn't matter where you sit, why does he always take the front? When I mention this to Scarlett, he welcomes me to the back-of-the-boat club. Cheney's friends let him have the front of the boat since he's the vice president of the United States. "But he's got about four months left," says Scarlett. "Then he can do time in the back like everybody else."
But there is another reason, of course, that Cheney is outfishing me. It's probably the more important reason: He's a lot better fisherman. He is a fierce caster. He has pinpoint precision with his fly, throwing sliders under branches, lopping flies over tree limbs, dropping his hopper just off the bank's edge, making it look extra susceptible to a trout mugging, like a drunk falling off a curb.
As Kelly rows us alongside a steep rockface, with tiny crevices at the bottom where the current swirls by and fish are likely holding, Cheney perfectly sidearms a cast right into the pocket. His fly is inhaled by a greedy rainbow. It's like watching a mailman throw a letter through a door slot from 30 feet away. Even Kelly, who is no purveyor of flattery, says, "Now that was a cast."
We hit the end of our 12-mile float and exit the boat onto the ramp. Cheney does not count his fish, though I do, obsessively (I've caught 869 so far this year, back when I used to catch fish). I tell him what the damage is:
Dick Cheney: 20.
He doesn't give me that stingy, trademark lopsided grin that looks like a broken egg sliding off a rock. His is the full-on smile of an ebullient child. He shows back-molars and dental work, everything. In several decades of watching him, I've never seen him smile this big.
I ask him how much I should tip the guide, but he's already laid one hundred bucks or so on him. "It's all right, I got him," he says. I try to get the vice president back, but he won't have it. "It's okay, I can afford it," he says. Plus, he adds, "It's a small price to pay for bragging rights." We bid each other adieu. He's off home and says that he has some pressing business there: He has to email my friends that he beat me 20 to 2.
The next day, I have lunch with Jack Dennis, a longtime friend and fishing guide of Cheney's. ("Don't believe anything he tells you," Cheney offered, when finding out where I was headed.) Dennis is a bit of a local legend. He has introduced fly-fishing to everyone from Harrison Ford to Arnold Palmer. He authors books, hosts fly-fishing shows, and lectures on the sport worldwide.
Some speculate that the reason Cheney gets along so famously with Dennis is that Dennis does all the talking. Cheney doesn't have to fill in any spaces. And though Dennis is indeed a verbal firehose of stories, recollections, and trivia, he also has a melancholic streak. His office in Jackson, which is adorned with everything from letters of thanks from baseball legend Ted Williams--who was impressed by his fly-tying--to landing nets with presidential seals, has a placard on his shelf inscribed with the words of Henry David Thoreau: "Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after."
Dennis has fished with Cheney often over the years and has seen him at some peculiar times. There was the day not long before September 11, when Dennis was rowing Cheney and his daughter Liz, and a passenger jet flew close overhead on the way to the airport. Liz, says Dennis, asked her father if he was ever worried about a plane like that coming to hit him. "He looked at her and said, 'Why would they want to do that? All those people on that plane wanna live."
Dennis, who is a committed environmentalist, says Cheney has gotten a bad rap as a despoiler of the land, since he has often quietly worked behind the scenes, doing things like torpedoing prospective mines in Wyoming that would pollute treasured cutthroat fisheries. Once, when fishing, Dennis says, Cheney asked him, "How do you think fly-fishermen view me?" Dennis replied: " 'I don't think they view you very well, as a lot of people don't. It's not because of your fishing ability or anything, I think it's just because of the mood of the country.' He said, 'Well, I understand that.' I said, 'If they all went fishing with you, that would be a different story.' "
Perhaps the strangest moment for Dennis, however, was one afternoon on the river, just days after Cheney had a heart defibrillator implanted. Dennis says Cheney was reclining in the boat with "his head leaned back--he'd never done anything like that. I went back to look and see if he was breathing." Cheney popped open one eye and asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm checking to see if you're breathing," Dennis said.
"Well so what?" Cheney snapped back. "What would happen if I wasn't? Will you just not worry about me? Leave me alone and whatever happens happens. I can't think of a better place to die than right here."
I wrap up with Dennis and realize I have a few hours left of daylight, so I ask him where I should fish. He grabs my notebook and draws a map to an unmarked creek in Grand Teton National Park. I ask him what flies I should bring. "Just go," he says. "You're losing time."
The directions are confusing, and I get lost several times. Even the park rangers don't know where Dennis's spot is. But I finally find it, after my car nearly plows into a black bear loafing off into the woods. After driving six miles down a dirt path and descending on foot down a steep embankment, which nearly causes a rockslide, I find a huge, slow eddying pool that feeds a faster creek, which itself feeds into the Snake about a half a mile away. Sneaking up in the tall grass along the banks, I see a large cutthroat holding in the lazy current. But my first cast spooks him, as his shadow shoots downstream. I jump into the pool and wade down slowly, firing a 50-foot cast to drift a hopper past some downed limbs near the pool's tailout. A cutthroat explodes on it, and moments later I am holding this gleaming, brilliant, orange-hued fish in my hand, as the setting sun crowns the Tetons above me.
The fish has to be a 19-incher, though since I'm the only witness, I'm going to call it 20. It's the biggest trout I take during my trip by far, and it's enough of a fish to wipe yesterday's humiliation off the books. As I place the cutthroat back in the cool water, watching it dart away as it realizes it's regained its freedom, I'm reminded of all the Cheney haters, who hope to God that when his stint ends in four months he permanently hangs out his "Gone Fishing" sign. I'm not sure Cheney and his critics won't finally find some agreement.
There are worse things to wish on a man.
By Matt Labash