The Gospel According to Whitefish Eddie:
The Henry’s Fork’s most literally colorful character has a method to his presumed madness.
You can spot Eddie Dunn a long way on the river, certainly far enough to avoid him, which is the typical reaction for most fly fishermen who don’t know him (and some who do). That’s just fine with Eddie because the Railroad Ranch portion of the Henry’s Fork (Harriman State Park) and the mile or so of river just upstream through Last Chance, Idaho can get very crowded at times, especially during the famed green drake hatch.
But "Whitefish Eddie,” as he is known in these parts, typically wades and casts to those big rainbows within a wide circle of splendid isolation. That’s because his choice of angling apparel is so intentionally outrageous that it invariably provokes "What the holy mother-of-hell…?” reactions and distancing maneuvers everywhere he fishes. Who, after all, wants to fish alongside someone wearing a bright yellow SpongeBob SquarePants t-shirt, a pink ball cap and waders covered so liberally with multi-colored fluorescent dribbles that they would give Jackson Pollack a severe case of hives?
The reaction is no less predictable when Eddie shows up in his other angling attire – a neon green or blaze orange shirt or a gold lamé vest covered in spangles over a hot pink cocktail top. Or perhaps you will find him clad from cap to boot entirely in reflective chrome so brilliant that he sparkles like a supernova (he even wears a chrome-dyed wig and, of course, his rod and reel are also chromed). If the weather is a bit chilly, his fleece jacket of many colors – many, many gaudy colors – is more than enough to part the waters around him.
Even when he is ashore and perhaps slightly less flamboyantly accoutered, his 6-foot, 3-inch frame and choice of clothing seldom go unnoticed. He is also usually wearing a hot pink cap emblazoned with his mantra, "Whitefish Unlimited” and "Freshwater Bonefish Forever!” While, in truth, he most often fishes for trout, he is quick to tell you that his respect for whitefish is no joke -- he frequently fishes for bugle mouths and sometimes guides those who want to catch them.
"Whitefish are widely under appreciated,” he says. "Fly fishermen see them as little more than training tools for trout, but big whitefish are selective feeders and strong fighters in their own right, and targeting them has improved my tactics and helped me develop better fly patterns for both species. A big pig whitefish is tough to catch, and far less common that a whopper trout. I first began fishing for them in the Boise River in the middle of downtown in 1978. Fishermen considered them trash fish, but I defended them and, in the early 1980s, I began giving out Whitefish Unlimited caps as awards to anglers who admitted they liked to catch them.
"One of my goals is to catch a whitefish on a dry fly that exceeds the Idaho state record (22 and a half inches), but it won’t be an official record because I’ll release it just as I do all whitefish and trout.”
Is this just another extension of the fishing fashionista persona? With Whitefish Eddie, you can never be entirely sure, but I have fished with this colorful character long enough to know that he is neither a complete nutcase nor some weirdo desperately seeking attention (okay, maybe a little of both). But more important, he is a skilled and innovative fly fisherman -- one of the best on the river – and there is more than a little method to his apparent madness.
I first met Eddie at a mid-June Ranch opener pig-picking hosted by the original small TroutHunter fly shop in Last Chance a few years before 2003 when it relocated across Rt. 20 alongside the river, expanding to add a bar, restaurant and hotel. Eddie was wearing a shiny pink jacket and that gold vest, and I understandably thought he was strange, if not certifiably crazy. But it was quickly apparent that he was well liked beyond mere tolerance, and I also found him to be an intelligent conversationalist with a sly sense of humor (though no pun is ever too silly). One lingering suspicion was laid to rest when I met the charming lady friend and fishing companion he was hanging out with at the time – she had appeared in a Playboy spread featuring University of Alabama coeds – and I enviously watched them ride off together on Eddie’s old Honda Goldwing.
Last June, Eddie and I along with several other fishing buddies were sitting on the banks of the Henry’s Fork contributing to the evaporation rate of the contents of a large cooler while waiting for the evening fishing. I had long since learned that Eddie had spent 30 years as a marketing, advertising and business consultant in Boise, but since his retirement, he has spent most summers camping across Idaho and Montana and fishing such prime waters as Silver Creek and The Yellowstone. The Henry’s Fork, however, is where he has spent most of his time since his first visit in 1980.
Parked behind us was Eddie’s maroon van. His tying vise was clamped conveniently to the steering wheel, and the inside looked not surprisingly like a Hollywood costume warehouse. Classic rock issued from his van, but other options are infamously legion (disco or opera are not unknown). How did all this start, I wanted to know?
"When I began fishing the Henry’s Fork regularly, I decided to test some myth-busting theories I had,” he said. "I had never bought into the notion that fishermen have to dress in drab clothing to keep from scaring trout, so I bought some hot pink and green soccer shirts from thrift stores.
"The first time I wore that stuff, fishermen avoided me. ‘This is way cool,’ I thought, ‘now I won’t have buttholes walking in on me.’ That was an unexpected bonus, and I loved it. I also caught as many big rainbows as ever, proving to my satisfaction that it didn’t matter how I was dressed.
"I began wearing that chrome outfit in 2002, and that’s when I really began to get noticed. Also, I seemed to be invisible to trout, and I decided that since chrome reflects ambient light, it might be the nearly perfect camouflage for those who, unlike me, think that’s important.”
Later that afternoon, Eddie waded into the river with a small waterproof camera attached to a pole and began shooting underwater photos and video. "I’ve been experimenting with this in recent years,” he explained. "It has helped me tie more accurate imitations because I can shoot photos of nymphs and also see what naturals floating on the surface look like from beneath. I’ve also been able to study feeding habits and observe how the relative sizes of whitefish, rainbow and brown trout determine their hierarchies.”
"Back when I wore those first colorful outfits, it was originally to test a theory,” he said. "But maybe it got a little out of hand because I’ll admit I like the attention, and I’m so recognizable now that some fishermen have asked for autographs. It seems I have a reputation to uphold.
"Even so,” he added, "I believe the most important things out here are to fish, have fun with good friends, and not take any of it too seriously. I figure I’m a visible reminder not to get so wrapped up in arcane angling bullpoop that we lose that perspective.” The oxymoronic problem for Whitefish Eddie these days is that he can no longer depend on outrageous clothing to maintain his cherished isolation. Now, he sometimes attracts a crowd.
Infamy, alas, comes at a price.