Journey to the Ledges

Adam Nelson 
Founder of The Daggerfish Gear Co.

On a small farm in rural Idaho, there’s a stone slab inscribed with the names of my family members. The Nelsons have been a fixture in Rexburg for more than 100 years, and this memorial stone was erected on the original homestead to honor my great-great-grandparents, their children, and their children’s children for “their spotless names and noble lives.” 

It’s a heck of a thing to have your family honored by their town in that way, and it reminds me that even though I wasn’t born there, and never lived there, it’s nonetheless a place where I have a heritage.

The monument also mentions the annual midsummer family reunion my family holds every year, which is the way most of the family gathers now. A few years ago, on one of these trips, my dad and his brothers took their children and grandchildren (4th- and 5th-generation Nelsons, myself included) to The Ledges, a treasured fishing hole on the Teton River just beyond the farm.  The Nelsons have been fishing there for generations:

My great-grandfather, grandfather, dad, and me, fishing the same river since 1940 .

My Dad took the liberty of documenting the trip and its historical significance to our family. Here are some excerpts from his letter: 

“Almost any time of the year, The Ledges were a good place to fish. There are several locations where the river has undercut the cliffs, creating nice hidey holes for trout and easy back eddies, which makes the river particularly easy to fish for youngsters just learning how. 

Add to that the famous trout fly (called a salmon fly in most other places) which is like candy to trout, and you have a combination that makes for great fishing. Back in the day, the daily limit was 21 fish, and it was not uncommon to come out of there with 2 or 3 limits of fish.”

Prior to this trip, I’d never considered myself a fisherman. I’d go fishing with my Dad and my brother growing up, but I’d quickly get bored and wander off to explore in the woods, or take on the job of driving the boat. My brother Evan, though, has always had the right disposition for fishing. He spent a lot of his youth going on fishing trips with my Dad, and has become an accomplished fisherman in his own right. 

My dad and brother with some of their best catches  

My brother is now my go-to resource for fishing, and you can read the tips he’s given me for using the Daggerfish for spin fishing and fly fishing. But he wasn’t there on this trip to The Ledges, and at the time I was still new and clumsy. 

Fortunately, my inexperience didn’t matter. As the day progressed and we began to pull fish out of the water, I started to understand why fishing held such sway over my brother and my dad. 

Standing by the cold rushing waters of the Teton River, in the same spot where my grandfather had stood, I was struck by how important it is to be with your family and carry on a tradition. It’s soothing to sit by a cool river after a long and difficult hike. It’s delightful to catch a meal on your own, and to cook it fresh from the water. And while we didn’t catch the limit on this trip, by lunchtime we’d caught enough to eat:

“The preferred lunch, when fishing on the Teton, was to fry the freshly-caught trout in a combination of bacon grease and mom’s homemade sour cream butter, then lay the hot trout onto a slab of homemade white bread, pull the skin of and the backbone and rib bones out, and eat. Neither plate nor utensils was required. Two or three of those made a hearty lunch and no trout has ever tasted better.“

Cooking fish over the fire at the Teton River

From left-to-right, my cousin Ryan, me, my dad, my uncle Al, and my uncle Richard, chatting while our fish cook.

Even though we'd made this trip with several of my uncles and cousins, there were times where it felt like it was just me and my Dad. It had been rare for him and I to spend time together, just the two of us, and this was the first trip in my memory where I felt like an adult next to him.

On another day during our stay at the family farm, I walked with him to the top of a beautiful ridge from which both the farm and the Grand Teton mountains could be seen. “This is where I want my ashes scattered,” he told me. My chest rang as if struck by a hammer, both at the thought of losing my father and with the responsibility he was entrusting to me.

Time will march on, inevitably, and there will come a day when my generation will take over for the previous, just as they did in years past. That day will come, but it is not today.

“This story wouldn’t mean very much without some discussion of why this kind of slightly-risky adventure is important. For Adam and Ryan [4th generation Nelsons], I believe that they just wanted to do the same thing that their old men had talked about being so wonderful; to see first-hand if the canyon was as hard as we have made it out to be, perhaps to measure themselves against their fathers, and to be there in case something didn’t go right. 

But for the old farts, it means quite a bit more. It’s important for us to test ourselves from time to time, to see if we can still do those things that are physically difficult but so emotionally satisfying. When the day comes that you can no longer do those things, a life marker has been passed for which there is no going back. Hiking down to the ledges for a day’s fishing means that we’ve held the calendar back for another year.”

A sacred site doesn’t have to have a church built on it, and making a pilgrimage doesn’t always mean walking to Mecca. This was my first trip to The Ledges, but not my last. 

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