The Wading Game

By Kris Millgate

“I bet that guy is staring at you because you’re pretty,” says my son.

Since I haven’t brushed my hair, I bet that guy isn’t staring because I’m pretty. He’s staring because we’re minorities. Woman with child. No man among us. There’s no way we know what we’re doing.

But we do.

I efficiently back in my truck with the only Idaho license plate on this dirt road. Locals lose the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River to tourists in the summer. I’m parked between Utah and Washington. Texas two rigs over.

My son hides his iPhone under his seat just in case anyone in this fishy crowd has hot hands for electronics. Then he scrambles out of the truck proclaiming he’ll dress himself.

But he doesn’t.

He doesn’t even know which set of gear is his. Passing a decade now, he’s fished his whole life either on my back or in my boat. This is his first time in waders. He’s almost big enough to fit in one of the spare pairs I’ve been saving for him.

He says, “Why don’t waders go to your neck?”

I tell him, “If water is up to your neck, you’re not fishing, you’re floating.”

I unload two sets of waders and boots stashed among our mountain bikes in the bed of the truck. I have two rods, but only string one while finding my son’s feet in neoprene booties and shoving them in wading boots before attaching gravel guards. The get up is too big. His smile is bigger.

“Rock guards are legit,” he says. “I need these for all my shoes. Especially my school shoes because I get rocks in them at recess.”

Stare-hard watches our circus with a scowl as the sun sets. He’s the typical Henry’s Fork angler. A bit heavy on weight and wrinkles. Head fringed in white hair. He’s looking at us over magnified glasses. The kind aging eyes use to thread fly line through hook holes.

When I don’t act bothered by his unwelcome, he closes in and opens up. He’s from Washington. Been here a week. Based on his gripes, I can’t figure out why he’s still here.

“No flies. No fish,” he says looking at us like we don’t belong.

But we do.

I know there are flies. I also know there are fish. I caught my largest Idaho fish ever, a 24” brown trout, on this water a few weeks ago. I’m still having flashbacks. There are fish in here for certain, but I keep that to myself and let my son cover the awkward pause of my silent reminisce.

“I wish there was a superhero that used a fishing rod,” he says while turning away from stare-hard and aiming my rod case at geese like it’s a shotgun.

He continues to chatter like he has all day. He’s a lot like me in that way. Thoughts spilling out as fast as they sprout, subject skipping with ease.

On our mountain bike ride earlier, we played genie. I wished for the banishment of all bad people. He wished for no Internet dead zones. We’re both into video. Me for my job as a journalist. Him for his entertainment as a gamer. His devices, and mine, are now out of reach. We have fish to catch.

But we don’t.

We watch from the bank. The surface of the water is flat. If a gulper rises, I’ll see its head crack the calm. Stare-hard, ready well ahead of us, is already standing in the river, but he’s not watching ripples. He’s watching us. I hear a gulp upstream. Stare-hard can’t hear it mid-river. I steer my son through knee-high grass and head upstream.

Stare-hard smiles. It’s possible he’s amused by my son’s jig along the single-track trail. He’s taking hip-hop during hockey off-season and he’s grooving with excitement. But in all reality, stare-hard is probably smiling because he just realized we’re not getting in the water next to him. I know better. He’s of the no-dink-around crowd. We’re here to dink around.

But we don’t.

Five brown drakes drift by. Three trout heads rise. Game on. We’re in. One rod between us. I place my son directly in front of me. His head is sternum high. I can watch well what fish are doing and still keep my son upright while he fascinates over a new sensation.

“I feel like I’m in a bumble beekeeper suit,” he says. “Nothing can get in my shoes and water compresses to the sides of my legs. It feels awesome.”

I’m a lefty. He’s a righty. This is good. I wrap my left arm around his chest, tighten his back to my front and guide his right-handed cast with my right arm. Right is my weaker cast. It won’t take over like my left does. The softer touch works better for beginners. A few casts in and he wants freedom. I slowly release him from my hold. His brightly dotted emoji ballcap throws color in the low light as he casts solo. His aim is true for short length. A fish rises to his fly. He’s going to hook.

But he doesn’t.

Fish or no fish. He’s caught the magic and that’s what matters. It’s last light. It’s my son’s first wade. Stare-hard can stare all he wants. Maybe watching us will remind him why he really started wading way back when.

“When I grow up, I’m going to make my kid go wading with me instead of sitting around in the house playing video games,” my son says. “This is legit.”

About the Author

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trail, hunts birds and chases trout. She followed salmon migration solo during the pandemic for the Emmy-nominated film Ocean to Idaho. Her new film, On Grizzly Ground, premieres in August with her third book, My Place Among Beasts. See her work at