Actor Henry Winkler talks fly fishing

[by Jim Dobson]

AN ACCOMPLISHED SPORTSMAN WHO METICULOUSLY RECORDS THE MEASUREMENTS OF EVERY FISH HE HOOKS, actor Henry Winkler has learned that his seasonal fly fishing trips on American rivers, including in Alaska, are not just about catching trout. They are about adopting the proper perspectives on life and how fly fishing recharges him and reminds him that anything is possible.

Winkler grew up in New York City and had a summer home on Lake Mahopac upstate. He spent most of his young life with low self-esteem and had difficulty at school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. His insecurities continued even after becoming a sex symbol as the macho, leather-jacket-wearing Fonzie on the hit television series Happy Days.

Fly fishing was one of the biggest challenges he ever undertook and became successful at, boosting his confidence. The beauty of the sport and the landscape inspired his interest in photography, leading to his bestseller I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River, in which he reflects on family, photography, and his passion for fly fishing.

I sat down with Winkler at his rambling, modest estate in Los Angeles, where we spent hours talking about his love for the sport. He’s one of those rare souls in Hollywood that welcomes you with an open heart and instantly makes you feel comfortable. Just don’t enter his sacred space when he is fishing, and all will be fine.

A friend taught Henry and his wife, Stacey, how to cast lines in his swimming pool. Henry recalls his first adventure: “We were floating down the river, and I was just learning to cast, and I couldn’t get it,” he says. “I caught one fish, and it was the runt of the litter. I lifted it out of the water, and it flew over my head, got off the hook, and I literally sent it to another zip code. It was, sadly, no bigger than the palm of my hand. at was my entire catch for the five days down the river.” Today, Henry and Stacey are addicted to their fishing expeditions but rarely see each other during the outings. Stacey walks into the room and tells me, “I love fishing, but Henry and I cannot go on the same boat. Henry goes into my water space all the time.”

Henry interrupts. “My fly seems to always go automatically into Stacey’s water. It seems fishy. We literally fish in separate boats and meet up for lunch. It is not at all a competition.”

As Stacey leaves the room, she gets the last word. “Every time I have a really good fishing day you can bet that is where Henry is heading the next day.”

One of his fondest memories in Alaska is when he traveled to Enchanted Lake Lodge, in Katmai National Park. “We take off in pontoon planes called Beavers and every day we would fly into a different place where the pilot lands on a puddle,” he says. “Maybe it’s a lake, but it looks like your bathtub. We were dropped off for the day and walked on the tundra while using salmon eggs as our bait.”

But don’t expect to see Winkler away from the rivers and on the open Alaskan waters. Sizeable, choppy waves make him seasick.

Winkler is very organized and methodical. He lays out each day’s multilayered ensemble the night before. “I leave most of my gear in the guide’s boat overnight,” he says. “I have my silk underwear and fishing pants. In my zipper pocket, I have the guide’s tip for the day, $50 for an emergency, a credit card, and my fishing license. In the pocket of my fishing shirt, I keep a pen and small notebook. I started my diary in 2004, and I record everything from the weather conditions to what I have on the end of my line and every fish I catch that day. I also wear my waders because I have been known to fall in almost every trip.”

Winkler’s list of necessities grows: “I have my cigar cutter. I only smoke once or twice a year, and it is when I’m on the river fishing. My waterproof backpack holds my lighter, my Sony 50mm camera with two lenses. I have biodegradable bathroom tissue and river soap so that it does not harm the river. I have gloves, extra socks, an army-navy knife, and gum. A scarf you can put over your head and face. My Simms rain jacket. Dark chocolate. Sunscreen. Every time I have caught a lot of fish on the same fly, I hook it on my felt hat. Under my seat, I have an ice chest where I keep a bottle of water and my lunch, which is the same every day: Fritos and a tuna fish sandwich.”

The sport of fly fishing is not about hunting for food, but about the excitement of the chase, the skill of the catch, and about communing in nature. “I have been known to catch 60 trout in one day,” says Winkler. “I always catch and release and don’t even eat trout. I think they are so majestic. I won’t eat a trout even in a restaurant. They are beautiful and so much fun, and they give me such joy to catch them that it is my pleasure to take a picture with them, give them a kiss, sign a laminated autographed picture, and put it in their mouth. I am hanging in trout nests all over the West. You never know, they might be watching my new HBO series, Barry.”

Jim Dobson has been a world explorer for over 30 years and has covered more than 80 countries. He is highly experienced in exotic travel and extreme luxury adventures and has been lucky to work with and travel alongside some of the biggest celebrities and billionaires. As a longtime contributor to Forbes, his life is a constant adventure filled with some amazing people.

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