Rob Gipson didn’t make some grand gesture by wrapping up his Wyoming Game and Fish Department career while watching children toy around with fishing rods on the west bank of the Snake River.
But it was a fitting end that the fisheries supervisor’s last day of work fell on Saturday, when more than 250 kids came by Rendezvous Park to fling lures and bait at cutthroat trout. Coincidentally, that was the day Gipson qualified for the “rule of 85,” which meant that his age, 55, and years of eligible work added up to the magic aforementioned number, which allows him to draw from his state pension without penalty.
“Today is the exact day,” Gipson said.
In the waning minutes of his three-decade Game and Fish tenure, Gipson thought back on past iterations of Kids Fishing Day, which exposes a lot of youth from non-fishing families to angling. Undeniably the annual late-spring event has improved. Gipson was around in 1991, when Trout Unlimited spearheaded the inaugural event. At the time, hatchery-raised coldwater trout were dumped in the shallow ponds by Bert’s Bench, a backwater that warms up and has a tricky connection to Flat Creek.
“That was a death sentence for the fish,” Gipson said.
Kids Fishing Day became more of a catch when a Jackson Hole One Fly grant came through, and the young participants got to keep the rods. A venue change — to the man-made pond at the Jackson National Fish Hatchery — kept the fish alive, but also ensured they were plenty skittish.
“The hatchery pond was so small that people rarely got fish,” Gipson said. “One or two was a huge year.”
Migrating to the 450-foot-long R Park ponds provided space to move around, and the fishing’s better. Posted up near the parking lot Saturday, Gipson watched families depart with caught cutthroat.
“They’ve been really good to us here,” he said.
Gipson’s career coincided with a paradigm shift about how natural fisheries and native cutthroat trout are perceived and managed. Now Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout and other natives take precedence in the Snake River watershed, but it wasn’t always that way. When he was coming up, stocking was routine in flowing waters — including of nonnative fish, like brook trout. In the 1990s Gipson helped stock brookies in Game Creek. As soon as this summer, a fish poison called rotenone could flow in those same waters to kill them all. Gipson authorized the removal, reversing his own handiwork.
While management principles have changed, many of the people in Jackson Hole’s angling community have stayed the same. Gipson sold his Jackson place, and will split time between Island Park, Idaho, his home state of Missouri and Phoenix. And so on Saturday, there were lots of goodbyes, for now.
“As Spock would say, ‘Live long and prosper,’” Joe Burke told his pal. “But it’s not a one-way street that leads out of town.”
Trout Unlimited staffer Leslie Steen hugged it out, and fly-fisher extraordinaire Jay Buchner stopped by to bid adieu.
“Looks to me like the rats are leaving the ship,” Buchner said. “I keep finding people who are like, ‘Oh yeah, sold my house last week.’”
Gipson’s time on the clock for the state officially expired at noon, but, distracted by conversation, he didn’t glance down at his watch until 12:09 p.m. Upon making the realization, he yearned for one thing. Evidently, the synthetic material of the trademark Game and Fish red short-sleeved shirts are renowned for not breathing, and the sun was beating down and Gipson’s sweat beading up.
“I have a different shirt out here, and I’m not kidding,” he said.
It was time for a “barley pop.”
As Fishing Day and a career ended, Game and Fish staffers who have decades more work ahead of them were breaking down tents and loading up fishing poles. Gipson, off to the side, joked that it was nice watching other people work, then he hollered out before strolling off.
“Hey, Chuck, where’s the truck?” Gipson said. “I’m going to take this thing off.”