Henry Winkler's Happy Days On The River

By Ann Dermody

The Fonz traded in his leather jacket for waders and found his true home among the trout.

He may have "jumped the shark" on waterskis in Fonzie's trademark leather jacket, but these days Henry Winkler is happier casting for trout in his waders. That said, the actor and director admits he can be overly enthusiastic when he gets in the boat with a rod in his hand. In fact, his wife says he's a maniac.

"Well, we do fish in separate boats, because I somehow cannot follow the rule that where she sits is her water," Winkler says. "If I think there's a fish in there, I've gotta try! That's annoying for her, of course, so we fish in separate boats and meet at lunch." Stacey, Winkler's wife of 33 years, would go even further. She says the only time in their marriage her husband goes from being the most thoughtful, optimistic, and enthusiastic person she's ever known is when he's fishing.

Photo of Henry Winkler showing off his prize catchHenry Winkler shows off his prize catch.

"It's odd because Henry is a native New Yorker and we live in Los Angeles. In both of those high-stress places, he's never flustered or overwrought. Only in the serene beauty of fly-fishing country does the crazed and competitive Henry appear. If you happen to find yourself on the same river as Henry, my advice is this: Do not obstruct his casting, because he truly believes all fish wear tags reading, "To be caught and released only by Henry Winkler."

Fishing might seem a slightly unusual passion for the man who took swagger and a coif to gravity-defying degrees playing "The Fonz" for a decade in "Happy Days." Born and raised in New York City, Winkler's first introduction to fishing came courtesy of his lawyer, Skip Brittenham, now one of the most successful entertainment lawyers in the business, after he'd moved to Los Angeles. "On a hiatus from 'Happy Days,' Skip took my wife and me fishing on the Smith River out of St. Helena, Montana. I remember it as the exact moment that my passion for fishing trout began. I was immediately hooked." Trout hold a special place in his heart. "There's just something very Zen about being in tune with a trout. You have a quarter-of-a-second to set the hook. You have to feel the trout pull you, then stop and pull the trout back. You can't force the issue. Just like in life, there are no shortcuts with it. I've tried other fish, but they don't have, for me, the same finesse or allure."

Likewise with bigger fish, on bigger waters. "When I made 'The Waterboy,' I went out with captains to fish. They'd pick me up at the hotel with their boats to go bass fishing, and while it was fun for me, it wasn't the same." The bond Winkler feels with the trout extends to the fact he won't eat them. Other fish and seafood don't escape so lightly. "I'm pretty nuts about sole, and I'll drive miles for a lobster roll," he says. "But I can't take a trout out of the river, and I can't eat it in a restaurant. I think they're majestic."

The trout passion, first fostered close to 40 years ago, has resulted in a book, I Never Met An Idiot On The River. "The book started with photographs and the photographs started in Jackson Hole, Wyoming," Winkler explains. "I bought a photograph from a gallery for $300, and I thought to myself, 'Can I take a picture that I'd be proud enough to hang on my wall?' I'm so learning-challenged, I can't use the knobs on the camera. I've no idea what an f-stop is, or what the aperture or all those pluses and minuses are for. I point and I shoot. Then the publisher said, 'Why don't you accompany the photos with what you've learned and applied to your life from the river?'" The resulting book, published by Insight Publications, is at times funny, poignant, philosophical, and oddly poetic.

As a child, dyslexia caused Winkler to be cautious about trying new things. "I am so sad it took me this long (for the record, it was 1973 when he started fishing) to find this wonderful sport. I literally stopped myself, thinking things like, 'It looks more complicated than I can get,' or 'I probably won't be able to do it.' You don't know until you try. People say, 'you're lazy,' or 'stupid,' or 'you're not living up to your potential.' You say that long enough, when a child is young enough, you're going to define yourself that way. If you were to ask me for two defining words, – for life and fishing – I'd say 'tenacity and gratitude.' Tenacity lets you get where you want to go, and gratitude doesn't allow you to be angry along the way." 

— Published: December 2011

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