Brief life of a legendary fly-fisherman: 1951-1983

by Craig Lambert
Harvard Magazine

When he died at the age of 32, Kenneth Ichiro Miyata, Ph.D. ’80, was one of the most famous fly-fishermen in the world. But even those who had never heard his name could instantly recognize his gifts. Once, Miyata took a couple of graduate-school friends, including B. Wu, Ph.D. ’81, fishing at Battenkill in upstate New York. “We didn’t know how good he was,” Wu recalls. “Ken waded in and started casting, and within 10 minutes most of the other fishermen had gotten out of the river and were sitting on the banks, watching him.”

Miyata caught fish quickly and abundantly. “I’d be getting my waders on and Ken would already have three fish,” says one of his fishing companions, Mark Stolt, who recalls one four-hour period when Miyata brought 73 trout to his net before releasing them. (Like most serious fly-fishermen, Miyata was a “catch-and-release” angler.) Yet numbers meant little to him. “Ken measured success by the ability to catch the most difficult, wiliest fish in the stream,” says another casting comrade, lecturer on radiology Carl Geyer. “At Big Spring in Pennsylvania, there was a six-to-eight-pound brown trout nicknamed ‘George’ who lived under a large dead limb. If you hooked him, he’d swim downstream; the limb would catch your line and break off the tippet. Ken caught George once. As far as I know, no one else ever did.” “If Ken were alive today,” says Jack Gartside, a renowned fly-fishing expert, “there’d be no one who could match him.”

Born in Los Angeles, Miyata grew up in nearby Covina and learned to fish in Idaho, where his uncle had a potato farm. He graduated summa cum laude in biology from Berkeley in 1973 and specialized in herpetology at Harvard. He traveled frequently to South America; much of the fieldwork for his dissertation–on diversity in lizards–took place in the rain forests of Ecuador, and his only book, Tropical Nature, written with Adrian Forsyth, Ph.D. ’78, described rain-forest ecology. After a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, the Nature Conservancy hired Miyata to help inventory land in Central and South America. He took the job with some reluctance, since it meant cutting back his fishing from virtually full time to only a few months a year.

The scientific acumen of a naturalist combined with fishing talent and passion to make Miyata a peerless angler. His computer files recorded not only fish caught, but also data on fly and hook, water conditions, weather, and insect species hatching at a given date and time. Using a turkey baster, he might pump a trout’s stomach to learn what insects the fish had been eating that day. His articles for fishing magazines–often accompanied by his own expert photographs–analyzed subjects like a genus of mayfly (Baetis) preferred by trout; his most famous piece, “Fishing like a Predator,” suggested that anglers could learn much from birds like the osprey and kingfisher. “[U]nlike real predators,” he playfully concluded, “we always have the option of enjoying our failures as much as our successes.”

Miyata liked to fish 200 days a year, and a summer trip to Idaho and Montana streams was essential; while in graduate school, he would sometimes drive 32 hours straight from Cambridge to Montana, sustained by rice balls. “Ken was a true starving graduate student–rice, beans, and potatoes,” says Wu. (He did enjoy cheeseburgers; Gartside recalls that over French fries and mayonnaise at an all-night diner, Miyata liked to extol the biological need for “Vitamin G–Grease.”) He cared little about money; his worldly goods consisted largely of fishing gear, camera equipment, and a homemade computer he had cobbled together from Radio Shack parts and an IBM Selectric typewriter.

It was on the river that he indulged himself: there, he was in rapture. “I used to stare at a tiny dry fly on the big, sun-drenched flats of the Henry’s Fork [of Idaho’s Snake River] from six in the morning to nine at night, so intent on the fishing that I forgot to eat,” he wrote. “This could go on for weeks, and at the end of each day I would crawl back to my car, hungry, dehydrated, and sunburned. I enjoyed myself immensely at the time, scarcely noticing the headaches and blurred vision.” He added, “Among the people I enjoy fishing with most are a few tremendously gifted anglers and others who are gloriously inept…I know that I enjoy the company of both equally.”

But he also enjoyed the pleasures of solitary angling, and on October 14, 1983, he drowned while fishing alone on the Big Horn River in Montana. “Ken was an excellent wader, but there’s a very slippery mossy bottom there,” says Gartside. “He probably made a long cast, slipped, and was carried across the river by the strong current into a powerful eddy that spun him around.” Miyata never let go of his rod, which ended up lashed to his body with fishing line that encircled him innumerable times. Says Gartside, “He was almost mummified.”

In Silver Creek, Idaho, the Nature Conservancy placed a plaque in Miyata’s honor, and Wu has been working to set up a scholarship in his name at Harvard. Shortly after his death, friends and family scattered his ashes on Henry’s Fork, perhaps his favorite stream, in honor of the man who was himself a superb example of what he called “the naturalist that resides inside every angler.”