You Call Yourself an Angler?

Stephen Sautner  /  7 Min Read  /  Fly Fishing

Conservation, fishing and the 2020 election.

Jean-Paul De La O fights the power while fighting a fish on a small stream close to the proposed Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska. Photo: Jay Beyer

In 2001, I covered a story for The New York Times about a controversial proposal to build a Home Depot along the banks of the Letort Spring Run, a limestone spring creek in South Central Pennsylvania. Thirty years earlier, fly fishing pioneers Vince Marinaro, Charles Fox and Ernie Schwiebert canonized the Letort, gushing about its super-selective (and large) brown trout and the extreme techniques they developed to catch them. They tied impossibly small dry flies imitating tiny leafhoppers and other terrestrial insects. They made ultralong casts on the finest leaders to counter the creek’s deceptively complex flow. It was the K2 of fly fishing, a place you went to be humbled and awed.

To research the story, I visited the creek with two members of a local fishing club who were concerned about the proposed development. They showed me the field where the big-box store would sit if approved. Fewer than a hundred yards away, beyond a serpentine treeline of sycamores and poplars, the Letort quietly purled through green beds of watercress. Beneath the surface, big browns presumably browsed away on cress bugs and freshwater shrimp, happy as heifers. Developing this storied place seemed like a really bad idea.

After the tour, I went to lunch at a local diner with one of the club members. A TV was on in the background showing a news story about the looming possibility of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—America’s most pristine wilderness. At the time, the George W. Bush administration was renewing efforts to open the refuge’s wildlife-rich (and possibly oil-rich) coastal plain. We both watched for a while. I shook my head and mentioned how this, too, seemed unwise.

You Call Yourself an Angler?

Looking north up the Chandalar River to the Brooks Range near the village of Vashrąįį K’ǫǫ (Arctic Village), Alaska, which sits just outside the southern border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Trump administration plans to open this fragile coastal habitat to oil and gas drilling. Photo: Keri Oberly

The club member sipped his coffee, then said matter-of-factly, “Oh, I think we should drill there. We need the oil.”

My jaw fell into my soup.

I was so gobsmacked, I didn’t know what to say. How could a fellow fisherman think like that? I sputtered something about how I thought certain places should be off-limits no matter how much money one stands to make. Then we quickly changed the subject.

I wanted to say, “You call yourself an angler?”

For more than four decades, fishing has been the prism through which I view the world. It is the portal that allows me to enter wild nature, not as an outside observer, but as an active participant. It has led me to sacred places: glacier-fed Alaskan rivers, where conveyor belts of salmon mainline nutrients from the deep ocean into temperate rainforests; boulder-studded New England shorelines with striped bass as long as my leg herding baitfish into the curls of breakers; lonely Catskill streams where orgies of mayflies dance and wild trout rise up to meet them.

These places are temples, and I fish them with reverence. The covenant is conservation; by casting here, you become a steward. And this means protecting not just the fish, but also the complicated and often messy web that binds them to their waters. Therefore, if you fish for wild trout, you must also advocate for forests that keep streams shaded and free of silt. If you fish for stripers, you fight for the freshwater rivers where they spawn and the salt marshes where their young develop. If you chase wild salmon or steelhead, you are inherently anti-dam. I proudly accepted this credo. Naively, I thought that most of my fellow anglers felt the same way.

Yet, increasingly, I find myself at odds with those who fish. I don’t mean the slobs who leave their worm containers behind. Or even the poachers who keep undersized fish or take something out of season. There will always be pigs and lawbreakers on the periphery of this sport. I am talking about my fellow anglers—people whose fishing is their passion, whether they skate dries through a steelhead run, throw big wooden plugs into a tide rip or troll offshore. I have seen their bumper stickers and read their posts on message boards and social media. Make America What Again? I’m dumbfounded, disappointed and angered all at the same time.

How can my fellow anglers support—even cheer—this administration and the wrecking ball it has taken to the rules that protect the same areas we fish? If you need a reminder, this is the same administration rolling back more than 100 environmental laws. They pulled out of the Paris climate accord. They slashed the borders to Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument so they could open it for mining. They kneecapped regulations that protect half the nation’s wetlands. They want to unlock even more public lands for drilling and fracking. They are working to gut the Endangered Species Act—the landmark law that saved the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon. This administration has never met a gas or oil pipeline they did not want to suck from. They gave you Scott Pruitt, perhaps the most blatantly unethical EPA administrator in history.

And yes, they even opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling … during an oil glut. Our nation’s wildest place—home to polar bears, gyrfalcons, char and grayling—is on the verge of looking like something you might see along the New Jersey Turnpike.

For wild lands and wild fish, this administration is the Death Star.

And yet I see the red hats at fishing shows. I see the T-shirts. I have read about flotillas of boats—fishing boats—parading around with flags praising the carnage. They call themselves anglers? Do they still perceive the world as an endless bounty of resources for the taking? Do they look fondly at images of grinning, cigar-chomping fishermen wearing fedoras standing behind piles of dead steelhead or salmon? Do they think that if we could only make things great again, those fish will magically return?

Just what are they thinking?

Last year, I read an essay by writer and fishing guide Callan Wink called “Fish Pimping,” about the ethical dilemma of taking money from clients with whom the guides vehemently disagree on environmental issues. In Wink’s case, it was two wealthy Texas oilmen, one of whom openly condemned an unnamed outdoor gear company (Patagonia) for its pledge to give one percent of its profits to, as the oilman put it, “radical environmental groups” (these have included such “fringe” organizations as the Federation of Fly Fishers and Wild Salmon Center). Eventually, Wink couldn’t take it anymore and made a comment about climate change. One of the sports immediately flew into a tirade about hoaxes brought on by bunny-hugging greenies. Before things got too heated, Wink smartly changed the subject to a more pleasant topic, namely his sport’s private jet.

The posted comments to the story are telling. While most sympathize, others call Wink a “whiner” and a “joke … selling fish for money.” One poster tells him to try towing his boat to the river with horses. And therein lies the problem; fellow anglers, all of whom presumably love their sport, but who have wildly divergent views of conservation and stewardship. One believes that climate change is real and that environmental laws are beneficial; the other believes … Well, I’m not sure what the other believes. But I do know which side I am on.

Unless you have been living on Tatooine staring at its multiple sunsets, you probably know there is an election coming up very soon—probably not soon enough for many of you. Though I would like to think that some anglers currently on the side of the Empire can be reached, I remain skeptical. I base this on the past several years’ worth of circular arguments I have read on message boards, news websites and social media.

For the rest of us, you know what to do. I don’t mean just cast your vote and then go back to casting your fly rod. We need a dedicated and diverse movement of all anglers—fly fishers, surf casters, bait slingers, trollers, jiggers, steelheaders, carpers, bassers, panfishers—to offset those who have gone to the dark side. We need to run up the score. We need to repudiate the notion that eliminating laws designed to protect our public lands, waterways and wild fisheries will somehow make us great again. Because it won’t. This means volunteering, phone banking, knocking on doors, sending out postcards and donating time and money. This means putting down your tackle, at least for a little while.

If you need a reminder of what’s at stake, know that the Home Depot was approved and now sits alongside a Chili’s and a Cracker Barrel hard by the banks of the once-quiet Letort. I have not returned since my visit 19 years ago, but it’s a safe bet that fishing there is not what it was, and that the ghosts of Marinaro, Fox and Schweibert are screaming from their graves.

And so, young Luke, your X-wing fighter awaits. Your proton torpedo is armed. Red Leader is standing by, and may the Force be with you. Because the Death Star is still out there, and it’s time to blow its ass up.

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