What Can You Do for TU? How Trout Unlimited Can Save Your Soul

by | Feb 21, 2017 | 17 comments

There’s an army of altruistic do-gooders out there, largely unseen and unnoticed. Engineers, operators, volunteers, planners, clerks and office hats are making the rivers better while you’re not looking. They’re preserving, protecting and enhancing the streams you love.  Maybe that’s something you’ve never thought about. Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve taken all of this for granted since the time you picked up a fishing rod.

Last year, Trout Unlimited reconnected over 570 miles of spawning and rearing habitat for fish. They protected nearly 1,400 stream miles across the US (and 7.8 million acres of land). They also restored over 140 miles of river.

That’s just the stats for Trout Unlimited. There’s also a large and growing network of organizations focused on waterway conservation, and many of them complete their own impressive list of projects every year, sometimes in alliance with Trout Unlimited.

Somewhere in the thick heat of a Pennsylvania summer, this July, you’ll find a retired man with arthritic, muddy hands straining to push a log into place at the head of a deflector. He’ll be tired after lunch, but dedicated and ambitious.

Fifteen-hundred miles away in Colorado, you’ll find a high school senior kneeling in new straw and budding grass, planting the final tree of a bank stabilization project. With the energy and optimism of youth, she’ll be an eager and earnest volunteer.

My guess is that you fall somewhere in between the two extremes and abilities of the old man and the high school student. Me too.

I also figure that you like to do a little trout fishing now and then. Me too.

Photo by Austin Dando

My friend, Phil

Phil Thomas is Habitat Project Coordinator for National Trout Unlimited in Pennsylvania. He recently bought the house a few doors down from mine. I spotted him at the neighborhood picnic last summer, and I guess my opening salvo with anyone who looks as outdoorsy as Phil is, “Do any fishing?”

“Sure,” said Phil. “I work for Trout Unlimited.”


Every time I’ve tried to engage Phil in discussions about trout fishing, he turns the topic into how to save trout and protect the rivers. That’s a different passion than what I’m used to. I’ve met other guys like this in the last couple years as well, like Bill Anderson of the Little Juniata River Association, and Chase Howard, the President of Seneca Valley Trout Unlimited. Their enthusiasm for saving our rivers is dazzling.

Phil Thomas

A few weeks ago I climbed into Phil’s pickup truck just after dawn, with a mug of coffee and a sleepy head. Our destination was the Kettle Creek watershed in Potter County, PA. We drove north on snowy roads, and Phil started talking about conservation again. Instead of tactics, flies, leaders, and big fish, he told me about trout habitat and stream impairment. As the roads in Potter County narrowed and the trees got closer, he pointed out culverts in the dirt and gravel.

The design and installation of this culvert opened up many miles of habitat to trout. The previous small pipe was an obstruction to fish passage at low flows.

We spent the day hiking along the banks of small streams, and Phil showed me much of the work he and his crew have done.

Phil does projects that directly impact the number and size of fish you catch. Come to think of it, I think all Trout Unlimited projects are that way. Phil specializes in designing and building in-stream structures. Many projects are ones you’re probably familiar with, like log deflectors and rock vanes. Some of these have been in your favorite water for decades, just making trout lives better.

Phil also builds structures that you can wade right past and completely miss. A fallen log here and a root wad there — what you don’t see is the rebar tying the log into the ground or the years of education and experience that went into the decision to place the root wad on an angle. Many of these structures are invisible — but not to the trout. They blend in so seamlessly that Phil had to point out many of the structures we walked past. The trout don’t miss them.

This gorgeous run has at least five different structures that are invisible to the uneducated eye.

I spent years fishing the Kettle Creek watershed when I was younger. With my Border Collie (Dylan), with my uncle and my Dad I explored the Potter County wilderness extensively. I loved every moment of it. Trout Unlimited affected the quality of those trips, and so did all the other conservation organizations from the area. Every completed stream improvement project provides more opportunities for quality fishing. I built memories and formed family bonds around those fishing memories that will last a lifetime. And someday soon I’ll take my two young sons to fish the same area.

After spending the day with Phil, I returned and fished my local waters. In-stream structures are everywhere. I can’t stop noticing them on waters I fish every week. And if it’s not a log deflector in the stream, then it’s a culvert project on the rails-to-trails that leads me to the river.

So I’ve been thinking. What have I done to give back? Or have I only taken? Honest answer? I’ve only taken. I just fish.

What have you done?

A word to Trout Unlimited leaders …

If you’re a member or leader of a TU chapter, I have a message for you: you’re turning a lot of people away. Time and again I’ve heard the same retort from friends of mine — that new members felt undervalued, that they felt like an outsider. Fifteen years ago, that was my own experience as a TU member. At my local chapter meetings I felt like a stranger — because I was. I felt like the odd one — because I was. There were no other twenty-somethings in the crowd.

The tendency to group together and build inadvertent walls (in any organization) is a problem. If you want more participation and more involvement, that should change. It will take extra care and attention paid to new members. Anyone who shows an interest should be given a job — a way to feel useful. People who join TU have a certain drive in them. They want to help. They want to contribute. Don’t miss the chance to convert an eager volunteer into a lifelong conservationist.

Photo by Austin Dando

And a last word to anglers …

There’s an army of people out there working together to save and restore trout streams. They stand against pollution and impairment, and they improve the quality of water. They stop bank erosion from cutting away acres of property, and that helps keep private lands open to the public.

There are more people taking care of our rivers than I ever imagined. Until recently, I thought only about the fishing. I want healthy wild trout in the water. Same as you.

I think it’s my turn to start giving back.

The tribal attitude of politics these days often hinders a reasonable dialogue toward progress. As a result, many of us feel helpless to do anything or to have a direct impact on the issues we care about.

But, I’ll tell you something — that is not the case with your trout streams. You can make a difference. You can directly change the health of the rivers you fish, and you can have immediate impact by finding an organization and volunteering. Join Trout Unlimited. Do more, and you will see tangible results.

You’ll feel good inside.

There’s a TU army out there. What can you do to help?

Photo by Austin Dando


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. Excellent article, Domenick. I was once heavily involved in TU and I got burned out because, although people joined TU, they didn’t want too much responsibility taking up their time, which is their business. What I objected to was the handful of people who had decisions made before the public meetings were held. I loaded and unloaded tons of rock and pounded rebar for many deflectors–it’s all good, and we need young people to take the mantle and run. I became a lifetime member of another environmental group and I suggest we all stay involved because we have much to lose. You’re right, I need to join TU again, and maintain the environment and our streams. Any little bit of donated labor is a good donation.

  2. I’ll bet this article won’t get as many comments as stuff about indicators or split shot placement. I’m guilty of such an attitude myself, obsessing about technique and neglecting the larger picture. Thanks for reminding me of what’s truly important when it comes to trout fishing.

    • Ha! Good point, Alex. And I can’t blame people for being more interested in catching fish that protecting fish. I’ve been the same way my whole life.

  3. Nice article. I joined TU a year ago. Haven’t donated any time or labor yet but I feel it is a good cause for my money. Love fishing in Potter County–Gods country.

  4. Dominick…I just received your article from a TU friend and fellow chapter board member. Your observations are spot on, especially when it comes to making new TU members feel welcomed. As a new President of a TU chapter my mission one is to offer everyone a place in the chapter — whether it’s conservation related or fishing related. Motivating my board is key to this success and I feel confident in their commitment to inclusiveness. Thanks for reminding us that conserve, protect and restore also applies to people, not only our environment.

  5. Domenick – kudos not only for the well-presented case, but also for statistics on improvements and progress. The truth is that our waterways are in infinitely better shape than they were a century ago when mining, logging, and a host of other land uses degraded them in ways that couldn’t be comprehended at the time. Conservation, responsible development, reclamation, and restoration are truly success stories all across the nation, thanks largely to the “army of altruistic do-gooders” and the science behind them. And like you pointed out, the progress roles on, often unrecognized – or overshadowed by tales of [often inflated] gloom.

    • Right on, Bryan. I do think we have to be very careful not to get complacent and slip backward. Progress in fixing the effects of mining, logging, other land uses and now fracking has to keep moving forward or we’ll find ourselves in the same state we were a couple decades ago, or worse.

      Sidenote: How’s the night fishing been, buddy?

      • I haven’t been out at night in quite a while. Hunting season cut into my time considerably and then winter set in hard with sub-zero and single digit nights till about a week ago. We just had our first big melt that exposed the grass for the first time since November. Itching to start up again, although the bite really wasn’t in full gear till May last year. At least on top….

  6. Such a great article. Thanks.

  7. Trout Unlimited saved my soul 20+ years ago and I can tell you that as a active volunteer in the local chapter of Trout Unlimited we are saving veterans life’s and some souls with our local VSP (Veteran Service Partnership) program. We have a group of regulars 5-6 veterans that wouldn’t miss the bi-weekly program for anything. They love it. Oh not just to mention veterans but we have some really neat localized habitat projects!

  8. I am a TU member .what do I want ? I wish TU would print more and announce more the threat the current presidential administration is to SO MANY of the waters and land that TU strives to protect. Call it like it is before it’s to late. 8 years of damage will take 20 years to repair (Maybe ). TU needs to Act responsible now by getting the message across. I have no party affiliation and I am an independent who sees the forest thru the trees.

  9. Not much of a “group joiner” here (TU member but not active participant) but your article and the resulting comments will have me reaching out to the local TU chapter(s) to see what’s happening and how I might contribute. Thanks.

  10. Dom,

    Thanks for reprinting this. I must have started receiving your excellent blog shortly after you published this the first time since I don’t recall reading it. As a long time member of the Valley Forge Chapter TU (close to 40 years)
    and current board member I can honestly say that I always felt welcome to participate in any way, including joining the board. Despite that, we are having a problem getting members to participate in the myriad activities that we offer and would welcome some younger members to be on our board.

    To help brain storm new ideas to get more people involved, especially younger members, I’ve initiated a board retreat to be held in September in Boiling Springs at the Allenberry Resort. We are looking for some outside speakers to help with leading the discussions on various topics and I think that Phil Thomas would be able to give us some insight on doing stream habitat improvement projects. Do you know if he is still in the area and working for T.U.?

    Keep up the great work you are doing with the Troutbitten blog. Have you taken your own advice over the past 3 years since this article was first published and become active in your local TU chapter? If so, thank you. If not, what are you waiting for?

    Tight lines,


  11. I just linked your article to our local TU chapters Facebook page. We have 1146 individuals following our Facebook and we have 346 TU members in our chapter. That is 803, 2.3x the number of trout anglers than we have as members. Hopefully your article will shake a few flies out of the trees.


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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