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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N