Sleeping with the fishes
by Toner Mitchell
I’m one of those people who wishes for a kind of reincarnation where I get to choose what my next life will be. I’d like to be the most extreme steelhead bum imaginable: a shed in the forest, my pork and beans as cold as my whiskey is warm, the perpetual odor of three kinds of smoke mixed with wader skank, and guiding just enough to pay for it all.
I would begin each day watching the sunrise bleed slowly down the bankside oaks and redwoods, melting fog as it goes while bringing the heat my lower back has waited two predawn hours to feel.
At the end of this career of twenty pounders, I would order up the life of a mob boss. I’d sport a pizza belly, a gorilla hairy back, a polyester wardrobe, and when I walked into a room, every man in it would compete for the meager prize of lighting my cigar. I could deal with the moral double standard if all I had to do was laze around and scheme all day, reap the occasional big score, and spend it on yachts or just lazing around and scheming some more in the respectful company of my best friends and some girls in bikinis.
I’ve done the trout bum thing. I’ve fished every day for months at a stretch, to the point where releasing fish feels as mundane as practicing my jump shot. Do one thing to the exclusion of everything else and the shine rubs off. Plus, steelhead fishing’s cold, and most of the time it’s cold, it’s because I’m wet as well, not to mention skunked, and though I understand that loneliness is one of the most beautiful aspects to swinging flies, does it always have to be so integral to it?
Another thing, I’m of the age where catching my next chromer stands in line with having good health insurance and watching my son grow his teeth back. I’m also of the age where pizza bellies are rarely long for this world, especially if the men who have them smoke cigars.
All this considered, I guess the life I’m currently living is about the best I can do. I am cool with this for the simple reason that I can still have the best parts of steelheading and shylocking without any major trajectory shifts. This year, for example, I’ll spend a week with a friend on the John Day in October. He’s in my somewhat advanced age class, which means we’ll need each other to wake up on time for good fishing. We’ll count all our fish as a team, take some naps, and do some writing. We might drink some bourbon around the fire, or we might turn in early.
And my life as a conservationist already has enough mafia in it to make getting out of bed and going to work a daily adventure that is normally educational and rarely, if ever, boring. No, I do not sneak around on my wife or double cross my friends. I don’t carry a knotted tube sock full of nickels in the event that a project I’m working on might require “negotiating.”
On close examination, mob culture is little more than a brutish form of altruism. It’s a slice for you and a slice for me, and the cosa nostra of conservation should be no different. Ranchers should be able to fatten herds at the same time as streams get enough clean water. Fishing outfitters should have their guides booked every day of the season while being model and willing stewards of the resource. Metapopulations of threatened trout species should live alongside metapopulations of sustainably employed humans – loggers, ski instructors, roughnecks, guides, farmers, small and even large business owners.
That’s my ideal anyway, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have an influence. I’m not a conservationist who wishes to extract cooperation with the threat of concrete Birkenstocks, just one who wants my partners to be confident that they’ll make out better working with me than the other way around.