In southwest Montana earlier this summer, I was driving in to town for dinner with a few friends. We’d fished big water: One stream which was subject to agricultural dewatering was warm and about to be shut down to fishing, and another was a tail water full of an endless school of large brown trout and an equally unending army of anglers chasing them. Both fishing and camaraderie were good. My favorite part of the trip, however, came when a friend and I broke free of our group’s big water teachings and headed into the mountains, where we found a small stream with a rhythm all its own.
Our stream was gin clear water flowing over round cobble of blue, grey, pink, white and black. In between two foot wide shoots the ice cold stream would plunge into thigh deep pools before coming back into shallow riffles. Overhead were towering pines, and we fished in the space protected under their boughs. Our steeple was a pinetop and our pews were fallen timber. I sat down upon such a pew in this cathedral, watched my friend catch his first cutthroat on a tiny dry fly, absorbed the smell of matted dry pine needles, felt a cool breeze rush down the river’s channel, and wished that time would stop.
On the ride in to dinner, one of the group asked me why I was so insistent that catching native fish in their native range was superior to anything else. Aren’t rainbows fun, he queried? We just spent the past day catching browns and had a great time, he pointed out. I tried to argue the point but my words failed me, and soon we were at the restaurant, Hopper pale ales poured, and the moment lost. I’ve thought about the question ever since, however.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:
At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.
I believe the bard is correct. There is something good about being in a place where man is not a pinnacle predator. There is something good about seeing land that has never been forested, never been plowed, and possessed of streams which have never been straightened or had log flotillas run through them. Such places are truly wild in every sense. They are places people visit, but do not live, and they are places that challenge us, and challenge our notions of power and strength. Such places are native, and so are their trout. Such places are rare.
I find myself often defending my love of native trout and their rarified environs. Detractors will note the perceived slight size of native trout, or their perceived lack of intelligence and guile. The proof, however, lies in the fact that they are where they are. Native trout do not luxuriate in dam made cold water; they do not have the luxury of being resupplied with raceway conscripted replacements each year. No: Native trout simply survive, and they do so in the toughest, most wild places on earth, and they have done so for eons. And that is exactly why I enjoy fishing for them above all others and being in the places that they live.
I’m proud that Trout Unlimited strives to protect such places and such trout. I’m equally proud that we embrace all manners of trout fishing, and all manners of trout streams. My friend was right – indeed, every single TU member’s answer to the question of where, when, and why we fish will be different, and all will be correct. The sum total of Trout Unlimited is not how, where, or for what its members fish: Rather, it is how we go about our mission, and why.
There is a certain quality that one must possess in order to truly understand our work. That quality is something which is not ego driven: In fact, it is the converse. Those who comprehend our work are not driven by what personal gain it might bring, not moved by what financial outcome might arrive, or the manner in which it might lift them in the eyes of others. No, those who grasp our work understand that it is not about ourselves but is rather about others, about all others, and about future others.
The chords of what we do here are timeless. They ring through generations. And though we might pass and fade, the water we protect endures. Our time spent traveling through this magnificent place is short, surrounded by eternities. And though we might be gone when we pass, our effort and our work remain, and they echo like a drum across the valley floor.