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It’s about fish … and people

The Sawtooth Mountains above Stanley, Idaho.

Here in the West—particularly in its more fishy corners—it’s easy to see how trout and fly fishing impact the regional economy.

In places like Livingston, Mont., where a giant trout crafted in rock graces the hill above town, or in Island Park, Idaho, where outfitters and lodges line the Henry’s Fork, it’s easy to grasp the importance trout and fly fishing to the bottom lines of these communities. Of course, it helps that the fishing is great, and it’s clear that “fishing towns” in the West understand the economic value of the resource.

And, if the resource is nurtured appropriately, it can be a long-term, renewable economic driver that will contribute to the economy dependably in perpetuity. For many, fishing is about money.

As an angler, fly fishing is about so much more than the money I spend to pursue trout. I would say that’s true for most of us—it’s a romantic craft that inspires us, energizes us. At times, it’s a pursuit that can be maddeningly frustrating, even while offering up challenges that dare us to keep trying … to get better. Money? Sometimes it doesn’t cross our minds.

In the little community of Stanley, Idaho, fishing—and fly fishing, especially— is one of its most significant economic drivers. Stanley rests just below the majestic Sawtooth Mountains, and it’s the terminus for Idaho’s chinook and sockeye salmon runs, and for the state’s fabled B-run steelhead that migrate up the Salmon River via the Columbia and the Snake.

For several years in a row, I joined a group of friends each spring — and at about 6,500 feet above sea level, “spring” is often a relative term—to chase steelhead that migrated up the Columbia the summer before and passed through the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam on the lower Snake likely sometime in August or September. These fish then spent the winter in the main fork of the Salmon before beginning their final push up into the river’s headwaters for their spring spawn.

The Salmon River flows beneath the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho.
The Salmon River flows beneath the Sawtooths of central Idaho. Photo by Chris Hunt.

And, for a few years (this was probably 10 years or so ago), the fishing was pretty good. Of course, “pretty good” is like “spring” in Stanley. A two-fish day in April, when you have to post-hole to the river in 15-degree weather may not seem great, but for anglers chasing 30-inch migratory rainbows that have traveled to the ocean and back—about 800 miles each way—is pretty damn exceptional.

For the last several years, I haven’t bothered to go to Stanley. And it’s not because I don’t love Stanley—it might be the most under-appreciated “fishing town” in the West. But when a community is known for steelhead fishing, and the steelhead don’t come back … well, that begs the question, “Is it a fishing town when the fish don’t show up?”

For those who equate fishing to economic activity, the question then might become, “Is it a fishing town when nobody shows up to go fishing?”

Helen Neville, Trout Unlimited’s senior scientist, crafted an op-ed recently in the Idaho Statesman that lays out a strong case for the removal of four lower Snake River dams if towns like Stanley are to once again be real “fishing towns.” The precipitous decline in both salmon and steelhead in Idaho coincided with the construction and completion of the four dams on the lower Snake. In the years since, fish returns have fluctuated, ranging from what is now considered to be pretty good, to recent years, where a lot of us steelhead anglers—just like the fish—haven’t made the annual migration to the river.

And, to be clear, “pretty good” is still pretty awful when compared Salmon River steelhead runs before the dams were constructed.

And, no, it’s not all about steelhead and salmon (unless you own a motel on the banks of the river in Stanley and have a bunch of empty rooms and cabins in the spring). In places all around the country, communities are recognizing the value of fish and fishing.

Take Gadsden, Ala., for instance. Yes. Alabama. Almost due west of Atlanta and due south of Nashville, Gadsden isn’t exactly a trout paradise. But, in the winter, stocked trout can live in Black Creek. The city, in a real effort to attract fly fishers and the money they spend on things like hotel rooms, meals, fuel and the like, has stocked more than 1,000 pounds of rainbow trout in Black Creek at Noccalula Falls Park.

Why fishing? Why not? It’s a low-impact “industry.” It doesn’t pollute. It doesn’t have a massive, unsightly footprint. And the money it brings in benefits almost every corner of the community’s economy. Gadsden isn’t so far removed from Stanley, in all honesty. Obviously, the hatchery-reared rainbows that get dumped into Black Creek aren’t terribly similar to Stanley’s fabled steelhead (but steelhead are ocean-going rainbows, don’t forget). And, of course, Gadsden’s fishery is completely contrived. The fish are planted to be caught, because once that mild Alabama winter ends, Black Creek will warm up and the trout won’t be able to survive.

One could argue that Stanley’s own rainbow trout are meant to be caught, too—many, if not most of the steelhead that come back to the top of Idaho are hatchery-reared fish. But, unlike the raceway rainbows of Gadsden, some of the steelhead that come back to the Salmon are wild fish, born and raised in the gravel below the Sawtooths. And, while a hatchery might work for Gadsden’s seasonal fishery, all the hatcheries along the Salmon haven’t been enough to keep the fish from almost winking out.

Gadsden will never have to worry about fish not coming back (unless the hatchery truck fails to show up). In Stanley—and in Salmon and Riggins and Orofino and Kamiah and a host of other communities along the Salmon and Clearwater rivers in Idaho—no fish means no anglers. No anglers means a real blow to the economy.

For us anglers, it’s easy to make it all about the fish. But, as we work to find the solution to restoring Idaho’s salmon and steelhead, with a real critical eye aimed those four lower Snake River dams, we should remember that this issue has economic significance, too.

It’s not all about the fish. It’s about the people, too.

Chris Hunt is the national digital director for TROUT Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls, and caught his first wild steelhead on the Salmon River just a few miles below Stanley.