Voices from the river

Voices from the River: I'm not fishing to catch a fish

By Natalie Stauffer-Olsen

I recently enjoyed an intense discussion with a dear friend. I have known this thoughtful fellow since I was a teenager—his passion for science and research, and his encouragement, were influential in my decision to pursue a career in freshwater ecology.

In this particular conversation, I found myself intently listening to his descriptions of powerful moments that have defined him as a man and as a person. For him, these moments center around two main themes: love and family, and fishing and hunting.

Now, for me, the first theme is a no-brainer. I also define myself based on special moments related to love and family: the moment I became a wife, the moment I became an aunt, the moment I said goodbye to my beloved grandmother.

However, his second theme is more alien to me. The only time I fly fished, I was talked into it by a mentor who was instrumental in creating the Golden Trout Wilderness—a place he loved to fish. Although I would have preferred to spend that day in a meadow writing poetry while lounging in the golden summer, I agreed to try my hand at fly fishing.

After catching and releasing a few fish rather uneventfully (in my mind), I lost a golden trout in the tall grasses after it fell off my barbless hook. Ironically, this is the moment that defined my only day of fly fishing.

I looked feverishly for the beautiful creature, but with no luck. I sat down and felt awful at the life lost for so little personal enjoyment. I had pushed out of my comfort zone, but I did not sense the appeal of fishing. I haven’t picked up a rod since.

Listening to my friend discuss the importance of fishing in his life and how it is a spiritual exercise for him made me feel connected to him and our shared endeavors as conservationists, in a deep way. He was so intense and excited recalling the out of body experience and thrill of helping his nephew catch his first steelhead (on the Lower Yuba River).

I know that feeling—I get it when I see a beautiful sunset, or when the full moon shines through the clouds in just the right way, or when the reflection on a stream is perfectly clear in a pool and then perfectly abstracted in an adjacent riffle.

In a time when many of us are bombarded with all sorts of information, much of it negative or about heavy or frightening topics, it can be difficult to find the spark that inspires us to get up and DO something.

For me, that spark is ignited by the river itself.

Just being close to or working in a river, or spotting a fish from afar, inspires me to take shorter showers, or to go to that meeting, or to write that letter, or to make some changes about my lifestyle or diet. Just being there is fulfilling enough for me to go back to the creeks and rivers I love, again and again, always noticing something new and beautiful.

For my friend and for many other anglers, that moment of making the catch, and the process of getting there, provides the inspiration to work on behalf of rivers and the fish that call them home. Regardless of the mechanism, the result is the same: we love fish and rivers and want them to stay healthy so others can witness their magic and beauty.

Diversity is one of the most fundamental and important aspects of life. Genetic diversity keeps populations robust and allows them to persist in the face of an uncertain future, and diversity of thoughts and opinions strengthens communities and movements. I believe the diversity of inspiration that folks draw from rivers, streams, and lakes makes Trout Unlimited’s efforts to protect, reconnect, restore, and sustain trout and salmon habitat particularly effective.

Although fishing is not something that I enjoy, as a staff scientist with TU I work with fisherwomen and fishermen and am continually humbled and inspired by their knowledge and passion. I am proud and honored to work with other folks who are as inspired as I am—whether we are fishing to catch something, or not.

Natalie Stauffer-Olsen is California Staff Scientist for Trout Unlimited. She has a PhD is in Aquatic Ecology from the University of California, Berkeley. All photos courtesy of the author except that of the golden trout.

By Sam Davidson.