“Unless we change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”- Ancient Chinese Proverb
I’ve been noticing something for the last few years. Sportsmen lose. We lose a lot. Little battles, big battles, skirmishes ... it matters not. At our best - think Pebble Mine - we fight a holding action, giving ground grudgingly, making the other side pay dearly for their gains. At our worst - and our worst is far too common - we smile, vacuous and polite, while the world around us is diminished before our eyes.
We seem, at least from where I sit, as if we don’t care all that much - as if it’s only natural that the trout streams we fish will eventually run warm and brown, that our woodlots will give way before the rising tide of suburban development, that our wilderness areas, once pristine and untouched, will fall before the onslaught of roads and pipelines and well-heads, that our oh-so-vital wetlands will be drained and filled, that our farms will leach pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers into the gaping maw of oceanic dead zones, that we’ll pull apart our mountains for their coal and cast their broken bones down into the hollows of Appalachia as if our landscapes are mere detritus to be sorted through and discarded.
“Progress,” we call it. Progress, where we trade our outdoor heritage and our sporting traditions for the illusory benefits of comfort and convenience. Faust, were he here today, would surely look around and laugh, for his namesake bargain is the rule rather than the exception. It’s a devil’s pact, pure and simple - selling our souls, trading our kids’ future, worshipping at the altar of endless growth, turning our backs on Leopold and Pinchot and Roosevelt, and on the hard-earned wisdom of our fathers and grandfathers, ignoring the myriad lessons of American history while we embrace the soul-sucking siren song of modernity - all, I might add, so we can fill the shrieking emptiness inside with “more” and “bigger” and “faster” and “better.”
Let’s face it. We’re junkies, snorting conspicuous consumption and mainlining Madison Avenue, and it has to stop. It has to, if we’re going to hold on to the things that really matter.
When you think about it, none of this is complicated. If we want to save our tarpon, we need to get off our asses and fight. The same applies for our trout, and our salmon, and our bonefish, and our smallmouth bass. Nobody else gives a shit whether we’ll still have steelhead in 50 years. Nobody else cares if our snowpack melts away and our rivers run low and hot; nobody else gives a damn if ocean acidification renders our favorite saltwater fisheries bare of everything except an endless armada of jellyfish. It’s on us. Here’s a news flash: it’s always been on us.
In case you haven’t already guessed, I have a confession to make; a personal agenda that bears mentioning. But before you decide to fill in the blank space with your favorite boogeyman, you should know that it’s not social or political or religious. My agenda is that I love to fish. I love to throw mega-flies for pike, and I love to swing a long line for steelhead, and I can’t tell you how many thousands of hours I’ve wandered the Henry’s Fork hunting noses, lost in that predatory reverie where everything else fades into the gloaming and life is ground down to the sharpest of points.
Passion. That’s what it’s about. That’s what separates us from everyone else. We love being out on the water. It’s a genetic imperative burned into our soul, it’s a direct, no-detours conduit to nature, it’s a subliminal, primitive urge that leads, slowly, surely, perhaps unfathomably, towards that rarest of moments when, no matter our failings or our personal limitations, we brush up against grace. Fly fishing is, at its heart, about our connection to something far greater and more perfect than modern existence, and we can’t help but feel real passion for an endeavor so wonderfully unadulterated and pure.
Passion, though, has its price. We have to stand up for our fish, and for our waters. If we don’t, then we’re nothing more than parasites boring into nature’s soft underbelly, taking nourishment but giving nothing back; assholes of The Ancient Hybernian Order of Assholes. Is that a little harsh? No, it’s not. If we hope to wade into cold, clear rivers 20 years from now, and if we hope to stalk pristine saltwater flats, then we have to pay the piper. And like it or not, the coin of the realm is action.
I realize that I have no right to ask anything of you. Truly, I have no right. But ask I will, regardless. Stand up. Raise your voice. Protect our fisheries. Fight for our landscapes. Rail against the limitless stupidity of our addiction to fossil fuels, and against climate change, and against ocean acidification, and against an economy that values growth above all else. The truth is that if we don’t get our act together in the very near future, the Pebble Mine, horrific as it is, will be the very least of our worries.
And we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
These days, there is no excuse for not getting involved and fighting for your fish. Here are a few starting points.
Todd Tanner is a long-time angler and outdoor writer and the president of Conservation Hawks.
This article originally appeared in Volume Five, Issue Two of The Fly Fish Journal.