Should Anglers Re-invent Themselves?

From the Sept. 2005 Fly Fishermen. Posted with permission of author Should Anglers Re-invent Themselves? Paul Schullery We sportsmen used to have things pretty good. For much of the past century we could generally count on getting our way in fish and game management decisions. After all, our taxes and license fees paid the bills. It was also generally true (though perhaps not quite so true as we like to think) that we deserved credit for ensuring the survival of many animals and habitats that would have been wiped out and wrecked long ago without us. We have the right to feel good about those achievements, and to expect the respect of the public. If you're a hunter, you know those days are over, or nearly so, in many parts of the country. It is deeply unfair, if not downright mean-spirited, that after all the things that sportsmen did to keep wildlife thriving, our contributions to conservation are now simply disregarded or, even worse, dismissed as having been done ³for the wrong reasons.² Fishermen have been watching what the hunters are going through, and many of us have wondered when our turn would come. If you've been paying attention to the news lately, you know that our turn is right now. The most superficially comforting way to view all this trouble is to consider it just a fight between the sportsmen and the anti-sportsmen‹that is, between the sportsmen and the people who think that what we do is wrong or immoral. It's our activists against their activists‹See you in court. Also, when this is viewed as a simple us-versus-them fight, it's easiest to trivialize our critics. We can call them silly names, and respond to their rage and pain with taunting and condescension‹Get a life, eat a burger! The Real Challenge We each get to decide how we're going to handle all that hostility, and the hostility we feel in return. But at this point the hard-core anti-fishing crowd aren't the people we should be worrying most about anyway. The ones we should be paying the most attention to are the large majority of people who don't have strong feelings about what we do‹yet. These people are important because they represent the real force behind the changes that outdoor sports are experiencing. Those changes‹especially the alarming declines in the numbers of sportsmen and the increased skepticism with which society views us‹aren't so much the result of agitation by the ³anti's² as they are the side-effects of profound changes in American society. America has experienced a remarkably broad shift toward supporting the conservation of ecosystems since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Notice that I said the conservation of ecosystems, rather than the conservation of some favored species of fish and wildlife or their habitats. Conservation, as a public idea and as a mission of our state and federal management agencies, has been and still is being broadly redefined. It's about whole wild communities now‹the good, the bad, and the ugly‹to an extent that half a century ago was only imagined by a few people, such as the visionary sportsman-conservationist Aldo Leopold. The fly fisher's interest in wild trout has often fit well into this popular trend in conservation. For generations our literature has been eloquent about the value of protecting the whole aquatic setting rather than just the fish. But in many other ways we sportsmen aren't even on the team any more. The sad truth is that though American conservation began in good part as a movement among forward-looking sportsmen, we are now an increasingly marginalized minority in a much larger movement. Most of us have encountered this disregard personally. In our urbanized and suburbanized society, many people already see us as‹to borrow a phrase from another great American sportsman, Theodore Roosevelt‹a ³lunatic fringe.² Shooting Myself in Your Foot The world of natural resource conservation is divisive and messy. Common cause is hard to maintain among groups with such diverse interests. If you've watched the efforts made by representatives of various sides to get together, you know that the relationship between the traditional fish and game conservation movement and the modern environmental movement is uncomfortable, at best. The spread of opinions and motivations among these people is vast. Sometimes we seem to loathe each other more than we despise the people and forces that are ruining the natural world we all care for. In such a heated atmosphere, outdoor journalist Rich Landers' famous statement that a ³sportsman who is not an environmentalist is a fool,² probably manages to offend the sportsmen, the environmentalists, and the fools. Instead, it should make them all think. (Personally, I'm tempted to respond to Landers' sentiment with one of my own‹³an environmentalist who isn't a sportsman is really missing out.²) We sportsmen still like to imagine ourselves as cutting-edge conservationists, but the world is not impressed. Many of us still seem to regard the population bomb, climate change, and the global biodiversity crisis as issues we can take or leave‹believe or ignore‹with no effect on our personal futures. It's almost as if we think we're immune to the world's ills, or, even worse, as if we're simply determined to have as good a time as possible before things completely go to hell. And it does look pretty hopeless sometimes. We are caught in the prop wash of global crises that threaten to change our world in ways that no amount of local stream-conservation activism can resist. And like most people, we get sick of hearing about it. But we've faced big crises before, and the American sportsmen who led us through those earlier crises were neither grouches nor doom-and-gloomers. If you look at the writings and biographies of such enormously influential sportsmen as Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, Aldo Leopold, Lee Wulff, and Roderick Haig-Brown, you will find that though they all made enduring contributions to conservation, they managed to do it without taking the joy out of being fishermen and hunters. Caring about the land was simply part of the definition of sport for them, part of a full outdoor life, and part of their duty as good citizens. The many people who are working to comprehend, mitigate, moderate, or even solve the bigger problems of today are practicing conservation on a scale our sportsmen-ancestors never dreamed of. For the sake of all the things we love about the outdoors, and for the sake of the future we hope to have as sportsmen in a rapidly changing world, we should be a key part of that important work. But how do we get there? Starting Over? In his fascinating book Hunting and the American Imagination (Smithonsian Institution Press, 2001) historian Daniel Herman describes how, between about 1850 and 1900, American sportsmen reinvented themselves. The game-hog/fish-hog ³culture² that prevailed in 1850, when hunters and fishermen were perceived as lazy ne'er-do-wells, faded into the background. By 1900, under the leadership of people like Roosevelt and Grinnell, and backed by hundreds of newly created sportsmen's groups, American hunters and fishermen adopted a rational, forward-looking code of behavior, and were widely respected not only as conservationists but as good citizens. Sportsmen literally made themselves over, and by doing so not only changed the public's feelings about sport, but brought the wildlife back. Maybe in order to reverse our current slide into cultural oblivion, we can find a way to do that again. Are we willing to undergo the kind of revolution in practices and values that it would take to regain our former standing? Is it even possible? Considering how fragmented and specialized American sportsmen have become, with each group isolated in their own little subculture with their own political agenda, it would be hard to overcome our inertia. And some would say it's already too late to try. But I suspect that many people in 1850 didn't think we'd change, either. It's not like changing our ways is a new idea. We sportsmen revise ourselves all the time. The remarkably swift rise of catch-and-release is just one example of how anglers (trout, bass, and many others) reshape their sport in response to changing times. But it would take something considerably more ambitious than just a few fishing-regulations changes to affect our public image. And it can't be done with cosmetics. We'd have to become something new. So the next question is this. If we are willing to change, what exactly do we hope to become, and what will we lose? In other words, how can we become more a part of the new conservation without trading away the passion and soul of what matters to us about our sport? No one person can answer a question like that for all of us. Unanimity is neither possible nor necessary. But given sport's incredible historical flexibility, I'd say that we have a lot of options to consider. I'd also say that by changing ourselves we might inspire some of the non-sportsmen groups to do a little self-evaluation too. Let them be on the defensive for once. But there's another question, and maybe it's the most important of all. What do we have to look forward to if we don't change? More and more of us agree that the way we're going now, we're on our way out. It's not going to happen fast. We going to fight it, and there are going to be lots of places to hunt and fish for a long time yet, though perhaps not as long as we might think. But is that really good enough? I'd rather be part of a sporting culture that is a vital, growing force for the good of society, than sit around moping over my sad place in a dying tradition. We fly fishers are only a tiny part of the population of American sportsmen, but considering our exceptional ability to mobilize ourselves‹and our strong connections to social and political power‹I'd say we're well positioned to take a leadership role in such a revolutionary change in American sport. Based on our amazing capacity to adapt, and our equally amazing capacity for hard work, we could help this happen. Hope People engage nature, and find enrichment from it, in many different ways. In my darker moments, it is very hard to picture all of us ever getting together. Our self-inflicted stereotypes‹the wine-sipping fly fishers, the gun nuts, the fern feelers, the bassin' guys and gals, the tweedy uplanders, the bird watchers, the gravity warriors, the bunny huggers, the granola crunchers, and all the rest‹are so vivid sometimes that it's hard to imagine the actual people behind them ever getting together. I've personally taken enough abuse from some of my fellow ³conservationists² and ³environmentalists² that I'd be hard pressed to trust or respect them enough to work together. So be it; some of us may be too scarred up, too old, or just too set in our ways to work together. But imagine if we could. Imagine the 3,000-pound gorilla we could become. Imagining that makes it worth putting up with a lot to get there. And if you can't imagine it, imagine this. Imagine the people who are smugly delighted that we can't work together to protect what they would destroy. I tend to think of Theodore Roosevelt at times like this, because I'm a scholar of his outdoor career and an admirer of his energetic, practical approach to things. I'm almost certain I know what Theodore Roosevelt would do today if he could see all of us snarling at each other over our ideological fences. He would do what he used to do. He would convene a great International Conservation Congress in Washington, D.C. He'd get all of us in one big room and give us a good lecture on the meaning of citizenship. Then he'd send us off to make a list of the things we love, and the things we agree on. And he'd tell us that's where we should start.