Why my friend Bob Won't Do Kiss-and-Tell Articles
His letter to the editor of a well-known Fly Fishing magazine (happily not mine):
Last spring you contacted me about the possibility of me submitting several destination articles to your fly fishing magazine, about some of the Olympic Peninsula rivers. Though we had not clearly defined the rivers to be featured you had suggested the Queets and Quinault rivers as possibilities. There was a time when I would have felt very flattered to get such an editorial invitation, especially coming from a publication as prestigious as yours, one which I have long appreciated for its artistic accomplishments. And ordinarily I would appreciate the notoriety of being published with your magazine. And surely it would help my own guiding work too. But honestly, from the very beginning, I have felt serious misgivings about selling out these rivers and streams, and wild fish, with destination articles, inviting numbers of people to come fish here, promoting the fisheries even more etc. I think that all of this has already gone too far. Especially when writing about these Olympic Peninsula rivers.
I could certainly write some good words about the beauty of our watersheds, the unique features of topography, geology, indigenous wildlife and forests, the temperate rainforest, and of course- the beautiful last wild fish. I would say something about the good old days, the historic abundance of steelhead, salmon, cutthroat, char etc. I might interject some personality into comments on the tradition of fly fishing here, mentioning some of the long gone fly fishermen, their flies, favorite seasons, memorable catches, the runs of fish etc. And I could write about the fishing today here, some of the seasonal cycles of it all, the tackle and techniques, flies and presentations etc. I might even mention a few fly shops and guides, lodging, travel notes etc. And all of that would be entertaining and true. But how will it impact our fish here to do this kind of writing today? Honestly, I dread the unintended negative consequences that these promotional articles are having on the last of our wild fish here now. Perhaps if I also wrote about the time that all of my gear was stolen, or how I have been shot at, threatened with knives, harassed, or how my truck was repeatedly vandalized, or about the hundreds of times that my guests have been low-holed by some jackass in a drift boat, maybe that could moderate the outcome.
In the 13 years that I have lived here I have watched angling pressure increase on all of our waters as other Washington rivers have been closed, most notably the Puget Sound rivers being closed under the Endangered Species Act, to protect the remnant populations of wild winter steelhead. With each seasonal limitation or closure that was imposed elsewhere, the displaced anglers and guides have come here to have a go at the last wild fish. And many of those anglers are still harvesting wild steelhead here, legally and illegally. And there are numerous cases of our wild fish repeatedly failing the annual spawning escapement goals that our fisheries managers have set for them. And yet the harvest continues in the rivers here, supported by these same fisheries managers, by sports fishing and tribal netting.
And the numbers just keep getting worse. Last winter I counted almost 60 drift boats on the Hoh River in one day, and an additional few hundred people were wade fishing. As far up and down the river as one would like to have looked there were people fishing. I was surprised to see that most of them were fly fishermen, especially upriver where the wading access is generally more approachable. Every parking spot, campsite, pull-off and wide spot in the Upper Hoh road was occupied by vehicles, campers, trailers etc. It was almost a carnival atmosphere, a real “happening” on the river. Drift boats would come by with two to four people aboard, all rods out, and even the fly rods were working floats and weights, jigs etc., on the drift, all of the way down the river. Many of these boat fishermen and guides too are not avoiding the fish that are holding on the spawning redds, even when those redds are clearly flagged. Anything for a hook-up. Anything for a buck. The “fly fishing” methods too have become much more aggressive, and it is not unusual at all today to see a person fishing with a spey rod, rigged with a big floating indicator / bobber, a deep weighted fly or jig, and even a “slinky weight”, bumping it along in a conventional drift fishing style. On runs that I had rarely ever seen another angler in entire days of fishing, season after season, I was finding trash, campfires, and sneering contempt coming from brash young men whom I had never seen there before. As one industry friend has coined it, of the generation we see here today: “The new fly fisherman is not very nice”.
The rude behavior and bad attitudes that I see displayed on the rivers here are truly sad. Conflicts between guides and anglers are increasing. It was a pivotal reason in my choice to remain a walking and wading guide here, as doing so afforded me an opportunity to avoid some of the worst of this, and often get well ahead of the boats for most of the day. But now that the boats are launching in the pre-dawn pitch darkness, and now that there are three to four times as many people fishing here, avoiding the crassness of the entitled fleet has become all but impossible sometimes. The intensity of this fishing from the boats has left little refuge for the wild steelhead as well.
And it is not just the wild winter steelhead season that is going this way out here now. A new cadre of shiny young guides has arrived to claim the beaches as well. And the fly shops are leading group outings for beach fishing instruction on some of the more popular of these beaches. The problem is that they are encouraging six to eight different groups of people at a time, on a regular basis, to come back to these same beaches to fish. And many of them do so. For those of us here who have fished these places for any length of time we already knew we could overdo it, that we could spoil it, for the fish and for ourselves. And we had already regulated our own actions to accommodate the fish, and the fishing. Now we have seen a big change in the quality of our fishing here as a result of this added pressure. It seems that the sea run Coastal Cutthroat has become the new darling of the fly fishing obsessed. And even though these wild fish are protected from harvest by law in our salt waters, there are plenty of people still deliberately killing them on the beaches all over Puget Sound country. And they are still targeted for harvest in our streams, legally, and successfully. Poaching of these fish is rampant.
As a fly fishing guide and as a writer myself it is getting harder to support the big business approach to angling here. And it seems to me that there are some in the fly fishing “industry cult” who would be glad to sell every man woman and child on earth a fly rod, and all of the extras, and have them catch every last living fish out here, with no sense of concern for the ultimate impacts upon our fisheries. The truth is that the wild fish do not owe us a living wage. And there is no legitimate reason to assume that our fisheries resources can sustain this industry. I do fault our state fisheries managers in all of this as well as I feel that they have failed very badly indeed. It is entirely possible that we may have already lost much more than we know. With Washington’s “all or nothing’ approach to wild fisheries management, we just may well end up with nothing after all.
In my own angling life I have come to fish much less out here, and enjoy it more. Some of this is the likely natural progression for us fly fishermen, that eventually many of us come to this kind of appreciation. But certainly the realities of our declining fisheries here, and my willingness to face these hard facts, have forced me to reevaluate my own impacts. Today I would just as happily volunteer for a day of salmon stream restoration work as I would to go off for a day of fishing. My life on the water has not lost its charm, nor has the poetry of light and air, the magic sound of a singing reel, or the joyous yank of a bright fish escaped me. I cherish every breath of this outdoors life. And I am not so sure that the publishing goals of your destination essays and my conservation concerns here are mutually exclusive. But I just don’t know yet how to write about them on the same page. I can’t imagine that any of this means a hill of beans to you. I am sure that you have bigger fish to fry with running a magazine, handling writers, printers, subscribers and advertisers etc. And as a writer myself this probably won’t do me much good either. I am remembering the lines from the great angler author Thomas McGuane who- when asked what he thought of fly fishing guides and the modern fishing pressure scene on his own Montana rivers- replied: “A fly fisherman ought to have an honest job”. Maybe we writers and editors could take a lesson from that too.
Sincerely, Bob Triggs / Little Stone Flyfisher