How you lost me, and how you can get me back.
I attended my first TU meeting when I was about fifteen years old. I was about two years into the sport, and about three years before I took my first guiding gig. I remember thinking that the members were full of wisdom and knowledge, and that by the time I reached their age I might be as well. My participation waned, though, as I moved away for school and started a career. About four years ago, I began attending the meetings again and ended up taking a position on the board of my local chapter. However, as my involvement in the industry increased and my opinions on what I value began to take on a more complete shape, I stepped away. Perhaps this will serve as some sort of explanation.
This is a piece I’ve wanted to write since I took over this blog over a year ago. I’ve been hesitant, however, for a few reasons. Those who know me may view this as some sort of attack on my local chapter and those in charge; it is nothing of the sort. Additionally, it could be said that my experiences are unique and not representative of members of the organization as a whole. One reason for my delay in writing this, however, is that I wanted to speak with members from other locations. I can safely say that my experience and opinions are not nearly as unique as I would hope.
“To conserve, protect, and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.”
I’ll begin by commending TU national for the incredible amount of important and admirable work that they carry out. I’d encourage you to head to the TU Conservation page to get an idea of the extent of their work. My quibbles with the organization at a national level are almost nonexistent.
“By the next generation, Trout Unlimited will ensure that robust populations of native and wild coldwater fish once again thrive within their North American range, so that our children can enjoy healthy fisheries in their home waters.”
My disagreements lie at the chapter-level execution of the ideals espoused by the organization at the national level. I’ll withhold any identifying information regarding my past experiences, but I want to talk about what gets done. To put it quite simply, the most substantial project undertaken each year is the assistance of the state of North Carolina in stocking local delayed harvest streams. Many members will then stick around after the trout wagon takes off and whack fish all afternoon. While the topic of delayed harvest fisheries or the state’s management of our trout waters are topics for another day, you cross the line from conservation organization to fishing club when you take this route. Unless the stocking of hatchery streams serves as some sort of diversionary tactic to keep anglers away from the “robust populations of native and wild coldwater fish,” I’m not seeing the connection.
To be fair, I need to point out other projects such as Trout in the Classroom that expose kids to the environments in which they live and provide them with experiences that make them feel as though they have a stake in the future of their local wilderness. This is good, this is cool, and this is worthwhile.
On to another issue. Hellbenders can serve as an indicator of water quality and stream health, and the presence of young hellbenders in a stream are a particularly encouraging sign. Perhaps the metaphor is a bit of a stretch, but follow along. For the long-term viability of a chapter, the involvement of younger members is key. The involvement of young professionals within the industry seems even more valuable. When a chapter is populated solely by the retired, the targeted engagement of younger members must be a key priority. I think these membership demographics drive the effort-prioritization that leads to a chapter serving as the unpaid stewards of a hatchery fishery.
As for the industry professionals, I’m not speaking as if they stand on some elevated platform. I’m thinking of what must be about a hundred guides in our area that derive a considerable portion of their income from the health and viability of our streams. While apathy on their part may be an explanation, the amount of participation that I witnessed on our recent Get The Tread Out on the Watuaga leads me to believe that when an event of organization provides value in return, they will pitch in. Give this considerable lobby an effort to put their weight behind, and we’ll get things done. Real things.
Also, I know someone will tell me that if these are the changes I want to see, I need to be on the inside driving them. My friends, I care deeply about these issues, but I care more about keeping my job and paying my bills. I believe that the solution must come from within the organization in the form of a substantial rethink of local efforts. Don’t make us fight for change; provide an environment in which our involvement is encouraged and valued.
So where do we go from here? I’ve included a list of suggestions below for how one might take TU at the local level from a fishing club to a conservation organization. Surely this list falls short, and I want to hear your ideas as well.
- Shift efforts away from hatchery fish and toward the protection and restoration of wild and native fish. Maybe you work with governmental organization and adopt a wild trout stream that could use a little help.
- Make a concerted and decisive effort to recruit younger members, and listen to what they have to say. Give them the opportunity to buy in to the organization, and then saddle their young backs with a hard days work on that adopted wild stream every once in a while.
- Reach out to the guides and industry folks in your area and encourage them to participate. Ask them why they don’t come to your meetings, and let them tell you what they value. You might learn something, and you might be surprised.
I’ll end on this note. We need to recognize that fishing clubs are not the same as conservation organizations, that stocked fish are worth less than wild fish, and that the future of our sport relies on the unified involvement of all of us.