Thursday August 28, 2014

When fishermen become conservationists

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Welcome to Week XCII of 'Fishing Parkland Shorelines'. Like most of us I am a novice fisherman, loving to fish, but far from an expert. In the following weeks I'll attempt to give those anglers who love to fish but just don't have access to a boat, a look at some of the options in the Yorkton area where you can fish from shore, and hopefully catch some fish.

As you have probably ascertained by past articles winter is a time for me to bury myself in books, and a good portion of those are about fishing.

Some of the books I've read which I had assumed would be about fishing have been less about my passion for tossing hooks, and much more about the fish themselves, and the amazing, yet fragile ecosystems in which they live.

Which brings me to the first of a two-part look at the book May the Rivers Never Sleep. The book is by Bill McMillan and his son John. Both are fishermen, but their passion has evolved to be more focused as conservationists with a love of natural rivers and their fish.

It is a love which comes out clearly in the book, which is more about preserving something special than it is about catching a big fish.

"Bill and John McMillan, father and son, were initially drawn to rivers and salmon through angling. Following in the footsteps of Canadian author and conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown, they gradually transitioned to a deeper learning about the rivers through snorkeling. May the Rivers Never Sleep is a song of thanks to Haig-Brown's vision of rivers as calendars of life and places of revelation. The McMillans' river calendar – depicted through writing and photography – was shaped by thousands of hours of angling, observing and snorkeling to document the diversity and patterns of river life above and below water. From winter steelhead to water ouzel, their perspective is that rivers are only ever-wakeful because of the wild creatures within. As wild fish continue to diminish however, the lives of rivers remain unclear. This book is the McMillans' wake-up call to nurture at all costs the natural resilience of wild-fish populations and the breadth of life they support so that rivers remain places of revelation for future anglers and scientists, as they have for the McMillan family," explains the book's dust jacket.

And it is a book with a Canadian connection, or maybe more properly a Canadian inspiration.

"The essence of the book is the physical and biological tapestry of river time, a concept fostered by Roderick Haig-Brown, the father of salmon conservation in the Pacific Northwest. His ideas, writings and actions were the stimulus for Bill and John's writings and photographs. As a consequence, this book pays homage to their favorite Haig-Brown book: A River Never Sleeps. The father and son have found a common bond in rivers. This bond, which is ultimately equally tied to Bill's father and Haig-Brown, is clearly reflected in their writing and photography. I know of few – if any – other people so enamored with the life and history of rivers and salmon. Bill and John have spent thousands of hours using all the filters to view rivers. I find that each month in this book offers a blend of experiences, some of which we have all likely shared, and rarer ones too, those experienced only by people who call the rivers their lifeblood," details the book's forward by George Pess – geomorphologist, fisheries biologist, and frequent field companion of the McMillan clan.

It was obvious conservation was important to the McMillans, but I was curious if they thought most fishermen look at resource conservation as passionately as they need to in order to protect rivers and fish?

"This is a great question," said John in an interview via email. "I think most anglers care about fish and rivers, and lakes too. I must admit I am a hermit and don't spend much time outside of my shell. So I am not entirely privy to all the potential opinions and experiences of others.

"What I can say is that in my lifetime there has been an increased interest in conservation of fish and rivers, and that is great news.

"On the other hand, I can also say that some anglers -- and particularly guides -- seem to have increasingly focused on how many fish they catch, rather than the experience. Sometimes that is a stage in the evolution of an angler. But sometimes it ends up being the key ingredient to enjoying rivers and fish. One reason we wrote this book was to try and share other experiences, and show that people can enjoy fish and rivers in different ways. Angling is only one of those ways."

His father suggested fishermen as individuals will have varied perspectives on conservation, but added it should be important to all.

"Fishermen are no different than other human beings," said Bill. "Human passion is a two edged sword: it can very often be driven by self-centered fulfilment. At its best, passion is of a more spiritual nature that is larger than limitations to oneself. Often in youth, many of us are the former. I know I was, and maybe all too often remain so.

"The book is as much a reminder to myself, as to others, that passion has to be more constructively driven than self fulfilment. We too often become blind to anything but a numbers game -- merely reaping more fish as skills and tackle technology combine to make us more effective anglers through time. This is something that every single angling book of historical value has long emphasized: that important transition of growing through angling toward something larger than self and desire. This dates back to at least Izaak Walton in the angling image of the thinking man's sport.

"Unfortunately, many fishermen do not make this important transition to guiding passion toward protecting something larger than themselves. We chose one particular alternative example for our book -- Roderick Haig-Brown being perhaps the most important West Coast example, and perhaps for North America as a whole."

And Bill and John are naturally fisherman.

"Also I like to give readers a little look at the fisherman behind the book (although I realize you are evolving to fish watchers). Do you have a favourite lake, steam you like to fish?

"Fishing has always been and will remain one of the most common doorways for human beings to enter the world of nature," said Bill. "For both John and me it was been that vital doorway. Fishing has provided us both with great joy -- or as commonly coined today, a passion related to doing so.

"But a fisherman with any sense of challenge will always up the ante over time and increasingly use methods more challenging to learn and which actually diminish the potential for catching fish in acceptance of making the game more difficult for ourselves.

"As stated in the book, the ultimate angler is that which has no hook on the end of the line at all. Regarding a favorite stream, it is whichever one I am on at the moment in the joy of experiencing it. No thinking angler would ever reveal more. To do other is to kill your own Golden Goose."

In John's case his fishing days have evolved to contact with the river in a less intrusive way.

"Well, I must admit that I have increasingly shifted to snorkeling," he said.

"Still, I fish over 170 days a year, which is down from when I averaged 340 days a year for almost 13 years straight. I was a die hard. I live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and don't travel much because I love the rivers and fish. So anywhere on the Peninsula is great to me. I don't necessarily have a favorite river, but I do have favorite runs for steelhead. You would have to kill me to get the location though."

So what did the authors hope readers would take from May the Rivers Never Sleep?

"That those of us who choose rivers as places of recreation, healing, contemplation, or simply joy do so with a sense of responsibility of protecting nature as best as we personally can from those forces that prevent the wild animate life of rivers from being sustainable," said Bill.

"For me it is the behavior of steelhead, particularly their mating strategies and tactics. Spending a lot of time with fish provides a unique insight into their lives. I felt that was my favorite part: sharing how steelhead behave and then explaining why they behave that way," added John.

Next week I'll spend some time with the authors exploring how well conservation efforts are catching on.



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