Let me set the scene. The late Jose Wejebe of Spanish Fly fame, the legendary Flip Pallot and I were the last ones at the annual Costa ICAST party. We’d been sitting there for hours talking fishing and at some point, the conversation came around to the challenges fishing faced in the future. Given the combined angling industry history of these guys, I was all ears.
Themes like access to waters, conservation, and affordability were tossed around before the conclusion was reached that society’s weakening connection to the natural world in general was the biggest threat; when, as a society, we cease to see value in something, we will no longer protect it.
Almost as quickly, the conversation turned to how do we slow this trend? Both Jose and Flip agreed that it starts from the inside, that we as anglers needed to take responsibility for the future of our sport and that we must unite to affect change. We could no longer afford to be fly anglers, bass anglers, offshore anglers, inshore anglers, or whatever sub classification we called ourselves; we simply need to be anglers in general and we need to work together. Furthermore, we need more of us actually working on it.
They spoke of anglers taking sides with their preferred style to the exclusion of others. It had become a microcosm of in-fighting in sport fishing in general, rather than just different ways to catch fish. To this day that conversation is the single driving force behind why Fishful Thinker TV features as many species and techniques as we do. We are all anglers first and foremost.
These days, I feel just as strongly about that concept as I did way back then. After 15 years of guiding, hosting fishing shows, and speaking publicly, I still wish we would all work together to protect our sport. And sadly, I feel even stronger now that our sport - and our playing field - needs protecting.
I was once contacted by a group seeking my help in generating regulation to make a popular urban tailwater fly fishing only. ”Just think about how great the fly fishing would be if we could just keep the rednecks out!” he spewed. I explained that I would offer no help and in fact I would vehemently oppose such regulation because that fishery is utilized by all sorts of anglers and that, by virtue of accessibility, it is a very important piece of water to our sport. Kids can bike to it, casual fishermen can stop by to wet a line after work, and it generally allows angling without excessive time or money requirements. I mentioned that there are lots of pristine places where he could fly fish redneck-free ’til his heart’s content and that perhaps he should visit them more instead of inflicting a class division on a popular in-town water to the exclusive benefit of his preferred angling type. He called me names and hung up. That mindset is a serious problem for angling overall.
I wrote an opinion column once where I detailed why the fly industry needed conventional anglers. I referenced the gateway concept, recruitment, and evolution within the sport, eventually concluding with this quote, “some will argue that fly fishing is the pinnacle of angling and it may well be, but the mountain is built with conventional tackle and thus its importance to the sport cannot be overstated.” I got hate mail - lots of hate mail.
And lest you think I’m concerned only about fly versus conventional tackle, I’ve seen a gillion instances of technically advanced spinning anglers bashing “bait dunkers”, bank anglers jeering boaters, and especially the keep-and-eat crowd versus the catch-and-release folks. I stand firmly on selective harvest principles and I’ve had very nasty emails for both releasing and eating pike. I’ve even been criticized for having biologists on FTTV including a guy who applauded me for working with a managing biologist, citing that I’m smart for “keeping my friends close and my enemies closer”. Clearly, dude had issues.
I’ll be blunt. As long as anglers are fighting amongst ourselves, we are an easy target for those that see no value in our sport. Furthermore, as long as we take the “Us vs. Them” approach with resource managers, we’ll never accomplish anything positive.
In recent years we’ve seen waters closed to all anglers, we’ve had boating access limited, we’ve had stocking decreased in some areas, all the while our population has grown dramatically. Problem is, fewer folks are anglers. If we want to even maintain, much less improve, our angling in light of this shift of demographics, we’d better work together. We’d better get over who’s preferred style is better or which fish is the best. We’d better work in conjunction with each other and with resource managers and water owners, rather than against them. And we all need to realize that there are factors beyond recreational fishing that directly affect management of our waters. After 12 years of sitting on various resource management boards, I can say that last point has more impact than you’d guess.
At the very least, go forth with an open mind. Not everyone approves of what we do, much less supports it. Consider that all anglers, regardless of how or why they fish, need the same things - access and fish to catch. Keep an eye on the big picture. If we can’t even play nice with each other, don’t expect non-fishers or resource managers to play nice with any of us.