//James Lauterbach catches a Rocky Mountain Whitefish on the Madison River in Montana on Sept. 25. Photo by Sam Schlosser.
“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” -John Buchan.
Last week I spent two days fly fishing on the Madison River in Montana. The valley area is one of my favorite places in the contiguous United States and the trip was a much-needed reprieve from the mental exhaustion of the last few months.
We launched Ms. Mayhem in May, shortly after my mother passed away. Covering the pandemic and protests have been scary and emotionally taxing. A few days before we left, I got the news alert that Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. During our 14-hour drive up to Montana, I saw that Breonna Taylor’s killers would not be charged for her death.
This year has thrown everything it has at me, and I know many others that feel the same. It’s a never-ending circle of shit.
But standing thigh-deep in the river I share a name with, my brain stopped working at 1,000 miles an hour. I watched my dad and my partner, Sam, cast their flies over the water. I concentrated on every part of my body and what I was feeling. I could feel the bruises on my legs and the coldness of the water through my waders. I could feel the arthritic joints in my fingers start to freeze in place around the cork handle of my rod. I thought a lot about my mom and how I had wanted to teach her how to fly fish when she was still around. Even though I wasn’t catching any fish, I felt less stressed than I had in months. I focused on refining my cast and hitting my target.
I wish everyone had an equal opportunity for an escape. I found out last year that I’m a fourth-generation angler, but the first woman in my family to take up the hobby. That’s not uncommon. Women are drastically underrepresented in the fly fishing community, making up only 30% of the 7 million Americans who fly fish, according to the 2020 special report from the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. Female anglers often face sexism, especially online. On the river, many women have been fished out of a spot and sexually harassed.
“You’re always being looked at—it feels like you’re having your cast judged and your drifts critiqued. And I do get occasions where men will encroach on my spot and try to force me out of a good fishing hole. If I were male, they’d expect me to talk back and put up a fight. But because I’m female, they feel they can push me out,” said fly fishing guide Rachel Therkildsen in a 2019 Amuse article.
People of color also face prejudice within the community, and the participation numbers are even more abysmal. According to the same Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation report, only 12% of anglers are Hispanic, 9% are Black and 5% are Asian.
And it just gets worse from there. The study also took a look at individual income. The average income for an individual in the U.S. in 2019 was just over $43,000 per year. The study found that those making between $25,000 and $49,999 accounted for 20% of participants in the hobby, while only 13% make $25,000 or less.
There is no data to suggest people with disabilities fly fish, but I know they exist because I am one.
Just like most other outdoor hobbies, fly fishing has been dominated by upper-class, older white men since its inception, often due to financial barriers and lack of access to the outdoors.
By now you’re probably asking yourself, “Well, why is this a problem?” The problem is how representation ties into conservation.
As The Wilderness Society states on their Urban to Wild campaign site, parks and public lands belong to everyone and access to nature is a human right. But that access is not equitable for people of all races, genders, immigration status, ability and income. Not only is it important for individuals to be in nature for psychological and physical reasons, but the wilderness also benefits from the connection as well. Rarely do people care about something they have no emotional tie to.
“In order to pursue our mission to protect wild places, parks and public lands, it is essential that these natural settings remain relevant and connected to all,” the site states.
Yes. I’m making the case that peoples’ access to nature is directly related to climate change.
There is a reason why Washington is so disconnected when it comes to oil and gas drilling, wildfires, drastic weather patterns and wildlife management. When was the last time you saw a politician take a hike or go fishing for the day? The same goes for the scientists of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Without dismissing due scientific process, there is a lack of communication between scientists and outdoor enthusiasts. Rick, who was our fishing guide on the Madison River, has a girlfriend who is a biologist for the National Parks system. He told us her team and others have gone years unaware of pressing issues that watersheds face. As Rick said, it takes them years to study an issue that hunters, anglers and other outdoors people have known about all along.
In that same vein, conservation of wildlife should be a bipartisan issue. Over the last few years, Democrats have taken up the helm of the climate change fight and Republicans have allowed the Trump administration to initiate the reversal of 100 environmental rules, 68 of which have already been completed. How much time do you think these public servants spend in the wilderness of their state for them to care so little about what happens to it? I’m looking at you, Cory Gardner.
Over the past few decades, Republicans have completely undone their party’s legacy of environmental protection. Remember Teddy Roosevelt? He created the National Park System. Bush senior passed a cap-and-trade program to curtail acid rain. Richard Nixon, although pretty despicable in every other way, arguably did more than almost any president of either party to safeguard our air, water and wildlife. He formed the Council on Environmental Quality, created the EPA and signed the Clean Air Act. Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists rated him our greenest president ever.
Drawing on this long history of conservatives’ fight for environmental protection, Ronald Reagan said, “You’re worried about what man has done and is doing to this magical planet that God gave us, and I share your concern. What is a conservative after all, but one who conserves?”
The worst part about the degradation of this legacy is that it’s not representative of what Republican voters desire. Although only 31% of Republican voters believe climate change is human-caused, 57% say they support policies to mitigate the problem, according to The New York Times.
Republican leaders today have largely turned their backs on their party’s tradition of environmental conservation. There are currently 150 members of Congress who have made comments doubting or altogether denying climate change, according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund. This denial has little to do with their ability to understand the science but rather stems from two issues: Republicans oppose any popular solutions to the problem and they make a lot of money doing so. The top recipients of direct contributions from the fossil fuel industry are also among the most vocal of climate change deniers.
So they resort to calling it a “hoax.”
Although Mitch McConnell has recently admitted that humans have caused the problem and Marco Rubio recognizes its severity, Congressional Republicans still object to doing anything of consequence about it.
Conservation should not be a Democratic versus Republican issue. If you care about having clean air and water and a safe place to escape outdoors, you should not be goaded into playing partisan politics.
We as outdoor enthusiasts must take up the baton and sound the alarms. We must be on the front lines of preventing further rollbacks or protections and the pollution of our waters. For what is life without the charm of fishing?