I grew up where stickers from Ducks Unlimited shared space on the bumpers of Chevy Suburbans with "Don't mess with Texas" and a mega-church called "The Oasis of Love." When I first saw Trout Unlimited stickers after moving West, I figured it was a play on the parable about "give a man a fish, feed him once. Teach him how to fish and feed him for life."
But it was while a counselor at the Wood River Y a few summers back that I found out how far off my assumption was. Trout Unlimited not only provides regular outreach to future fishing fans, but extends its teaching to the disabled, providing them an outlet and diversion where there might be limits otherwise. They play a huge role in fishing-access trail rehabilitation, as well as in preservation and restoration projects. Wherever a trout might be, at least in the Wood River Valley, you can bet that Trout Unlimited is or has been or will be there too.
Our outing with Trout Unlimited was one of the most successful field trips we took that summer. It was also the least exotic. It was an expedition down to Hayspur Fish Hatchery south of Bellevue for a day of fishing and learning a bit about indigenous birds.
Roughly three of the 30 kids with us that day had ever even touched a fishing pole. But there was one little girl, a socially awkward child who had trouble making friends, who had been on this trip the year before and came outfitted with her Barbie pole and determination.
We were met by a handful of fishermen from Trout Unlimited who quickly assessed the temperature of the group and divided them into three groups that would be moved from a fishing lesson to touring the hatchery to birding before the day was done. Each stop was hands-on, included explanations of how and why they should care and how to own enough knowledge to feel confident in what for some was the wildest experience they'd ever had.
The men were as patient with the group as they likely were when chasing an elusive fish. And when a child caught one of the 3-pounders that Trout Unlimited had paid to have stocked in the pond, it was as though the men had landed their very first fish too. They taught the kids how to catch and safely release, and why that was the right thing to do.
Living in an area where being in nature seems to be a no-brainer ignores the fact that many of the valley's children spend little time outdoors doing the diversions that draw tourists here from across the globe. The advent of computer games, parents too busy trying to make ends meet, little time and never enough money find many children at odds with their environment—cruelly placed where possibilities are within reach, but the means are not there.
That's why groups like Trout Unlimited work to see that their work includes outreach to kids and their parents.
"Our goal is to introduce fly fishing to younger people, not just to encourage an interest in our sport but to build awareness of the environment, to give them the tools to be a part of it," says David Spaulding, the owl man of the hatchery tours and a guide for Silver Creek Outfitters in summer and Sun Valley Co. in the winter. "It's amazing how much a little time we spend with them can turn into a lifelong passion."
Trout Unlimited also hosts an annual graduation party for middle-schoolers that runs like the outing they gave the Y kids.
Bob Law, who serves as treasurer and photographer for the organization, says funding for such outreach comes strictly through the generosity of members. Information-sharing meetings they hold once a month at the Roosevelt Grille in Ketchum include raffles that bring in much of the cash. The meetings are open to the public and center around a subject related to fishing. They are an easy way to get introduced to the sport and the work of Trout Unlimited without getting your feet wet.
Their next meeting, Nov. 3, will be a talk on The Nature Conservancy's stream restoration work at the Heart Rock Ranch, formerly the Diamond Dragon Ranch, south of Bellevue.
In September, Carrie Philbrick, program manager for Sun Valley Adaptive Sports' Higher Ground project, explained to the crowd how fishing has helped wounded veterans, particularly those suffering from traumatic brain injury or post traumatic stress. The healing effect of the water and tranquility, she explained, help diffuse stressors and help with concentration and rebuilding of fine motor skills.
A few weeks ago, six vets and their wives were treated to a fly fishing camp here. Thanks in part to Trout Unlimited, there is a wheelchair-accessible platform at Penny Lake west of Ketchum.
On Oct. 8, the group was out at Silver Creek Preserve helping The Nature Conservancy put 125 plants in the ground to help reduce erosion at Stalker Creek, a main tributary there. The willows, dogwoods, golden currants, rose and birch trees will stabilize the soil and limit the introduction of silt caused by spring runoff.
A collaboration with the Blaine County Recreation District and an Eagle Scout in search of a merit project has resulted in signs and maintenance of fishing access along the Big Wood River throughout the valley. And even for those who don't fish, those routes guarantee access to beauty.
"One of the beauties of fly fishing is that trout have to be in clean, cool water, so they tend to be in pristine environments," Spaulding said.
And the sport offers him an opportunity to hunt birds while he fishes.
"It's kind of a battle between the two of them whenever I go out, but it's a never lose," he said.
A lot of these things might have been merely pipe dreams had people like Spaulding and Law and other passionate fly fishers let the local chapter disintegrate, as it was eight years ago.
"It's a lot of manpower but not a lot of money," Law admits. "But we have managed to do some really important things thanks to the commitment of our membership."
The day I realized how important a trout could be was on that Hayspur outing that summer, when that little awkward girl caught the biggest fish of the day. The effect on her spirit and how the others kids treated her after that was obvious, but immeasurable.
Maybe the parable should say: Teach her how to fish, give her a go-to haven for life.
Jennifer Liebrum: firstname.lastname@example.org
Take the bait:
To whet your appetite for fishing, consider checking out the film "Connect," showing at Whiskey Jacques' tonight, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and benefit The Nature Conservancy. To learn more about Trout Unlimited, consider dropping by one of its monthly meetings, always held at The Roosevelt Grille in Ketchum. Next up is Thursday, Nov. 3, from 5-7 p.m. Art Talsma, director of restoration and stewardship for The Nature Conservancy, will discuss the Heart Rock Ranch stream restoration project. Also visit www.Hemingwaytu.org for a full schedule.