Angler ethnography in the Upper Feather River Basin…
One of the most important components of informed fisheries restoration is establishing a historical reference for condition and distribution. A unique aspect of my project is that we are including anecdotal information from long-time anglers familiar with the rivers, streams, and lakes of the Basin to help inform this historical reference.
Efforts to establish informed knowledge of fish distribution in other areas have mostly relied on the survey records of agencies tasked with monitoring. While this is true of the UFRBWA as well, we are also including information from anglers in order to collect information on bodies of water not covered by the available survey records. The knowledge held by these folks is the result thousands of hours of “sampling,” some reaching farther back than the official survey record, resulting in an informative and often untapped source of data.
During the interview process, I sit down with anglers and we run through a list of questions that I’ve developed as guidelines for the discussion. Each interview is recorded and transcribed to ensure that any and all valuable information is captured. Distribution of fish species discussed during the interview is then traced onto a map with colored highlighters by the angler. Each of these records is then incorporated as data in digital maps showcasing fish distribution, alongside data obtained from the official survey record.
To date I’ve interviewed 7 “anglers,” which in reality range from your average hobby anglers, to fly shop owners, to professional fishing guides and retired agency staff. The list of willing future participants continues to grow. As it turns, out people like to tell fish stories.
More importantly, people like to express their concerns about their favorite fishery and their theories about factors affecting its quality. So, as a secondary component, the interviews also serve as a venue for community outreach in which I can ask folks about their observations and how they have changed over time. These observations can sometimes provide significant insight revealing the impacts and effects of both natural changes and management practices on a given fishery. As a result, anglers have also provided information on areas in the Basin that have a significant need or opportunity for restoration.
One of the great pleasures of engaging in this work is to see the passion of these dedicated anglers, conservationists, and outdoor professionals. Some of them have been consistently fishing the same streams since they were small children, representing many decades of observation. Others may have many fewer decades of observation under their wader belt, but have fished the waters very frequently in recent years. These individuals can provide valuable insight concerning significant changes and impacts in the more recent past, as well as those that are actively occurring now. Often times the conversation can be as inspiring as it is informative.
While both work and pleasure have brought these folks to the waters of the Upper Feather River Basin, an overarching theme is their shared passion for the ecosystem. A discussion about where a 4 in. rainbow trout may live in some backcountry headwaters easily transforms into to a discussion that is much broader in context. Sometimes it evolves into an examination of the greater political economy of natural resource management. Other times it becomes a mental projection back into geologic time, wherein we attempt to imagine a far colder and wetter landscape and a climate that would allow fish to migrate up glacier-fed torrents to places that have now been long inaccessible. It’s refreshing to know that others share these thoughts; that something as small and insignificant as a single fish can be emblematic of how politics can dangerously constrain and misguide resource management, that that creature is potentially an evolutionary wonder.
It’s sometimes easy to get weary of the long hours in front of the computer screen that have been necessary to begin compiling all of the information that is going to go into the Upper Feather River Basin-Wide Native Fish Assessment Strategy. In my experience thus far, though, there have been few things more encouraging and invigorating than hearing the stories, experience, and concern of the anglers I interview. Plus, I’ve picked up a good fly or tip here and there. And… I may have heard a whopper or two, I suppose.