…introducing younger generations to cold-water conservation.
The mission of my host organization Trout Unlimited is to conserve, protect and restore North America’s cold-water fisheries and their watersheds. Implicit to this mission is that fisheries and watersheds remain intact and available for the enjoyment of future generations. One of the greatest ways to introduce the value of conservation into the minds of younger individuals is to allow them to experience the outdoors through recreation. Fly fishing is a fun recreational outdoor activity but is also a great means for teaching the concepts surrounding ecological balance that lead to realizations about the value of conservation.
I recently assisted with a fly fishing demonstration for a local 6th grade classroom as one part of their recent field trip to Lassen National Park. We visited Manzanita Lake on the northwest corner of the Park to provide the students with an introduction to the sport.
Speaking from my own experience, the seemingly complex nature of fly fishing can sometimes pose as a barrier to entry to the sport. This may be especially true for a youngster. While there is an obvious and attractive grace to the practice of angling with the fly, the mystique surrounding the techniques for casting and the apparent wealth of knowledge required to ‘match the hatch’ have rendered many an entry-level fly rod dusty and neglected at home while the spinning gear gets all of the action on the water. While it may take a season or two before you’re casting confidently and consistently catching fish, it doesn’t take make much to strip the sport of its overwhelming complexity.
To that end, we started our day with the very basics, casting practice using dummy flies with no hooks. Much to their surprise, the youngsters found they were quite capable of placing the fly where they wanted to in just a short amount of time. Casting? Check! Next we donned our entomologist hats to learn about what exactly it means to “match the hatch.”
Quite simply, “matching the hatch” involves turning over a few rocks or logs to see what the bug neighborhood looks like. We found mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae, dragonfly nymphs, snails even a great specimen of Belostomatidae, variously called giant water bug, alligator ticks, and even toe-biters. While the offer of one intrepid youngster to hold the large beetle was greeted with bloodshed at the tips of the bugs pinchers-like forelegs, all agreed that the specimen would amount to something like Thanksgiving Day dinner for a trout. While the pain of the wound quickly subsided, the young man’s surprise did not as he continued to inspect and show of the minute punctures at the end of his index finger.
Next, we checked in our fly boxes to see what we had that might successfully deceive a cruising trout. The kids deliberated over which particular flies could best represent some of the bug life we observed. We tied some of ‘em on and before long most all of the class was confidently shooting hopeful casts with real flies, and real fly rods out to the unsuspecting trout of Manzanita Lake! And with that, the intimidation surrounding fly fishing had all but completely dissolved.
Yes, some children arrive confident and some even experienced with fly fishing in the past but the real pleasure in introducing kids to the sport of fly fishing (or any other manner of outdoor recreation for that matter) is providing an experience to children that may never have gone fishing, much less on the fly, or that have never even had the opportunity to experience the beauty and wonder of the places where fly fishing takes place. Places like Lassen National Park, for instance.
While the wary, educated trout in this catch-and-release only lake were not fully cooperative (I myself failed to make a cast that didn’t spook the fish), the day was undoubtedly successful in terms of the learning experience. True, it always helps to catch some fish but it matters less than you would believe. The kids didn’t seem to mind the lack of catch and were quick to embrace the whole experience. For the kids that pursue the sport themselves, fishless days will be a common occurrence. Even if we do get skunked occasionally, we can always reflect on the things we’ve seen, experienced and learned that day. When we help younger generations see these sights, have these experiences, and learn these lessons we place the future of a sport, and the conservation of its settings, into good hands.