Monday, September 08, 2008

The Intern Experience at Silver Creek

Another Labor day has come and gone and at Silver Creek that usually means the end of an intern season. Every year I try and find interns who are enthusiastic, who are pursuing a career in conservation, and who are not afriad to work hard. I would like to think the interns will someday come to work at TNC on a more permanent basis. Usually the interns have more or less the same goals as I do, with the added goal of having a good time (otherwise known as catching fish). One of the interns, Ryan Urie, wrote the following about coming to Silver Creek as a novice fisherman and what a learning experience that was:

Prior to coming to Silver Creek I always thought fishing meant placing a hook, marshmallow, and a small handful of lead on the end of a line, hurling it into a hatchery-stocked pond, then sitting back and waiting while sipping on a beer. My knowledge of fly fishing was limited to a single viewing of “A River Runs Through It,” and while I assumed it was more of a skill than bait fishing, I had no idea of the challenges Silver Creek had in store. I had heard that Silver Creek contains some four thousand brown and rainbow trout per mile and many over twenty inches in length; what I didn’t hear is that they are some of the most selective and difficult trout on the planet.

I went to the nearest sports shop and found a $50 rod and reel combo with line, leader, and a carrying case (it was only after several unsuccessful fishing attempts that I came to learn about things called “backing” and “tippet”). I picked up a variety pack of “Rocky Mountain Flies” with no indication of what, if anything, they were meant to imitate and set off. Without knowing even the basics of fly fishing, I aimed to fish what I now know is commonly referred to as the graduate school of fly fishing.

The qualities that make fishing Silver Creek so difficult are at the same time indicators of its success as a nature preserve. The crystal clear water makes fishermen and flies easily distinguishable to the fish; heavy catch-and-release fishing by the public has created a wary, intelligent fish population; and the year-round supply of riparian habitat and resulting insect supply has made the fish into well fed, picky eaters who can afford to ignore a fly that looks even the least bit suspicious.

These difficult conditions weed out any lazy or haphazard fishermen and force one to engage deeply with the landscape. Success at Silver Creek demands attention to stream conditions, weather patterns, local vegetation, insect hatches, season, and climate. A commitment is required, and fishing here is an exercise in frustration for those concerned only with catching fish.

In addition to all the challenges faced by competent fishermen, I had to further contend with constant snags, infuriating knots, and a general lack of interest on the part of the fish. I also managed to hook myself on several occasions (once through the lip, ironically), and sometimes would launch what I considered to be a perfect cast, only to watch the top half of my rod sail through the air and follow the fly into the water.

Several successive nights with no strikes gave me ample opportunity to appreciate the serenity and beauty of the creek. In addition to lush vegetation, dramatic sunsets, and calming waters, there is an abundance of wildlife at Silver Creek including moose, elk, beaver, muskrats, and badgers. The birdlife is especially prolific with over two hundred different species throughout the year including great blue herons, sand hill cranes, red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers, northern harriers, and red-tailed hawks to name a few (in one morning of birding with a local expert I was able to take my life list from zero to sixty in under a day!). Often the aggravation of yet another lost fly or impossible tangle all but vanished with the joyful appearance of a baby duck, or a mouse poking its head from the nearby sedges.

By the fourth night of the brown drake hatch I was about ready to give up. Brown drakes are a variety of mayfly on Silver Creek which emerge, mate, lay eggs, and die all within a few days, and this hatch is one of the most eagerly awaited annual events in the Picabo area (at least for fishermen). In mid-June the drakes rise in a flurry of activity which is utterly breathtaking – akin to being in the midst of a tornado comprised of bugs. As they mate and die they form a constant stream of bodies in the creek. During this veritable buffet the trout let go their usual caution and join in a feeding frenzy which local fishermen capitalize on in what can rightly be called Fly Fishermen’s Christmas.

It was toward the end of this spectacle that I finally landed my first fish – a 21” brown trout (PHOTO) – using a size 14 brown drake spinner on a 4X line. As I held this miracle in my hands I felt connected to life and the flow of the universe in a way that had previously eluded me. It helped me to realize that my passion for conservation isn’t about protecting nature for its own sake or for human enjoyment either, but is rather about these moments of reconnecting – getting out of our egocentric bubbles and being a part of the greater story.

While I did finally learn to catch fish, the real education I received at Silver Creek wasn’t about fishing: it was about patience and perseverance. By pressing through the constant frustration and discouragement I was able to achieve something lasting and worthwhile. I learned about finding the joy in what the world offers instead of narrowly insisting upon my own ambitions, and to engage and flow with my environment. I learned to pay attention, and be still. Ultimately I found a deep sense of peace and wonder, and it is for that reason that I’ll keep coming back.

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