What does it feel like to save thousands of fish?

I’ve been struggling with how to express this feeling. The feeling of being a fisherman who stalks prey with a fly rod and then takes the time to help protect them so others can have that opportunity. I don’t know if this is the answer, but writing it down is honestly the only thing left for me to do today.

A pair of mountain bikers are whizzing around in the cool of the morning. An elderly couple strolls by and gives me a smile as they go on their morning hike. I see a couple of teenagers in a warm embrace on a secluded point of the river.  Each of them stealing some time to be here. The wind picks up the fall leaves and sings a song through the branches as I prepare myself for the emotional roller coaster of my life. Wringing my hands and whistling a light tune, I head down my path.

Each moment I spend on the rivers, lakes and streams here in Central Oregon are repeated with vivid precision in my anglers mind. The last fly that worked is the first one tested each new day and the stones and soils below my feet greet me like an old friend. I go through the familiar ritual of wadering up and tightening my boots where I am stopped at the part where I assess my tackle.

The waters are clapping and fish are rising. My heart races because it thinks it’s time to fish. As quickly as it rises in rate, it sinks to my stomach as my eyes catch thousands of fish drowning in the cool fall breeze – there in a picture on my phone laying on my sleeping bag.

Like a punch in the face from a trusted friend or greatest love, I find myself standing alone – conflicted as an angler and conservationist. All at once I see the previous precious gifts this river has given me and the faces of people young and old who have become my friends. For those memories and those faces, I continue walking down the lifeless riverbed and turn the corner where another pile of lifeless fish punch me in the face.

I fear continuing on – for the beatings will likely continue.  A light flickers in the undulating muddy riverbed. Water is dripping from a friends net as the future of our fishery pours into a bucket of clean water.

The road taken to this place was graded and paved long after the wagons and horses were drawn along these paths created by native peoples a millennia ago. A reminder of the history of this place slaps me in the back of the head like an old friends saying, “you dumbass, what were you thinking?” But the history of this land smiles and pushes me forward. Knowing all the while I have not forgotten the education it has blessed me with.

The truth, is that humans of all Western history have brought me to this place that both breaks and repairs my heart each time I step into its waters.

The ranchers and farmers of my youth whose bountiful fields offered me places to roam, snatching pure raw goodness and nutrition from their soils. Laying there in the tall grasses and climbing pillars of hay bails to get closer to the sky – to reach out into the wind and grasp at imaginary objects I see in the clouds rolling by. Here with me now, decades later, I remember the words written in the books of our history. A history checkered with the struggles of building a new life in the West and the tragic consequence to the native populations of man and wildlife changed forever by it.

I’m wearing a ring today and whistling a song. The ring was my maternal grandfathers, who served in the Army Air Corps during World War 2. It is emblazoned with what appears to be a four legged animal with the word “ROMA” underneath it. The song my fraternal grandfather whistled between telling me stories of helping others escapes my mouth when nobody is near.

Every generation struggles to find the balance of life, and through the generations – getting punched in the face every once in a while has served to achieve greater and greater success in reaching that balance. Right now the struggle to regain our balance as a community with our wildlife and lands gets closer and closer. Passivity toward bringing the balance forward means you get punched in the face less often. When you actively pursue the balance, the beatings get more frequent.

My friends and colleagues in fishing and conservation are joined by irrigators, ranchers, farmers and others who just love to hike and birdwatch along this river. It proves to me that all complexities of our individual lives are fundamentally simplified by a single item – the places where trails and waters bring us.

Each blow taken to the face is lessened watching fish being delivered from a net into buckets. Each time a single fish enters the flowing river after being hoisted over land by the hands of toiling like minded neighbors – the memory of pain is reduced.

Nearly 15,000 fish have been rescued over the past few years working the channel at Lava Island Falls. I think I’ve probably made as many casts in that time. The amount fish I have caught with my gear and the amount of those fish who survive – our efforts have calculable and measurable results. My hope is that with continued help from our entire community, my success averages will get higher and higher.

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