More than a thousand freshwater fish species are native to the southern United States- below the 38th parallel, more or less, with more species recognized annually. The same goes for the region’s 350 freshwater crayfish, freshwater mussels, and thousands of other aquatic invertebrate species. Hundreds of frogs, toads, salamanders and turtles. It’s an ancient landscape spared from ice sheets and oceans for eons, allowing an incremental accumulation of species comparable with any other temperate region on the planet. It’s threatened- by agriculture, dams, invasive species, development. Its imperiled fauna receive a fraction of the conservation attention of other, more species depauperate regions of the U.S.
I didn’t know this catching crawdads with grandparents when I was six or seven from a crystal clear Ozark stream. I didn’t know it at ten, when I absconded with my mother’s red sewing thread to lash a bit of chipmunk tail to a bronze panfish hook, fashioning my first trout fly. I was unaware when I started fly fishing with my father around twelve, or when I started hanging around the local fly shop- a throwback place whose owner didn’t egg me into a rod and reel package or a new technical vest, but insisted I find and read a copy of Robert Voelker’s Trout Magic.
But sometime around sixteen I was pitching hoppers under brush to late September browns when something dark squirmed under my sneaker, a sculpin or a madtom, probably. In that moment I realized tossing hoppers to late September browns was probably the smallest, most meaningless little thing going on in this world around me. There was more to the story, and I wanted to know. ‘
Angling delivered me to conservation biology, to a greater awareness of the diversity at my doorstep and the strain we exert on its future. Both led me all across the continent, from hyper-diverse systems of Appalachian streams to the depauperate but unique river systems of the arid west. I’ve witnessed about every threat our aquatic ecosystems struggle with: agriculture, dams, development, invasive species, water extraction, and I’ve witnessed their effects on systems and species. Anglers play a unique role: urging conservation while sometimes facilitating habitat loss, demanding protection of some native species and elimination of others, or promoting non-natives which directly imperil native biodiversity. Angling transcends politics and social class; individuals with little else in common can share an interest in conserving biodiversity and natural resources through the places they mutually cherish. If by sharing my experiences in angling and conservation biology I can make folks think, wonder, and explore- I’ll consider this venture a success.