Trout are creatures with paper-thin fins and gossamer bones. Their optimal temperature and dissolved oxygen thresholds are relatively narrow. Touching their scales with dry hands or laying them upon the bank can render them susceptible to deadly infection. Trout are survivors, but they are fragile.
It isn’t just fish, though: A creek, sustaining all manner of organisms until it is impeded or polluted. An angler, boldly venturing deep into the woods where not even modern technology can prevent a fall that leads to mortal peril. Every successful and non eventful fly fishing excursion belies how delicate and fleeting life is. It isn’t until the trout is hooked too deeply and fails to revive in the current. It isn’t until the once productive stream bed is baking, dry in the sun as far as one can walk. It isn’t until the news story comes across the screen, beginning with that common line “he was an experienced outdoorsman…”
Ecologically speaking, the fragility of the natural world is clearly seen. Siltation from impoundments, a bacteria that depletes a year stock, or a hundred-year flood each radically alter a watershed to the point where it is biologically and hydrologically unrecognizable. Fish, insects, vegetation, and riparian zones can literally be wiped out in mere days or hours.
As awful as those all-to-frequent disasters are, and as much as conscientious stewards ought to mitigate our role in such events, they are rarely irreversible. It takes effort, resources, and much more time than we’d like, but rivers that flowed sterile a few generations ago have rebounded. Still, the contrast between the cost of restoration and the speed of destruction is indicative of how sensitive something as massive and intricate as watersheds truly are.
And to think, human life is even more fragile.
The aforementioned fall is just one of many ways that a routine angling outing – an escape usually characterized by optimism – can turn traumatic. Safety and preparation can reduce the chance of tragedy, but nothing can eliminate it. Injuries or heretofore unknown medical conditions can transform another day into that day. Unlike natural resources, the effects of such incidents are rarely irreversible. Bad days can change a life, and all the lives around it, forever.
The visceral reaction to the news of an accident or an emergency is testament to the significance of our fragility. Losing a friend or family member hurts with an incalculable pain. Then comes the personal guilt or remorse for words left unsaid. We experience these cycles of emotion, but rarely make the necessary changes to prevent the pangs from resurfacing. And they will resurface, that inevitable next time.
What do we do?
It is so wonderful that fly fishing, among many other outdoor pursuits, engenders a great conservation ethos in its participants. However, might there be a need for more focus on a community ethos? Project Healing Waters, Casting for Recovery, and other programs are doing fantastic work in the contexts of their targeted demographics. Angling clubs and Trout Unlimited chapters certainly fill the need for some.
Just as individuals ought to do their part to contribute to stewardship, each and every one of us should consider how we can contribute to fellowship. Whether it be through an organization which strives to help those who have suffered in some particular way, participating in a more general fraternity, or simply being more than a fishing buddy, we have an opportunity.
It is the opportunity to hold life with the same delicate and caring touch that we employ when holding a trout from a mountain stream. In those singular and brief moments, we demonstrate our ability to show great empathy, concern, and conscientiousness to a fish. We feel joy, appreciation, and a connection – all from a fish. Our capacity to demonstrate and feel these things can not be limited to trout. In this life there is much that is more precious and more fragile.