Rivers no longer a secret

The subject of change is never far away in our part of the world. Have you noticed that?

On a fine spring day not long ago, I stood chatting with Mike, while a couple of hundred yards to the north, the Clark Fork River danced along in the warm spring sun. A comment on the wonderful weather led quite naturally to the topic of fishing. Talk of piscatorial pleasures is usually close to the surface in these parts anyway, but for two former fishing guides it is always standard fare. We agreed it would be a good day to be on the water, slipping down one of the local rivers, casting to the promising pools and runs.

"It's not too long ago that you or I wouldn't have missed a chance at a day like this. Remember when the only other people you saw fishing this time of year were the guides?"

I do remember. Those were magical times, and we didn't have to share those rivers with anyone. Most of the customers didn't show up until some time in early June. Nobody had even heard the word "skwala." If you did see another person on the river, it was bound to be someone you knew.

But things have changed.

For generations, the rivers in these parts moved silently along for much of the year, with only the gabbling and honking of waterfowl and the screech of osprey to break the stillness. In the dead of winter, an occasional die-hard angler would work certain pools for whitefish, and only rarely did a solitary fly caster leave footprints on the bank or float into view around an upstream bend.

Today, the well-kept secret is a secret no more. Some of the best fly fishing of the year occurs before high water in the spring. Guides are already doing a reasonably brisk business. Meanwhile, the regular old non-paying public is out there on the stream, armed with state-of-the art fishing gear, and well outfitted with an armada of floatable craft that leaves Missoula every morning for favorite stretches of river.

There is hardly a productive reach of water within easy driving from Missoula that doesn't see a flyline every day.

"There are so many people out there now. It just isn't the same. That's one of the reasons I gave up guiding, I guess," Mike observed.

"I know what you mean. I know that was a big part of why I quit guiding too," I replied.

"But you know, you can't blame those people, either. They like the same things we like. Can't really quarrel with that."

No, I can't.

And it is not just the anglers who have discovered the wealth of opportunity that our moving water provides. The adrenalin junkies and the Sunday canoeists, bird watchers, hikers and botanizers are all drawn to the streams and the riparian corridors along them. Life bursts from those rivers.

Sure, Mike and I, and many of you, may long for the good old days of solitude and quiet pleasure on the streams of Montana, but a lot more has changed since those days when we took our good fortune and those rivers for granted.

You see, we have discovered that those rivers truly are the lifeblood of our region. And we have awakened to the fact that through all those years and generations of idle enjoyment, we were not doing a very good job of taking care of them.

That began to change some 30 years ago, with the advent of the modern environmental movement. Now, a week rarely goes by without news of ongoing efforts to protect the fragile cold-water resources that afford us such incalculable benefits.

This week, our own Clark Fork earned the dubious distinction of being named to the annual list of North America's most endangered rivers by the conservation organization, American Rivers. That designation is based upon the potential for damage to the river, should the proposed Rock Creek mine near Noxon become a reality.

But this is only the latest threat in more than a century of abuse to which the river has been subjected. And it occurs against the backdrop of monumental, drainage-wide, efforts to undo damage that has been done to the Clark Fork.

This is not just about fishing.

Sure, considerable effort is being directed at finding ways to prevent the further decline and perhaps extinction of native fish species in the drainage. But it is about much more than that.

It is about the importance of that river in nearly every facet of the daily lives of all who live along it. It is about economics and public health and it is about all of the living things that the river sustains.

Thirty years ago, a handful of far-sighted people toiled away on issues related to the health of our cold-water resources in these parts. The rest of us were out there, enjoying the fishing and the solitude, oblivious to those larger concerns.

I would be willing to bet that today, for every one of us lucky enough to find the time to be out there on the water floating a fly, 10 others are spending that time working real hard to restore and protect our precious rivers. And I, for one, am grateful for their efforts.

Change is not always bad.

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