Blog Posts In Orvis Fly Fishing

2016 Orvis Guide Rendezvous Keynote Delivered by Wade Fellin

Last weekend, Wade Fellin had the honor of delivering the keynote address at the annual Orvis Guide Rendezvous in Missoula, MT.  

As many of you know, in addition to managing the Big Hole Lodge with his father, Craig, and guiding the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Bitterroot, and Missouri, Wade is program director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, a water quality advocacy NGO based in Bozeman, MT. 

Wade's message was simple yet important: fly fishers must all work together to protect the clean water future of our fisheries.  We'd like to share his speech here and encourage you all to join and support your local watershed groups!

2016 Orvis Guide Rendezvous Awards Banquet Keynote 

Taking the Oars 
by: Wade Fellin

Before my father ran a fly fishing lodge, he enlisted in the Marine Corps to fight in Vietnam.  We’ve never talked about his experience, but his two best friends from his platoon found our Lodge online 10 years ago and randomly showed up with their own 17-year-old sons.

One of these men had a bushy gray mustache, curly gray hair and went by “Night-train.” After two days of calling him this, I finally gathered the courage to ask why.  He explained that in Vietnam, he was assigned to mortars, and it was his duty to light the night by firing illumination over the jungle. One time he slipped as he fired, toppling the cannon and sending a white, fiery ball horizontally at his team.  The commanding officer dove out of the way just in time. He later exclaimed that he thought he was surely getting run over by a goddamn night-train! The name stuck.

After the war, Dad pursued his passion for the outdoors, and Night-train moved to Lake Tahoe to pursue his passion for reading Mark Twain. He took to the water like Huck and Jim and became the Ghost of Twain reciting stories on Tahoe’s river boat, the M.S. Dixie. 

Now in his early seventies, Night-train has come to look like Twain, he is full of wisdom, and he’s a hell of a lot better speaking in front of a crowd than I am! When Orvis called me and asked me to speak tonight, I called Night-train the next day.

He said, “Just last weekend I was invited to speak to a bunch of fly fishermen in Redondo Beach. I am not a fly fisherman. But of course, as the Ghost of Mark Twain, I’m able to speak on the subject at length.”

The fly fishermen and women were everything I expected them to be: cordial but formidable, jovial but refined, and downright fly-fisherman-friendly. Show me a fly fisherman and I’ll show you a gentleman. Might be the river, the fish, the company, or the heavens above, but the recipe seems to attract and produce noblemen and women of the blood roy-al!

But, I’ve never been to an Orvis guide rendezvous. nor have I interacted with many guides. Good luck – I doubt they’ll want to hear fish stories!”

I don’t dare tell you all any fish stories. I can only tell you what I’ve learned, about the rivers I’ve fallen in love with, and what I think we need to do to protect them. 

But first, thank you all for being here. Thank you Orvis for hosting this wonderful event.  Thank you to the Perkins Family and the Orvis staff for fostering these friendships, facilitating these business meetings and creating a learning environment that has proven to be so helpful to each of our operations.

Not to mention, this weekend is a blast, and to that end, I want to thank Missoula for putting up with this beard and Carhart convention!

What I’d like to share with you tonight is my perspective on our world of fly fishing: where the sport was almost thirty years ago and where I think it’s going. My perspective has largely been shaped on the Big Hole River, which is why preserving my father’s legacy means so much to me. And the lifeblood of that legacy is the river.

My father moved here to Missoula from Pennsylvania in 1974. He working as a security guard at the airport and on his lunch breaks he hung out at the Streamside Angler, then owned by Frank Johnson and Rich Anderson.  They gave him all the advice he needed to hone his kills as a fly fisher and he fished between shifts in a white shirt, tie, and black slacks on these Missoula rivers.

He headed to Aspen in 1978 and guided for Chuck Fothergil along with George Odier. Both were famous for nymphing without an indicator and swore by the Western Coachman. While in Aspen, Dad met my mom, a Bozeman native, and they decided to start a fly fishing lodge. In 1983, with Fothergil’s blessing they headed north through Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, searching for their perfect spot and founded their business on the banks of the Wise River, just up from the Big Hole River. 

At that time there were very few lodges in the mountain west: Lonnie’s Three Rivers Ranch in Idaho, (congratulations to Lonnie for her lifetime achievement nomination tonight!) The Firehole Ranch near West Yellowstone, the Crescent H near Jackson, Wyoming and The Complete Fly Fisher just down the river on the Big Hole. 

Mom and Dad spoke with Phil and Joan Wright, the owners of the Fly Fisher to explain their intentions of starting another lodge just 8 miles upstream.  Phil responded by taking Dad down the river to teach him how he fished it.

Back then the caddis hatches looked like snow storms. The salmon fly hatches were so thick cars would slide driving through the canyon.  There were very few people on the water.

I came along in 1988. Mom and Dad used to strap my bassinette to the fourteen foot avon.  I spent my childhood fishing the Wise River and my teens learning to row the Big Hole and West Fork of the Bitterroot. Now, after 10 years of guiding, I’m partnering with my father in a business he has spent 33 years nurturing, a business that has brought so much joy and knowledge and fulfillment to so many clients and employees and to both of us over the course of more than three decades.  Orvis once wrote in a Trout Bum of the Week article that my life was a charmed one as fly fishing goes and they were absolutely right. I’m almost embarrassed talking about how lucky and spoiled I am.

But I am immensely grateful for this incredible opportunity.  And I realize that with it comes a significant set of challenges. My generation, the majority of us now in this room, is inheriting a very different world of fly fishing.  Though each generation before us has had a responsibility to protect fisheries for succeeding generations and many in this room have done great work, we are now facing a much more urgent call to act.

Moving forward we are all going to have to work together.  I realize we guide and operate in a much more competitive business environment and throughout the industry many of us work in rather isolated spheres. But camaraderie exists in this room more so than anywhere else I’ve experienced in the fly fishing world. It’s similar to the camaraderie Phil Wright and my father shared. 

We have to work together now because our fisheries are on a slippery slope. Our climate is warming, our population is growing, and our rivers are suffering.

Bozeman, where I spend my off season, is booming as tech companies move in; many of these new residents spend little to no time on the water. Wisdom, Montana, where my mother’s family homesteaded, used to be full of multi-generation ranch families. Fewer and fewer of my generation are staying home to run the ranch. These family ranches are then being bought by corporate cattle companies who don’t have the same connection or appreciation of the unique landscape or know how to be good stewards of our special river valleys. 

The landscapes of the West are changing, and changing quickly, and though trout are often resilient to change, their ecosystems are not. There are no longer snowstorms of caddis on the Big Hole or the Jefferson. You’d be lucky to catch the salmon fly hatch for more than two weeks in June.  Moving forward, we must be proactive in protecting the quality of water that sustains these organisms. 

Over 40 years ago our nation’s leaders recognized that the waters of the United States were in trouble, and they set forth a strong system of rules based on science to reverse the degradation and pollution of our waterways.  That system has largely been viewed as red tape and in many cases, ignored all together.

To make this more concrete, here in Montana, less than half of our rivers get surveyed to assess their health every 10 years, as is required by law.  If a river is found to be unhealthy or hurting from some type of pollution, it can take up to 15 years for a clean water improvement plan to be created, much less implemented.

The reality is, although Montana is widely regarded as one of the Last, Best Places for fishing, its prize blue ribbon streams are at risk from the change we talked about.  It took a Montanan suing the state over 15 years ago to get the state to take the business of protecting–and restoring–rivers seriously.

Some of you know my dirty secret—I spend my off-season working with…gasp…hippie lawyers.

But they’re not as bad as they’re cracked-up to be—they’re worse!

I work for a Montana-based water advocacy organization called Upper Missouri Waterkeeper.  We’re focused on protecting and improving river and community health in the headwaters of the Missouri River Basin. For those of you not familiar with the area, I’m talking about the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby, Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, Dearborn, Smith, and Sun, and the main-stem Missouri out to Fort Benton.

I truly believe we can protect our rivers, our fisheries, our businesses—before it’s too late. Local advocacy provides the catalyst for change that I believe every western river deserves. There’s a distinct need in the West for all of us who care about our rivers and fisheries to take the steps necessary to protect our most vital resource.  We can do this.

Here’s a tangible example of a small act going a long way:

Last summer, a fellow Big Hole River guide floated a new landowner past his property. The guide pointed at the eroding bank and said, “So now that you own this ground, what do you think about a fence?

“Why?”

“Keep the river from ripping away your property every year when the ice comes out.”

“How’s that?”

“The cattle that run on that property in the spring took out all the willows. Now the ice takes out the bank, making the river wider, shallower, warmer, more prone to algae and less conducive to insect life.”

Based on this conversation, the Big Hole River Foundation is temporarily fencing this mile-long section of river with grant money, and with a little willow planting, that section will stop getting wider, shallower, and warmer. Those willows will suck up a lot of nutrients that algae would otherwise flourish on, leading to a healthier, colder, cleaner river for fish and bugs.

We fishermen and women are lucky enough to be on the front lines of these issues with the opportunity to effect the most positive change for our rivers.  Rather than sitting back and using the resource while our home states ignore the problems and continue to rely on largely unsuccessful traditional practices in the face of a changing environment, we need to be steering the boat. This means not only educating ourselves on the issues in our watersheds, but also communicating our knowledge and suggesting solutions from the fly fishing community to the government decision-makers.  It’s too late to rely on slow moving bureaucracy.

And the future of our fisheries needs us to do more than “keep fish wet and clean up our tippets.”  We all need to get involved, and get our clients involved, in protecting our rivers. We don’t have to fight these battles alone.  One of the best ways to do this is by joining and supporting the local watershed groups working on the rivers we love.  The Clark Fork Coalition does incredible work, and the fruits of their labor benefit the entire Columbia Basin. And if you don’t have a local watershed group, form one. Guides in this room have and I’m sure would be more than willing to offer advice. Derek Young started a Trout Unlimited (TU) Chapter on his home waters in Washington. Mike Geary resurrected a TU Chapter on the Ruby and Beaverhead. 

In closing, we have the best job in the world and an incredible opportunity to spend our days on rivers, teaching people how important tuning out and connecting with nature truly is. We can turn a New York minute into ten minutes seated on a bank studying a rising trout. That transformation makes every day guiding worthwhile for me. As the boots in the water, we have the duty to raise awareness about threats to these fisheries. We are the voice for the voiceless.

Just as my father built Big Hole Lodge by hand and has shaped it into what it has become today, many of you in this room have spent your lives on rivers helping shape the fly fishing world into what it is today—a world exactly like Night-train described, a community of classy people who are deeply connected to the sacredness of nature.

Many generations before us have been forced to answer a call to action in protecting our country. We aren’t being sent to war. We have a choice to fight this battle. I’m going to do my best to help protect these fisheries so that our fly fishing community can flourish and I’m honored to do so alongside all of you.

Thank you Orvis for your proud commitment to protecting our rivers and clean water! And thank you. Thank you all for your time.

 

Orvis commits 5% of pre-tax profits to protecting nature.
Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is exclusively focused on protecting and improving waterways and community health throughout Montana's Upper Missouri River Basin.