Thursday, June 9, 2016

Roderick Haig-Brown: From Flyfishing to a Legacy of Discontent, by Don Orth

Roderick Haig-Brown was an influential fly-fisherman and thinking man -- a philosopher some might say.  He became a very influential advisor to the fledgling organizations of his time, Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Flyfishers.  These organizations were responsible for starting the movement to curtail “put-and-take” trout stocking and focus on trout habitat.  Through his writings he chronicled early efforts in game and fish conservation, fly fishing, and the art of the fly fishing experience.  He was a prolific writer who published many books, including A River Never Sleeps, first published in 1946.   In A River Never Sleeps the reader accompanies Haig-Brown on his many fishing trips and learns what he learned from fishing his favorite rivers.   He writes “knowing a river intimately is a very large part of the joy of flyfishing” (p. 344).  “It has its own life and its own beauty, and the creatures it nourishes are alive and beautiful also.  Perhaps fishing is, for me, only an excuse to be near rivers” (p. 352).

Roderick Haig-Brown was born in England in 1908.  His father, Alan Haig-Brown, was a writer, teacher, and Army officer who was killed in action during World War I when Roderick was 10. Roderick was passionate about fishing and hunting from an early age and learned the sportsman's skills and ethics  from his many uncles on his grandfather’s country estate.  He immigrated to Seattle, Washington, to work at a logging camp and later moved to British Columbia and worked as a logger, commercial fisherman, and angling guide.  He published his first book, Silver: The Life of an Atlantic Salmon, at age 23.   He married Ann Elmore in 1934 and they raised a family on a property on the banks of the Campbell River of British Columbia. It was in this region about which Roderick Haig-Brown wrote many articles, from "Limits and ethics" in the Western Angler (1939) to "Outdoor Ethics" in Trout (1964) and many others promoting fly fishing ethics and ethical codes.

In The Man Behind the Rod (1961), he wrote "When I go fishing I want to be a part of the river and all my surroundings, not a stranger thrusting in upon them. I want to move quietly and at my own pace. I want to see and hear and understand. I want to feel that I know something of where the fish are and what they are doing and why. I want to be able to name the birds I see and take time out to watch them. I want to feel the river about me and to fill my mind with the infinity of lights that break from its surface and its depths. I want to know the trees along its banks, the rocks of the bottom and the creatures that shelter there and feed my fish."  ... "As for the fishing, it need not be good. There need only be a chance that it may be good."  This passage hints at the nature of many of his writings about nature and his attempts to entice fish to strike his carefully presented flies.  You can hear more from Roderick Haig-Brown as he explored flyfishing and snorkeling in the film, Fisherman's Fall (Part 1 and Part 2).
Roderick Haig-Brown Source
Because of his holistic view on the fishing experience, he wrote essays and gave speeches that began to outline the "sorts of thinking that produces sound ethical behaviour and perhaps sound ethical codes" (Outdoor Ethics 1964).  In other essays he further develops the heretofore unwritten articles of the brotherhood of sport fishing.  He wrote during the early and mid-20th century when few women fly fished.  However, women were involved in fly fishing and were influential in the emerging public arena of fly fishing and conservation, although they faced many of the same challenged women faced in other social movements of the time (Van Wieren 2016).  His writings had profound influence on fisheries biologists, ecologists, and many others struggling with the practice of conservation; he once told a fish and game worker in British Columbia "just protect the habitat, the rest will take care of itself" (Sloan and Prosek 2003, p 144).  This admonition to "first protect" is the foundation of Trout Unlimited’s conservation approach.  
Roderick Haig-Brown helped transform conservation from an activity of importance only to leisure-class anglers to a more inclusive movement. Game and fish conservation were not entirely positive movements at the time.  For example, many in the west were dispossessed so that parks could be established for more or less exclusive access to fish and wildlife (Spence 1999; Brown 2005).  Tension between fly fishers and other anglers is present today.  Roderick Haig-Brown’s writing was critical then and now in linking ethics of fly fishing with duties of fishers and their conservation organizations.

From Divine Discontent (1953), Haig-Brown wrote “So I urge upon you discontent, discontent with things as they are, discontent with yourselves. But let it be a constructive and informed discontent, not a curdling and destructive one, the sort of discontent that pushes you on to do more and enjoy more and, above all, to be more, for yourselves as well as for everyone else. I encourage you to pick up and read, or re-read, one of Haig-Brown’s works.  Comment below on your favorites!
Roderick Haig-Brown on cover of BC Freshwater Fishing Regulations 43 years after his passing.  Source: Photobucket
The future of fly fishing and stream and river conservation will be more challenging in the future and our discontent must push us to do more.  Conservation of fish in riverine environments is a formidable challenge, which becomes more so with increasing risks from wildfire, droughts, and floods, amid the legacy of human footprints.  We must continue the dialogue about what it means to fish ethically, live ethically, and build an ethical society.

Brown, J. C. 2015. Trout Culture: How Fly Fishing Forever Changed the Rocky Mountain West. Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. Washington.  248 pp.
Haig-Brown, V. 1997. Deep Currents: Roderick and Ann Haig-Brown.  Orca Book Publishers, Victoria, B.C.
Sloan, S., and J. Prosek. 2003.   Fly Fishing Is Spoken Here: The Most Prominent Anglers in the World Talk Tactics, Strategies, and Attitudes. Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 288 pp.
Spence, M.D. 1999. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks.  Oxford University Press, New York.   190 pp.  
Van Wieren, G. 2016.  Women, angling, and conservation.  Chapter 12 in S. Snyder, B. Borgelt, and E. Tobey, editors.  Backcasts: A global history of flyfishing and conservation.  University of Chicago Press.  400 pp.

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