Earnest leaned over the edge of the boat, trying to catch a glimpse of his rod and reel which were lying 20 feet down on the bottom of Snowbank Lake. As far as I could tell, it was the first time all week he had really tried to perceive what was under the surface of the water.
We were fishing for walleye, drifting slip bobber rigs up against a rocky reef. Earnest was having trouble getting his leech into the shallow water where the walleye were feeding, so he stood up to make a grunting two-handed overhead cast. Snagging his hook on the backcast, he lost his grip halfway through; rod and reel flew high into the air, then splashed down a few feet from the boat. His bobber bounced on the surface as the old Ambassador reel unspooled line on its way to the bottom.
After four days of lost anchors, poorly tied knots, snags, hang ups, and crossed lines, I had reached the limit. I didn’t even bother to speak. I just reached over the gunwale, picked up the bobber, and handed it to him. Ernie began retrieving line, hand over hand. As the pile of monofilament filled the bottom of my boat, he said quietly, “This is brand new line.” Pause. “I just replaced it last week.” Long pause. “I can’t remember if I tied it to the reel.”
Fishing with Earnest could try one’s patience.
Earnest at Snowbank Lake, two years later
The trouble wasn’t just that he didn’t know much about fishing; it was that he was so stubborn about learning anything new. He desperately wanted to catch fish; that’s why my brother and I had brought him along on our annual fishing trip. Seventy-two years old, he longed to spend his retirement years fishing, and he brought the same grit and determination to this new enterprise that had served him well in a lifetime of dairy farming. But he also brought an independence that worked against his interests. He didn’t like to ask for help, or take advice, or open his mind to new ways of seeing things, which made it nearly impossible to explain to him what we were trying to do.
The biggest problem was this: when Earnest looked across the surface of the water, all he saw was the surface of the water. For him, the lake was like a giant checkerboard, and catching fish was all about being on the right square. He was playing a two-dimensional game, yet everything we were trying to do required a three-dimensional approach.
I grew up fishing lakes in northern Minnesota, and when I moved to southwestern Wisconsin fifteen years ago, I was like Earnest, wanting to catch fish but having no idea about how to read the local water. The streams of the Driftless Region were written in a language unfamiliar to me, and it took a long time to learn the peculiar spring creek dialect of riffle, run, and pool.
Joining Trout Unlimited, I met people who helped me see beyond the rise forms of surface-feeding trout. Following their lead, I began turning over rocks to see what trout were feeding on, started paying attention to the varieties of aquatic insects, water temperature, oxygen levels, feeding lanes, and micro currents. I began seeing the stream from the trout’s point of view, from the inside out.
A Driftless brown trout caught by Rick.
With the change in perception came a new appreciation for spring creeks themselves, not just as places to catch trout, but as key components of healthy watersheds. I learned how rare they are—comprising less than one-billionth of the world’s surface water—and how fragile, warming, silting, sometimes even disappearing for no apparent reason.
There are reasons, of course, it’s just that they are not apparent to most of us. It takes someone who is able to see deeper to provide the explanation.
Those who look beneath the surface—hydrologists, water resource managers, wetlands ecologists—can connect the lines from policy to action to result. They can show, for example, how ethanol subsidies encourage farmers to tile their fields in order to plant corn earlier in the spring, and how tilling diverts water directly into streams and rivers, bypassing wetlands where nitrates are filtered and keeping underground aquafers from being replenished. They can show how this practice requires increased dependence on irrigation in dry months and lowers groundwater levels, which in turn causes water levels to drop in streams.
Only that last bit takes part at the surface, where it can be observed by the casual angler.
The fact that I enjoy fishing and want to continue doing it is no guarantee I’ll be successful, because no matter how much I improve my angling techniques, the real challenge is learning to play a different kind of game, one that will ensure the continuation of healthy watersheds.
The water crisis in California today is the inevitable result of short-sighted policies from decades ago, despite the warnings of wise people like Luna Leopold who pointed out that deep reserves of groundwater should be saved for emergency use in times of drought, not relied upon for ordinary use. Addressing the Governor’s Conference on the California Drought in 1977, Leopold proclaimed that “some movement toward a steady-state condition that lies within the bounds of resource availability is not only the crux of a resource management philosophy but is also the acid test of leadership.”
California’s leaders failed that test forty years ago, and their children are paying the consequences of that failure today. Here in Wisconsin we are facing similar tests of leadership, the consequences of which will be faced by our children.
Rick and his son Evan on the South Platte River, learning to read the water
The ethics of water use is complicated. Sorting out the issues involves talking with people who use phrases like “aquifer hydrogeology,” “water withdrawal assessment,” “cumulative impact,” and “adaptive management.” I confess that the talk of water experts is largely foreign to me.
But from fishing with Earnest I learned that to perceive what is below the surface of the waters, I have to rely on the knowledge of those who have more experience. I have also come to realize that the game we are playing with the waters of Wisconsin is not like fishing; it is deadly serious. If we fail at it today, there may be no coming back to try again tomorrow.
The future of our cities and towns, our farms, and our industry–not to mention our way of life as people who love the water–all depend on seeing below the surface.