Finding Community in Conservation

Article by Philip Tipton

Growing up a young spin fisherman, I found myself at odds with a fly rod. To my uninitiated hands the rod felt like a willow branch and the line a bird’s nest. Yet, there was something about those tiny, artful, and utterly intentional little flies that I couldn’t quite shake. I’d given up on the idea until opportunity came knocking during my time at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. We were to stop at a fish camp along the trail and fly tying and fishing was on the menu.

I’ll never forget my first encounter at a fly vise. We were informed that fly fishing required flies and if we wanted to fish, then we would have to tie our own! Intimidated and stoked, I sat down at the vise. I remember the feeling of us young men sitting around a large tying table anxious to get out on the water with our newly tied creations. Personally, it was the first time that I felt like I played a role in tricking the fish.

Fast forward twenty years and I found myself reminiscing about those days. I started to research the rivers around me and to my surprise, we have two trophy tailwaters and countless high mountain streams within an hour in any direction. Growing up in a rather rural small town, no one I knew fly fished and none of the local stores carried fly gear. Any talk of the sport usually happened around a TV marathon of A River Runs Through It.

Fly fishing seemed so distant but resided so close. Not knowing what to do, I joined Trout Unlimited and began to attend their free fishing days. I figured at least I would learn where some good fishing spots were. To my surprise, it was so much more. I was surprised because I only had a Hollywood reference of fly fishing – snobby, expensive, exclusive, and unobtainable. I believe this false lens still exists today.

Context is a funny thing. See, it frames moments in our lives that we either wish to hold onto or can never forget. It is hard to grasp, but every day you play a critical role in shaping the context of another’s experience. The context of my story could have taken a terrible turn if I would’ve believed my preconceived notions or allowed social anxiety to render me frozen. Fate had other plans. I began to attend fishing days often, and contacts became friends. We started to fish outside of the scheduled dates and carpool to TU events together. A year later I was voted on as a board member and my community continued to grow.

Often, we want to fish to disconnect, but at our core, humans need community. It is also no secret that the environment needs our community. Remember context brings who, what, where, when, why and how into focus. This focus raises our awareness which creates our call to action. Engaging in that call to action strengthens the bonds in every relationship.

The Overmountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited with the help of our local guides recently completed a massive clean up effort on the South Holston and Watauga Watersheds. Tons of tires and plastics were removed from our river systems by great volunteers. To them, it didn’t matter how hard it rained or how hard the task at hand was because the bonds of community were stronger.

“A great community comes together and works toward one common goal, while bettering everyone in the process.”

M. Seyers

The pandemic tested everyone and for a long time we lived in uncertainty. We now have a choice to get back out there and connect, so I would like to challenge you to do so too. Whatever your choice, there is magic in getting like-minded people together – even if you’re a novice. So, I encourage everyone to take that step, search for and grow your community, whether it’s TU, a social media group, or friends – you won’t regret it!

Philip Tipton is a free lance writer from Kingsport, Tennessee. A graduate of Milligan University, Philip serves on the Board of Directors for the Overmountain Trout Unlimited Chapter. Blessed with shoe size 15, he can be found roaming Appalachia like bigfoot in search of wild trout.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021-22 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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