Without our rivers, what is left?

DEEP INSIDE MOST TROUT anglers lies an understanding that the existence of clean water and healthy public habitat are what get us out of bed in the morning, especially on weekends. Many have sacrificed lucrative careers, either by stalling out in the middle when the job-responsibility-to-annual-vacation-day ratio became optimal for fishing, or by running away to the woods and the humble yet happy life of farming nickels and dimes.

It depresses me to wonder how many of us might not acknowledge this understanding at the ballot box. We compartmentalize. Sure, all but the intentionally deluded see the variations in precipitation patterns and higher average temperatures of recent years as preventable threats to rivers and trout, but if one stretches the imagination, it's still possible to vote on economic policy and foreign affairs as though there's a real difference between global peace and prosperity and all that goes into a world in which a rainbow crushing a caddis is still possible.

The problem with single-issue voting is that it too often demands freedom for some at the expense of freedom of others. The trout platform, on the other hand, enhances values across the board, which would argue against trout being a single issue in the first place. In a day of trout fishing, there's gasoline, phone reception, rain or no rain, highway patrol, sandwiches, beer, and whiskey. These necessities—blessings, really, in the context of the greater planet—are made available to everyone, whether they throw the fly or not. It's no easy feat. Levers must be pulled, switches switched, decisions must be made from on high.

That's without taking into account the actual act of fishing, which is where things get dead serious for me. At a minimum, the trout candidate protects water, its quality, and its quantity. Which means he or she promotes healthy forests and watersheds. To maintain a vested public, the preferred candidate also protects access to these treasures for any American who may at some point pay taxes, serve in the military, worship whomever, or seek recreation in response to either a stressful job or a well-earned retirement. Angling teaches other values that, I would argue, should inform the characteristics politicians must possess in order to earn our votes. Empathy is a big one for me.

In our practice of fishing, we frequently hold another being's life in our hands. Hopefully, we contemplate the gravity of this, and our better self emerges. Whether we choose to prolong its life or end it, we give the fish our sympathy, our mercy, and our respect. Through this generosity, we benefit our fellow anglers, a truth not diminished by the fact that the actual choice we are making might be to benefit ourselves.

Could life be better than this, to have another's fate so entwined with our own? The cynic might say so, to which I would counter that cynicism is little more than a failure of imagination. Cynics have forgotten how to believe in things. They are quitters and cowards, and they have ruled politics for too long.

Flowing water presents an alternative perspective, one of optimism and renewal. Breaking down and building up, rivers borrow and pay back with interest. They embody the attitudes our country needs right now, a resistance to confinement, a perpetual search for the possible, through, around, or over obstructions.

No matter where you stand in a river, there is always an upstream and a downstream, a coming from and a going to, a headwater snow to a wide-mouthed delta. In the mountains live the fishing guides, the hotel maids, the young seasonal workers serving older seasonal passersby who dump money on chardonnay and silence. Downstream live the load-haulers, the people who grow your food, the keepers of insurance policies, and yes, the lawyers. No matter where you stand in a river, there is someone you owe and someone who owes you. Which is not only a good thing, but a right one. This year, I'm going to vote for it.

TONER MITCHELL is the New Mexico Program Manager for Trout Unlimited's Western Water and Habitat Project. He lives in Santa Fe.

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