By Noah Bressman, Salisbury University
As an angler, I enjoy catching big, beautiful fish. After all, who doesn’t? However, when I go to a body of water and those fish are not around, I do not fret; I am happy catching any fish, big or small, to learn about the local biodiversity firsthand. In this endeavor, I have started cataloguing every species of fish I have caught – 442 thus far. I later realized that there are other anglers out there that do the same, called lifelist anglers, similar to birders that keep a lifelist of all the bird species they have seen.
In my pursuit of new species, I met fellow lifelister Matthew Miller, who is the director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and is currently at 155 different species. We first met in North Carolina where we targeted the elusive Roanoke Bass (Ambloplites cavifrons) in the scenic Eno River State Park. Recently, we fished together in a city creek around some culverts and mystery pipes in search of invasive Northern Snakeheads (Channa argus) and Matt’s first fish from Maryland.
Matt is no stranger to fishing urban waterways that most would see as polluted, lifeless cesspools, so much so that he wrote a book about it. In Fishing Through the Apocalypse: An Angler’s Adventures in the 21st Century, Matt discusses fish conservation in the United States by sharing his experiences fishing trash-filled canals for invasive species but offers hope thanks to the efforts of dedicated anglers and conservationists. While we were fishing, I asked Matt about his book and his experiences:
Noah: What inspired you to write this book?
Matt: Despite being an outdoors-loving kid, I never fished my “home water” where I grew up in central Pennsylvania. I never fished it because there were no fish. It was biologically dead due to acid mine drainage. I never really questioned this. A stinking, polluted stream was my normal: a perfect example of shifting baseline syndrome. During a writing project, I looked into the history of this creek, and learned that, at one point, it would have supported runs of migratory shad, eels and other fish. It would have been a spectacular place.
I realized that we see the world through lenses that are often not accurate. I wanted to document North America’s freshwater fish and fishing that showed the good, the bad and the downright weird. I wanted to approach it by casting my preconceived notions aside and really explore what we still have – and what we have to lose.
Noah: Why fish trash-filled canals and drainage ditches when there are plenty of lakes and rivers to fish?
Matt: It’s a great question. I love wilderness streams filled with native fish. But as a nature writer, I don’t want to just portray nature as something “out there.” If we present nature as just pristine wilderness, that makes it out of reach for many people. Nature is all around us. I think it’s important to show that there is wildness in cities, in industrial farmland, and even in seemingly apocalyptic landscapes.
I also want anglers and conservationists to question their own sense of reality. Obviously fishing a trash-filled ditch is not pristine nature. But many anglers travel and spend lots of money to fish tailwaters below dams for brown trout. They consider this the height of outdoors experience. And yet, by my estimation, that scenario is no more “natural” or “pristine” than a trash-filled ditch filled with cichlids. The aesthetics of the tailwater are better, but the fish aren’t native, the water isn’t free flowing.
And finally, I am just drawn to the weird side of nature. I have been since I was a kid. Catching exotic fish out of hot springs makes me feel like a kid again.
Noah: Where is the favorite place you’ve fished?
Matt: Fishing the Kenai in Alaska with my dad was special. Alaska is special. You still have the migratory fish and the hordes of predatory fish snarfing eggs and hunks of salmon flesh. It is what much of the world once was. And it’s still here. Watching my dad catch his first fish on the fly at age 75 was fun. Having Dolly Varden and rainbow hammer egg patterns is pretty much as good as it gets.
I love diversity. It may sound like an easy out, but I have a lot of favorite places. I’m happiest in a little stream with native trout that smack dry flies. But I also love the Everglades and the crazy native and exotic diversity. Hooking alligator gar on lures with gar expert Solomon David was a blast. My son recently caught 100 bluegills in a weekend at a local pond. That pond may not look like much, but it is one of those places I’ll always cherish now.
Noah: Where is your least favorite place you’ve fished? Is there a place you would never go back to, even if there’s an incredible diversity of fish there yet to have been caught?
Matt: You know, as someone who loves travel, I can honestly say just about any place has some redeeming qualities. I think as a writer and naturalist, it’s my job to be curious about the world. And curiosity leads you to find what is interesting and special about the places you are. Sometimes it’s tough, but that’s how I approach my work and life.
That being said, there is one particular Florida canal where I stepped in a pile of human feces. That ruins your day. I love fishing in Florida, but I won’t be pulling off at that canal again.Noah: How has “fishing through the apocalypse” influenced your ideas on biodiversity, ecology, and the environment?
Noah: How has “fishing through the apocalypse” influenced your ideas on biodiversity, ecology, and the environment?
Matt: I think it showed just how important it is to question my own version of reality. I carry filters that may get in the way, so it’s always important to question your assumptions. I have always valued biodiversity, but as a trout angler, I didn’t even know many of the fish in my local streams. Fish are not tiny. But I never really appreciated the chiselmouths, largescale suckers and sculpins until I started on this new adventure.
And, as I mentioned, I love public lands and wilderness. I do think of public lands as one of the United States’ best ideas. But I also have really come to see that nature isn’t just what you see on a National Geographic documentary. It’s all around us. We have to recognize that experiencing nature takes many forms. It can’t just be a white guy standing on a mountain. That symbolizes a concept that has to change.
Noah: How did you get into lifelist fishing?
Matt: It seemed a confluence of my interests. I had kept a life list of mammals I’ve seen in the wild for years. I enjoy travel. I enjoy fishing. I’m a curious naturalist. This seemed a way to combine a lot of things that I enjoy.
For much of my fishing life, I focused on fly fishing for trout and smallmouth bass. Pursuing different species, using different species, has actually made fishing so much more interesting.
I’d also say that, when it comes to listing mammals, to get the really cool species you pretty much have to do long, involved trips. I loved that, but with a young son and other obligations, it can be difficult. With fishing, you can pick up new species, well, just about anywhere. An urban fishing pier will also get up close to amazing diversity.
Noah: If somebody wants to get into lifelist fishing, how do you suggest they get started?
Matt: Approach it with curiosity and a sense of adventure and don’t worry about numbers. With any form of listing – whether birding or mammal watching or fishing – I see people so focused on numbers that they lose sight of the experience. I have met some listers who almost seem miserable about it.
You’re fishing. Have fun. In the end, the only thing that really “counts” are the memories you’ve made. The listing is just an excuse to pursue cool species in cool places.
Noah: What fish has been the bane of your existence that you’ve yet been able to catch but is at the top of your list?
Locally, bridgelip sucker would qualify. It is not an uncommon fish. But I never seem to find them in a biting mood. Just last week, I drove a couple hours to a stream where they apparently are fairly easy to catch, and there had just been a flash flood. A flash flood during a summer of tremendous drought here in Idaho. That is how it goes.
Noah: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you/your book?
My book has a conservation theme, but it’s not gloomy. I have fun. The world is still a really cool place. So get out and enjoy it. That’s what inspires you to protect and defend wild things and wild places.
Dr. Noah Bressman is an Assistant Professor of Physiology at Salisbury University studying fish biology, biomechanics, biomaterials, and behaviorYou can find more at NoahBressman.wixsite.com/Noah or @NoahwithFish.