In the past 25 years, my career has taken me to many streams, rivers, and creeks from South Carolina to Massachusetts and as far west as Puget Sound. Over that time, I’ve estimated that I’ve walked over 1,000 miles of streams. Compared to my time spent fishing, the streams I’ve visited for work are far from pristine. Downstream from highway culverts and outfalls, behind the scrubby brush at the edge of parking lots, below the outfalls of stormwater ponds, many miles of stream connect the “built” world most of us occupy to the creeks, streams, and rivers where we can fish, hike, kayak, and canoe. The connections between those built features and the more cherished resources of our Instagram posts are rarely seen and often not photographed to celebrate our weekend recreational activities.
Walking these forgotten and ignored streams, I have seen some sights! Tires, washing machines, plastic bags, abandoned toys, bikes, cars, and clothes are commonly found in these streams. But the stream networks are connected. Watersheds are the areas of land that drain to one particular location. The watershed boundary follows the limits of the paths of individual rain drops as they travel through the groundwater or over the land to a stream or river. Along the way, the water picks up pollutants and trash and carries it to the streams.
As a fly fishing angler, I cherish the beauty and water quality of the trout streams I fish. Storms can erode stream banks, trees can fall and create blockages, beavers can build dams, but people bring trash. As an environmental scientist, I do my best to be a steward of our streams and to help keep our waters clean. Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. I believe, as anglers, we should be stewards of the streams we enjoy and as many other streams as possible.
Trash (often called floatables in the regulatory world) has many negative impacts on our streams. Trash harms the physical habitat of streams, it transports dangerous chemicals, it threatens aquatic life, and it interferes with human uses of the rivers. In particular, plastic materials slowly break down, typically from the ultraviolet portion of light degrading the plastic. As plastics degrade, they can release chemicals that accumulate in the muscle tissue of fish and mammals over long periods of time.
How can you be a steward and help preserve the natural resources that provide the basis for your hobby? The first step is to not litter yourself. Food and drinks are common sources for trash, so bringing a reusable water bottle and food that minimizes any wasteful packaging is a good start. Getting flies snagged on the bottom and having tippet break is an occupational hazard for fly fishing. But when cutting tippets and tying knots, anglers should do their best to keep the loose pieces of tippet and leaders. I like the PIOPod (Pack it Out) from FishPond (affiliate link) to keep the small amounts of line generated so I can throw it away when I get home. I also try to bring a bag to pick up trash items I see while I am fishing.
It is also very helpful to support or join local organizations that help with stream cleanups and protecting streams and water quality. In Howard County and around the Chesapeake Bay region, the following organizations support stream cleanups:
- Trash Free Maryland
- Blue Water Baltimore
- Trout Unlimited Maryland Chapter
- Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay
- Chesapeake Bay Foundation
- Friends of Patapsco Valley State Park
- Howard County Conservancy
- Middle Patuxent Environmental Area
- Robinson Nature Center
- Irvine Nature Center
To me, being a steward on the stream also means to help pass along knowledge to other anglers. An unwanted or poorly delivered teaching moment can definitely go sideways, but letting other anglers know about no kill zones, catch and release areas, the practice of keeping fish wet, and fly regulations is important to protect the resources. Tactful and kind communication usually can reach someone, but sometimes stern reminders have their place, too. Recognizing a willful poacher and letting the Park Rangers or Department of Natural Resources Police isn’t out of the question either. The adage “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” is good to keep in mind.
Protecting and helping our stream resources takes a village, and it’s a task that is never complete. Passing along respect and admiration of clean waters to the next generation of fly anglers is critical. My daughter will point out to me all sorts of facts about littering when we ever see someone litter. Keeping disciplined and staying responsible to reduce pollution will help us all stay connected to the hobby we love and the resources that make it possible into the future.