I’m embarrassed to admit, but for 15 years working as a river guide, I had no clue about fish and their whole universe going on underwater. During my misspent youth, it never occurred to me to wonder what was beneath the rafters’ giggles and under the rivers’ waves.
I remember vividly when it struck me that there is more to a river than rapids, chutes, flat stretches and rock gardens. The water of my local Ottawa Valley river is tannin-colored from the boreal forest where the it originates. Looking at the water, I can’t see fish.
A River Guide Floats Past Fish Underwater
It wasn’t until I was guiding my first rafting trip on the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River that the other side of the world hit me. On the first day, I was drifting through crystal clear water when I floated over a pyramid-shaped rock.
Behind the rock, two large fish were holding in the eddy. I later learned the fish were rainbow trout, which is also embarrassing to me now.
I watched as the trout hoovered up bugs and other bits swirling in the back current.
My two-dimensional view of water collapsed into a third dimension with living creatures and complexity.
After my epiphany, I took up fly fishing as a means of connecting with this universe. I learned about the ecosystems I had ignorantly floated over for years. The world beneath the waves was new and sciencey and relevant, but I totally missed the magic until I managed to catch my first fish.
Two Worlds are Linked Through Fishing
It is remarkable how the water surface divides people above and fish below. My fishing line cuts through the divide and allows me to probe this alternate universe. In a kayak, I sit closer to this divide, my ass right on it, actually. Perhaps this makes me appreciate the barrier more.
Now, I’m a fly fishing guide. And I make a point to show my clients how a river is more than just a black box that holds prizes.
Given all of this, I find myself more of an environmentalist than before I took up fishing. Other anglers might be reluctant to admit it, but anyone who cares about the quality of their fishing by default cares about the environmental variables affecting it.
It is remarkable how the water surface divides people above and fish below. My fishing line cuts through the divide and allows me to probe this alternate universe.
This year, local river anglers in my area can’t help but dwell on the low water and record-breaking heat. The same is true for anglers across the world facing issues with conservation and access. As anglers, our understanding of the fish’s universe gives us a unique perspective on a solution to these age-old questions.
The real black box is our own ignorance, and once we crack it open we are obligated to be positive agents of change and contribute to the health of the underwater universe. On the river I chase fish with a vengeance, but on land I am their greatest advocate.
This article was first published in Kayak Angler Issue 46. Subscribe to Kayak Angler and get the magazine delivered to your front door. Download the Kayak Angler Magazine+ app to seamlessly glide between the digital archives, the latest articles and videos.
Beyond the river’s surface fish have a whole ‘nother underwater world. | Feature photo: Dustin Doskocil