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In search of our lost salmon, part 1

I haven’t gone fishing in twenty years, but a couple weeks ago I started reading Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg, who, in my very humble opinion, is the next Michael Pollan. His book got me thinking about fish and fishing. Greenberg stumbled upon this subject when he visited his old fishing holes on the East coast and found that the fish populations and migration patterns were not how he remembered them. He began asking questions of local fisherman and learned that a set of factors severely altered the livelihood of the fish he grew up with. I wondered if those same factors affected my old fishing holes in my home state of Idaho, so I decided to ask some questions myself.

It so happened that this newfound curiosity appeared just days before I was to visit McCall, Idaho for the holidays. I called my dad, a lifelong fisherman, and I asked him if he would help connect me with any of his fishing buddies who could answer two questions: How have the fish populations in the McCall area changed over the past few decades, and what are the causes?

Dad, hardly containing his excitement that his own daughter wants to know more about fishing, told me, “I can think of a dozen folks off the top of my head who will want to talk to you. The problem won’t be finding people who can talk about this sort of thing; the problem will be getting them to shut up. I think they’ve been dying for someone to ask them about this.” So Dad immediately called up his friends and my uncle Mark, who is a water engineer, and they put together a list of local experts I could meet while visiting. The challenge was timing. Paul Greenberg spent years traveling the world and researching and interviewing. I have a week in McCall, Idaho.

But given the recent studies on sustainable seafood, seafood safety, and with countless fisheries seeking sustainability certification, I think this is an area that requires more attention from consumers and industry alike.

As soon as my plane landed in Boise on Christmas Eve, the first thing my Dad said when he picked me up was, “Alright, I’ve got you lined up for a ski lesson with the oldest ski instructor in the state- been giving ski lessons for 58 years, oh, and I have a handful of people in line to talk to you about fish”. I’m embarrassed to admit that, at this point, I cannot identify most species of fish. I would not be able to pick out a bass in a line up. As far as fish go, I know the general shape of a fish- a silhouette if you will. Even in my childhood, catching fish did not amount to a hunt for any specific type of fish. Anything that bit was a triumph, be it a glittering rainbow trout or a trash fish.

McCall is located 100 miles north of Boise, and is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. The town sits on the Payette Lake in the West Central Idaho Mountains, along the Western boundary of the Idaho Batholith region. Although known as Ski Town USA (sorry Boulder), everybody fishes recreationally. My dad has been known to hang fishing lures as ornaments on his fake miniature Christmas tree. His vaulted walls are stratified with a collection of old and new fishing rods. I once tried counting them all but quit after I reached 50. More fishing tackle is displayed beneath a glass-topped coffee table my dad built for that exact purpose. When I asked him if he can remember how fishing used to be, he said, “There was time when we were kids and we were able to walk barefoot across the backs of salmon in the river. That’s how many fish there were. Not anymore.”

Why not?

I’ll spend the rest of the week finding out. During this six-part blog series, I’ll let you know what questions you can ask about fish populations in your area.

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