Monday, June 27, 2022
June 27, 2022

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In ‘Headwaters,’ a Washington author’s fish tale is a conservation wake-up call


SEATTLE — Dylan Tomine should have been fishing.

Instead, in March 2001, he writes in his new book, “I stand on the porch at noon, looking at the lush green of new spring foliage, feeling lost.”

Lost because, for the first time since Tomine had abandoned a promising advertising career in California in 1992 and moved to Seattle to fly fish, there was no opening day for catch-and-release wild steelhead season on the Skykomish River due to dwindling fish stocks. “My traditional kickoff to two solid months of daily fishing and nights filled with crazed fly tying, gear drying, lunch making, weather forecasts, water levels, and phone reports,” he writes. “A day, a season, a pursuit I plan my life around.”

That dispiriting moment proved pivotal for Tomine, who realized that he could no longer be a self-described steelhead bum without picking up the mantle of fish conservation. Tomine details his journey from boyhood fishing escapades in Corvallis, Ore., to the high-profile role of fly-fishing ambassador for outdoor gear company Patagonia in his new book, “Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession, and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman” (Patagonia Books, $27.95), which he planned to discuss April 14 at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island, where Tomine, 55, has lived since 2004.

“Headwaters” is a collection of previously published stories in fishing magazines, a few unpublished pieces and poignant, diaristic vignettes from Tomine’s life on the water, like the memory from March 2001, mixed with emotionally revealing prose about raising two kids, now accomplished at fishing in their own rights, as a single father. The technical language of the fly-fishing craft will sail over the heads of nonfishing readers like an errant cast, but Tomine’s vivid travelogues from the world’s great fishing grounds — in Alaska, Argentina, British Columbia, Cuba, Japan and Russia — prove what a host of authors from Hemingway on down can attest: Fish tales make for captivating storytelling.

Fly-fishing in particular offers the opportunity for exploration, a phenomenon all-too-rare in the 21st century. Tomine is a devotee of fishing the austral summer in South America’s Patagonia, from which he had just returned when he spoke to The Seattle Times in early April.

“Why, as several friends have asked, would anyone want to travel so far to fish a huge river in a place famous for wind, for fish that aren’t necessarily any bigger or more numerous than you might find somewhere closer to home?” he writes. “Maybe it’s because the Rio Santa Cruz is an adventure unlike any other in fly-fishing, with an opportunity to pioneer a section of river that’s hardly been fished, in a breathtakingly isolated setting.

“Or it could be the fish themselves, a unique run of introduced wild Atlantic steelhead that are just now in the process of evolving and filling their niche,” he writes. “While most, if not all, steelhead fisheries in the Pacific Northwest seem to be caught in a long and miserable downward spiral, the Rio Santa Cruz is on the upswing.”

That comparison cuts to the bone of the other major strain in “Headwaters”: saving wild fish.

Tomine balances an angler’s obsession with scientific reasoning as he mounts a passionate defense for taking the steps needed to save wild Pacific salmon and steelhead from California to Alaska. Chief among those steps is ending what he argues is a counterproductive public investment in fish hatcheries, which cost taxpayers large sums but lead to worse outcomes, as hatchery fish dilute the genetic pool for wild fish, who have evolved to survive the arduous life cycle of freshwater birth, saltwater maturity and freshwater return. Tomine writes convincingly about the pernicious impact of hatcheries, which is also the subject of “Artifishal,” a 2019 Patagonia documentary that he produced.

As a Puget Sound resident, Tomine feels a special obligation. “If you look at the geographic range of a species, the most abundance is usually at the geographic middle,” he said via phone. “At one time the Puget Sound and Columbia River complex had one of the biggest salmon runs in the world.”

For fishers lamenting the precipitous decline in Washington, a place where Steelhead Country once jockeyed with Evergreen State for state nickname, they often turn north to the seemingly more abundant waters of British Columbia and Alaska. “What looks like insane abundance to us now really only points out the loss of what we’ve had here in the heart of salmon country,” the author said.

And Tomine is not Pollyannish about his cause célèbre today, more than two decades after his canceled-season epiphany.

“The situation for wild fish survival is significantly worse now than it was then,” he said. “Hatchery production has continued and even increased in an effort to feed the orcas. Climate change is starting to show the beginning of pretty serious effects as far as summer drought and winter flooding. The human population in the region has continued to grow.”

He does point to a few bright spots, however, especially on the issue of dam removal, from the epic Elwha on the Olympic Peninsula to the newest free-flowing section of the Nooksack in the North Cascades. As for the continued fight over the Lower Snake River, Tomine is confident the river’s four controversial dams will come down in his lifetime.

If this discussion sounds more like environmental politics than fishing, that’s because the two are increasingly codependent.

Tomine’s descriptions of his carefree youth spent meandering around Corvallis in search of trout are relics of a bygone era. While wild fish conservation is advocacy work unique to fishing, Tomine’s overarching point holds true for anyone who finds solace and sustenance in wild places.

“We’ve reached a point where there’s an inherent responsibility that’s required of the recreationalist,” he said. In other words, he argues, climbers, skiers, hikers, surfers, mountain bikers, hunters and kayakers all have an obligation to engage on issues like public lands access, environmental degradation and climate change.

Not that Tomine can’t wax poetic in the same way a surfer describes the perfect wave or a skier crows over an ideal powder run.

“The sleek, chrome beauty, luminous and explosive, carrying all the strength and fecundity of the sea to inland waters. In essence, steelhead fishing is an opportunity to encounter ocean fish in the kind of water usually associated with trout,” he writes. “And it’s the spectacular places these fish inhabit as well, from steep-walled alpine rapids rushing beneath glaciers to the dark and mysterious coastal rainforest rivers, dripping with moss and the sweet scent of wet alders. From meandering tidewater stretches on the barren tundra to ice-cold streams cutting through the heat of red-rock canyons and sagebrush. These are all steelhead waters, and not coincidentally, places I love dearly.”

In the case of Tomine’s beloved sport, however, steelhead fly-fishing offers a stark warning. “When the resource you love starts to go, it can go really fast,” he said.

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