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Two Weeks in the Life of a College Trout Bum

From American Angler, March/April 2018

If you asked the average college kid to tell you about fly fishing, they would probably look at you as though you had two heads. If you asked anyone from the SUNY-ESF Trout Bums, we would give you a two-hour-long lecture and talk your ear off. Then again, we aren’t your average students—we’re also passionate about the outdoors, fly fishing, and the environment.

The truth is, everyone at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (or SUNY-ESF for short), a college in Syracuse, New York, studies ways to improve our ecosystems and make the world a better place. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that within the school’s modest enrollment, you’ll find about 25 dedicated fly anglers. We call ourselves the SUNY-ESF Trout Bums, and aside from finding time to fish, we try to incorporate others at our college into the sport of fly fishing, and teach what it means to be stewards of the lands and waters we use.

On any given cold, winter day, I typically can’t feel my frozen face as I walk across campus to get lunch with a few others from the club. They’re easy to spot in the dining hall—they’re the guys decked out in Simms, Orvis, and Patagonia. I jump into the conversation about who’s going to which river this upcoming weekend for winter steelhead, but time flies, and when I reluctantly look up at the clock, I see it’s time to head to class. As I leave the dining hall, I dread going to class. Then I remember it’s Thursday, which means there’s one of our biweekly meetings tonight. It’s the highlight of my week, so maybe school isn’t so bad.

My professor speaks and moves her hands, but I don’t register one word. I’m too busy looking at the clock every two seconds until class is dismissed. I’m the first one out, and I race to the meeting. It’s dark, and scattered snowflakes swirl in the air as I sprint across campus, desperately hoping I don’t slip on any ice. I make it with five minutes to spare and grab a seat next to my roommate, Christian.

As always, the club president, Ryan, starts things off with some exciting fly fishing video he’s found to get everyone in the room pumped up before work-ing through a slideshow of recent fish pictures from a few of the members. Next is a checklist of what’s coming up for the club—things like a fly tying session with veterans at the local Veterans Affairs hospital, a Salmon River cleanup effort, attending the next local Trout Unlimited meeting, and of course, our upcoming dates for fly tying events at some of the Bums’ houses off campus. These are just a few activities we look forward to.

With the business at hand behind us, we finally pull out our vises and get tying. The club supplies the materials, and most members learn to tie using the club’s equipment. The fly of choice tonight is a stonefly pattern (likely selected because steelhead fishing has been really heat-ing up). As the evening comes to a close, I smile and think about how lucky I am to be in a club like this.

Working for the Weekend

When the weekend finally rolls around, I plan to spend my Saturday with Nick, one of the biggest characters in the club. I consider most of us Bums addicted to fly fishing, but Nick takes it to a whole new level—he spends more time on the river than in class, and on campus, people simply refer to him as “Trout.”

We make the early-morning, 90-min-ute car ride to one of our “secret spots” and immediately gear up. Most people would think such a devoted fisherman would have the finest equipment and dress in the highest-quality gear. Nick is the opposite. His waders have several holes the size of quarters, and his boots are completely falling apart. Still, his fly fishing knowledge and photography skills are second to none. I suppose every fish-ing club has someone like Nick—crazy, erratic, and just fun to be around.

We park in a driveway that belongs to a lady who gave us permission to fish a private stretch of water upstream of the public area. She didn’t hesitate to grant us access after we told her we were SUNY-ESF students—I suppose it’s just another perk of attending an environmental school. Moments later, I’m in the water, watching my indicator ride the current downstream, when the tuft of yard suddenly drops below the water’s surface, and I lock into battle with a monster steelhead. Nick helps me with the net and stands next to me while I admire what I know is the largest steelhead I’ve ever caught. Morale is high on the return ride home, and I feel reenergized to start another week.

Sunday night, I receive a message from a few other Bums about planning a river cleanup (my first) and we decide to meet early in the week to discuss details. I’ve heard such an undertaking is a lot of work, but worth the effort, and everyone gets a sense they’ve helped improve the resource, so we’ll see. In the past, the club focused cleanup efforts on the most famous river in the area, the Salmon River. It’s far from what you’d consider a “secret” river, and with all the traffic, the river collects quite a bit of trash.

We pick a day and carpool as a club to clean the banks of the Salmon River. Even before we start, I feel rewarded. Some local fishing groups are sponsoring our cleanup, and in return, we’re allowed to fish selected stretches we’d normally have to pay to ac-cess. Still, when it comes to public service, the club takes itself very seriously—possibly because of our education at ESF. It seems every Trout Bum deeply cares about the environment, and it frustrates us to see the rivers we appreciate so much, so polluted. Yeah, we’re all fishermen and -women, but we’re also conservationists.

The Homestretch

It's midweek, and I’m swamped with schoolwork. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint), there’s no Trout Bums meeting this week, so my Monday to Friday feels longer than usual. But there’s only two more days until Friday, when I get to head over to the local hospital to tie flies with veterans in the Project Healing Waters program. Every other week, we all congregate at the hospital, which is only a short walk from campus. Sitting, talking, and tying with veterans is one of my favorite club events, and it means something different to each member. I’m amazed what the therapeutic power of fly fishing can do for people and the joy it provides.

Since our club isn’t meeting this week, my Thursday evening is free, and I can use the extra time to catch up on schoolwork. But it’s hard to prevent my thoughts from drifting off, and wonder-ing what flies we’ll tie at the Project Heal-ing Waters program.

Friday, after grabbing lunch with our vice president, Joe, we walk down to the hospital. This week, there are 10 veterans, two Project Healing Waters representatives, and four Bum members coming together to tie flies. The Project Healing Waters representatives start the session demonstrating the flies of the week—the Slump Bug and the Squirrel and Herl. After watching someone demonstrate how to tie the fly, the veterans go back to their vises and begin replicating the pattern. I walk around the room and take some photos, stopping intermittently to help some guys out, though I have to admit, many of the veterans are much more skilled tiers than myself, and I often learn more than I teach.

The veterans I’ve tied flies with in the past are some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, and I love to hear their stories. Out of the blue, while I am taking pictures, one points at my camera and says, “I don’t know how the heck that contraption works, but it’s pretty amazing.” We both get a good laugh, and I tell him I’ll bring him some of the pictures the next time we meet. Their stories are priceless, and they tell us we are just younger versions of themselves.

An older gentleman asks if I’ve been out on the river recently. I fill him in on the big steelhead I caught last weekend, and a big smile washes across his face. He congratulates me and goes on to tell a story about a steelhead he caught during the “good old days.” He describes it as “the greatest fish [he has] ever fought on a rod,” and that his buddies still talk about that day, among countless other trips they took together during their younger years. It’s all something I can relate to.

This event always touches every student that participates in some way or another. It is amazing to see the utter joy veterans get from tying flies and sharing stories. I can only think it helps take their minds off the outside world or anything else that might be going on in their lives, and gives them a few hours to relax with like-minded people. In some ways, it’s helped me learn fly fishing isn’t just about fooling fish. There’s something about the sport that’s deep and personal, and it helps connect us all. One day, every Trout Bum member will be part of the older generation, sitting around a table, tying flies. I hope there will still be someone there to help us make the most of that time.

Club Night

After tying with the veterans, we decide to schedule our own tying night—this time somewhere off campus at one of the Bums’ houses. We tie what-ever worked for us the weekend before, and time feels like it’s flying by as we poke fun at each other’s flies. As the evening begins to wind down, we start planning our annual spring trip to the Delaware River, where we’ll camp, throw dry flies, eat like college students, and do all we can to make the most of the time. We’re all looking forward to it.

The following morning, I walk into the dining hall once again, and I see the same Bums landed in the same seats they were in two weeks ago, wearing the same clothes, and debating whether or not Nick actually hooked into the monster brown trout he claims was 13 pounds. It sounds like a tall tale to me.

Then it’s off to the same old class, where I’ll watch the same old professor speak, literally understand nothing that comes out of her mouth, and turn to the clock every two seconds until she says those magic words that send me shooting out the door and running through the snow to make the next Bums meeting on time.

Thankfully, our club is not a seasonal hobby, or something we do in our free time—it’s a year-round obsession, and as one of the youngest generations of fly fishermen and -women, we know it’s our responsibility to carry on the tradition.

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