How can the sport of fly fishing, and outdoor recreation in general, attract more diverse groups of people to participate? Diné (Navajo) fly fishing guide and social activist Erica Nelson has some ideas.
Nelson was the keynote speaker at a meeting of Trout Unlimited members from across New Mexico and the region last weekend. Nelson spoke about her experiences in outdoor leadership and working with organizations and companies to analyze their own policies related to inclusion in marketing, as well as other aspects such as recruitment and community engagement.
In addition to changes throughout society, such as the adoption of a new paradigm of thinking and a change in culture that begins by talking about inclusion, simple acts such as offering a friendly greeting to a newcomer at the river or other spaces in the outdoors can be very helpful, Nelson said.
Nelson moved to Lander, Wyo., from Lake Tahoe, where he had attended Sierra Nevada University. He worked at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
I used to play disc golf professionally and was looking for a new sport.
“I noticed that my co-workers were very active. They rode their bikes down to the Popo Agie River after work to fly-fish. The sport had seemed so grand and remote to me, but they wore flip-flops and jeans and suggested I check out the free rentals we offer, so I grabbed a stick.”
In his early efforts, Nelson found he was catching more trees than fish. She saw fly fishing as a puzzle and was determined to figure it out. He watched YouTube videos on how to cast and tie flies. Wondering if anyone else was struggling to learn the sport, she founded Awkward Angler on Instagram to create an online community as a safe place to ask awkward questions about the sport. A podcast of the same name followed.
It has explored the unspoken etiquette around sports and bullying around the type of gear someone wears or what they wear. Throughout his life working as an outdoor leader, whitewater and rock climbing guide, Nelson has faced racism and sexism and had to contend with barriers to access to sports such as fly fishing , including the price of gear, learning proper techniques, and feeling safe in the outdoors. .
“Over the years I decided to embrace discomfort when it comes to leadership,” says Nelson. “Part of the name, Awkward Angler, recognizes that social justice issues related to outdoor recreation are uncomfortable to talk about and hear about. But we have to talk about them if we share land and water. “As an Indigenous woman, going out is always a risk. It’s always there,” he adds.
It points out that indigenous women and girls are killed at a rate 10 times higher than any other. Having suffered losses herself, she doesn’t always feel safe venturing outside alone. Recognize that others have faced different types of barriers and oppression. All oppression is connected, he adds, and says that there is no one type of oppression that is more important than another.
Nelson sees some hopeful signs that things are starting to change.
He founded REAL Consulting in 2018 with business partner Sydney Clark Whittington. Her organization’s name stands for “Reconcile, Evolve, Advance and Lead,” with the goal of guiding organizations toward racial equity and inclusion. Together with Brown Folks Fishing, his company developed the Angling for All commitment to tackle racism and inequality. The commitment was first signed by Orvis and then by other organizations such as Patagonia.
“There’s been a lot of changes,” Nelson said. “After the killing of George Floyd in 2020, these issues became part of the national discourse. After that, we started to see more conversations with organizations and brands. They became more open.”
She says it’s crucial that senior management buy in to enable change across the organization.
“If we all start taking responsibility, it will help everyone. This has to start at the top. If that person knows what equity looks like, we can start to get somewhere,” Nelson added.
Some signs of healthy organizations are people taking responsibility for their attitudes and actions and holding each other accountable, Nelson says. “When co-workers hold each other accountable for mistakes and keep coming back to the table, that’s when we know we’re going to start seeing change.”
When Nelson started working in outdoor leadership and guiding, there weren’t many women of color. “I started working over 10 years ago in the outdoor industry leading hikes, climbing guides and rafting instructors. In all of these experiences I was usually the only woman or the only woman of color . Racism and sexism are additional burdens to carry.”
In October, Nelson was on the cover of the Orvis catalog. In February of this year, she was featured in the New York Times story, “I Identify as a Fisherwoman: Meet Erica Nelson, an Indigenous Fly Fishing Guide.”
Although born and raised in northwestern New Mexico, this was Nelson’s first trip to Taos. He currently resides in Crested Butte, ancestrally known as Ute territory.
“Fly fishing in Taos was an amazing experience,” he said. “It also helped that the weather and scenery were exceptional. I was surprised to learn about the various species of the Rio Grande in Pilar, including rainbow, brown, cutthroat trout, along with pike and bass. It was because a very special experience for me. Taos, overall, was a positive and fun experience, but like most places in the United States, it has prominent reminders and impacts of colonization. To be honest, as a Diné (Navajo) woman ), visiting and seeing places named after and dedicated to Kit Carson was somewhat alarming and unsettling. Taos is like many other places in that it is steeped in an uncomfortable history, but with beautifully crafted architecture between Native Americans and Spanish.
Reflecting on fly fishing, Nelson says, “I’m kind of obsessed with it, looking at the interconnectedness of nature and climate. Everything is interconnected and that can be beautiful and complex. We also have to look at our dependence on oil and gas to get us outdoors and understand how all these things connect.”
As she reflects on the difficult conversations she is having, she says, “While the work of talking about racism and other oppressions can be difficult, it can also be joyful. I like to say that true diversity is in recovery, working through mistakes and coming back to the table so that more authentic communities can be built.”
After Nelson’s talk, he joined a panel discussion.
Marc Space, vice president of the New Mexico State Council of Trout Unlimited and vice president of the Enchanted Circle of Trout Unlimited, said he felt the discussion was productive because the panelists were so invested in the issue of diversity and all have a “personal interest in the water quality of northern New Mexico and how they might be supported by the Enchanted Circle Chapter of Trout Unlimited.”
Nelson’s presentation and the panel discussion that followed align with Trout Unlimited’s policy of including a more diverse audience in its conservation activities and practices.
The organization has been in existence for 60 years. According to its website, it has involved millions of people in its mission to conserve, protect and restore cold water fisheries. In its equity practice, the organization states: “We rely on local participation to inform our science, advocate for trout and salmon, and restore rivers and streams. Engaging diverse and entire communities is critical to ensuring that robust populations of trout and salmon once again thrive in their native range. Our impact has been significant, but achieving our mission remains impossible without the free participation of all people. We can and will do better. Identify and address inequities and creating spaces and support for all people to participate in our mission work will make our organization and the communities in which we work stronger, more lasting and more sustainable.”
Last weekend’s gathering was about bringing TU staff and grassroots work together in New Mexico to address what’s going well and plans for the future.
Dan Roper, New Mexico Fishermen’s Conservation Coordinator, says, “I work on policy and advocacy that benefits trout, watershed health, healthy rivers, and funding for restoration projects. Our organization work with our congressional delegation and state legislators to promote good things for fish, wildlife and the environment.”
Coming out of the pandemic, there weren’t many events related to fly fishing. Now, there’s more, including the reintroduction of cutthroat trout from the Rio Grande to the Rio Costilla today, Nov. 3, in conjunction with New Mexico Game and Fish and TISA third graders and the Trout in the Classroom program. There is also a working project on the Gila River and the Albuquerque International Fly Fishing Film Festival.
Western Regional Conference
Roper notes that one of the important tasks at last weekend’s retreat was to begin planning for the Western Regional Meet to be held May 19-21, 2023. For the first time, the meet will be held in Taos.
Maggie Heumann, volunteer operations manager for Trout Unlimited National, has been traveling to various state councils across the West speaking about the COVID exit.
“A lot of chapters do activities again,” he said. “I’m here to present to you on the health of the organization and revitalization strategies for the coming year.”
She is focused on the meeting next May and says that in addition to the meeting itself, the organization will be doing conservation tours to look at local waterways that need improvement as ideas for future projects and will also sponsor a project of service, such as a garbage can. collection
He said Trout Unlimited is actively looking to recruit younger members who care about conservation, recycling, clean water and the climate. “We want to try to take advantage of this energy and involve people. We are not just a fishing organization but also one that cares about cold water conservation,” he says.
Trout Unlimited is already very active locally. “We have nearly two dozen projects in various stages of development in northern New Mexico. Part of what we pride ourselves on is being part of the local community,” says Garrett Hanks, TU Northern New Mexico’s project manager. “The people who live in the community do the work; is the one who knows the resources better and is more effective on the ground”.
Projects include large-scale efforts, such as watershed-wide work on Comanche Creek that has been underway for the past 15 years, and smaller-scale projects, such as the installation of barriers on four river tributaries Hondo to protect native cutthroat populations by preventing other trout species. of swimming in the tributaries of the main river.