The magazine for Western Washington University

Lessons on the Riverbank

By Mary Lane Gallagher | Window editor

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Tying it all together: Associate Professor Leo Bodensteiner, right, helps fly-fishing student Carolyn Kinkade prepare her line. | Photo by David Scherrer
Rosie Cullinane picks through her collection of hand-tied flies. She and other students in the flyfishing class work on them during lectures about stream ecology and conservation ethics. | Photo by David Scherrer
Tom Graham, left, and Rowan Yerxa practice casting on Squalicum Lake. | Photo by Mark Malijan
"We're looking to make conservationists," says Associate Professor Leo Bodensteiner, left, with student Carolyn Kinkade at Clearwater Creek in the Mount Baker Foothills. "We want them to love streams." | Photo by David Scherrer
Western Washington University's class "The Art, Science and Ethics of Flyfishing" encourages students to get their feet wet learning about watershed ecology. Instructors also hope the summer class, which includes a final project delivered around a campfire on the Upper Skagit, sparks a lifelong love of wild rivers and streams. | Photo by Mark Malijan

Her feet planted in sodden feltsoled boots, Rosie Cullinane sweeps her fishing rod over her head, orange line arcing above the creek rushing high and loud with snowmelt.

Cullinane won’t be graded on whether she catches a fish on today’s field trip with her class, “The Art, Science and Ethics of Flyfishing,” but she is eager to see if the casting techniques she learned on the lawn in front of Old Main will tempt a rainbow trout onto her hook.

“You have to take a look around,” explains Cullinane. “You have to get to know your environment before you dive right in.”

The 46-year-old Fairhaven College student maneuvers her hand-tied elkhair caddis toward a spot she hopes a trout might rest: hovering in an eddy away from the creek’s fastest current.

Three weeks into the summer class taught by Leo Bodensteiner, associate professor of Environmental Sciences, Cullinane and the other students have been schooled in the art of casting and fly tying, the science of identifying insects and fish, and the ethics of watershed stewardship.

“What we’re learning is really ecology through the window of fly-fishing,” Cullinane says. “They’re teaching us to fly-fish, but they’re also teaching us to be stewards of the river.”

In the five years Bodensteiner and summer session lecturer Steve Meyer have offered the class at Western, it has drawn students from majors throughout campus, Bodensteiner says. About half come from Huxley College of the Environment, and the junior-level course offers some important hands-on illustrations of scientific concepts like hydrology, watershed dynamics and aquatic food chains.

But Bodensteiner and Meyer aren’t just looking for another way to teach scientific fundamentals.

“We’re looking to make conservationists,” Bodensteiner says. “If people don’t take an interest in streams, (streams) just go away. We want them to love streams.”

Historically, Bodensteiner says, fishers and hunters have been strong advocates for conservation. But as more people live in cities, fewer of us are spending time in the wilderness, he says.

Out of sight, out of mind, he worries.

“Even if you don’t need the stream to provide fishing opportunities,” Bodensteiner says, “you still need the stream.”

Which is why the four-week course is big on science but just as big on lore. When students aren’t listening to lectures on entomology, tying flies all the while, they’re watching films like “A River Runs Through It” to tempt them with the romance and beauty of the sport.

Their final project is an oral report on a fly-fishing river, delivered around a campfire along the banks of the Upper Skagit, where the class winds up with a three-day fishing trip. Students learn about a river’s ecology and history and what kinds of fish are found there.

By the end of the trip, Meyer says, students have learned about more than a dozen places waiting for them to explore with their fishing gear and new skills. He hopes it’s as inspiring as showing a Warren Miller movie in October to a bunch of skiers and snowboarders.

Cullinane hopes the end of her fly-fishing class is really a beginning.

“I’m so hooked on this,” she says, the orange fly-fishing line pooling at her feet. “I can see myself doing this for a lifetime.”

Besides, she says, “I do want to catch a fish one day.”