I run and ride my bike along the Spokane River often, and I float and swim in it as many times as I can each summer. Yet, I must admit, it’s a rare day when I slow down enough and take the time to really think about that ribbon of water that snakes through our city.
Fortunately, I got that chance to spend some quality time with the river one beautiful August evening. OTM writer Brad Naccarato and I were whipping our fly rods around, dodging ponderosa pines and willow, as we followed Jerry White, the new Spokane Riverkeeper, through the woods towards the water. I’m pretty up to speed on most regional conservation issues, but, sadly, I knew far too little about the Spokane Riverkeeper and aimed to change that while we fished.
It’s pretty straight forward stuff, as White explained. “Our mission is for a fishable and swimmable Spokane River. We are basically the river’s guardians, keeping an eye on things to make sure the rules meant to protect it are being followed and that the health of the watershed improves,” he says. White, an avid Spokane River angler and boater who lives close enough to the river to have hatches of river bugs buzzing around his yard, is the perfect person for the job. On any given day, he could be talking with a civic organization or business group, testifying at a public meeting on behalf of the river, or floating or splashing around in the Spokane or one of its tributaries, engaging people like us who use and love the river. As we waded out into the late August shallows of one of the wilder-feeling spots downstream from the city, the talk turned to fishing, a pastime that White passionately believes is one of the best ways to cultivate a sense of place and to connect with a river in a very personal way.
We were casting for native redbands, a subspecies of rainbow trout that I’m told have held on in these waters since the last ice age. I have heard anglers and biologists muttering about the plight of the river’s redbands for years, but it never really sunk in. Another one of many species in peril, sad but somehow still an underwater abstraction. That night, wading around mid-stream, scanning the smooth spots on the otherwise turbulent surface and finally watching the flash of light and rainbow color and the splash of wild fish bending one rod, then another, I caught myself wishing I had paid more attention to all that redband talk over the years.
I’ve reeled in plenty of fish in my life, plunking bait and casting spinners in lakes and rivers, but this was my first time out with a fly rod. I have to admit it wasn’t pretty, but I didn’t want to stop either. I couldn’t get my line back in the water fast enough after each attempted drift. White stood there in calf-deep current, only fishing half the time, watching the water and talking about fishing and the health of the river. Apparently, many seasoned anglers get the same charge out of just being in the water close to fish.
With caddisflies from the evening’s hatch crawling up our legs, White talked about ways in which the river has changed between pauses to point out a heron or comment on osprey circling overhead. Fewer native fish, especially in the upper river where bass have taken over a once abundant trout fishery, is a serious concern – it’s one that White and others hope won’t spread to the colder, aquifer-fed waters of the lower Spokane. But there is progress being made on other fronts. Pollution and wastewater discharge that has held the Spokane back from meeting its Clean Water Act mandates in the past is slowly being reigned in thanks in large part to the work of river advocates putting pressure on regulators and polluters.
But White also notes that there seems to be a more collaborative spirit amongst all the different players at the table, from river advocates and regulatory agencies to the city and businesses that have used the river as a place to discharge wastewater for years. “It feels like more and more of the people involved want to do the right thing,” he says. White credits that shift to increased public awareness of just how important the Spokane River is to the region’s quality of life and our evolving economy – one that rightfully puts top value on a beautiful urban river that you can safely fish and swim in.
Anyone who would fight against that needs to go fishing with White. Learn more about the Spokane Riverkeeper at Cforjustice.org/river. //
Drink Good Coffee and Beer to Support the Riverkeeper
Looking after the Spokane River isn’t just the work of anglers, boaters, and river advocates anymore. Now you can enjoy a cup of local Doma Coffee or a pint of beer from River City Brewing and support the Spokane Riverkeeper each time you do. Doma donates $1 for every 12-ounce can or bulk pound of their “GOOD COFFEE” coffee blend that was developed in partnership with Spokane Riverkeeper to support their programs. River City Brewing brews a specialty Riverkeeper IPA, which supports the Spokane Riverkeeper with each keg sold. Order up at pint at the River City taproom at 121 South Cedar Street downtown Spokane.