Chris Santella is the author of 19 books, including “Fifty Places To Fly Fish Before You Die,” “Fifty Places To Drink Beer Before You Die,” and “The Tug is the Drug.” A frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Trout and The Fly Fish Journal, he is also co-founder of Steelhead Communications, a Portland based copywriting boutique. When he’s not writing, he might be found playing guitar in the four-piece rock band, Catch and Release, or swinging flies for steelhead in his home-state of Oregon.
Santella authored the “30 Great American Places” series and shared his thoughts on public lands:
You’re a well-known expert on angling and an avid fly fisherman: What role have public lands played in shaping that passion?
Public lands have played a huge role in my evolution as a fly fisher, from my earliest days fishing on the Saugatuck River in Westport, CT to now. Nearly all of my fishing unfolds on public lands, mostly in Oregon, where a great deal of land is in the public domain – be it state or county-owned, BLM or Forest Service land. When I describe our vast system of public lands (and river access) to friends in the United Kingdom, they are astonished. They can’t believe we can walk up to a river with runs of Chinook salmon or steelhead and simply start casting with no permissions or beat fees. (Assuming, of course, that you have your fishing license!)
Do you have a favorite public lands memory? Favorite place?
Many of my favorite angling memories surround the Deschutes, where scores of miles of the river can be accessed from public land. They say that steelhead are the fish of 1,000 casts; my experience has certainly borne that out, except on one occasion when I fishing a spot called Blackberry, a mile or so above the confluence with the Columbia. On this September evening, a friend and I hooked 19 steelhead in the course of 1.5 hours, all on swung flies. A pod of fish must have moved in…and stayed. We were taking turns casting and hooking fish. It took me 12 more outings to hook another steelhead, so I paid for my special evening.
What surprised you most as you compiled this project?
I generally equate public lands with the wide open spaces of the west, and I was surprised to learn about the very substantial tracts of public land in the southeast and New England. People in our population centers do have access to some wild places—hopefully this project will help encourage a few more folks to get out and enjoy them.
You recently wrote a country opera that focused on the group that took control of the Malheur Wildlife Reserve in Harney County, Oregon. Tell us about your inspiration on that project?
As a writer, I spend a lot of time working from home, alone…hence, a lot of time with National Public Radio. Our local affiliate covered the Malheur Occupation closely, and as I followed the story, it seemed that it captured the gestalt of time—distrust of the government, a sense of anger and frustration without a clear outlet, and, the mythos of the cowboy/self-made man and most saliently, the question of how public lands will be used in the future as the complexion of “The West” changes. I thought it might be interesting (and fun) to retell the story in song—and given the characters and setting, country music was the obvious medium.
What do you think is the biggest threat to our hunting and fishing heritage?
It seems there are at least two threats facing this heritage. One is certainly the loss of habitat – or more accurately, access to that habitat – where one is able to hunt or fish. The other is the decline of that habitat, thanks to pollution, climate change, loss of connectivity—to the point where the species we seek can no longer survive. The latter is a problem that seems almost beyond our control, especially in the case of climate change. But the former is something we can control, through legislation and other legal instruments.
What advice do you have for hunters and anglers as they face the threat of public lands transfer?
We need to let our representatives (and other leaders) know that public lands matter. That access to wild places is one of the great privileges we enjoy in the United States – whatever your socioeconomic status – and are to be treasured. We also need to take extra time and effort to introduce our friends and neighbors who are less familiar with the great outdoors to the wonders our public lands offer. We need all the support we can, and can’t expect people who have no affinity for public lands to oppose their transfer. People will only save things once they love them, and they’re not likely to love “the outdoors” that public lands represent if they don’t experience them first hand.