Breaking Ice

Fly Fishing PE Course and Ecotourism
by Megan Hayes -- January 30th, 2015

Flyfishing is a type of fishing that requires mimicry, a particular looping and flicking cast, a weighted line, and a special kind of finesse. Fly Fishing is also a Physical Education course at Duke that has become a right of passage for many Nicholas School students. It’s one of those classes we take just for fun as we’re on our way out of the masters program, to help break up the stress of graduation requirements, masters project work and job applications.

Students learn knots, new terminology, a little fish ecology and a thing or two about the angler way of life. “These fish only live in beautiful places,” our instructor proclaimed, mirroring the ethos of the Nic Schoolers in his class. Interestingly, fly fisherman rarely ever take their caught fish home. More often than not their objective is to catch a big one and then release it.  “In a canoe there’s no space for a 100-pound slippery fish!” our professor said, while relating a hilarious story about how never even managed to get a photo of the largest fish he ever caught.


Long time flyfisherman Nicholas School MEM Joe Chambers acts as TA for two other MEM students, Sadie Runge and Sarah Sargent, who are joining me in this course.

Lighthearted as the class it, it also provides insights into the challenges posed by ecotourism. As our first guest speaker Oliver White said so succinctly, “the goal is to replicate our footprint, not to grow the footprint” or in other ways cause a negative environmental impact. Oliver faces an interesting predicament: he owns and manages several successful fishing lodges in the Bahamas and financially benefits from anglers who travel there to flyfish for bonefish, a prized catch. If the bonefish were to suddenly disappear, his business would crash.

The more Oliver spoke about the tourism industry, the more I and several other Nic Schoolers in the class started to get uneasy.  Ecotourism, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the International Ecotourism Society, are trips that “involve visiting natural environments, doing nothing to change or adversely affect these areas, and providing cultural and economic advantages to local communities.” However, these organizations have no real control over the tourism market, so there’s no real way to enforce standards and requirements. It’s possible that businesses can promote ecotourism even when some of their practices aren’t environmentally responsible.

Because he loves his “shoeless lifestyle” and the beautiful environment that surrounds the sport, Oliver doesn’t want this to happen. He has turned his attention towards conservation in small and large ways, and ones that I think deserve more reflection and attention.

He has welcomed local universities into his lodges to study the bonefish, in the hopes to someday turn parts of the Bahama Islands through legal actions into a marine habitat of significance for hatchery and healthy growth.

He’s traveled around the world to champion challenging fishes, not only to prove what can be done with a fly rod, but to also bring attention to these beautiful regions and the special and unique environments and species that they support.

He’s helped train and introduce the fly fishing sport to indigenous communities in regions that are at risk of deforestation and mining. In providing a new industry and teaching business skills, these people have turned away from practices that degrade their environments and are working to build an economy based on the principles of true ecotourism.

If you would like to learn more about the problems of ecotourism please click here. We all love going on vacations, might as well make sure they are done in a sustainable fashion.

If you would like to learn more about efforts to spread flyfishing as a way to save a region from environmental destruction I highly recommend watching the Costa Sunglasses film Jungle Fish and reading up on the Protect Guyana project.

By the end of the semester I should be casting like “someone who’s been doing it for 3-5 years,” and the goal is to catch a decent sized fish on a fly I’ve tied myself. I hope it works out – -for me and for your entertainment. I’ll keep you guys in the loop as the semester progresses.



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