Disneylands with Trout: Environmental Change and Conflict on Tailwater Fisheries

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 12:10 PM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Jen Corrinne Brown, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
This presentation seeks to connect environmental and social history, illustrating the connections between environmental change, sport, and social conflict. In the post-World War II era, the construction of new bottom-release dams on inland rivers created amazing trout fishing in the tailwaters flowing out of them. The fun, yet crowded and built environment, prompted fly-fishing environmentalist Gary LaFontaine to call one famous tailwater, Montana’s Bighorn River, a “Disneyland for fly anglers.” Similar to Disneyland, tailwaters represented a constructed and highly manipulated environment where visitors shared in and benefited from the artificialness of it all, taking management and control over nature to a new level.

Like Disneyland’s potential to hide reality in its celebrated imaginary world, tailwaters have also enveloped native fish declines, crowding, and user conflicts within the allure of fishing for lunker trout. In the 1970s and early 1980s, years of environmental change culminated in a dispute over the ownership of the Bighorn riverbed between the state of Montana (which represented non-Crow anglers) on one side and the Crow Tribe and the US government on the other side. Culminating in a 1981 Supreme Court case, the Crow Tribe ultimately lost their ownership of the riverbed to the state of Montana as well as the right to regulate non-Crow fishing within their own reservation. The case indicated that seemingly beneficial environmental change often failed to achieve social justice in the 1970s and 1980s. If tailwaters can be compared to Disneylands with trout, the conflicts surrounding the Bighorn River can be likened to the somewhat disturbing “It’s a Small World” ride, with its racialized undertones and inescapable creepiness. Just as issues of race hovered beneath the surface of seemingly perfect places, the fights over the Bighorn implicitly involved racial tensions created by the crowds of white anglers drawn to the tailwater trout.