Local author ponders fishing in arid lands
We tend to think of deserts as bleak, inhospitable expanses of parched sand beneath a sweltering sun. Matthew Dickerson’s latest book, “Trout in the Desert: On Fly Fishing, Human Habits, and the Cold Waters of the Arid Southwest,” however, tells the intriguing story of cold-water fish in streams that animate this landscape.
This work of narrative nonfiction weaves the author’s personal experiences fly fishing for trout in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas with scientific and historical background on the fish and its human-altered ecosystems. Dickerson, a Middlebury College computer science professor and Bristol resident, has been an avid fly fisher for more than four decades. In this book he wrestles with the irony of fishing for trout in deserts, where the fish has decimated native species after introduction by humans. The only reason trout now inhabits Southwestern streams is that we have severely impounded them, reducing tailwater temperatures enough to support this non-native species by releasing colder water from the bottom of reservoirs.
Dickerson was inspired by the opportunity to spend time researching, writing and learning in the unique scenic environment of the American Southwest. He wanted to explore the important environmental issues of dam construction and wasteful water consumption here. The Colorado River, for example, is just one of many major rivers in the region that flow into reservoirs and no longer reach the ocean. The book also enabled the writer to return to New Mexico, where he had a moving personal experience hiking into and fishing a remote high alpine lake when he was 13 years old. Additionally, he wanted to write about the headwaters of the Gila River and its surroundings because they transformed Aldo Leopold, a writer that Dickerson looks up to, into a leading conservationist. The narrative nonfiction of John Elder, Sue Halpern and Wendell Berry also made him fond of and interested in pursuing this genre.
The book took one and a half years to complete. It involved research trips to the Guadalupe River in Texas, the Colorado River at head of the Grand Canyon and the Gila River in Arizona and New Mexico. Dickerson said he wrote it in one summer after months of contemplating his story, looking at photographs and revisiting personal essays about these places. He says the most memorable part of the process was finding the narrative in his memories and reflecting on how the landscape has changed him.
“I’m more aware of that arrogance we have with human engineering,” said Dickerson, a computer scientist who looks to technology to solve problems, but is now opposed to using it indiscriminately to modify the environment simply for our needs. “The world does not exist to make good trout fishing for me. The Colorado River would be much better off if we didn’t have that big dam there. There would be no trout fishing or limited trout fishing because the water would be 30 degrees warmer, but we can have all sorts of native species thriving there.”
The writer believes his biggest challenge was creating an informed narrative that engages a broad audience — not just fly fishers and fans of nature writing, but anyone who appreciates compelling writing. His objectives included entertaining readers with his stories and scenes, raising awareness and concern about the fragility of environments such as the Southwest and the ecological consequences of human actions, and motivating more environmentally responsible individual and societal decision-making.
“I would hope that someone reading this might say, it’s worth paying more for food grown in a healthier, more sustainable way, because that’s a big part of the reason we draw so much water,” Dickerson said. “You can be careful in the river, do your best to not pollute, not exploit, but also use the influence we have so that policies we support shouldn’t just be about our desire to have recreation in these beautiful spots, but more about conserving them for other non-recreational life forms.”
The author’s favorite section of “Trout in the Desert” is that of the Gila National Forest because of the failure and hope this place represents.
“I went in there in the hopes of holding one of these rare Gila trout … I never hooked one … That failure helps connect me to the failure of our whole race to preserve and protect the place,” he said. “I was there after this major flood and major fire, so you see the devastation caused by these natural events, although magnified by human settlement, but also the beauty and potential to recover if they’re not exploited.”
“Trout in the Desert” is the first installment of “Heartstreams,” a five-part series about fly fishing for trout and the environmental issues surrounding these creatures in regions across the country. Each book will feature prints from a local artist. Dickerson has already finished the second book, “A Tale of Three Rivers: Of Wooly Buggers, Bowling Balls, Cigarette Butts, and the Future of Appalachian Brook Trout,” which will come out this year. The third one, which he completed researching last summer, is about the Dolly Varden species of trout in Alaska. The fourth book, which he plans to research this coming summer, will focus on cutthroat trout in the northern Rocky Mountains. The last will examine steelhead trout in the Pacific Northwest.
Dickerson’s passion for fly fishing is intimately rooted in the serene beautiful landscapes where he fishes.
“There’s this physical connection between you and a trout along the fly line, but that’s part of a metaphorical connection you have when you’re fishing to everything around you,” he said. “The more time you spend in river ecosystems, the more aware you are of how much life there is, how diverse the life is, how interconnected everything is.
“You become aware of this deep level of interconnectedness, and there’s such rich beauty and biodiversity that you begin to care about the system as a whole … You begin to ask, how can I serve the needs of the river?”