The Natural Georgia Series: The Flint River
"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." So begins the American classic, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.
Anyone who has spent significant time pursuing fish with a rod in hand will understand the meaning of Maclean's skillful prose. I know I do. I still feel more at home and closer to God when I'm out in the woods or on a stream by myself, or just with Rosalynn, than at any other time.
In the southwest Georgia community where I grew up, churches were the center of our spiritual, educational, and social lives. But I must admit that throughout my young life, I was obsessed with hunting and fishing, and I was not alone. It was what my father, most of the men in town, families on the farm, and all of us boys wanted most when we were not working. We read, thought, talked, recalled past experiences, and made future plans, all about hunting and fishing. I had a fishing pole in my hands as early as I can remember, and would go hunting with Daddy long before I could have anything to shoot other than a BB gun. Today, the most vivid and pleasant memories of my childhood are of those times when Daddy and I were able to fish and hunt together, or ride along in a pickup truck talking about it.
My family's home was in the community of Archery, located three miles from the bustling town of Plains and roughly halfway between the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers. Looking back, I believe I always have had an affinity for moving waters.
As a young boy, I swam and fished in the waters of Choctahatchee Creek, which drains our farmlands and eventually joins the Kinchafoonee. Buffered by river swamps, the Kinchafoonee winds its way to Albany where it joins Muckalee Creek and the Flint River.
Near home, I explored the creek bends and swamplands and caught catfish, eels, bream, and jack (chain pickerel). Like many creeks and waters in what natives call the "Land Between the Rivers," Choctahatchee Creek was partially born from spring water: Magnolia Springs, the resort where my future parents had their first double date.
I remember Daddy driving the family 30 miles to the east to see the flooding Flint River. I looked down at the river in wonderment at its size. They laughed when I asked, "Where's the river, Daddy? Down in that big creek?" Later as Governor, the Flint River again captured my attention when I fought successfully to prevent the U.S. Corps of Engineers from building a dam at Sprewell Bluff on the Flint River. The expensive, unnecessary project would have inundated one of the most scenic and naturally significant sections of the Flint River. The photograph on the cover of this publication would be much different if the dam had been constructed.
Growing up in the relatively flat lands of the Coastal Plain, I fished the warm, slow moving streams typical of that region. Despite our other blessings, we southern fishermen have to go farther north to find such cold-water species as trout, salmon, char, or grayling. This is why, in spite of years of experience in warm-water lakes and creeks, I was still somewhat piscatorially retarded when we moved to Atlanta and the Governor's Mansion, just a few miles from the frigid waters of the Chattahoochee River. I soon asked Jack Crockford, director of Georgia's Game and Fish Department, (and Director Emeritus of the Georgia Wildlife Federation) to introduce me to the fly rod and trout fishing just a few minutes from the Governor's mansion. In time, Rosalynn and I found time also to sample some of the smaller streams in the north Georgia mountains.
Since learning to fly fish was one of the most gratifying developments of my life, I sought out opportunities to continue the sport when I was President. I realized that I was sharing a love of this art with several of my predecessors: George Washington, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and, most notably, Grover Cleveland. In fact, they and I have fished in some of the same streams.
Usually, on hunting trips or when fishing from a boat on large streams or lakes, I am with family and friends, and it is good to share with them the frustrations and successes, the hardships and delights, the plans and memories. Outdoor people constitute a close fraternity, often international in its membership. Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.
What about the taking of life? Every hunter and fisherman, I am sure, sometimes has twinges of uneasiness when a beautiful and swift quail or waterfowl is brought down, or when a valiant trout finally is brought to the net. I have been made to feel more at peace about my hunting and fishing because of my strict observance of conservation measures, including the deliberate protection of overly depleted game and the initiation and support of programs to increase the population of species that seem scarce.
I know that many of my fellow hunters and fishers, in personal practice and through formal organizations, are the very people most dedicated to these same worthy goals. They are the prime supporters of the Georgia Wildlife Federation (as Rosalynn and I are) and similar institutions whose purpose is to protect habitat and increase the population of their quarry. Working with professional game and fish specialists and donating substantial time, influence, and funds, we have been quite successful. Today there are more white-tailed deer roaming the state than ever before and wild turkey populations have made a remarkable comeback.
When the Flint River was threatened by ill-conceived development, I was urged by a few outdoorsmen, fishermen, and environmentalists to take a critical look at the project. Not only did I review many governmental reports and meet with numerous groups interested in the Flint, I also canoed the river and fished for shoal bass that are indigenous to the Flint. I'm very pleased that today, Georgians can experience the same Flint River that I did almost 30 years ago, whether they want to navigate its rapids in a canoe or try their luck for shoal bass. I hope that they may be renewed in spirit, as I am, by the special feelings that come from the solitude and beauty of the out-of-doors.
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