Fishing 101: WFU students learn about sport fishing and conservation

A Wake Forest University biology professor has turned his passion for fishing into a first-year seminar for Wake Forest students.

In Daniel Johnson’s class, “Sport Fishing in America,” students examine the arguments for and against natural resource management practices that preserve sport fishing opportunities. The first weeks of the course focus on conservation theory and environmental policy. Students are required to read “A Sand County Almanac” by conservationist Aldo Leopold, as well as “The Insightful Sportsman” by Ted Williams and “Darwin’s Bass” by Paul Quinnett.

First-year seminars at Wake Forest are courses for freshmen designed to develop critical-thinking, writing and oral presentation skills.

Although it was not a requirement, almost all of the 16 students enrolled in the class like to fish. About half of them are salt-water fishermen, half prefer fresh water. Two from the group are fly fishermen.

Johnson started fishing with his grandfather when he was 5 years old.

“My grandfather owned a small bass and sunfish pond and routinely took me there,” said Johnson. “He was a ‘bare hook’ fisherman; he usually tossed out a bare hook and waited patiently for a nibble that rarely came. He was raised in an era when you were never truly idle, so a bare hook was his excuse to sit and watch the water and wildlife around him.”

“Most people view fishing merely as a leisure pastime,” Johnson said. “However, providing high quality sport fishing opportunities is both a major goal and a significant expense for natural resource management programs nationwide. Trying to balance the desires of sport fishermen against local economic reality frequently leads to controversy.”

For their final project, Johnson’s students are taking what they learned in the first half of the semester and applying it to a practical problem facing a watershed or marine habitat in North Carolina or Virginia.

Working in groups of three or four, the students select a watershed, such as a section of the New River or part of Albermarle Sound in North Carolina. They have to identify a problem that has either already damaged or limited fishing opportunities, or has the potential to do so. Then, the group must develop a plan to solve the problem. The plan must be environmentally sound and not negatively impact the existing ecosystem. It must include a way to preserve or improve the fishing experience in that area and a reasonable source of funding must be identified.

To get them started, Johnson steers his students toward such resources as “Rivers of North Carolina,” a special edition of the magazine, Wildlife in North Carolina.

“The class has definitely allowed me to realize all the problems that do exist with fishing and water management,” said Alexander Chen, a student from West Chester, Ohio. “It has also taught me how the groups that most people trust to take care of conservation issues are often on opposite sides, although they all think they are doing what is right.”

At the conclusion of the semester, Johnson wants the students to have the experience of presenting “a reasoned, coherent argument” to individuals they do not know. So, he has created the fictional N.C. Department of Waterways Management, comprised of Wake Forest professors, a graduate student and a community expert on water management. The students will present their final proposals for the group to evaluate in late April.

Categories: Research, Student