I admit social media has its good points; however watching how it’s impacted on coverage of the latest high country fires shows up its many failings (to put it politely). I won’t rehash the whole sorry east coast fire map saga for example, which had upcoming Millbrook clients from the USA asking if they should cancel their March trip! (Err, no, we said – we’re 300 kilometres west of the nearest fires.) However, there were two social media comments in particular, towards the end of the fire crisis, which stood out to me.
One was from an angler describing the continued devastation of the Tasmanian fishery – a year after the highland fires there had been extinguished – and how this was a likely predictor of the post-fire fishing in north-east Victoria and the Snowy Mountains. Clearly, given the almost complete post-fire recovery of the trout fishing in Tasmania, this person was basing their assessment on some confused second-hand account or accounts, not personal experience. But to read their post, you would think they were offering expert on-the-spot advice.
So here’s the first and in many ways the most destructive element of social media reporting: the most outlandish assessment, if repeated and shared enough, can soon carry more weight than a carefully fact-checked story from a major news outlet.
Now I know what you’re going to say: many news outlets have become just as bad as they race to beat each other with the next scoop, and are therefore at best loose with the truth. And the old adage that bad news sells, means the looseness – and this has been never more evident than when reporting on the recent fires – leans towards shock and horror. All I can say is, there are still some publications, like this magazine, which pride themselves on reporting the facts as best we can. I guess that sounds self-serving, but it’s true and we’re not alone; although perhaps we’re now in the minority. (Come to think of it, self-interest commercially would probably be best served by hysterical ranting and screeching.)
The other social media comment which struck me, was from a flyfisher asking what his options outside the fire areas were, because last time, ‘it took several years’ for fire-affected waters to recover! Reading that, I wondered whether it was a failure of his own memory which had led him to write-off all waters in the fire-affected areas of the Snowys and north-east Victoria for the next several years, or whether he had caught the ‘disease’ from other gloomy assessments? In any case, he was certainly spreading the word. This brought home a second failing of social media, which can be incapsulated in the phrase ‘Misery loves company.’ Those anglers who are depressed about the fishing future, will find more company online than anglers who are optimistic – which snowballs the negative.
From the aftermath of Ash Wednesday in February 1983, when my brother Mark and I drove through the devasted landscape surrounding our favourite Otways streams; right through to the present situation, I’ve experienced firsthand, rather than from a screen, the effects of around a dozen major fires on various precious trout waters; and the effects of countless smaller fires too. I have meticulously recorded my personal fishing experiences after each of these fires, as I’ve done for decades following every fishing trip. What I’ve learnt is that fires, like floods, droughts, heatwaves, cormorant plagues and so on, are an inevitable part of trout fishing in Australia – and indeed, a reality for many other trout fisheries throughout the world. And sooner or later (mostly sooner) the fishing comes back, we rejoice, and the cycle begins again.
So this is the deal we sign up to when we choose flyfishing in the wild (as opposed to, say, flyfishing inside a temperature-controlled dome on a reticulated artificial stream to tame, pellet-fed trout). All the things we love about being outdoors, include the fact that nature is largely beyond our control: we can’t regulate the wind, the rain, the lightning strikes, the hot northerlies, the icy southerlies, the tides, the cloud cover… This element of variability is a big part of what makes flyfishing fascinating and engrossing. Walking up a stream with a flyrod in hand, we’re briefly participants in nature, not observers through glass from an airconditioned home or office. Yes, the washed-out trips, gales that refuse to back off, and blackened landscapes around once-beautiful rivers; these challenges and more test our optimism and fortitude. Yet as far back as 1947, in a world far less urban and with much more connection to the landscape, Skues recognised this in his famous Mr Castwell story.
Anyway, what frustrates me most is not that anglers get upset about the damage bushfires cause. (I get upset too; fires are the pits.) It’s that so many anglers – even the older ones who’ve experienced this before and should know better – talk in apocalyptic terms about streams being ‘gone forever’ and ‘it’ll never be the same.’ And these sentiments only seem to be amplified by social media.
I can’t promise that the fishing in each stream impacted by the latest fires will bounce back in a few months as if nothing ever happened. What I can promise, is we’ve been here before – many times – and that every single north-east Victorian or Snowy Mountains water you enjoyed fishing prior to this summer, is a survivor of an earlier bushfire.