BOZEMAN — A Montana State University librarian is collecting the stories of anglers from across the world and making those stories available for anyone, anywhere in the world to watch for free.
Special Collections Librarian James Thull said he was inspired to launch the MSU Angling Oral History Project after a “cool” story he heard from the legendary fly-fisherman Bud Lilly.
Lilly told Thull that one day when he was working as a guide, Lilly took an elderly man fishing. The man could no longer see well, but he could still fish.
Lilly directed him to where he could cast, and the man landed a nice brown trout. Then he started to put his rod away.
“The fish are still rising,” Lilly told him. “You can keep fishing.”
“No,” the man responded. “That’s the last fish I will ever catch.”
Thull was honored to hear Lilly recount the story, he said, and the exchange prompted Thull to launch, in 2014, a project dedicated to capturing the culture, history and significance of angling. The result is the MSU Angling Oral History Project, which collects, preserves and shares the histories, opinions and stories of politicians, artists, guides, authors and anglers from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. The video-recorded interviews are freely available and searchable to anyone online through the MSU-created database.
In each history that Thull collects, he asks the angler the same set of questions to collect baseline data. Then he asks questions aimed at the angler’s area of expertise. For example, he said, he asks artists what inspires them and their views of the relationship between art and fishing.
A common theme Thull explores with each person he interviews for the project is the person’s motivation for fishing.
“What is it people love about fishing? Why do people do it? Why is it tied to human culture? This is the question of fishing for reasons beyond sustenance,” he said.
For many anglers he interviewed, Thull said, a theme in the answers to those questions include a desire to connect with nature, as well as an appreciation for the beauty of the places where trout and salmon live.
Thull said the project also explores a number of topics that are important to anglers, including climate change and stream access laws.
To date, Thull has recorded more than 150 oral histories for the project. Those oral histories – which range in length from roughly 10 minutes to about two hours – come from men and women from approximately 40 countries, including Iceland, India, Japan, Nepal, Russia, the U.S. and South Africa. Thull said he often travels specifically to conduct interviews for the project, but if he is traveling for other reasons and has an opportunity for an interview, he will conduct it then, as well. Notable individuals who have provided oral histories for the project include Lilly; the writer Thomas McGuane; author and publisher Nick Lyons; Leigh Perkins, president of Orvis; Nathaniel Reed, a former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior; Jeremy Wade, a writer and TV personality; and Dan Wenk, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
When the histories are given by people who speak another language, they are usually translated, Thull said. In the future, he would like to create transcripts of the interviews in both the native language in which the interviews were given and in English. Thull plans to continue collecting anglers’ oral histories for the foreseeable future.
The project has been supported by MSU and by a three-year, $90,000 grant from the Willow Springs Foundation, Thull said.
Paul Schullery, an author, co-author and editor of more than 30 books, including "American Fly Fishing: A History," said that Thull has taken the concept of meaningful oral history “to a level I’ve not encountered before, especially in a socially significant but specialized subject like angling.
“MSU’s Trout and Salmonid Collection has emerged as one of the premier such collections in the country in part because it is dynamic enough to recognize the value of new media beyond the traditional print literature,” Schullery said. “The MSU Angling Oral History Project adds just such a dimension to the collection, preserving and celebrating the individual voices of anglers, businesspeople, scientists, conservationists, landowners, resource managers and all the other folks who make up the rich character of this ancient sport that has now become such an important part of the culture of the American West.”
One particularly nice byproduct of the project is that a number of anglers who have provided oral histories for the project have also chosen to donate their papers to MSU’s Special Collections, according to Kenning Arlitsch, dean of the MSU Library.
The MSU Library’s Special Collections and Archives has more than 800 active collections, including its Trout and Salmonid Collection, which is one of the areas for which it is best known. Special Collections also specializes in collections related to Montana agriculture and ranching, Montana engineering and architecture, Montana history, MSU history, Native Americans in Montana, prominent Montanans such as Ivan Doig, U.S. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, and Yellowstone National Park and the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Thull said it’s important to collect and preserve the oral histories.
“As humans, if we don’t actively collect, preserve and disseminate things they can be lost,” he said. “What was once common knowledge becomes lost if it’s not documented and preserved.”
To view oral histories that are part of the Angling Oral History Project, visit lib.montana.edu/trout/oral-histories/.