Written by: Olivia Merlino
There have been just a few experiences in my life that have rearranged my list of priorities and changed the course of my decisions. If you asked me to describe them and their impact on me, you would probably get a poorly articulated but extremely passionate jumble of words. My Italian hands would undoubtedly be flailing around in the air, my eyes wide and my heart speaking while recollecting moments that have transformed my life.
These are the exact feelings I have about a seven-day trip to Guanaja, Honduras, made possible by an organization called Fish For Change and the support of Orvis. From the trip brochure, I was expecting to travel to a new country and learn more about fly-fishing while spending time volunteering to improve environmental and community health. I am smiling thinking about the unforgettable experiences I couldn’t anticipate that existed between the lines of the published schedule. On paper, it was an effortless blend of everything I value: the outdoors, fly fishing, the health of the environment, new friends, and new cultures.
I knew I would make friends but I was unaware I’d make family. I was unaware that the trip would become less about the fish and more about the people, less about the natural environment and more about the environment that we create with our own presence. It would be more about asking ourselves, “Why do we fish at all?”
Below is one of many notable moments of my experience that helped me answer this:
Ranken killed the engine and slid the bamboo pole up the side of the panga boat as he rose onto his platform. With his raspy, deep, island accent, he scanned the windblown waters, gently poling the boat along, and whispered, “Life is so, so sweet.” His voice was barely audible over the howling wind. I stood atop a cooler on the bow and smiled as the sun struggled to peek through the thin layer of clouds above us. Flashbacks of the months of preparation and anticipation leading up to this moment created a montage in my head as I thought to myself, “How the heck did I end up here?”
Rod in one hand, line and fly in the other, my knees were bent as I hula-danced to keep my balance, rocking through the chop. The symphony of sounds made for the most perfect soundtrack to the motion picture surrounding me. I found myself getting lost in a trance, swaying back and forth waiting for the beloved pompa jack to show its infamous black fins and pink lips.
Like when a friend points out the large spider on your shoulder, Ranken’s calm but serious voice sounded, “Ten o’clock, 60 feet, now.”
I made the cast.
“Good, good let it sit…. Now strip it slowly.”
My pulse increased and the stripping of my line matched my heartbeat. “Slower girl slower, feed the fish, feed the fish.”
Ranken’s accent faded, and I felt a sense of relaxation when I saw the fish move off my fly. I was still acclimating to this level of adrenaline.
“Pick it up, he’s moving, nine o’clock now. Fifty feet.”
Fifty feet under pressure ended up being more like a sloppy thirty.
“No, fifty feet, girl, come on!”
He bent his knees and looked toward the clouds, undoubtedly holding back his reaction.
“Turn around girl, look at me. Take a deep breath and focus.”
His eyes assured mine that someone too eager to land one of these beautiful fish was less likely to. His gaze rose as he continued to scan for Jack.
“They’re moving out…. Bring it back in; we’ll wait.”
In thirty seconds, I had missed my chance, but my body was exhilarated by the intensity of the situation. I looked down at my vibrating knees and brushed my clammy palms against my shorts. Roll cast. Deep breath. Reset.
No more than three minutes passed, and I heard Ranken’s voice again.
“School of Permit, thirty feet, ten o’clock; they’re moving towards the boat.”
To my disbelief, my cast was fairly accurate this time. The fly hit the surface and began to sink. I ignored my heartbeat, as Ranken’s words echoed in my head, “slowly, slowly, feed the fish.” As the school approached in somewhat of a v-formation, they chased the Flexo-Crab fly. Ranken’s whispers were carried over by the wind.
“Come on eat it, pompa, come on you. . .”
My line went tight as I watched the closest fish take my fly. I gave a small tug to secure the hook in Jack’s precious, rosy lip. Chaos immediately followed, and in what seemed like two seconds, Ranken was off his platform, in the water, and his bamboo push pole was somehow neatly in its holding place. One hand on the boat and up to his chest in the salt water, he began to splash. He wanted the fish to run. He wanted the fish to tire out. He wanted me to land my first permit.
My friend Meris stood behind me, managing my line and talking me through the fight, barely able to watch. She wanted me to land this permit just as much as Ranken did, if not more.
“Get him on the reel, get him on the reel, keep the line tight!” Meris and Ranken’s words started to blend together, but oddly enough, it kept me focused.
One more spin of the reel with my left hand and I’d be fighting Jack from the reel. I swiped to spin it quickly, and the force caused the last bit of slack in my line to flip up and around the butt of my rod. Ranken splashed again as two black knives in the water began to near the panga. Jack ran, but my line didn’t. I felt a pop, and just like that, Jack was gone.
I felt my body relax, as I exhaled defeat and inhaled one deep, gratifying breath. Meris and Ranken dropped their shoulders, and we all swayed in silence for a minute or two, experiencing mixed emotions. The wind continued to scream, as the water slapped the side of the boat. With Ranken still in the water staring off into the north, and Meris’s hands atop her head, I stepped back up onto the bow as the corners of my mouth turned toward the sky. I may have just lost the fish of a lifetime but somehow I felt nothing but appreciation for the chance to be a part of something so much more than just fly fishing.
We were each an integral part of a team of four. Ranken as guide was responsible for guiding the boat, spotting fish, giving me audible cues of where to put my fly and of course, being my hype-man. Meris was my line manager, there to make sure it wasn’t getting caught on anything in the boat or coiled into an unruly nest. My job as the angler was to listen closely and trust my crew, to throw an accurate cast, and to manage my slack. And finally Jack had a job as well, to eat what was on the menu, if he so chose to.
I suppose in life we all have some variation of these responsibilities, as well. It’s about community, a system of support and when everyone does their part, glorious things happen. At the end of the day, there are unforeseen events that no team can anticipate. Yet the community we build along the way is there to share in any disappointment. The stronger the camaraderie, the stronger the community. And with a stronger community, not only are the good times even more glorious, but also the resilience grows with each heartbreak.
The Power of Community
This couldn’t be truer for the local communities within Guanaja. After a day of fishing we got the chance to spend an afternoon walking the streets of Mitch, a local village. Our assignment: talk to locals and ask questions. Dig through their pasts and learn about what makes them and their community special. We talked to Anita- a tuk-tuk driver who recollected the horrific events of one of the deadliest hurricanes on record, Hurricane Mitch. With five days of record rainfall, flooding caused severe damage and deaths that left the island and Central America in devastation. Anita described her experience of daisy chaining with her family and neighbors at three in the morning as they moved to a safer location to avoid getting swept away by the wind and water, each woman in the group either pregnant or carrying a child. The details she gave were only things I’d seen in movies. I tried to hide my tears, as there was no way I could begin to relate.
The people of Guanaja live with a mentality that everyone is family. Each person is a vital part of their community and bring their own unique addition to the mix. Sheera is gentle and sweet, but she is a straight-up badass when someone’s in trouble. Walter is a man of few words, but you don’t want to miss his one-liners and sweet, crooked smile when you can get a story out of him. Mary-Ann is a feisty young local but would be content with swimming and foraging for fruit all day if it meant she could spend time with you. Ray has a heartbreaking past that left him to re-learn how to live, yet he carries a presence that screams resilience and zealous love. The rest of the locals all occupy an important space in that community, and their characters are rich, as well. Similarly, the young women who were brought together by this trip added their own flare to the group. With one girl absent, the dynamic would’ve been incomplete. We complemented each other and spent seven days encouraging, loving on, and learning from one another. Together, we were so powerful.
In terms of community, we’re really all the same at the core: we are humans with intellectual minds, emotions and feelings, each trying to live some version of a life full of love and purpose. Yet somehow no two of us are the same. But the common ground that exists between all of us is the need for community. It’s primal, and as fundamental as the air we breathe. When disaster struck with Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the community bounced back simply because they had each other. Anita described how after the hurricane, the people would cook big meals together while taking small steps to rebuild their homes. Would this happen where you live? Or are our communities letting the petty things in life captivate the attention? Will we regret the things we spent our time caring about? Or will it take a disaster for us to realize that togetherness and community will fulfill and equip us in life?
Fish For Change gave me clarity about the things that I spend my energy caring about in my life. The organization embodies everything it means to use our passions for purpose. Fish For Change pillars include connection, education, conservation, and exploration. The best part: its model could theoretically be applied to any activity, not just fly-fishing. The organization has created opportunities and transformed the lives of so many people. It has taken locals out of bad situations and given them jobs, improved the health of the community and environment through service projects, kept good energy flowing throughout the island, and given students across the globe the chance to be free from the limits placed on the possibilities they find in life.
If you had told me three years ago when I started fishing that I would be opened up to this world of opportunity and change simply because of my interest in a rod and reel and the art of fly-fishing, I would have told you that no such thing exists. Yet, here I am reminiscing over the way teamwork in a panga is a metaphor for the necessity of togetherness and community in our lives.
A community of 11 girls was brought together because of a passion for fly fishing. However, this passion is no longer just a passion for us. It became a way to connect to a foreign community that somehow felt so much like home. It gave purpose to something that was a piece of our identities while benefitting everyone involved. Most notably, it became a mechanism for change. It created a space where fly fishing was a method to bridge race, religion, class, beliefs, political views, and more. Fishing is no longer just fishing. It’s fishing to connect to each other and to the precious environments that provide us the backdrop to do so. Fishing now means to conserve our ecosystems, to never lose curiosity in the world, and to refuse to stop learning about each other and ourselves. Simply put, it’s Fishing For Change.
Olivia Merlino was the recipient of the Orvis 50/50 on the Water scholarship to attend Fish for Change in Guanaja, Honduras, this summer. She lives in Central Oregon.