Profile: Dave Kumlien, Whirling-Disease Warrior

A chance phone call caused Dave Kumlien—a guide, shop owner, and conservationist—to become
one of the sport’s main crusaders, as executive director of the Whirling Disease Foundation and
board member of Warriors and Quiet Waters.
Photo by Brian Grossenbacher

In December 1994, Dave Kumlien had just opened his Bozeman, Montana, fly shop for the day when the phone rang. On the line was a reporter for the Washington Post, who wanted to discuss a press release he’d received from Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks; it seemed that something called “whirling disease” had been discovered in the Madison River, causing a 90 percent decline in the rainbow trout population. Kumlien had a vague understanding of whirling disease, but this was the first time he’d heard such dire predictions for the Madison. The two men talked for a while about fishing in southwestern Montana, and then the reporter asked a question that would change Kumlien’s life: “What will you do if whirling disease kills all the trout in your rivers?”

Snapping to Attention
As soon as the reporter hung up, Kumlien called Dick Vincent, the local fisheries biologist, to see if there was any truth to what he’d just heard. Vincent explained that no one really knew much about whirling disease or what it could do to a fishery such as the Madison, but it was also true that no one could rule out the worst-case scenario that the reporter had outlined, either. For someone like Kumlien—who had built his life around fly fishing and whose love of rivers and trout was central to his character—this lack of information about a potentially devastating adversary was both frustrating and terrifying.

Of course, he was not the only one concerned, and in January of 1995, over drinks at a Bozeman bar, Kumlien met with three like-minded anglers to talk about a strategy for attacking the problem. Joining Kumlien were Tom Anacker, an attorney, active Trout Unlimited member, and conservationist; Karl Johnson, a retired human virologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the man who named the Ebola virus; and Jim Belsey, a retired Madison Avenue advertising executive and former director of Colorado Trout Unlimited. These men de- cided that they could not sit idly by while the fisheries they loved were ravaged by an alien intruder, and by the end of the meeting, the Whirling Disease Foundation (WDF) had been born.

According to Kumlien, each member brought something different to the project. Anacker’s excellent organizational skills helped to set up the foundation and keep it focused. Johnson’s expertise in virology and understanding of how the scientific community operates were invaluable. Belsey’s writing and marketing background made him an excellent communicator and fund-raiser. And Kumlien had the most connections in the fishing world—from wealthy anglers to the heads of equipment manufacturers such as Orvis and Simms—from whom he could solicit funds.

The foundation’s initial goal was to try to overcome the knowledge deficit by promoting research into what was really going on beneath the surface in rivers infected with whirling disease. Although the disease had been identified decades earlier, there had been no coordinated effort to understand how it worked and its overall effects on trout populations. The WDF’s first order of business, then, was to raise money for a meeting of minds that would bring together a wide variety of scientists, fisheries managers, anglers, and other concerned parties. The first annual Whirling Disease Symposium took place just five months later, in May 1995, in Bozeman.

Over the next few years, Kumlien would emerge as the main community-outreach coordinator, spokesman, and fund-raiser for the WDF, a job that was even more difficult than it sounds. The initial reaction to the foundation from the Montana fly-fishing community was decidedly mixed. Many shop owners and guides felt that the very formation of a foundation that had “whirling disease” in its name drew attention to a problem that they hoped would simply go away. Misinformation was rampant, and Kumlien remembers dealing with a fair amount of suspicion and paranoia from people who believed that whirling disease wasn’t so bad and from others who were afraid that anglers would stop coming to Montana to fish if word of the disease got out. Harry Piper, an early addition to the WDF board, describes the Montana fly-fishing community as “like the townspeople in Jaws”—maintaining a willful blindness to the dire situation out of fear for their livelihoods—and according to Karl Johnson, even Montana FWP believed it could “manage around the problem.”

Although Kumlien’s work keeps him in the office and on the phone a lot, he still spends plenty of
time on the water and guides about 20 days per year. Here he looks for rising fish in Bear Trap
Canyon on the Lower Madison.
Photo by Phil Monahan

Angling and Advocacy
I’ve known Kumlien for more than 10 years, and at first blush he doesn’t seem like the most likely candidate to “sell” the idea of the WDF to a sometimes-hostile fly-fishing community. Rather than being a perpetually smiling glad-hander who works a crowd like a politician or a hand-wringer who tugs at the heartstrings, Kumlien is a big calm guy with a sober mien and a penchant for long, detailed answers to seemingly simple questions. But he’s particularly well served by the same traits that make him a good angler.

According to his son Kris—who now manages Kumlien’s old shop, Montana Troutfitters—Kumlien is a real no-nonsense fly fisherman. “He sticks with what he knows works on the rivers he fishes,” Kris explains, “and he has the patience of Job.”

His fellow board members see Kumlien’s success in similar terms. “He’s very level-headed and listens very well,” says Johnson. “And he knows how to pick his bets.” According to Piper, Kumlien’s persistence allows him to keep moving forward “when other people are throwing up their hands,” and his knowledge of fishing and guiding can really “grease the wheels” in certain situations.

And, boy, does he love to talk. Anyone who has ever shared a long drive or dinner table with Kumlien knows that, once you get him started on a subject that he’s passionate about, he’ll explore every aspect of it. He’s got a great sense of humor, and according to long-time WDF science director Dr. Jerri Bartholomew, Kumlien’s solid layman’s understanding of the scientific concepts involved in the battle against whirling disease allowed him to put things in perspective for a general audience. He manages to be both informative and compelling without resorting to any cheap rhetorical devices or histrionics.

In his recent work with Warriors & Quiet Waters, Kumlien takes injured
servicemen and -women fly fishing as a form of rehabilitation.
Photo courtesy Dave Kumlien

Hitting the Big Time
In 1998, Kumlien decided to sell his shop so he could spend more time with his sons, Kris and Kevin, who were 14 and 9 years old at the time. “I realized that they were growing up fast and I was missing out on a lot by being in the shop all season long,” he ex-plains. Giving up the shop also allowed him to devote more time to the WDF, and he became a part-time employee, serving as development director. In 2001, he took a full-time job as executive director of the foundation, and he played an important role in keeping the problems of whirling disease in the public eye.

“There are so many threats—impending doom from every angle, it sometimes seems—that people tend to move on to other issues, for self-preservation,” he says. “You’ve got to keep thrusting it in front of them.”

In 2007, a long-discussed merger between the WDF and Trout Unlimited finally occurred, and Kumlien took on even more responsibility. The two organizations had been intimately connected from the beginning, and TU had been a major financial supporter. But the WDF’s shifting focus from research into how the parasite works to the development of whirling disease–resistant trout created a conflict with those anglers and organizations (such as TU) who thought that such research would lead to “genetic engineering” and stocking programs, to the detriment of wild-trout populations.

“Dave was under a lot of pressure not to spend a penny on resistant-strain research, but he listened to the experts and stuck to his guns,” Karl Johnson remembers.

“He’s very willing to take risks,” says Bartholomew, “and he’s not afraid to ask for money to fund long-term projects that won’t show immediate results.”

Once it became clear that the research supported by WDF involved helping wild stocks—by breeding resistance into the genetic makeup of local wild populations—the main obstacle to the merger was gone. In his position with TU, Kumlien is focused not just on whirling disease, but also on “aquatic nuisance species,” such as New Zealand mud snails, zebra mussels, didymo, and others. He believes that the multidisciplinary model developed over the years by the WDF will be useful for battling these other fish-related issues.

Kumlien shows off a nice Madison River brown that he took while fishing with his son, Kris.
Photo by Kris Kumlien

A Fly-Fishing Life
Through all these battles, Kumlien has never lost his passion for fly fishing, which has its roots in his childhood in Wisconsin.

“I think my first fly rod experience was using one of my grandpa’s old bamboo rods to fish poppers for bluegills and crappies in a nearby lake,” he remembers. “And the first time I cast for trout was with my dad on Robinson Creek, near Black River Falls.”

He went to college in St. Paul, Minnesota, but continued to travel back to his home state to fish the Kinnikinnick, and he often spent weekends on northern Wisconsin rivers, especially the Brule. One of his college girlfriends first took him to Montana, where her family spent the summer. Kumlien and the girl eventually went their separate ways, but he had fallen in love with the Big Sky–Bozeman region.

Almost since he moved to Montana full-time after graduation (with a degree in political science) in 1973, fly fishing has been at the center of his life. He fell into guiding in 1976 and opened Montana Troutfitters in 1978, with his dad and two other partners. He even met his wife, Karyn, at a Trout Unlimited meeting; her father had been a national director of the organization.

At 60 years old, having shepherded the WDF from its birth in a Bozeman barroom to its new position as part of the largest trout-conservation organization in the world, Kumlien is still not done giving back to the sport he loves. In early 2007, Montana icon Bud Lilly asked him to help with a new nonprofit organization, Warriors & Quiet Waters Foundation (WQW), which hosts therapeutic fly-fishing trips for servicemen and -women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The project resonated with Kumlien because, although he is not a veteran himself, his younger son, Kevin, is currently attending West Point and faces five years of active duty after graduation.

“I like teaching, so I enjoy the instructional aspect of the outings,” Kumlien says. “Plus, I see my son in these warriors, so it’s very moving.”

Kumlien, who still maintains his outfitter’s license, serves as de facto outfitter for the group, which provides participants with everything they need—from waders to rods, reels, and flies. He helps plan all the logistics, get all the equipment, and guide the attendees.

When I asked Kumlien what drives him to focus all his energy on such causes as RDF and WQW, he replied, “It’s the reward and satisfaction of giving something back to the resource that gave me the opportunity to make a living and raise my family in southwestern Montana.” It’s a pretty uncomplicated sentiment from a guy who has spent the last fifteen years engaged in a very complicated battle—coordinating scientific research, raising money, and educating the angling world—to save wild trout populations so that generations to come can enjoy the same opportunities he’s been afforded.

This article first appeared in American Angler magazine.

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