Whatcom County is fortunate to host a number of environmental conservation groups but there is a new one in town that has the potential to inspire even more of our region’s recreational fishermen. Bellingham’s Jon Luthanen has recently helped co-found the North Sound Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU).
Founded in 1959, TU is a national organization that began much like the North Sound Chapter, with just 16 enthusiastic members who first met on the banks of the Au Sable River near Grayling, Michigan. Since then the organization, whose simple focus is to conserve, protect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and watersheds for future generations, has grown to more than 150,000 members in over 400 active chapters nation-wide.
Whatcom County hosts its newest chapter, North Sound Chapter #938, which will also include members from Skagit and Island Counties. Luthanen, who currently serves as its first President, works as a Desktop Analyst in computer support at Peach Health Saint Joseph. He first moved to Bellingham from Montana in 2013. “Bellingham kind of spoke to me. Although I traded the snow for rain, the fact that rivers don’t really freeze up here offered me opportunities to fish year round,” explains Luthanen.
Luthanen’s past experiences might have led him to his new leadership role. Originally from Ohio, Luthanen grew up near one of Michigan’s Great Lakes, Lake Erie, where he would later fish hatchery steelhead in some of its major tributaries. As a child he fished walleye and perch on Lake Erie with one of his grandfathers and eventually grew to love it.
After attending college in Indiana, Luthanen moved to Montana and connected with AmeriCorps, a national and community service learning organization. “While working for three summers with the Montana Conservation Corps Leadership Development Program, my natural interests in green living, environmental stewardship and civic engagement were expanded,” notes Luthanen.
While in Montana, another of Luthanen’s grandfathers gave him some old fishing equipment. “That just reignited a passion that I had not been pursuing as much in adulthood. Fishing resonated with me,” remembers Luthanen.
It was in January of 2016 that Nick Chambers of Wild Steelheaders United and TU came to an event at Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen. “He was inviting boots-on-the-ground conservation efforts in Whatcom, Skagit, and Island Counties in our Nooksack and Skagit watersheds,” explains Luthanen. “He knew of upcoming opportunities to collect baseline fish population data—fish count studies, spawning surveys, and redd counts (pits where females lay eggs)—that could be used for future comparison to track changes in local fish populations.
“A number of people that attended the event asked Nick Chambers why there wasn’t a local chapter of Trout Unlimited,” remembers Luthanen. “Renton was the nearest chapter but that was too far for most of us locals to attend regularly.”
Soon after, Chambers facilitated the formation of the North Sound Chapter by coordinating with the TU State-Wide Council. The new chapter received $500 as seed money to set up simple bank accounts, licensing and permits. A number of attendees from the Chuckanut Brewery event attended the first official chapter meeting in March of 2016 at Boundary Bay Brewery and Bistro. By the end of the evening, a Chapter Board of Directors was officially formed. “A number of our Board Members have both a conservation and recreation background. It’s a perfect match,” notes Luthanen.
“It just kind of happened,” explains Luthanen of how he became Chapter President. “I was one of the only guys who didn’t have a family or home to take care of so I have a bit more time to dedicate. I was more than willing to jump into that position.”
The Chapter has built momentum quickly. “I didn’t expect this,” notes Luthanen. “I knocked on the door and they answered really quickly.” To become qualified as a TU Chapter, the group was required to complete at least one fundraising event within the first year. That occurred in the form of a Fly Fishing Film Tour, held in May 2016 at Mount Vernon’s Lincoln Theatre. It featured short films about the passion, life-style, and culture of fly fishing around the globe.
“We’re still pretty green. We’re still figuring out how to approach grant writing and fundraising efforts,” explains Luthanen of the Chapter’s first year. “There is still a lot to learn. As someone said at a meeting, we’re still finding our ethos, our niche in the area’s conservation community.”
North Sound is being thoughtful about being the new kid in the Pacific Northwest conservation community. “We’re working on not stepping on toes while entering this world,” notes Luthanen. “A little competition will keep us all on our toes, but we’re also partnering to reach our shared goals together. The more the merrier. Other organizations exist that also focus on environmental impact on rivers, but the piece that we can offer is that we have a recreational opportunity that can be put in the mix with fishing. That has the potential to attract a different, and potentially wider, community that may not have a background in conservation.”
In September 2016, North Sound conducted a Nooksack River Cleanup event in partnership with American Rivers, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Nooksack Wild and Scenic, The RE-Store, Yeager’s Sporting Goods, and a number of individuals and smaller organizations. Together they removed over 2,100 pounds of garbage from the Nooksack River. A phenomenal start.
North Sound hopes to capture the attention and participation of anglers throughout the Pacific Northwest, inviting them to attend meetings that occur on the second Tuesday of each month in the mezzanine of Brandywine Kitchen.
Looking ahead, the Chapter plans to install monofilament recycling stations at popular fishing spots that will collect discarded fishing line and prevent littering. The Chapter aspires to expand its membership and volunteer conservation efforts to preserve the quality of Whatcom, Skagit and Island County rivers as steelhead habitat for recreational fishermen, for now and for generations to come.