February 07, 2023
By Steve Kinsella
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Frazier of Simms Fishing Products and Ross Purnell of Fly Fisherman magazine will present Gary Horvath with the 2023 Conservationist of the Year award at the River Falls Fly Fishing Film Festival, March 3, 2023 in River Falls Wisconsin. In addition to the award, Horvath will receive a $10,000 check made out to the Kiap-TU-Wish Trout Unlimited chapter in recognition of their efforts in dam removal, and in protecting and enhancing the Kinnickinnic River.
Gary Horvath grew up fishing with his dad, wet wading for northern pike and smallmouth bass in both rivers and lakes. He’d never seen anyone fly fish until he went to college at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and found himself in trout country. He watched fly fishers catch trout, and noticed that when there were insects hatching, the trout focused on the insects and almost nothing else. Being the studious type, he acquired a few books on fly fishing, bought a fly rod, and even enrolled in some courses on freshwater ecology to learn more about trout habitat.
The next semester, Horvath was with his class and a professor, electroshocking a trout stream to study the vertebrate population. They stunned a particularly large fish that the professor initially thought was a carp, but Horvath put the net around what turned out to be a 22-inch+ brown trout. After releasing it, the anglers in the class asked the professor how long it would take for a fish like that to start feeding. The professor assured them that it would be many days or even a week before the fish resumed its normal activities. Later that evening, a group resolved to go back to the stream to disprove the professor’s theory. However, when they arrived, the professor was already fishing in the very spot where they had released the big brown trout.
Horvath has lived in River Falls, Wisconsin since 1988. The city is at the northern end of the famous Driftless Area, a swath of prime trout territory that includes parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In those more than three decades, Horvath has fished all over the Driftless Area but says, “I would put the Rush, Kinni, and the Trimbelle right here in Pierce County up against any other stream in the Driftless Area.”
Upon moving to River Falls, Horvath almost immediately got involved in the local Kiap-TU-Wish Trout Unlimited Chapter, a name derived from a portmanteau of letters from the Kinni, Apple, Willow, and Rush rivers. Horvath has been on the board of Kiap-TU-Wish since 1989, and temperature monitoring on the Kinni began in 1991. Since then, he has been treasurer, secretary, and served two times as president. He is now the vice-president. In the time that Horvath has been a board member, the group has done stream restoration projects on the Willow, Kinnickinnic, South Fork of the Kinnickinnic, Parker Creek, Rush River, Tiffany, Eau Galle, and Pine Creek. He also led the committee to successfully remove Mounds Dam on the Willow River.
In all his many roles, his focus has always been the Kinni, which flows through his home town of River Falls. Whenever it came to representing the TU chapter, or negotiating with the city of River Falls regarding stormwater or FERC operating issues, Horvath took up the role, since he is a voting, taxpaying resident of River Falls, and his interactions carried more weight than a fisherman from nearby St. Paul or Minneapolis, for instance, where the local TU chapter has 2,000 members.
His message to other members of the River Falls community is that the Kinni is a precious natural resource, not merely a conveyance for stormwater or a tool to produce electricity, and it’s a message he has spread at countless city council meetings, to friends and neighbors, and through his involvement with the Kinni Corridor Project Committee.
Thanks to his more than three decades of effort—and dozens of others who have worked alongside Horvath—the lower dam on the Kinni is condemned, and the only decision left to make about the upper dam is whether to remove it first or second—the Army Corps feasibility study will answer that question soon enough.
To recognize the successful efforts of Horvath and the entire Kiap-TU-Wish organization, he has been named Fly Fisherman’s 2023 Conservationist of the Year. Simms Fishing Products will donate $10,000 to the Kiap-TU-Wish Trout Unlimited Chapter to continue their work in protecting one of the most important trout streams in the Midwest.
Steve Kinsella is the former editor of Trout and is the author of Trout Fishing the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming (Highweather Press, 2000). He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota and spends his spare time wandering the rivers, streams, and fields of the Upper Midwest.