January 03, 2022
By Michael Wier
At his very core Richard May is a fly fisherman. Not the kind who dabbles here and there or takes one or two trips a year, but the kind who sleeps in his car to catch the evening rise and be on the stream for the morning bite before anyone else shows up. The kind of fly fisherman who shows a unique dedication to the craft and applies energy and thought to constantly hone his skills. The kind who masterfully throws a home-tied fly on a bamboo rod far upstream and lands it in the lane of a single feeding trout on a crystal-clear spring creek.
May is obsessed with catching fish, and makes multiple trips a year to places like New Zealand and British Columbia that are known for prolific fisheries. He also applied that same dedication and determination to conservation, and went on to become one of the most influential fisheries conservationists of our time.
Some of our most important conservation milestones in this country include the creation of organizations such as Trout Unlimited and California Trout, a growing wild trout management ethos, ecosystem and habitat restoration, catch-and-release angling, the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, dam removal, and the famous court cases CalTrout 1 and 2, which saved the Mono Lake ecosystem and established protections for the public trust doctrine and have been used nationwide to protect ecological resources.
A small group of California anglers played a key role in all these accomplishments in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and one man in particular was a lynchpin to those successes. That man is Richard May, a founding member of California Trout. His contributions to the fishing and conservation community have helped define what fisheries conservation means, and have inspired generations of anglers to become activists. Now he is being recognized as Fly Fisherman’s 2022 Conservationist of the Year, and Simms Fishing Products will donate $10,000 in his name to CalTrout to recognize his lifetime of conservation work.
While preparing CalTrout’s 50th anniversary video, I browsed through old slides in the CalTrout offices, and kept noticing a gold Ford van with curtains in the windows and a license plate that read “TROUT.” I saw it parked at several of CalTrout’s early restoration projects at Hat Creek, Fall River, and Yellow Creek—some of the best fly-fishing spots of the era. I asked Curtis Knight, CalTrout’s executive director, and Craig Ballenger, CalTrout’s fishing ambassador and resident historian, and it turns out the van belonged to Richard May, a founding member and CalTrout president for 20 years. He was known for sleeping in his van so he could stay out late for the evening rise and wake up early to catch the morning hatch. A man after my own heart! It brings me great joy to keep that legacy alive within the organization, and inspired me to dig deeper into the story of this modest but great man who is an inspiration for me, and a hero.
May caught his first trout in the North Fork American River during World War II. By the mid-1950s, he had found the art of fly fishing, and was captivated by tying flies, matching hatches, and tricking rising trout. He was early to the game in California, and frequented spots in the late 1950s and early 1960s that would later become famous. By the late 1960s, May connected with a group of anglers from the San Francisco Bay Area, who started to have regular meetings at The Complete Angler fly shop in San Francisco. A common theme was that California’s fisheries were already declining, and they were not happy with how they were being managed.
At the time, “trout management” meant growing fish in hatcheries and trucking them to rivers. May later said: “We didn’t think the answer to every fisheries problem was a hatchery truck. We didn’t think that’s what the pioneers found when they came over the crest of the Sierra. We think they found robust, natural trout systems. We wanted to get back to that, because to us that’s what it was all about—interfacing with the natural resource and what the natural systems could produce.”
This small group of like-minded fly fishers—including Richard May, Jim Adams, Andy Puyon, and Joe Paul—got wind of a new organization out of Michigan called Trout Unlimited. They heard stories of a mindset that favored wild trout and healthy rivers. So they reached out to them and ended up forming the very first Trout Unlimited chapter on the West Coast, the Bay Area Chapter.
Under the banner of this new organization, they set out to find projects to benefit wild trout. Their first project was a spawning channel between Baum and Crystal lakes. There was a channel—carved through the volcanic rock—connecting the lakes, but it was just lava rock with no gravel. The group seeded the river bottom with truckloads of gravel, and within weeks, large brown trout showed up and started using the area to spawn. Rainbows followed suit when spring arrived. Seeing these large, wild fish spawning seemed like a great success.
The following year, they identified Hat Creek as a potential wild trout enhancement project. The stretch from below Powerhouse 2 down to Lake Britton had good water quality and cold temperatures, but many nonnative species had moved in from the warm waters of Lake Britton, and were diminishing Hat Creek’s viability as a trout fishery. The first order of business was to construct a fish barrier right above Lake Britton to keep the pikeminnow, perch, bass, and other warmwater species from moving up into the project’s 5-mile stretch. Once the barrier was complete, a comprehensive fish removal effort was undertaken, and thousands of pounds of nonnative fish were captured, along with only 353 trout.
Once the nonnatives were removed, the wild rainbows and browns were reintroduced. Within a matter of months, the fishery started to rebound. Within a couple of years, Hat Creek soon boasted more than 5,000 fish per mile, and became one of the best wild trout fisheries in the state. Shortly after the project’s completion, a culture started to grow around the fishery and the concept of wild trout management. Several fly and tackle shops sprang up in the area, as well as lodges and guide services. This was the first example of wild trout management correlating directly toward a non-extractive ecotourism economy in a rural area.
On opening day of the 1969 fishing season, there was an inauguration ceremony to commemorate and celebrate the success of the wild trout project. Richard May, Joe Paul, Jim Adams, and several other TU chapter members attended, along with state agency representatives and politicians, all there for the historic occasion. There was a ton of media coverage—quite a bit of hoopla for a fish conservation project.
Shortly after, the chapter wanted to document and promote the project through a grant to students to collect data and create promotional materials. They started to raise the projected cost of $10,000, but when the group reached out to Trout Unlimited headquarters, they were told they were on their own when it came to funding California projects.
This led the members to question why they needed to be part of Trout Unlimited, and California Trout was born. They were the first regional model for wild trout management and fisheries conservation in the nation, focused solely on the trout, salmon, and steelhead of California and the pristine waters they inhabited. California’s problems were unique to its geopolitical region, and fisheries management decisions were made on a state basis anyway, so it didn’t make sense to them to send money back East in hopes of solving regional problems.
Since then, California Trout has been the driving force in preserving Hat Creek, with several different projects over the course of 50+ years, including bank stabilization and habitat enhancement projects, youth outreach, tribal workforce riparian restoration, and much more.
In 1971, Joe Paul, a founding father and first president of CalTrout, died of an unexpected heart attack. Richard May stepped in as president, where he was a guiding force for 20 years. Still dismayed by hatchery operations and high trout bag limits, CalTrout quickly started to adopt new management strategies. A small number of anglers started doing something fairly radical at the time—releasing trout they caught! Average fishermen of the era thought they were crazy. But May realized it could be more than that, and officially adopted it as a management strategy. They coined the term catch-and-release, commissioned a logo, and started promoting the concept at fishing shows and through promotional pamphlets and stickers.
CalTrout also decided an official wild trout management program needed to be established by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. May wrote the original draft for the project proposal. The Fish & Wildlife Commission officially adopted the proposal in 1971. Within the next couple of years, CalTrout worked with the department to establish several designated wild trout fisheries managed through habitat restoration, reduced bag limits, and catch-and-release angling with single barbless hooks and artificial lures only.
This management strategy is now used around the world, with phenomenal results. One can even argue that this concept birthed the fly-fishing ecotourism travel industry. This is especially evident in places like New Zealand and Patagonia that adopted the concept early.
In 1971, before of the death of Joe Paul, Joe and Richard were approached by a farmer from Round Valley named Richard Wilson, asking if they would help in a campaign to stop a massive proposed project on the Eel River called the Dos Rios Dam. This new dam would block a large percentage of the river from salmon and steelhead migration, and drown a highly productive agricultural and tribal area known as Covalo and Round Valley. With large dams already on more than 95 percent of California’s rivers, California Trout said “enough is enough” and joined the fight against the Dos Rios Dam. Opponents of the dam won, the Dos Rios dam proposal was scrapped, and the era of dam building came to an end.
However, stopping dams was just the beginning. Just before his untimely death, Joe Paul said: “We need to get out of the dam fighting business and into the river saving business.” In 1968, the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System was established, and the Middle Fork of the Feather River in California was included in that system.
May started looking at other California rivers that could be included in the federal system, but in a twist of fate for the young organization, Peter Bear, a newly elected senator from Marin County, approached CalTrout and asked what they thought of a state wild and scenic rivers system to protect more California rivers. Of course they thought it was a good idea, but due to the politics at the time, May was afraid CalTrout would lose its tax-exempt status if it joined political battles, so they formed another organization, the Committee of 2 Million, named for the people who held California fishing licenses at the time.
They began a campaign to lobby for a state system, and Bill Quinn, another CalTrout founding member, was a driving force in that campaign. In order to gain widespread support for such a cause, volunteers like Quinn traveled the state to visit Rotary clubs, fishing clubs, and hunting clubs to give CalTrout’s presentation about how wild and scenic legislation could protect California’s rivers. In doing so, they gained broad support and even began to find some allies within the legislative system itself. The California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed in 1972 and was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan. Since its adoption, dozens of rivers have been given lasting protections, including a prohibition on dam building.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, May remained president of California Trout and the driving force in the organization. In the years that followed, CalTrout led large-scale restoration projects on Yellow Creek and Hat Creek. They negotiated with the water master for better fish flows on the Truckee River and East Walker. CalTrout also bought private land along the Fall River for use as a public fishing access. That property today is an important resource for fly fishers who visit the river from around the country.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, May turned his attention to the fabled Smith River. It was California’s last mostly intact and undammed river system with wild steelhead and salmon, and a true crown jewel of the Lost Coast. He and a few others formed a sister organization called the Smith River Alliance to focus solely on issues pertaining to the protection of the Smith River, which could work on a more regional level. May was also the president of this organization for many years.
In 1981, the Smith River was declared a National Recreation Area. Very few rivers have received this special status, and to this day the watershed is protected from resource extraction, excessive logging, and other industrial uses.
In 1980, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) announced they were going to shut off the valve from Grant Lake to Rush Creek in order to work on the dam. It wasn’t the first time they’d done this, and May knew it would completely wipe out Rush Creek’s wild trout population. CalTrout sought and won a court injunction to stop LADWP from shutting off the valve, based on Law B5937, which states “The owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass over, around, or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.” The law had been on the books for years, but was very seldom enforced.
There followed two famous court cases, CalTrout I and CalTrout II, with rulings from the California Supreme Court. These cases upheld the public trust doctrine and established lasting protections for aquatic ecosystems. Those two cases are still cited often in court, and have set precedents for protecting public resources and ecosystems.
In the early 1980s, California Trout became the first angling group ever to participate in a Federal Energy and Regulatory Committee relicensing process for a PG&E dam operation. As a result of that process, CalTrout convinced PG&E to rewater the dry river channel called Pit 3 below the dam of Lake Britton. Once the channel was rewatered, CalTrout sought catch-and-release protections to help wild trout populations reestablish themselves in the reach. Different CalTrout constituents, including Clearwater Lodge owner Dick Galland, attended Fish and Wildlife Commission meetings and asked the commission to adopt the regulations. Famously, in the last meeting of the year, Richard May himself stood in front of the commission and asked for catch-and-release regulations for Pit 3, and the regulation was approved. Pit 3 was once dry, but to this day is one of the most prolific wild trout fisheries in the state.
In 1992 May retired from California Trout after a long, productive career spanning more than two decades. Many people still describe him as harsh, abrasive, and/or doggedly stubborn. There are even stories of bar fights and death threats over his relentless efforts to make conditions better for fish, and push back against a system set up to maintain the status quo. But those are the traits that get things done in a political setting.
His many contributions have been meaningful, impactful, and lasting. He’s a true unsung hero in the fight to save California’s native trout, salmon, and steelhead and create better fishing for Californians, and for all who visit the state. He also inspired generations of anglers to become activists and carry on the important mission of protecting ecosystems worldwide.
In 2021, California Trout celebrated its 50th anniversary. The organization now has six regional offices and 35 full-time employees. CalTrout is currently involved in dozens of restoration projects, legislative actions, and other campaigns to protect, restore, and enhance California’s coldwater ecosystems. Richard May was born in 1935 and is 86 years old, but is still consulted regularly for advice and inspiration.
In September 2021, at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CalTrout celebrated its 50th anniversary, and May was presented the Joe Paul Legacy Achievement Award.
In February 2022 at Caltrout’s annual Watershed Circle event, a small gathering (not open to the public, by invite only) will celebrate Richard May’s lifetime of conservation achievements, and he will receive Fly Fisherman’s 2022 Conservationist of the Year award. Simms Fishing Products will present the award and donate $10,000 to CalTrout to continue his fight for clean water and healthy fisheries. Richard May is a testament to the impact a small group of individuals can make with focus and dedication. His achievements cannot be overstated. As Richard would say with a chuckle and a grin: “Onward!”
Michael Wier grew up in the Sierra foothills, where he split his time between snowboarding and fly fishing. He spent 15 seasons fishing and guiding the waters of the Truckee, Carson, and Walker rivers. He also started BURL Productions, producing outdoor films like Trout Bum Diaries 1, Soulfish, and Cali Rush. He is a Patagonia ambassador, outreach coordinator for California Trout, and frequent Fly Fisherman contributor. His last piece for Fly Fisherman was “New Deal for the Klamath River” in the June-July 2021 issue.