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MISSOULA — Sitting on a bench alongside the Clark Fork River, Bruce Farling was having a little bit of difficulty concentrating on an interview about his retirement from Montana Trout Unlimited.

“There’s another one,” Farling said as a fish snapped a bug off the surface of the water. In roughly 20 minutes, rising fish distracted him nine times.

To be fair, that was part of the job description for the post of executive director, which Farling is leaving after 23 1/2 years.

“We wanted someone who was passionate about natural resource issues like water quality, instream flow, mining practices, timber practices,” said Marshall Bloom, a former Montana TU chairman who served on Farling’s selection committee. “And they had to be someone who loved trout.”

While the national demographic profile of Trout Unlimited members is a 50-ish man with an above-average income, Montana doesn’t quite match. It has more younger members, more women, and more people with lower incomes in its cross-section. As Farling explained the increase from 1,700 to 4,300 on the dues roll, “it wasn’t all doctors and lawyers we picked up.”

Instead, it was people invested in or spurred to action by the chance to protect or expand fishing opportunities. That ranged from habitat restoration projects to legislative campaigns defending Montana’s stream access laws.

“About 10 years ago, the national Trout Unlimited leadership came out and said stream access isn’t something to focus on,” Westslope TU Chapter President Mark Kuipers said. “That’s because the stream access stuff was so red hot politically. In Wyoming, if you float a river through private land, you can’t even put an anchor in the streambed — that’s trespassing. But Bruce said, 'This is one of our key things, and we’re not going along with that.' That was a huge thing, a courageous thing. We have the best stream access laws in the nation.”

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Before that, it was figuring out a way to protect the rare arctic grayling through landowner cooperation. And challenging plans to build a gold mine on the headwaters of the Blackfoot River. Or finding ways to counteract the proliferation of invasive lake trout in Yellowstone Lake and Flathead Lake. Or supporting scientific research into the causes of whirling disease and other fish threats.

“Bruce really had a gift for working with diverse stakeholders across the state,” said Chris Schustrom, Montana TU state council president. “He can gather people you wouldn’t think would come together, from both sides of the political aisle, to get things accomplished. It’s not just people who fish but people who care about water.”

Rare among Trout Unlimited states, Montana has a small but full-time professional staff to develop research, supervise construction projects, and oversee legislative activity. In addition to helping people get interested in fishing, the organization has been instrumental in improving more places to fish.

“The Jefferson River is a lot better than it used to be,” Farling said. “That’s helped spread the use that was crowding the Big Hole and Beaverhead. The Blackfoot, Clark Fork, and Bitterroot haven’t fished so well in 100 years. If there’s more demand, let’s increase supply.”

That also means staying vigilant about new threats to the fishery. Last year’s outbreak of fish-killing parasites on the Yellowstone River or the slower-moving progression of illegal pike introductions in trout waters keep the Montana TU staff alert and active. Progressive changes to snowpack and water temperatures present an even longer-term challenge to protecting native cold-water fish populations. Meanwhile, fly fishing’s popularity aggravates more conflicts between commercial outfitters and recreational anglers in popular rivers.

Farling will spend the next several weeks unplugging from his executive director’s role and advising incoming ED David Brooks. Sitting next to the Clark Fork on a sunny morning, he looked ready for something new.

“I’m thinking a lot about what I’m not going to be doing,” Farling said. “Paperwork. Budgets. Raising money. Hiring. Supervising. There’s at least four or five fish feeding right there.”

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