It’s 4 a.m., and Dustin White is on his way to meet a client in the river. They suit up and wade into the shallow waters of the Chagrin River, Conneaut Creek, or another river where steelhead trout are likely to be. They’ll spend at least eight hours in the water together, casting and reeling, sensing the current and the ever-changing river for what it has to give.
When Alison Krauss sang about going down in the river to pray, she might not have had fly fishing in mind, but according to White, with a fly rod and reel in the water, we can connect deeply with God.
Fly Fishing As a Ministry in Creation Care
As a child with “the worst case of ADD,” waiting for a bobber could be tortuous, but the continual motion of fly fishing was different: it gave White solitude and space to connect with God.
Over the years, White has—consciously or unconsciously—chosen homes close to water. When Dustin and his wife, Jamie, first planted Radial Church in Canton, Ohio, they bought a home 30 seconds from Nimishillen Creek. As part of their church plant, they surveyed people to find out what they wanted from a church. A group of kids were following them around as they went door-to-door, until one of the kids said, “I have a really good idea–my mom and dad are at work all day. I don’t have anyone to teach me to fly fish but I’ve always wanted to.”
As an avid angler already, the idea intrigued Dustin, and the church began developing a program for kids to learn about fly fishing and the natural environment. The kids could check out a rod and use it for the day without charge in exchange for their participation in the program.
It took a whole lot more than teaching boys to fish to launch the ministry. In order to be able to fish the stream in their neighborhood, White needed to collaborate with the city parks, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Environmental Protection Agency. “There had been so much degradation to the stream that it wasn’t viable for a lot of fish, and certainly not trout,” White said. It took several years of conversation within their neighborhood and with area agencies to encourage people to invest in the river itself, which included stream reparations and erosion protection as well as trash and pollution cleanup.
Now, “for the first time in 80 years, trout have been reintroduced to the river,” shared White. The fly fishing program in Canton provided a platform to teach youth what it means to steward the environment. “What does it mean to not just catch a fish and keep it? What does it mean to admire it?” White asked rhetorically.
From Full-Time Pastor to Full-Time Angling Guide
On sabbatical from full-time ministry, White began to explore becoming a fly fishing guide. “I knew I wanted to do something that was active but could still support us while on sabbatical,” White shared. He decided to pursue guide school in Montana, where angling full-time hooked him.
Once White was certified, he was hired by Crazy Rainbow Fly Fishing in Wyoming, which fishes primarily for rainbow trout. White serves as a guide there for six months and spends the other six months along the southern shore of Lake Erie in a region known as Steelhead Alley with Steelhead Alley Outfitters. No matter where he’s guiding, White interacts with people from all walks of life.
“It’s pretty amazing to spend eight hours on the water with folks,” White said. “The bulk of the day is listening. Some folks want to chat all day long, others are more intermittent and want to take in the environment.” White joked that all pastors-in-training should be required to serve as a guide or coach as part of their seminary training.
“I thought I was just going to take people fishing, but you’re more than a guide, you’re also a photographer, lunch preparer, part-time comedian, therapist, and clergy all at once.” Some people think White has “left ministry,” but Dustin argues, “rather than cramming them into a 45-minute meeting, I have eight hours with someone who is pulled away from the distractions of their life” to listen and minister to them.
The act of fly fishing broadens a person’s line of vision. In the water, “You can’t be hyper focused on only one thing,” said White. “You are watching your fly line and flies and how they react in relation to the current, being manipulated by the water in one spot vs. three feet later. You are paying attention to what bugs are around and where they are on the water,” furthered the Pastor.
Being on the river with a client is a teaching opportunity. There’s a three-week period during which the steelhead are spawning, and guides won’t fish for them. Sometimes people are grumpy about it, but if you take the time to share why, people understand. “You could disrupt their fragile time of reproduction,” White explained. “Even though we could easily catch that fish, that’s 100 less fish that wouldn’t be in the river next year.” It’s all about broadening the field of vision so clients see the surrounding vibrant, robust ecosystem, how the fish connect with the birds that are there, how the eagle populations are soaring because the fish are flourishing.
The Spiritual Life of Angling
“I believe that fishing is a spiritual endeavor,” White said. “It teaches you about mystery. Especially with fly fishing, you are entering another realm, the water. We are finite beings, and we feel a tug to the spiritual realm. In most cases, you can’t see what’s happening under the surface—and yet you feel like there’s something there. As guides we come out and study the water and are on the water. We know A LOT about the water, and yet you still don’t know what’s happening under the surface. You can ascertain a lot but you still don’t know it.”
And then there’s fishing itself. “Casting is a lot like prayer. More often than not, we cast and drift through a section of river, and nothing seems to happen. You cast over and over again,” said White. “Cast after cast after cast, until all of a sudden you feel that tug on the end of your line. Then you have something that is wild and untamable on the other end. Your proverbial prayer has been answered,” White commented.
“Why didn’t the other casts work? I don’t know–it’s taught me to appreciate the mystery of those attempts to cast into the spiritual realm, not knowing when you’re going to feel that tug on the other end from God, the same way we do with these fish.”
“God has shown me that slowing down happens on the water,” White said. “Being on the water cultivates a spirit of gratitude and appreciation. It causes me to realize how deeply connected we are to God, to one another, and to the Earth. How vulnerable everything is. One little event can cause a chain reaction.”
When White wraps up a trip on the river, his client might ask to go and grab a beer at the boat dock to recap the day. They depart the river friends, profoundly transformed and connected. Then White heads home to tie his flies and prepare for another day ministering to people in the water.