A mouth-watering aroma drifted out of an industrial warehouse behind the Jerome Fish and Game office.
"Make sure you've got your cholesterol meds on board," grinned Ed Papenberg, a senior wildlife technician for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Magic Valley Region, as he entered a doorway into what looked like a coven of Macbethian witches toiling in dim light over a half-dozen bubbling caldrons. But the scent was less eye of newt than deep-fried, down-home fish fry.
"This is the second year we've done this," Papenberg said of a free public feed christened the Annual Magic Valley Sportsmen's Fish Fry, Chips and Tips. "And it's basically an event where we invite folks in the community to come and enjoy fish that were raised or caught locally."
Fishing isn't often considered in terms of the local food movement--and the word locavore wasn't uttered at the fish fry. That doesn't mean the two don't coincide.
"Hunting and angling really fits with this whole notion of finding sustenance close to home and finding sustenance that you have a hand in procuring," Papenberg said. "Although we don't state it in this fish fry--'welcome locavores'--that's actually implicit in a lot of what we're doing."
Along with chunks of spiced and breaded Idaho crappie, catfish and carp--or "Asian sweetfish" as the Fish and Game employees manning the deep fryers jokingly called it--the crew carefully lowered french fries and golf ball-sized hush puppies into the shimmering oil. Those same 15 caldron-tending employees helped catch much of the 75 pounds of crappie they were cooking plus another 50 pounds of fish donated and bought from local fish farms.
"We also use the fish fry as a way to introduce people to angling," said Papenberg, a dark-bearded, avid fisherman.
That's where the "Tips" part of title came in. Fish and Game not only provided free food, but also invited several fishing experts to set up booths around the dining hall and offer angling tips to guests. It was all part of the agency's push to entice Idahoans back to fishing. In a state renowned for the sport--and this might come as a surprise to some--fishing is falling out of favor. The most recent survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that between 1996 and 2006 the number of Idahoans who fished fell by a precipitous 28 percent.
"It is surprising," Papenberg said in a slightly crestfallen voice. "In fact, when we go into the classrooms in the Magic Valley and ask middle-school students to tell us if they've ever done any fishing, it's a surprising number of students who don't raise their hands."
Idahoans turning away from their storied trout streams, lakes and reservoirs reflects a national trend. America lost a total of 5.2 million anglers between 1996 and 2006, a national drop of 15 percent.
"Luckily some of these surveys do address the various demographic and economic factors that influence this trend," Papenberg said.
Surveys show that access is a factor that contributes to lower numbers of people who fish. As more Americans flock to cities, they move farther away from easy-to-get-to hunting and fishing spots. It's not easy to cast a few flies after work when you live three-hours from the nearest fishing hole.
Demographics also play a role, especially in rural states like Idaho.
"Our hunters and our anglers in this country, by and large, are the baby boomer generation," Papenberg said. "As that generation is aging, we're not replacing them with people who have interests in outdoor pursuits." More often than not, he suggested, we're a country fishing for our iPhones and remote controls.
That's why IDFG runs several outreach programs designed to inspire a new generation of fishing enthusiasts. The agency offers a free fishing day every June, where no licenses are required, and participates in a national program called Trout in the Classroom where children are taught to raise trout in classroom aquariums. The department also runs casting clinics for groups like scout troops, and it operates a fishing trailer that employees pull to fishing areas to loan equipment to budding anglers. Papenberg estimates that, through these programs, the Magic Valley Fish and Game office offered fishing assistance to nearly 3,000 people in 2010.
In IDFG's main building, the fish fry was in full swing. Dozens of people sat at long tables, dousing mounds of fried catfish and crappie with ketchup as others wiped dessert from their lips and wandered over to the instructional booths that lined the room. One booth offered tips on steelhead rigging, another on fly tying, another on fish filleting.
Steve Money manned a display showing people how to catch crappie.
"This is a good event, especially for young fishermen and families that haven't fished in Idaho," he said. "We have walleye, we have crappie, we have perch, we have bass. It's a fantastic state to fish in and people just don't realize it," he said.
According to a Fish and Game manual, there are close to 25 fishable species across the state. However, the manual also mentions a few words of caution about eating fish. Idaho fish contain mercury. The older and larger the fish, the higher its mercury content. Therefore, the recommendation is to limit eating large fish like walleye to once a month, medium fish like bass to every two weeks and small fish, like the fish fry's crappie, to two times a week.
At the fly fishing booth, a 5-year-old girl named Kelly was explaining what she'd just learned to her two younger brothers.
"Fishies aren't very smart," she said with a studious nod. "They bite down right on the sparkly things on the hooks and it hooks under their lip and then they get caught and that's how you catch a fish."
"Clever," said her brother Andrew as he leaned in on tiptoes to get a closer look at the bright orange fly a volunteer was tying.
Papenberg thinks children like those three are the future of fishing. At that age, he said, the impulse to fish is nearly innate.
"You'll see it in a little kid who's never done it before," Papenberg said. "They toss out a bobber and the trout bites and the bobber goes under the water and the excitement is just there. You don't have to teach it."
After Papenberg and I sat down to fried catfish and hushpuppies, I asked him why--apart from the revenues IDFG gets from selling fishing licenses--he thought it so important to devote so much agency energy to keep people dangling hooks into water.
Giving his beard a thoughtful stroke, it didn't take Papenberg long to cast his reply well beyond the recreational reasons IDFG might cite. Like Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Maclean, David James Duncan and so many articulate fishermen before, Papenberg reeled in his answer from a much deeper metaphysical fishing hole.
"You know, I don't want to take it further than some people might be comfortable," he said, "but it's almost spiritual. We're filling our lives with virtual experiences, but these [fishing experiences] are real experiences, they're tangible, they're right in front of you. They focus you intensely in the here and now, and for that reason alone I love it."
He paused as he looked around the room and then added, "I think a lot of people can get something out of that."