Earlier this year, one of my co-workers at the James River Basin Partnership gave me a copy of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler as a birthday present.
First published in 1653, the book is an idyllic look at the English countryside of Walton’s day, with songs and poems extolling the virtues of fishing.
Fans of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It will remember a mention Norman made of Walton, with the son of the Presbyterian Rev. Maclean dismissing him as an “Episcopalian and a bait fisherman.”
Yet Walton’s book has had over 300 editions since it was first published, and his memory lives on in the conservationist organization formed in 1922 by 54 Chicago sportsmen concerned about the “deteriorating conditions of America’s top fishing streams.”
My grandfather was a member of the Izaak Walton League, specifically the Elm Lake Chapter of Wright County, Iowa. Many a Sunday morning would find him out the door early, heading north to Clear Lake to fish.
Like many an “Ike,” he was a farmer, sportsman, and conservationist. Nature was where he worked, played, and worshipped, with little distinction.
Before state agencies such as Missouri’s Department of Conservation, the “Ikes” and their fellow hunters and anglers were the “tip of the spear” in alerting the nation about the threats to the nation’s natural resources.
By 1924, there were 100,000 members on its rolls, and it played a major part in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge that same year.
The 1972 Clean Water Act proved to be the organization’s major victory in the war for water quality. Today the “Ikes” number 39,000 members in 250 chapters across the country.
While there’s not a single chapter of the “Ikes” left in Missouri today, the league’s influence lives on in Missouri Stream Teams, whose volunteer quality monitoring program is based on the Save Our Streams program.
And, of course, the many other conservationist organizations that advocate for Missouri’s natural resources, with their membership rolls still filled with hunters and anglers.
But scratch the surface of the Ozarks’ karst topography, and you’re likely to turn up a vestige of the “Ikes.”
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South of Joplin lies the Walter Woods Conservation area. In 1931, Dr. Otto Walter purchased 40 acres and presented it to the local chapter of the league, who erected a lodge and private fishing hatchery in the late 1930s.
MDC estimates that over 1 million fish reared at the site were released into local streams.
League members invited residents to an open house to show off the grounds, and members of IWL Chapter 31 hoped to “plant the grounds with every plant, shrub, and tree native to the Ozarks,” according to an article in the Joplin Globe.