Richard May

They Can Be Beat

Recorded: July19, 2012

It all began with catching a fish... Richard May evolved into a leader in the fight to save California wild trout with his "committee of two million."

Learning to fly fish as an adult was the catalyst for what has become Mr. May’s life’s work as a leader of one of the most successful organizations ever devoted to fish and environmental advocacy, Cal Trout. As an insurance agent, Mr. May had very little exposure to the outdoors until he fished with his father-in-law. Fishing led to reading about fishing and studying fish, soon becoming an obsession. Thus began Richard’s steady transition to becoming a major protector of fish and their stream habitat in California where he co-founded California Trout. In this clip, Richard reveals his passion for native California trout, steelhead and salmon.

Huey Johnson: You’ve lived under the pressure of those water interests, the water buffalo as you used the term.

Richard May: Yeah.

Huey Johnson: Boy, those guys have got a lot of money to spend.

Richard May: They do.

Huey Johnson: Public relations and…-

Richard May: They do but they can be beat, we proved it.

Huey Johnson: Yeah.

Richard May: They can be beat. It wasn’t until I got into the fly fishing and understood the dynamics of a trout fishery that I began to get inspired to try to lean more and after that, to do more. I was an insurance broker in the financial district in San Francisco and we young Turks used to take a brown bag lunch and meet for lunch at a small fly shop down on Leadusdorf [Sp?] Alley and lament what we observed about the way trout resources in California were being managed by the state. The other thing we talked about was the loss of our steelhead rivers.

Richard May: There was a threat to start damming them and the first one was the proposed Dos Rios dam on the middle fork of the Eel River, so we decided to take it on. We fought the Dos Rios dam, brought it to its knees and our leader at the time was Joe Paul, that’s where Joe Paul’s genius came out because then he said “we’ve got to get out of the dam fighting business and we’ve got to get into the river saving business.” And that began his effort to organize all of the fishermen and all of the hunters and sportsmen into a group called The Committee of Two Million.

Huey Johnson: I have always admired that idea as a case study of what a handful of people can do. You guys had no permission to use the fishermen of California as your members, Paul just announced it.

Richard May: Yeah, right.

Huey Johnson: And he would send press releases out all the time signed by The Committee of Two Million, I remember that.

Richard May: Yeah.

Huey Johnson: He testified in the legislature, Committee of Two Million.

Richard May: Oh yeah, yeah.

Huey Johnson: It was just a gutsy move and it worked like a charm, didn’t cost much.

Richard May: Right.

Huey Johnson: And made a heck of a difference.

Richard May: The other element that we were involved in was how trout were managed. We thought that the management of wild trout resources was a correct way to go rather than the hatchery trout way to go and we came up with the concept of natural trout management where the habitat was protected and the harvest of fish was restricted to the point where the population of trout was essentially unaffected from one season to the next. That concept turned into the states Wild Trout Program. We were successful in that because we had a small project up in Shasta County on Hat Creek where we restored a fishery there and put in the angling restrictions and demonstrated what it was we had in mind and from that, we were able to make the case that this was a viable concept.

Huey Johnson: An interesting aspect trout fishing and to human recreation has been the idea of catch and release, don’t kill the fish, you can put them back.

Richard May: Right.

Huey Johnson: And I tribute that to you personally as an idea, can you reflect on that?

Richard May: There was the published statement by a famous angler who said that a wild fish is too valuable to be caught only once.

Huey Johnson: That’s nice.

Richard May: Yeah, so that had a great deal of meaning to some of us and so we pushed the idea of catch and release. We didn’t push the idea that you couldn’t take any fish at all ever, that’s called zero limit which is sort of a different animal. Now most anglers even though its there that they could, they choose not to and that’s a good choice often.

Huey: Yeah.

Richard May: And it’s a meaningful choice and it’s a satisfying choice to make. But if you can’t, then its not a choice so we like to have..-

Huey: Well what an ethical decision.

Richard May: We like to have that ethical choice there and that’s the [unintelligible].

Huey Johnson: That’s a nice attribute of that sport.

Richard May: Yeah.

Huey Johnson: In your experience of being an advocate, what lessons did you learn politically to make things happen? So often people are so frustrated that try to go to Sacramento and say “oh its impossible.”

Richard May: Oh yeah.

Huey Johnson: Well, you were successful there, why was that?

Richard May: Persistence.

Huey Johnson: That’s a good word.

Richard May: You just keep coming back and you just keep hammering the doors and making the phone calls and writing the letters and you just keep going until you’re going to get something just so they can get rid of you. There’s nothing more satisfying than doing that kind of work. Its very, very satisfying.