Fish prefer to have their portraits taken in the water.
That might seem obvious, but Boise fly fisherman and IRU member Bryan Huskey has spent the past five years trying to spread the word to an angling public that probably hadn’t thought very hard about it. Rather than standing on a soapbox, the 38-year-old fly fisherman is using his camera and social media to raise awareness by appealing to anglers’ basic senses of aesthetics.
If you want to see what Huskey started, pull up Instagram and search the tag #keepemwet. Nearly 40,000 images result, and most capture the ethic Huskey is promoting: that of handling fish lightly before returning them to the water to give them the best chance of survival after being caught.
“Even if it’s a fish you’re gonna whack, take a picture of it in the water, in its natural environment, then bonk it and chuck it in the cooler,” he said. “The point being, this type of representation is so much more appealing to the eye no matter what kind of fish it is, whether it’s a wild fish or a hatchery fish that you’re going to put on the barbecue. This can and should apply to every kind of fishing.”
As a young angler living in Oregon, Huskey used to emulate the practices he saw in books and magazines. That meant tossing fish on the riverbank to take pictures before returning them to the water. He started thinking differently after gaining exposure to the professional fly fishing community, and later after examining photographs he’d taken.
“I certainly became sensitive and aware that if I’m extending the amount of time with the fish at my feet I’m also that much more accountable to ensure that it survives and that I do everything necessary for it to survive,” he said. “Otherwise I’m just taking without regard for the impact.”
In late 2012 Huskey started using Instagram with a particular focus on posting his fishing photographs.
“I started to see so many photos of fish that were undergoing awfully rough handling to be considered catch-and-release fish,” he said. “I didn’t want to be preachy online, but it was so unsettling to me. I tried to think of what I could do. What could I say? How can I make a point?”
That’s when he remembered a 2010 presentation he’d made to the Boise Valley Fly Fishers featuring the advice, “Keep Them Wet.” He played with the words and invented the hash tag #keepemwet, then started tagging all of his trout photos with it. That was in May 2013.
Within a month some of his friends were using the tag. Within two to three months it had begun to spread beyond his own social and professional circles. In 2014 the Naïve Fish Society took notice and used the tag to brand a broad campaign. The keep ‘em wet movement had arrived.
But with the tag’s success came misunderstanding. Anglers began using it in association with fish pictures that completely missed the point of actually keeping the fish wet, and Huskey started to feel a sense of responsibility to take ownership of what he’d started. He sent an email to most of the people he knew in the fly fishing industry saying he was going to add further organization to the effort, and keepemwet.org began to take shape and is continuing to gain visibility. A photo contest in partnership with Trout Unlimited recently concluded, and additional partnerships are taking root.
Short-term, keep ‘em wet was always about education, and on that front Huskey has already found a solid amount of success. Long term, he said he hopes to reach more people while continuing to pursue his passions for fishing and photography.
He also said that the keep ‘em wet philosophy is particularly applicable in Idaho where our fish aren’t as well suited to rough handling.
“Cold-water species happen to be very valuable to economies, not to mention their natural role as a valuable cog in the ecosystem,” Huskey said. “They’re high-value assets for a state, for the economy, for tourism, for sport fishing, for commercial fishing. And they also happen to be some of the more sensitive fish species. Here in Idaho we have trout, steelhead, salmon, and they’re really sensitive.”
All of this comes back, though, to social media, the number of fish that Huskey saw experiencing rough handling and his desire to make a difference without delivering a sermon on the subject.
“People are going to copy what they see and what they like,” he said. “Especially when so much media is digital, and they’re looking at it and consuming so much, it’s a scenario where rather than reprimanding or frowning it’s simply a matter of—maybe they don’t know any better and providing examples of what they want to copy. The pictures are so much better.”