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Rods, Reels, and Rivers

A student organization gives students opportunities to get outside, serve others, and catch fish.

April 26, 2021

Growing up a stone’s throw from the Holston River, Jonah Duran spent many of his days making the short walk to the water with his canoe and exploring the river. But it wasn’t until three years ago, when he inherited some of his fiancée’s father’s rods and reels, that he decided to get serious about getting on the water to catch fish.

“I started with baitcasters and spinning reels for bass and bluegill,” says Duran, a nuclear engineering PhD candidate who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UT in 2015 and 2017.

Then one afternoon while fishing from his kayak on the Clinch River, he met a local guide who gave him advice about how to hook into more and bigger fish. He was going to have to learn to fly fish.

Duran went to a local fly shop, 3 Rivers Angler, for free casting lessons and attended a free fly-tying night at Little River Outfitters in Townsend. “I loved it,” he says. “It was a lot of fun.”

Looking to get more involved in the fly fishing community, he attended a meeting of the Great Smoky Mountain chapter of Trout Unlimited, a national organization that focuses on conservation of freshwater ecosystems and habitats for trout, salmon, and other fish species. The chapter president, John Reinhardt, told him about Vols on the Fly, a UT student organization that had been dormant for the past few years after all its leaders had graduated.

“He tapped me to get this thing going again,” Duran says. “Sure, why not? If I’m going to get into fly fishing, I might as well go all in.”

In late 2019, Vols on the Fly relaunched as a club at UT with Duran as president. There are 450 student organizations or clubs registered with the university, from advocacy to agriculture and performing arts to outdoor recreation clubs like this one.

In just over a year, the club has grown to more than 30 members.

Griffin Nakovich, a senior finance major from Wilmington, North Carolina, saw a flyer for the club in the Student Union and quickly connected with Duran, who added him to the club GroupMe—the primary tool it uses to connect members and plan events, from river cleanups to weekend camping trips in the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest.

“At UT, we’re surrounded by these beautiful mountains and rivers,” says Nakovich, who serves as the club’s marketing chair. “Before, I’d go out by myself and drive an hour away to fish alone. But now I’ve got people my age to do these things with. It makes you feel like you’re a part of a community.”

To provide further support to the club, the local Trout Unlimited chapter assigned one of its board members to work closely with the students. Vols on the Fly also was made a partner of Trout Unlimited’s Costa 5 Rivers program, a national network of more than 100 college fly fishing clubs.

One of the ways the club is able to make fly fishing accessible to students who have never tried it before or who don’t have their own equipment—whether rods, reels, flies, or tents for trips—is by directing them to UT’s Outdoor Pursuits program in the Department of Recreational Sports, which offers rentals for under $10 for a weekend. More often than not, however, fellow club members take supporting newcomers into their own hands.

“It can be overwhelming or intimidating if you’re just starting out,” Nakovich says. “But, if you’re doing Vols on the Fly, we’ve got experienced guys who will take you out. We’ll lend you whatever you need. The first step is coming to us before going anywhere else.”

Ethan Ward, a first-year wildlife and fisheries science major from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, got to campus last year and started attending the fly-tying nights the club hosts at homes or Dead End BBQ on Sutherland Avenue. In Vols on the Fly, Ward saw the practical application of everything he was learning in his conservation and wildlife management classes.

“Being out on the Holston and the Clinch or the Smokies helped me understand what we’re trying to protect—why well-managed wildlife areas are so important for future generations,” Ward says. He even discovered other conservation organizations like the American Fisheries Society, which he’s since joined, thanks to the exposure Vols on the Fly gave him.

In the end, what Duran hopes Vols on the Fly members get to experience is the camaraderie that comes with spending time together, whether it’s tying flies after hours in a fly shop, boating around Fort Loudoun Lake to pick up trash, or catching trout in a local stream.

“Just like I was really excited a few years ago even though I didn’t know anything about fly fishing, the beautiful thing about this club is that people get to be out in nature together,” Duran says, “and catch fish while they’re doing it.”

Photos by Steven Bridges

Produced by Brian Canever and the Office of Communications and Marketing

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