Any Fin is Possible

Zoë Mihalas, who caught a brown trout shortly after this photo was taken, is an accomplished fly fisher and a celebrated conservationist.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Brevard resident Zoë Mihalas is only 16, but she’s already made her dreams of conservation and community outreach a daily habit. Mihalas puts a lot of effort into teaching friends, family, classmates, and anyone she meets about the importance of being an “eco warrior.” Saving the environment is high on her list of priorities, and she plans to continue to speak and act on behalf of the cause for the rest of her life.

You’re a member of Trout Unlimited’s Pisgah Chapter. Tell Bold Life about the organization.

Essentially, it’s a community that works together to connect, restore, and maintain fisheries. I’ve been a member for 10 years now. My entire family fly fishes. My dad [Mike Mihalas, the state chair of North Carolina Trout Unlimited] has fished since he was 7 years old. He learned from a library book. His grandpa took him to K-Mart to get his first rod so he could fish in the pond in his back yard.

We heard you recently received Trout Unlimited’s national Award for Distinguished Service in Youth Education.

Yes! It’s an award for people that have an impact on youth [within the organization]. I work mainly on the Youth Leadership Council in the Pisgah Chapter, so this is largely where the award stemmed from. I have also worked with Girl Scouts, campers, fly-fishing-oriented groups [for women], and others, all through TU.

Being so active in the community and balancing high school must keep you busy. What do you do in your free time?

I spend a lot of my time fishing. I also play soccer and tennis at the varsity level at Brevard High School. I do have plenty of work days where I have to join conference calls, though. But to me, it’s not work. It’s what I like doing.

Your passion came about naturally …

We grew up playing in the stream. We weren’t forced to fish, but we would play around and cast a couple of times, flip rocks, and then make s’mores. We went to the river to go to the river, not just to fish. My love for the natural world came from spending so much positive time in the outdoors. I grew up wanting to help when I learned about fracking and global warming. I also spent time at the Outdoor Academy [a residential school in Pisgah Forest for high-school sophomores]. They make the future of conservationists. Up until that point, I was very passionate, but my time at the Outdoor Academy solidified what I wanted to do with my time here, and to protect it for generations beyond me. … Currently, nature-deficit disorder is having a poor impact on many youth. I want to take kids outside, take them fishing. I mean, [just] sitting in the woods is something. I believe that the wilderness is an equal playing field for people. No matter your race, gender, social class, etc., this is a public land.

How would you tie fly fishing to conservation?

If you’re going to do something to use the land for recreation, it is your duty to give back to it and protect it. But, beyond cold-water conservation, if we don’t fix climate change, fixing a stream does nothing. We are living in a civilization where it is completely normal to destroy the planet without it being questioned.

What keeps you drawn to the sport?

I think it’s largely a reason for me to go outside often. The adrenaline of catching a fish is really fun, too. I also appreciate the community aspect of it. Here in Brevard, there is a large fly-fishing community of all ages. We watch out for each other. We’re like family.

What’s next?

When I graduate high school, I am hiking the entire Appalachian Trail with my brothers over a span of five months. I’d like to attend a four-year university where I can study environmental science, sustainability — and be in close proximity to a nice river for fishing.

For more information, see Pisgah Chapter Trout Unlimited, pisgahtu.org, and Outdoor Academy Semester School, enf.org/outdoor-academy.

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