We recently sat down with our good friend Brooks Scott to chat about his role at Yellow Dog Community and Conservation Foundation (YDCCF), what he’s been up to and his passion for fly fishing… he even lets us in on where to go for the best smallmouth bass fishing in the world.
You’ve got an extensive career in the outdoor and conservation space. Can you tell us about your journey?
I started fishing in my early 20s while working as a chef in Chicago. I needed an escape and it was the perfect tonic. When my son was born, I decided to pursue a different career so that I could have more time to spend with my family. I ended up working at a fly shop, which led me to Patagonia.
I opened the first Patagonia store in Chicago in 2003, and went on to running stores across the country for the next 17 years, all the while striving to keep my feet wet (literally!) in the fly fishing side of the business through building partnerships and working on conservation. I was gifted some time to pursue other things when the retail side of the business shut down during the pandemic, and my wife and I decided it was time for a move. We had been thinking about leaving the city for a few years, and the pandemic provided the right impetus. We packed up and headed for Montana, which is where we are now. I started work about the same time with Emerger Strategies, a Charleston-based sustainability consulting firm focused on the fly fishing industry. It’s all about building relationships in the industry and helping small businesses improve their bottom line by reducing their carbon footprint while achieving better efficiencies and lowering costs. It’s fun and engaging work that keeps me focused on an industry I’ve been a part of for over 25 years.
In 2021, I started a new job as the Executive Director of the Yellow Dog Community and Conservation Foundation (YDCCF).
Wow… that’s quite the journey. I’m familiar with Yellow Dog Flyfishing for booking travel, but I’m curious to hear more about what the YDCCF does.
YDCCF is the nonprofit foundation that Yellow Dog Flyfishing owners Jim Klug and Ian Davis founded in 2016. The foundation’s mission is to preserve, protect and enhance the communities that matter to anglers. We focus our investments through small grants to the places in which Yellow Dog sends anglers on community development, education, infrastructure and fisheries conservation.
Got it. Can you tell me about your specific role within YDCCF?
I am the chief cook and bottle washer. We’re currently a one-person operation, with a quarter million dollar annual budget. I handle all of our day-to-day, from finance and fundraising to programming and outreach.
What is something you're working on currently that’s making a big impact?
YDDCF was founded partially because of some experiences in Punta Allen, a small fishing village in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. We’ve been investing in helping the community, especially the children, to improve the educational experiences by building new bathrooms and adding new covered outdoor learning spaces, as well as our most recent project to build a new dormitory for the teachers that travel to Punta Allen. Most come from Tulum, a minimum two-hour drive away, and stay in the village for longer periods of time. Prior to the dorm, the living conditions were challenging, which reduced the attractiveness of the job and, therefore, reduced the available talent pool. Now, the Teacher’s Dorm is one of the nicest houses in town, and the application pool for teaching positions is the biggest the town has ever seen—and the quality of the applicants is way higher. The town now has their choice of educators for their kids, and those educators want to stay longer, ensuring better continuity and a much improved learning experience for the children.
It’s important to note that YDCCF doesn’t do the work—we leverage the relationships we’ve built in the community, and the residents and business owners handle the actual project development and execution. We just help rally the necessary funding. It’s a unique model and it’s highly effective. We’re not showing up to solve problems. Instead, the community is telling us what they need help with and we’re working to provide them with what they need to improve the issues.
I love to hear that. It must feel really rewarding to be able to make such a difference in the communities that are close to your heart. What are some specific things you’ve learned from your experience at YDCCF, and how does that prepare you for future projects?
Honestly, when I took the job, especially coming from Patagonia, I thought the work would be super conservation focused. We certainly fund conservation efforts, and are successful in achieving results, but I quickly learned that our sweet spot is in community work. That’s why the word community appears first in our name. It’s all about great relationships, and listening and learning from the people who live and work in these special places. It allows me to really focus on building partnerships with our community and other organizations to help come up with solutions.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Getting to see and hear about the impact that the work we fund is having. When I hear from a local lodge owner that their children love the new playground that we helped fund, or that a community that has never seen a dentist before gets the opportunity to have 100 local kids get free checkups, that’s the stuff that matters to me. As anglers, it’s such a privilege to be able to visit these places. Almost every experience I’ve had abroad as an angler is tied to meeting people and getting to know them, their work and the place they call home. It feels second-nature to support the lives they live and make sure they can raise a family and enjoy their lives. If that’s all happening as it should, the quality of the experience for anyone coming to visit and fish will be amazing. Great experiences don’t happen by accident. It takes enormous personal investment from the people in these communities.
Is there a particular project that feels extra special for you?
It’ll sound like a cliche, but it’s the next one. I’m consistently excited about what’s next, how we grow our impact and how we can expand to include projects in places we haven’t yet been able to.
I can appreciate that. Is there anywhere in particular that especially needs YDCCF’s help right now?
We fund projects all over the world, but as you might expect, it’s focused on great places to fish—from the Yucatan in Mexico, Belize, the Bahamas, Mongolia and at home in Montana. The Bahamas have been a focal point for us for some time, especially since Hurricane Dorian in 2019. The northern islands, Grand Bahama and Abaco, were decimated by the storm and it will literally take a generation or more for it to return to some semblance of normal there.
Wow. How can folks help support YDCCF projects?
Head to https://www.ydccf.org/give to learn more and donate. Also, know that every time you book a trip with Yellow Dog Flyfishing, a portion of that booking comes back to YDCCF. Yellow Dog is the only company of its kind that’s donating directly back to the communities in which it sends anglers with every trip booked. It’s also worth noting that booking through Yellow Dog doesn’t cost any more than booking direct—what you get is a full-service package that gives you an amazing experience with a ton of free support from their travel experts.
Let’s talk fly fishing. You’re a native Midwesterner, so I gotta ask—what’s your favorite thing about fly fishing in the Midwest that you won’t experience anywhere else?
The number one toughest thing about leaving the Midwest for me was leaving behind the absolute best smallmouth bass fishing in the world (fact: I have two tattoos—one is the Great Lakes and the other is a Smallie). The amazing thing about bass fishing in the Midwest is the variety of habitat… it’s mind-boggling. No matter if you flats stalk in the bays on the big lakes, jet boat the lower rivers for fish crashing on baitfish and float wild and scenic rivers in the Northwoods, you’re sure to experience smallmouth fishing that’s unique and special to each of those places. It’s one of those places that you could spend a lifetime exploring on only scratch the surface of the available opportunities.
I’m actually planning a Midwest tour for smallmouth bass and visits with friends, and am hoping I can pull that off in July this year. I miss the upper Midwest—if you couldn’t already tell!
Oh man, I need to make my way to the Midwest. Other than the Midwest (ha-ha), where’s your favorite place to fish?
Since I cut my teeth in the Driftless, I have a soft spot for fishing small streams for native trout. Luckily, there is a plethora of that where I live now.
And you now live in Livingston, Montana. What’s it like for you there?
Livingston is such an amazing community. It’s still small enough that you are likely to run into someone you know whenever you are out and about. And it’s incredibly diverse, at least social-economically and culturally: fishing guides, artists, fifth-generation ranchers, tradespeople, writers, musicians and everything else you can imagine. And it all works—people here, maybe by nature of being able to cobble together a living in such a beautiful place—are still tolerant and polite and care about their neighbors. That’s notable in the current political climate.
For sure. Sounds like a pretty great place to call home. Can you tell me about your experience learning the Yellowstone River out there?
It’s a lifeblood of sorts to the community. Yes, we get our water supply from it and it irrigates a huge swath of farming land. But it also provides income to tourism businesses, like fishing guides, recreational raft companies, tour boats, shuttle companies, restaurants and bars and grocery stores.
How important is conservation and community in preserving that prized river?
The answer to this will always be very multifaceted as a result of that vast array of stakeholders I just mentioned. Everyone relies on a healthy river for their livelihood, but it can sometimes be hard to agree on what the right steps are to preserve and protect the resource.
Gotcha. Are there any organizations or events that you’re a part of that help in keeping Yellowstone a productive and beautiful river?
There are so many great organizations working on issues related to the Yellowstone. A few that I volunteer with or play a more active role in are Montana Freshwater Partners—they’ve got a program called Give Back to the Yellowstone, which seeks to fund and execute projects that will keep the river resilient in the face of climate change. Montana Trout Unlimited and the Joe Brooks Chapter are also active on projects related to keeping the Yellowstone a blue ribbon trout habitat. There’s a consortium of groups that are part of the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group, which seeks to bring together all the stakeholders and work on issues in the watershed, from irrigation to erosion to recreational pressure. And Park County Environmental Council (PCEC) is a stalwart in the community. They work on a huge array of issues, from development to affordable housing to environmental impact.
Aside from the passion y’all share for conservation and fish… what do you love most about the fly fishing community?
Like many communities built around a shared experience, it’s really about connection. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a fly angler who didn’t care about the resource—the place where they were fishing. We tend to romanticize a bit and fall in love with the places we fish, and for me that manifests itself in wanting to do what I can to help keep these places special and accessible and enjoyable for everyone who wants to participate. I’ve found over the years that this is a pretty common trait of fly anglers. We all care.
Love it. What advice would you give to new anglers?
Honestly, the number one thing I would tell people to do is find a guide that you personally connect with in some way. Ask around, and be open about what your skill level is and what your expectations are. Tell them (if this is the case!) that your goal is to spend the day learning. If you’ve done your homework—or gotten great recommendations from your friends—you’ll have an amazing experience, form a bond, and literally learn more in a day than you’ll learn fishing on your own in a year. It doesn’t always work out this way, but it’s still the path that I think presents the best possible return on investment—both in time and money.
So, how do you unwind when you’re not working or fishing?
My background as a chef means that one of my prime unwinding activities is cooking. I’ve always loved the creative side of it, and nothing energizes me more than putting a great, simple meal together and seeing the smiles on my family’s faces as we sit down together to eat.
I’m also a writer, and when I can find a couple quiet hours to contemplate, I’ll work on a book idea I’ve been wrestling with for the last three years.
Nice! As someone who loves words, what’s one book you’d recommend to anglers? Conservationists?
Such a tough question to answer succinctly, as my personal library is deep on both these subjects! The other issue is that fly fishing has a very deep literary bench. The book that made me fall in love with fly fishing is Harry Middleton’s The Earth is Enough. It was published in 1989, and when read today proves remarkably prescient about the issues we face. It’s also one of the most engrossing stories I’ve ever read. Chris Dombrowski’s The River You Touch was amazing. Chris is a poet, and that exacting attention to wordsmithing shows up in all his work. It’s a deeply moving collection of stories with a central thread of it means to raise a family and live a life that’s deeply connected to place and water in this time and age.
On the conservation side, Heather Hansman’s Downriver explores the myriad of issues facing water in the West through the lens of a solo trip down the length of the Green River. I found it super insightful and a really great way to wrap my brain around the whole question of water rights and their place in our current dilemma.
Sweet, thanks for the recs. Any more organizations that you’d like to give a shout out to?
My friend and fellow Cubs fan Mollie Simpkins founded OGA and the related Guide Relief Project during the pandemic and I love what she’s working on - focusing on helping guides with health coverage - both mental and physical, as well as boat financing, and other business training.
Sascha Danylchuk is doing some amazing work helping anglers understand the impacts they have on fish they catch and release. As a community, we’re still a long way off from relinquishing the grip-n-grin that personifies fishing success, but the work Sascha does is a solid step toward breaking that cycle.
Both are working toward addressing climate change and its impact on fisheries. FFCA comes at it from the industry side, by providing resources to member companies committed to reducing their emissions. AFFTA’s Fisheries Fund is utilizing Tomorrow’s Fish as a way to educate the angling public about issues that fisheries face, with an eye toward mobilizing support for policy change that supports climate action.
Both of these groups are focused on habitat and fisheries protection in saltwater environments. BTT comes at it from a scientific perspective, producing industry leading studies about the flats fishery, as well as education and advocacy. CCW is focused on ensuring that clean water filters through south Florida the way nature always intended it to and how it did for eons before humans got here and decided to alter the landscape to better suit our needs. They are a powerful force in advocating for policy in Florida and the Everglades that will keep their fisheries resilient.
Indifly is focused on enabling Indigenous communities to run their own eco-tourism and destination fly fishing businesses. It’s a very unique approach and has been proven to work in a number of places. When you think about the little wilderness left on the planet, and how valuable that biodiversity is in helping us avoid the most cataclysmic effects of climate change, it’s worth remembering that 80% of it is inhabited by Indigenous populations. They have been stewards of the land forever, and there is not a global solution that doesn’t involve their continued stewardship.