I was saddened to learn the news of the passing of Don Phares this past week. Phares died last Saturday at Ruby Memorial Hospital at the age of 75.
Phares for many years was a key figure in guiding the state’s trout program. I was introduced to Don in the earliest days of the West Virginia Outdoors radio show. At the time he was a seasoned veteran fish biologist. I was a green kid just out of college who was elated to have his own radio show, but just learning all of the things I needed to know to make it effective. I soon learned, one of the ways to make the show effective was to get guests who were knowledgeable and entertaining. Boy, did Don Phares fit that bill.
Don worked for many years in his position with the state and with sportsman’s groups like Trout Unlimited and the Izaac Walton League to enhance trout habitat in West Virginia. He was passionate about the native brook trout in West Virginia and enhancing its habitat.
I once asked him on the air about some remote trout stream in the state.
“Don, can you catch natives in that stream?” I asked. Without missing a beat he replied, “Yeah, I can. But I’m not so sure about whether YOU can.”
His obituary details his long life of work to preserve trout fishing in the Mountain State.
“Don’s passion was West Virginia’s native brook trout and the protection of their habitat was of paramount importance to him. He was proud of his part in continuing and expanding upon Pete Zurbuch’s pioneering work in acid stream neutralization which restored hundreds of miles of trout streams in West Virginia. For streams not capable of sustaining a native brook trout population, Don was an advocate and enthusiastic participant in brown trout fingerling stockings. This was often in the form of back-packing and mule-packing fingerlings into otherwise inaccessible streams. Don worked on may stream improvement projects to better water quality for the fishery. This included building K-damns, bank stabilization, stream cover and boulder placements. Don and his co-workers, and Jack, Jim and Al surveyed inaccessible streams walking into wilderness areas carrying generators on their backs. Don had a special interest in the trout stocking program always wanting to provide additional fishing opportunities for anglers. He worked closely with the hatchery personnel to produce the maximum numbers of quality trout. Don supervised the trout programs with passion, zeal and efficiency that might not have been appreciated or fully understood until he left the program.”
Don was recognized with numerous awards for his work to preserve trout, trout fishing, and their habitation. He was charming, witty, and incredibly intelligent. He could also be cantankerous when fighting for what he knew was important. Don had a low tolerance for political bull****.
He once told another outdoor reporter and me, “When I retire, I’ll be the gall-dangdest gadfly they’ve ever seen.” He seemed to enjoy politics, if for no reason other than to irritate self righteous politicians and to make certain his beloved trout were protected.
He was from the old school of wildlife biologists. He was part of the generation who relied on the science, the data, and their accumulated knowledge and didn’t pay much attention to what was politically correct or proper. He also had an old school attitude about hunting and fishing. Friends tell me he was the guy in deer camp who would hike several miles deep into the Monongahela National Forest, kill a massive buck, then spend the rest of the day dragging it out by himself. He refused to get help and was always proud of his ability to pull off the feat when others had long given up. He was also always the camp cook and made sure everybody ate well and kept laughing.
I miss having Don to call on a moment’s notice to come on the radio and share his wisdom and his sense of humor with everybody. His laughter was infectious and event when he was teasing me, I knew it was nothing personal and he was getting a kick out of it, but also always proving a point. His needling taught me a lot of things which are valuable in my discussions 25 years later.
Rest well Don and may eternity find you with clear streams and tight lines.