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A fisherman up to his knee in a stream with a fish on the line
Information icon Mike Piccirilli casts for trout in the South Fork Flathead River in Montana. Photo courtesy of Mike Piccirilli.

Hooked on trout fishing

Service’s Mike Piccirilli is retiring after years of work to improve hunting and fishing in the Southeast

Some folks find a fulfilling job they love. Some folks find a hobby that brings them joy. The lucky ones find both, and the luckiest few find their job and hobby inextricably intertwined.

Like Mike Piccirilli, avid lifelong trout fisherman, and Chief of the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Atlantic-Gulf and Mississippi Basin regions.

A man kneeling with a smile on the edge of a stream holding a trout
Trout fisherman Mike Piccirilli with a cutthroat trout in Slough Creek, Wyoming, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Mike Piccirilli

Piccirilli, 62, grew up fishing with his father and brother in western Pennsylvania, dangling minnows and worms in local waters. In high school, he went camping with his family at a state park, and had one of those time-stands-still moments that, decades later, he described with a kind of hushed awe.

“They had brook trout in a pond,” recalled, “and one evening there were some moths flitting around my cot. I caught one and I flipped it in the water.”

“And I remember it like it was a yesterday. About a 16-inch brook trout came up and took that fly in and I’m looking right down that mouth. All that white in his mouth, right in front of me. And I said to myself, I would love to be able to catch trout with a fly. It was kind of an epiphany.”

A fly fisherman was born. For high school graduation in 1975, he asked for an Orvis fly-tying kit, and got it.

Now, after 36 years of working in a variety of Department of the Interior positions to preserve public lands and improve wildlife habitat all over the United States, Piccirilli is retiring on March 27, to spend more time with his wife Sue and son Andy.

And maybe cast a tightly tied fly or two into a clear, cold stream.

Piccirilli has been Chief of the regional Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program since 2004. The program, usually referred to within the Service by its acronym, WSFR (“wiss-fer”), works with the states distributing grants to conserve, protect and enhance fishing, hunting, wildlife, their habitats and all the recreational opportunities that go along with them.

In WSFR, revenue is raised through fishing and hunting licenses, taxes on ammunition, Duck Stamps sales and other means. Piccirilli’s program sends that money to Southeastern states as grants for shooting ranges, maintenance of wildlife management areas, research (into topics like chronic wasting disease in deer), hunter education, boat-access sites and much more.

“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “You can help state game and fish agencies enhance what they are doing and have an impact in a lot of different areas.

“Hunters and anglers who actually pay these taxes don’t usually know what our program is,” he continued, “but they get the direct benefits whenever land is acquired for hunting or fish are stocked somewhere.”

Ironically, Piccirilli is responsible for the Southeastern states, but his favorite trout fishing spots tend to be out west.

Piccirilli so loves fishing out West that he’s missed his annual fishing trip only twice in 35 years. That’s 33 trips to stand in rushing, cold water.

A fly fisherman shows off his trout in a stream banked by tall conifer trees
The one that didn’t get away: A cutthroat trout in Montana in 1999. Photo courtesy of Mike Piccirilli.

“One fishing trip we camped in Hawk’s Rest, right where Teddy Roosevelt camped, on a horseback trip,” he said. “It’s some of the most remote back country in the lower 48 states. So there was that sense of tradition there.

“Another memorable trip my dad, my brother and I rode into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in Montana. My dad was 70, and the fact that he could make that trip meant a lot. He got thrown off his horse at one point, but he got back on and had a good time.”

He also heads over to North Carolina occasionally to fish for trout in the Nantahala River.

There are other fish, he knows, besides trout. And yes, in a pinch, he will fish for bass. With a lure, no less.

“I had never been much of a bass fisherman,” he explained. “I live in a subdivision with a pond behind my house and I would see this neighbor boy fishing with his dad and never thought much of it, but they showed me photos of bass they caught in that pond.

“The following day,” he continued, “I’m at Walmart looking at their lures, and there’s this young boy about 7 years old, kind of chubby and red-faced. He saw me trying to pick bass lures I know nothing about. I asked him if he could help me out and this little boy just came alive.

“He said, ‘You need this and this and this.’ He picked up a Hula Popper, which simulates a frog. He said, so sincerely, ‘If you use one of these you will catch a big bucket mouth.’

“I took those lures and I caught three bass in that pond that day. Without meeting that boy and catching those bass, I wouldn’t be a bass fisherman today.”

With few exceptions, Piccirilli is a catch-and-release angler. “There’s so many people who like to fish, and a good high quality trout stream is a limited resource,” he explains. “You can’t continue to take them out of the water and expect to have a good experience.”

Three men in rain gear sitting on a fallen tree with fishing gear in hand.
Old friends Jim Brown, Greg Fife and Mike Piccirilli take a brief in Yellowstone National Park in 2013. Photo courtesy of Mike Piccirilli.


Phil Kloer, public affairs specialist, (404) 679-7299

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