What I Wish I’d Said at Roger Miller’s Memorial Service

Roger Miller's big 'bow, 2006

by Sam Davidson, TU California Field Director

The fly fishing universe lost one of its brightest stars over the holidays.  Roger Miller, for decades one of California’s most ardent and effective advocates for cold water fisheries conservation, passed away on December 21.

Roger’s death came as a surprise to many, including his own family, as he seemed too tough, if not too ornery, ever to succumb to something so prosaic as illness, even cancer.  In fact, a few months before his diagnosis, Roger emerged virtually unscathed from a collision while driving in which he ended up with his head pinned between the roof of his SUV and the pavement.

Roger Miller was a founding member of the Fresno Fly Fishers for Conservation, the oldest fly fishing organization in California.  He held every position on the FFFC’s board of directors and was president twice.  Roger was twice a recipient of the group’s highest honor: the Founder’s Award.  He served on the board of directors of the Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers for many years and was their president as well.  He was a Lifetime Member of Trout Unlimited.  Roger and his wife Sandy were well known for their generous support of club fundraising and the innumerable volunteer hours they dedicated to major organizational events.  Roger was a leading proponent of the FFFC’s Youth Academy and the No Child Left Inside project.

Roger was no slouch at the bench or on the water, either.  He was a nationally certified fly casting instructor.  He turned out beautiful and deadly flies.  His skills and persistence sight fishing to finicky trout with tiny dry flies were legendary.

Roger Miller (left) with Ian LeMay of U.S. Rep. Jim Costa’s staff (center) and Jim DiPeso of ConservAmerica, May 2012

Also legendary was Roger’s opinionated persona.  Roger’s communication skills were molded by his more than two decades in the Air National Guard — he had no qualms telling you what he thought, and he did not pull punches in doing so.  He spoke without artifice and was contemptuous of those who did not.

I first met Roger at a meeting of the FFFC’s board of directors.  The board meets at a Carrow’s restaurant and I arrived after the board had already ordered and begun eating.  As then-president Bob Papazian introduced me to the people around the table, I was struck by one gentleman in particular, silver haired and with a perfectly clipped beard to match, who, unlike the others, gave me the Stink Eye.

In the Conservation business, it is easy to become cynical.  All around you, you see places that you have loved like family disappearing or losing much of the character that has made them special to you over the years.  You see the river in which as a kid you fished for the mighty steelhead — coming in waves upriver by the thousands, silver slabs of muscle hovering over redds or shooting upstream like torpedoes – now strangled by too much water diversion and pumping from the aquifer, with the annual run of wild steelhead reduced to a few hundred.  Most of all, you see people who can actually stop or mitigate these losses paying lip service to such outcomes, but doing or saying something else entirely when expedient.

So it did not surprise me that Roger Miller gave me the Stink Eye at our first meeting.  He had been around a long time and had seen too many phonies, too many anglers and conservationists who talked a good game but whose accomplishments required exaggeration to be impressive.  I was not offended that Roger was, in essence, challenging me to prove what I had to say, and what I had done in my life, was worthy of his consideration.

Roger Miller Flyfishing the backcountry of the Sierra National Forest, 2012

I am proud to say that somehow, by the end of that evening, I had passed muster with Roger.  As we departed he walked me to my car and said, “If you need us to help with anything, just let me know.”  That was Roger.

Twice last year I called upon Roger for help.  Once I asked him to travel to Washington, DC, on behalf of sportsmen to speak to members of Congress about public lands conservation issues.  After muttering a few epithets about elected officials in general, and about how his military background had shown him the wisdom of never volunteering for any dubious assignment, Roger said, “Sign me up.”  In May, just before his diagnosis with lung cancer, I asked him to accompany me to an in-district meeting with Congressman Jim Costa, to talk about a federal program that has delivered incredible value – at zero cost to taxpayers — since its inception, the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  Although Roger was not very familiar with the program, he immediately said, “Whatever you need me to do.”

By last May Roger’s health was failing.  You could see it.  He didn’t know what was wrong yet but he told me he just didn’t feel right.  We made plans to fish again, if only on the lower Kings River in his backyard, but we never did get on the water together one last time.  I’m sure Roger was disappointed, if only because it meant he didn’t have another chance to point out, with a smirk, the fatal flaws in my casting, line management, and presentation skills.

Roger Miller's last fishing trip, Oct. 2012

Some of these things I spoke briefly about at the lovely memorial service held for Roger on January 12.  But in thinking about him as I drove back across the state afterward, I felt I had not said the one thing that should have been said: that while he shunned the spotlight Roger was a hero in the best sense of the word, and was the very definition of a good friend and father, and that like very few others I have come to know over the years he inspired me to be better, that is to say more like him — as a sportsman, as a conservationist, and as a man.

The world is poorer without Roger Miller in it, but we and future generations of fly fishermen are the richer for his legacy.  Roger, I am calling in yet one more favor: please leave some trout in those celestial streams for the rest of us poor duffers.

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