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Remembering a TU pioneer and gentleman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's trout-fishing community will miss Ernie Nester.

Ernie died earlier this week at the far-too-early age of 75. Anglers throughout the state will remember him because he worked tirelessly to enhance fishing for wild, stream-grown trout. I'll remember him because he was a friend.

I met him at a Trout Unlimited meeting in 1978. He had an easy smile and an affable manner that put folks instantly at ease, and a manner of speaking that sounded very much as if someone had taken famed actor Jimmy Stewart's voice and transplanted it into a lanky civil engineer's body.

I had only just begun to fly fish for trout at the time, and I had a million questions.

The way Ernie answered them impressed me deeply. He never spoke hastily. He listened carefully, mulled each question over for a moment or two, and then answered clearly and directly.

I quickly learned (from others; Ernie never, ever tooted his own horn) that he taught civil engineering at West Virginia University Tech, helped found TU's Kanawha Valley Chapter, and served as West Virginia's first TU Council chairman and first national director.

He was a fisherman, and a darned good one, but focused his true passion on making trout fishing better for everyone.

He and several other Kanawha Valley members carried water-chemistry kits with them wherever they went. With those kits, they painstakingly measured the alkalinity and acidity of promising-looking streams that didn't yet contain trout. When one had the right combination of alkalinity and temperature, they stocked the stream with juvenile brown trout carried there in their own backpacks.

When Ernie thought a stream might have the potential to harbor native brook trout, he and a couple of trusted friends took matters into their own hands. They'd head for a well-populated creek, catch a limit of native brookies apiece and transport them to the candidate stream.

Between official chapter "project" streams and waters that received ad-hoc stockings, Ernie and his TU companions created more than 20 trout streams essentially from whole cloth. In 2007, he presided over the ceremonial stocking of the Kanawha Valley Chapter's one-millionth juvenile brown trout.

He also spearheaded a couple of other high-profile TU projects - the annual cleanup on McDowell County's Elkhorn Creek, and the annual "bucket brigade" to carry limestone sand into the Middle Fork of the Williams River.

My memories of Ernie are more personal.

When I was a student at Tech in the early 1980s, he often took me to lunch, where the conversation always centered on trout, fly fishing, water quality and conservation.

Around that time, he invited me to accompany him to a TU national meeting in Staunton, Va., where we camped in a tent and, after the conference ended, spent a pleasant morning fishing Mossy Creek, a famous limestone spring creek. Ernie managed to catch a couple of those finicky browns, including a fat 15-incher that took a grasshopper pattern. I got skunked, but Ernie, always the gentleman, refused to razz me about it.

I'll miss his lopsided grin, his distinctive voice, and the ever-present twinkle in his eyes. West Virginia's trout fishing community will miss his experience, his expertise and his evenhanded leadership.

His name will live on, though. Earlier this year, members of the Kanawha Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited voted to rename the chapter. Henceforth it will be known as the Ernie Nester Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

I can think of no more fitting tribute.

Rest in peace, Ernie. We shall miss you.


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