The night before quietly bowing out from a 40-year career, John Fraley spent his evening sharing stories and educating a group of nearly 70 people in Glacier National Park. Previous nights and weekends were similarly jam-packed with events — organizing a day-long fishing trip for 84 anglers with disabilities, helping honor volunteer hunter-education instructors who have devoted 60 years of service — and occupational duties that many people would consider burdensome work but which Fraley cherished as time well spent.
On June 30, Fraley, the regional education and outreach specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, bid farewell to his friends and colleagues whom he has worked alongside since 1978, when he was a post-graduate student at Montana State University ready to embark on a career in the wild.
Though he still plans to hike and run the same trails and fill his time with many of the same pursuits, such as teaching at Flathead Valley Community College and volunteering for fish and wildlife programs, Fraley leaves behind a legacy as large as a trophy trout.
“When I think of John, I can’t think of anyone working for FWP or anywhere else in the community who cares more about the conservation of Montana’s fish and wildlife,” said Mark Deleray, FWP’s regional fisheries manager and a biologist who first met Fraley in 1991. “Not only does he care about the critters, but it’s also how much he cares about the public and the future public, especially kids … For this office and probably for the entire state, he’s a cornerstone.”
There’s the old saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day … ” In Fraley’s case, it was introduce a young boy in Pennsylvania to aquatic species, and he’ll discover a new world of exciting adventure and intrigue.
“I lived right next to this creek, and from the time I was 5 or 6 years old, I was always building ponds and catching rock bass and putting them in these ponds,” he recalled recently. “I was always curious and loved aquatic invertebrates. I lived in that creek for my whole childhood.”
One memory that sticks out involves the night of his high school graduation. As the ceremony approached, Fraley was nowhere to be found.
“My mom dragged me out of that creek and said, ‘You’ll miss your graduation,’” Fraley recalled.
In 1972, he chased the great outdoors and landed in Big Sky Country, enrolling at the University of Montana at 18. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, he went to Bozeman and studied fisheries ecology. He then earned a position in a research field unit funded by the state fish and wildlife department, where he worked in 1978-79. Once he graduated with his master’s, he began working full-time as a state biologist, first in Fort Benton and then Cascade and Bozeman before moving to the Flathead Valley.
Over the next 10 years, Fraley worked deep in the wilderness studying native trout species and quickly became an expert along the north, south and middle forks of the Flathead River. In 1984, he transitioned into fisheries administration and sat on the International Joint Commission. In 1991, he became education and outreach specialist for FWP’s Northwest Montana region, while remaining a passionate pupil of native trout species.
His work has been pivotal from a research standpoint and instrumental for generations of sportsmen and women. Fraley spearheaded the Hooked on Fishing program in this corner of the state, using angling as a way to teach ecology fundamentals to elementary and middle school students. The program, which provides fishing equipment for students, training and curriculum for teachers, and in-class assistance from FWP staff and volunteer instructors, annually reaches more than 1,500 students in nearly 200 classrooms statewide.
Fraley also spearheaded the Fishing without Barriers event, which has been running for 24 years and recently took out 84 anglers with disabilities for a day of fishing on Flathead Lake. The hunter education program in Northwest Montana is one of the largest and most respected in the state, with 300 volunteer instructors devoting their time to teach young men and women the ethics and safety of hunting. The courses are taught under his leadership.
The list of Fraley-fueled programs is long enough to wonder where he finds enough hours in the day to sleep. And that doesn’t even include his constant running regimen and the endless support he’s given to his family.
“What I’m proud of is all the volunteers we have with Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the dedicated people involved,” he said. “I never forget that I work for the public. It’s a huge privilege to have one of these jobs. Who wouldn’t want it? There’s a lot of stress, but I feel so privileged to be able to serve the people of Montana and do what I do.”
And with retirement here, what now?
Fraley is working on his third book, which will require him to hike in the wilderness with his family and friends, explore the rivers and study the mystical elements of nature before sharing his tales with anyone interested.
In other words, just like another day on the job.