'It’s not about race. It's about fishing'
A day on the water with the Pa. Fish and Boat Commission's first Black commissioner

John Mahn Jr., the new Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commissioner, fishes for crappies on Cross Creek Lake, Washington County. He serves District 2, which includes most of southwestern Pennsylvania. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Ask John Mahn Jr. how it feels to be the first Black board member of the state Fish and Boat Commission and he shrugs.

“I don’t think about it much,” he said, turning toward the water and casting a jig under a bobber from a rented pontoon boat.

“I understand the significance of it, but to me personally it’s part of the same thing I’ve run into a lot of times in my life.”

In December 2021, the state legislature confirmed the longtime Charleroi resident for an unpaid four-year term as the newest member of the 10-person commission. The semi-autonomous agency is loosely linked to the governor’s office and operates on an annual budget of about $50 million, primarily raised through angler fees. Fish and Boat manages aquatic wildlife and habitat and has police power to enforce laws and regulations, particularly those related to waterways, fishing and boating.

Mahn (he pronounces it like Monongahela) assumes the commission seat formerly occupied by Rocco Ali in a district that spans Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland counties. Commissioners’ authority extends statewide. A former member of the agency’s volunteer Boating Advisory Board, Mahn has held a state-certified captain’s license for 20 years. He’s retired from a career in steel industry management, graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster and is past-president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association.

On a perfect pre-spring day in March, weeks before the April 2 statewide opening of trout season, we fished for crappies on Cross Creek Lake in Washington County. The fish weren’t biting, giving us plenty of time to talk.

“‘Tim, you have 100 officers and no officers of color. We gotta change that.’ And he was on it like a hand on a June bug.”

Mahn said he’s eager to cast his votes on some of the biggest issues facing the commission including funding, habitat loss, dam repair and rising boating costs. And he hopes to revisit last year’s controversial decision to reverse years of policy banning the stocking of hatchery trout over native populations.

“I’m opposed to [overstocking],” he said, but he’d like to hear agency biologists explain their research on the mingling of trout species that cannot interbreed on waters with heavy angling pressure.

Mahn said one of his priorities as a commissioner will be youth education, which already has momentum within the agency. Fish and Boat recently received a large grant from the Richard Mellon Foundation to fund youth education programs. The agency is currently inviting groups and organizations to apply for grants supporting the recruitment, retention and reactivation of anglers and boaters.

As the crappies continued to ignore us, the conversation inevitably drifted back to Mahn’s new leadership position in an agency founded in 1866.

Left:Top: John Mahn Jr., the new Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commissioner for the district including Pittsburgh, rigs a jig while crappie fishing on Cross Creek Lake, Washington County. | Right:Bottom: Mahn Jr. pilots a pontoon boat while fishing.

“When I got appointed to the Boating Advisory Board [in 2017], we were having an event down at The Point and Tim Schaeffer had just been appointed executive director,” he said. “I pulled him aside and told him, ‘Tim, you have 100 officers and no officers of color. We gotta change that.’ And he was on it like a hand on a June bug.”

Mahn said that less than a year after the Civil War, in a commonwealth bordering the Mason-Dixon Line, he’s sure that racism existed in the new state agency’s hiring culture.

“I don’t think it’s like that today, at least in my experience with the Fish and Boat Commission,” he said. “They’re doing a lot of things to enforce that.“

Following Schaeffer’s lead, Mahn said Fish and Boat has more openly acknowledged its longstanding whiteness. An Hispanic waterways conservation officer is now serving, and a Black cadet and one of subcontinental Indian descent are attending the agency’s H.R. Stackhouse School of Fishery Conservation and Watercraft Safety academy. A bilingual educator has been hired to better communicate with Spanish-speaking boaters and anglers in southeastern Pennsylvania. Efforts are underway to publish Spanish translations of safe boating advice and other priority messages, and Schaeffer said he hopes to recruit enforcement officers who are fluent in English and Spanish.

Nationwide, about 9% of anglers are Black and 86% are white, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey published in 2016. This year, a popular career counseling website reported that 10% of wildlife conservation officers are African-American, 16.5% are Hispanic and 65.5% are white. In 2020, Pennsylvania sold 911,575 general fishing licenses. A racial breakdown was unavailable.

“Fish and wildlife agencies across the country are acknowledging that we need to be more representative of and relevant to the constituents and customers we serve, and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is no different,” said Schaeffer. “The anglers and boaters of Pennsylvania are quickly becoming more racially and culturally diverse, and the agency needs to follow suit to serve them better. I am so glad to have John Mahn as a partner in this effort.”

In recent years, many factors could have contributed to the dearth of non-white law enforcement at the agency, including a longstanding absence of minority cadet applicants, Mahn said.

“Well, the job really doesn’t pay very well. I think a lot of kids interested in law enforcement are looking elsewhere,” he said. “Fish and Boat needs more than just law enforcement officers. They need accountants, they need biologists. But law enforcement is the face of the agency – people see more wardens than biologists.”

Mahn said young people of color who see few faces at Fish and Boat that look like theirs may believe they are not welcome. To attract more Black talent, he suggested the agency might send recruiters to historically Black colleges.

Of the four boats drift fishing on Cross Creek Lake that weekday afternoon, Mahn pointed out two, including ours, carrying Black anglers. Still, he acknowledged that a traditionally tight relationship linking Black Americans to hunting and fishing had weakened when families moved north in search of industrial jobs. Today, he said, too many city kids grow up without an outdoors mentor.

“I would attribute that to the urban environment.… It’s a cultural thing,” he said. “You have to start [taking them outdoors] earlier. By the time a kid is 12 or 13, you’ve lost him.”

When asked if some Black anglers feel unwelcome on Pennsylvania waters, Mahn reeled in his line and sat on a boat bench seat.

“I’ve been fishing for 60 years and I’ve never seen that,” he said. “In fact, it’s just the opposite. If you seem confused or don’t know what to do when you’re fishing, some other fisherman is going to come over and offer to help. It’s not about race. It’s about fishing.”

He looked out over Cross Creek Lake and paused.

“I’ve been Black for a long time and I can tell you what I think the problem is with white people and what the problem is with Black people,” he said. “Black people think progress is a straight line. First they thought, well, if we could just get rid of these chains we’d be free and we’d be all set. Then it was, if we could just vote, man, we’d have it. Then it was, just get a college education and everything would go smoothly.

“But in my experience, it’s one step forward and two steps back. It’s never going to be a straight line. You’ll never change everybody. There’s always going to be a cost.”

It may be impossible to completely stamp out racism, but is there a problem with white people who aren’t racist?

“Yeah, there is,” said Mahn. “Race is not a zero-sum game. If I win it doesn’t mean that you lose. It’s not like that, doesn’t have to be like that. It never was. It’s easy to look for the quick answer. My longest friendships are with white guys from high school. They accepted me back in the 1960s as just another kid.”

In 2022, that’s how Mahn sees himself. As just another fisherman.

Mahn Jr. casts a line on Cross Creek Lake.

Reporting: John Hayes: jhayes@post-gazette.com
Photography/Videography: Alexandra Wimley: awimley@post-gazette.com