Will Dilg was only involved with the Izaak Walton League for about five years, but arguably no Ike made a bigger impact on the organization. He helped to organize the 1922 gathering where the League was founded.
A prominent angler, Dilg joined 53 of his fellow sportsmen in Chicago and, the well-known story goes,
the 54 founders named their new organization after Izaak Walton, the patron saint of fishing and author of the classic book, The Compleat Angler.
It wasn’t the first time Dilg had been inspired by the groundbreaking ideas of the original Izaak Walton. Prior to launching the League, Dilg was editor of Outers’ Recreation magazine. Struck by the idea that America should have angling literature to rival what Britain had produced, he asked readers to submit their best fish tales. Dilg republished those stories as a book in 1922 – and, never one to miss an opportunity to advertise, used the foreword to promote the organization he had just founded.
But he realized there’s more to fishing than fish. “The true angler is more a lover of nature than a fish getter,” he said. Dilg knew that the League’s mission of protecting America’s woods, waters and wildlife would be far-reaching and require a mass movement.
Few Years, Many Accomplishments
Dilg became the League’s first national president in 1922 and led the fledgling organization to many of its early victories. He spearheaded the campaign to save the Upper Mississippi River, writing a fiery missive in an early issue of the League’s magazine that ended with an impassioned letter readers could clip out and mail to President Harding: the League’s first Action Alert.
He initiated the fundraising campaign to buy land to help feed the Jackson Hole elk herd and expand its range in Wyoming. The land later became part of the National Elk Refuge.
Dilg knew that the League's mission of protecting America's woods, waters and wildlife would be far-reaching and require a mass movement.
He launched the Izaak Walton League Monthly, which evolved into Outdoor America magazine. Dilg is also generally credited with growing League membership to 100,000 in the first three years and three times that many by the organization’s fifth birthday. (Over time, members of the Izaak Walton League earned the nickname “Ikes.”)
Despite his talent for bringing people together to form the League, Dilg was also a divisive figure. Some Ikes loved him; a few in Minnesota even named their chapter after him while he was still alive. (That chapter is celebrating its own 98th birthday this year.) Others grew frustrated with his single-minded focus on moving ahead with his vision, regardless of differing opinions and budgetary constraints. In April 1926 Dilg lost his bid for re-election as the League’s president.
At that point, suffering from throat cancer, Dilg had less than a year to live, but he spent his remaining time continuing to advocate for conservation causes. Refusing treatment that would have extended his life but stolen his voice, he went to Washington, DC to meet with President Coolidge (himself an Ike) about creating a cabinet-level department of conservation. Had Dilg lived longer, this idea might have come to fruition.
This memorial to Will Dilg is located on the Upper Mississippi River, a region he and the League succeeded in protecting as a wildlife refuge.
Dilg was a visionary who helped launch a national movement. When he passed in March 1927, his obituary in the New York Times didn’t need to explain who the Izaak Walton League is.
Dilg knew that he couldn’t accomplish the organization’s mission on his own. Hundreds of thousands of Americans would have to use their voices to demand the protection of natural resources. “‘Let George Do It’ won’t do this time,” he wrote in his article about the Upper Mississippi. “You have got to do it yourself OR IT WON’T BE DONE.”
However, if sportsmen all over the country took action, Dilg concluded, “by sundown tomorrow five governors, ten U.S. Senators, a lot of Congressmen, and a few Cabinet officers, including the President of the United States, would get busy and do something.”
Those insightful words are still good advice today.
The Izaak Walton League's first century of conservation success was carried forward by committed heroes working together to defend America's natural resources. During our centennial celebrations, we're sharing their stories. Look for more profiles of iconic Ikes throughout 2022.
Today could be the first day of your own story as an iconic Ike.
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Top photo: Will Dilg, the League's first president, launched a conservation movement that has endured for a century. Photo credits: IWLA.