Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts

FR&R’s 2009 Angler of the Year declares his move toward ultimate simplicity, on and off the water.

  • By: Yvon Chouinard
YC fishing Tierra Del Fueg.jpg

About 20 years ago the Japanese rod maker Naoki Hara gave me a 71⁄2-foot three-weight cane rod. I used the rod to catch a large, fine-spotted cutthroat, took a photo of the fish lying next to the golden yellow bamboo rod, and sent that image to the rod maker. I then put the rod in the closet for 15 years, which I suspect is where most cane rods that are given to businessmen for 25 years of loyalty with a firm end up. More recently I read the book, The Bamboo Fly Rod, and saw the film Trout Grass.

Once I understood the passion and spirit that goes into the making of cane rods, I decided to start using that little 3-weight on spring creeks, high lakes and meadow creeks in Wyoming, where I found the cane rod perfectly suitable, particularly when using 6X or 7X tippet. Not only that, it had soul. Last year, I was gifted another cane rod, a 121⁄2-foot hollow Spey rod from Bob Clay of Kispiox, British Columbia. That’s nice of him, I thought. But the last thing I needed was an oldfashioned bamboo Spey rod. The first time I tried a Spey rod was 50 years earlier on the Tweed in Scotland. It was a bendy, green-heart rod. I thought those heavy, slow, doubled-handed rods were almost prehistoric. Even so, Bob and I walked to the river below his house, where he attempted to show me how to cast the slower, but surprisingly powerful, rod. Being familiar with big, faster-action graphite rods, I was a slow learner. Bob told me about his daughter, Kateri, winning a Spey-casting contest at the Golden Gate Casting Club using one of his rods. Obviously there was nothing wrong with my rod; the problem was me. I had developed a bunch of bad casting habits. With graphite you can overpower the rod at the last second and correct a multitude of bad moves.

I finally brought myself up to the rod’s potential and last year caught many large steelhead, including one of 24 pounds, which I landed even though the handle of my reel fell off. I love good tools, but a tool should not replace skill. Rather, a tool should allow one to maximize the joy and contentment of manual labor. Last year I fished the Sesia River in northern Italy with my friend and excellent fly fisherman, Mauro Mazzo. He mentioned that the traditional way to fish the Sesia is the same as described by Dame Juliana Berner in her treatise written in 1496. The technique is to use a 10- to 16-foot long rod with no reel and just a horsehair-line tied to the tip. The lines, which are about one or one-and-a-half times the length of the rod, are braided from the tail of a stallion, starting with 14 or 16 hairs and tapering down to three at the tippet end. A short, nylon tippet is added and one-to five soft-hackle flies are tied one foot apart.

Casting is done using various overhead roll and Spey casts. It’s particularly effective in winter for wary and selective grayling. A size-20, purple-body soft-hackle is used. The hackles are made from very soft, lifelike feathers from a bird called a Cuiffolotto. There are still about 20 practitioners of this technique in Italy, of which 10 braid their own lines. Twenty years ago a Japanese friend gave me a fiberglass telescoping rod—with no reel seat. It was a beautiful, precious gift; light, sensitive and elegant. It’s called a tenkara rod and is used in Japan to fish for Yamame trout in small mountain streams. When I received this rod, I really didn’t understand what I was getting, and stored it on a shelf in my cabin for two decades.

Last summer Mauro and I decided to try out this tenkara rod and the Valsesiana technique on a willow-lined meadow creek in the Wyoming Range. It was a super-windy day in August and grasshoppers were being blown about, so we put on a Muddler and fished it upstream as a hopper and downstream as a sculpin. The thin, heavier horsehair line cut through the wind far better than a floating fly line. Every bend of the creek had a pool, and we moved from pool to pool without having to reel in line and 64 October/November 2009 let it out again. We caught fish in every pool, nice cutthroats up to 16 inches. I could see that larger fish would be a problem to land. Supposedly if you hook a large fish, you throw the rod in the river, let it play out the fish and swim after it later! Or you tie a retrieval cord onto the handle. Mauro’s girlfriend, Danielle, who had never fished a day in her life, picked up the rod and in less than five casts landed the biggest cutthroat of the day. “Easy,” she says. “What’s the big deal?”

I think this centuries-old technique was more perfect and effective for the job than anything that has come out of our high-tech fly-fishing industry. In fact, I believe this is the same gear and technique traditionally used by the French market-fishermen. When your living is dependent on supplying restaurants and markets with trout, you’re not going to waste your money on $500 reels, $700 rods and $3 flies. I’ve continued to use the tenkara rod with great satisfaction and success. One day in early September, on a riffle of the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park, in the time it took my wife, sitting in the car, to read three Los Angeles Times newspapers, I landed 35 browns and rainbows up to 14 inches.

Heaven knows we fly-fishermen are suckers for every new gizmo we think will give us a leg up on catching fish. We wear vests with 20 pockets, waders with more storage, lanyards and waistpacks and backpacks to carry even more impedimenta. Dozens of fly lines are available to us, yet I seriously doubt you will catch one more trout with a nymphing line than a classic double-taper. The no-nonsense fly fisherman from Terrace, British Columbia, Rob Brown, looking over a steelheader’s array of fly boxes filled with hundreds of garish flies said it best when he asked, “When did the Green-Butt stop working for you?” In these trying times, when we are seeing the result of our high-tech, risky financial and highly toxic economic systems, many of us are questioning our frenetic, consumer lifestyles.economic systems, many of us are questioning our frenetic, consumer lifestyles.

We yearn for a simpler life based not on refusing all technology, but going back to appropriate technology, what David Brower describes as “turning around and taking a forward step.” I would offer that proliferation of gear is supported by busy people who lack nothing in their lives except time. Their “timesaving” communication devices, like computers, Blackberries and cell phones, made slaves of their owners. They are unwilling to put in the 10,000 hours needed to make themselves skillful fishermen, hunters or mountain climbers. Instead, they load up with all the latest stuff and hire guides to do everything for them, including tying on the fly and releasing the fish so they don’t get their hands slimed. The guides have become “enablers” rather than teachers. How many bonefish would the average angler catch if they had to work out the tides and wade and spot fish themselves, instead of waiting for a guide to say, “ten o’clock, forty-foot cast now! Wait, strip, strip”? The higher purpose of practicing a sport such as fly-fishing, hunting or mountain climbing is to effect a spiritual and physical gain, and if the process is compromised, there is no transformation. That’s not the case with my son; he started hunting wild boar in coastal California with a crossbow, then graduated to bows and arrows, and then to a homemade spear. When that became too easy, he chased them into the surf and killed them with a knife to the base of the skull. No dogs. I’ve been on a mission to simplify not only my rods, but also my fly selection.

For steelhead and Atlantic salmon, I’ve got it down to about 10 essential flies each, but I’m sure I could be just as successful with five, or maybe just a Muddler for everything. For the last couple of years I’ve been pushing the simplicity concept even further by trout fishing almost exclusively with Sylvester Nemes’ soft-hackles, fishing them as nymphs, emergers and dries. The result is catching probably more trout than ever. The high point was fishing a high lake in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and watching normally fickle golden trout come up from 20 feet down to smash size 22 red-bodied soft-hackles at the surface. I can think of lots of examples where the old ways of doing things have not been surpassed by modern technology. Consider the “green revolution” farmer in his air-conditioned tractor producing inferior and even toxic food. Contrast that with the small organic farmer or gardener finding contentment and pleasure in using his tools or walking behind his perfectly trained plow horses or oxen. The “green revolution” is dependent on non-sustainable chemical farming and actually produces less food per acre, especially over time. Compare the black-and-white photographs of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Irving Penn, with color or digital. It’s the difference between art and mere representation.

I have friends who surf on replicas of 18th century wooden surfboards from the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. They are thin and flat as an ironing board with no fin, yet my friends ride them better than 99 percent of the surfers on modern plastic boards. The professional load-carriers around the world all carry loads on their heads— from African women with huge jars of water to sherpas who carry double loads (110 pounds) with a tump line. In fact, the United Nations conducted a study proving that carrying loads in this way is 50 percent more efficient than using a high-tech, modern backpack. I believe the way toward mastery of any endeavor is to work toward simplicity; replace complex technology with knowledge, hard work and skill. Consume less, consume better. Try to purchase multi-functional gear. Ask yourself if you would really catch more trout with a new $700 rod? I don’t plan to give away my boron/graphite rods, Skagit lines and high-tech waterproof waders any time soon; but I am going to continue to see how far I can go in simplifying my sports and my life.

I may even have time to clean out the shed one of these days.

Yvon Chouinard is the founder and CEO of Patagonia.