Simplifying Fly Fishing—and Life—With Yvon Chouinard

I’d been trout fishing for at least a decade before I first picked up a fly rod. I’d cart a little spinning rod with me when I ventured to the banks of backcountry streams, snagged lures on rocks and branches, struggled to cast in tight quarters, and caught a lot of fish. Sometimes, I’d notice a solitary angler, wading up to their hips, looping long, elegant casts with a fly rod. I’d think: Beautiful. Also: Man, that looks complicated. And expensive. Fly fishing can be both of those things, true.

But in the years since fly fishing has become happily tangled with my outdoor life, I’ve stripped away much of the complication from fly fishing and have been rewarded with joy overflowing. I keep one simple rod with a decent 5-weight reel, one telescoping travel rod, and one tenkara rod all ready to go, with just a small handful of flies. When the mood strikes, I pick one and peel off into the woods, follow a stream for miles, hunting for riffles, the perfect pool, let the water guide me. With less stuff, there’s more time and mental space for the fish, the river, the mountains. For breathing.

Patagonia’s Simple Fly Fishing: Techniques for Tenkara and Rod and Reel ($25) is a guide to this kind of angling. The best kind, as far as I’m concerned.

Written by Yvon Chouinard, Craig Mathews, and Mauro Mazzo, it’s the kind of book that has all the basic info you’d need to get started in fly fishing, but is also still a page-turner for anglers who have many years of experience. Yes, all the knots you’d need to know, the bugs you’ll need to recognize, the different types of flies and streamers and nymphs you’ll need to fish, casting techniques, fish species—that’s all here.

But so are beautiful essays about the history of fly fishing, the unique joys of fly fishing—including the joys of not catching fish at all, and ruminations on what it means to live a life devoted to something as seemingly pointless as stalking, catching, and releasing wild trout.

Chouinard writes the book’s introduction, as good an explanation for why anglers spend time in nature casting about with artificial flies as anything else I’ve ever read. An excerpt from the introduction is reproduced below. – Justin Housman


Why write one more book about fishing when there are probably more books on the subject than romance novels?

Since the fifteenth century, every nuance of fly fishing has been written about in the utmost detail, leaving us to endlessly reinvent what has already been discovered. A tiny change on a classic fly and the “inventor” gets to name it after himself and collect a dime for each one sold. Many of the books on technique are like business books where a minor theory is spread out over three hundred pages, when all it really merits is a magazine article.

Heaven knows we fly fishers are suckers for every new gizmo we think will give us a leg up on catching fish. We wear vests with twenty pockets and waders with even more storage. And as if that isn’t enough, we have lanyards, waist packs, and backpacks to carry even more impedimenta. Hundreds of fly lines are now available to us, yet I seriously doubt you will catch one more trout with a line fine-tuned to the conditions than with a classic double taper. The no-nonsense fly fisher Rob Brown, from Terrace, British Columbia, 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?”


After a five-minute lesson, nine-year old Lola proceeded to land seventeen rainbows in a day and a half. Fall River, Idaho. Photo: Jeremy Koreski

I would offer that this proliferation of gear is supported by busy people who lack for nothing in their lives except time. Our “time-saving” communication devices, like tablets and smartphones, make slaves of their owners. We are unwilling, or unable, to put in the 10,000 hours needed to become a master fisher, hunter, or mountain climber. Instead, we load up with all the latest stuff and hire guides to do everything for us—including tying on the fly and releasing the fish. The guides have become enablers rather than teachers. How many bonefish would average anglers catch if they had to work out the tides and wade and spot fish themselves instead of waiting for a guide to bark, “Ten o’clock, forty-foot cast now! Wait . . . strip . . . strip”? The guides leave clients so unsure of themselves that they think there must be some secret, unattainable knowledge that only the guide possesses.

As author Sheridan Anderson says in The Curtis Creek Manifesto, the objective of fishing is to catch fish, but in the pursuit of the catch you will gain so much more. The higher purpose of practicing a sport such as fly fishing, hunting, or mountain climbing is to affect a spiritual and physical gain. But if the process is compromised, there is no transformation.


On the move to find fish. Photo: Tim Davis

Fishing with a fly can be such an incredibly complex and passionate sport that no one can fully master all the different disciplines in one lifetime. Some anglers prefer to limit themselves to only fishing with dry flies, while others specialize in perfecting their casting, fly tying, or even learning the Latin names and life history of all the insects. These can be legitimate endeavors in themselves, and there are untold books written about these subjects. This book is not one of them.

This is a book for the young person who wants to learn but feels intimidated by the complexity, elitism, and expense of the sport. He sees his father who owns multiple thousand-dollar rods and reels, fishes only with guides at five hundred-plus dollars a day (plus mandatory tips), and flies all over the world to stay at luxury lodges. And the son thinks, “This is not for me.”

It is also for the woman and her daughter who are put off by the image of the testosterone-fueled “rip-some-lips,” good-old-boy, bass and trout fisherman who has turned the “contemplative pastime” into a competitive combat sport.


Yvon Chouinard tenkara fishing for grilse in Iceland. Photo: Malinda Chouinard

This is also a book for the experienced angler who has all the gadgets and gizmos and discovers he or she wants to replace all that stuff with skill, knowledge, and simplicity. It is for the person who believes that a design or a piece of art or a sporting endeavor is finalized and mastered “not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry advocated.

It’s for the person who thinks maybe it’s time to look at the raked Zen sand garden with its three stones and see if he or she can convey the same powerful, evocative image of space and balance with only two rocks or even one.

Most anglers soon discover simple fly fishing helps preserve our capacity for wonder. It can teach us to see, smell, and feel the miracles of stream life—with the beauty of nature and serenity all around—as we pursue wild fish.

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