The day before Father’s Day, a bit of my family was up in the mountains and we got to do a tiny bit of fishing…as I was tying one on I kept thinking… “Gosh, I am going to be a Dad. I am going to teach a little person these things. I hope they know I love them…always.”
At age 18 a curious Yvon Chouinard learned the art of fly fishing. This eventually led him to the centuries-old Japanese technique tenkara—or “simple” fly fishing. He’s passed this knowledge on to experienced and novice anglers ever since, and recently penned Simple Fly Fishing: Techniques for Tenkara and Rod & Reel, with co-authors Mauro Mazzo and Craig Mathews. But Chouinard’s passion for nature and fish also translates to direct action. A self-proclaimed dam-buster, Chouinard co-produced the film DamNation, to explore how our river ecosystems are endangered as a result of man-made dams, and how we can all be part of the solution.
You just got back from the premiere of DamNation at SXSW? Yeah, we had 400 people show up, that’s pretty good.
Why was it important to make this film? I was taught that if you make a mess, you’re responsible for cleaning it up. Somehow corporations and governments are immune to that kind of thing. They pollute a river and they walk away. They build dams and when they’re no longer useful it’s left to the taxpayers to clean it up. That’s wrong. So I wanted to establish a precedent, starting with dams, that if you build something massive like that—divert a river, or whatever you’re doing, you need to put money into a trust so that when it is obsolete, you have to restore it to its original pristine condition. If that should ever become law they’d never do these massive things again.
The other reason for making this film is that I’ve been a dam-buster all my life. Patagonia’s been involved for a long time in trying to take out dams. Our first victory was Edwards Dam on the Kennebec in Maine. It was preventing hundreds of miles of salmon tributaries from going up there. But it was a local issue. We decided to make it a national issue by coming out with full-page ads in the New York Times.
A lot of interest was given to the thing and it came out. It’s gone, and salmon are now roaring up there, as well as shad and striped bass. It’s amazing there. We were involved with the Elwha Dam even though it was absolutely hopeless at that time. Now it’s gone and the fish are back! So we’ve had some of what I call “concrete” victories.
Most of us in the US grow up going to see these dams, not really understanding how bad they actually are. So what was really nice about the film was that it shined a light on the destructive nature of dams. [The film] makes a good case for taking out obsolete dams and harmful dams. We need to make a stronger case for not building any more dams and talk about the unintended consequences of existing dams: things like preventing sand from reaching the coastlines, which is very important, especially with the rising seas in the future. We’re losing the beaches. And then we’re losing nutrients. The Colorado doesn’t reach the Gulf of California anymore; two-thirds of the Gulf is a dead zone. All the big fish are gone, because there are no nutrients. And the Aswan Dam of the Nile has killed the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is a dead sea.
Within a decade or two, there won’t be a single river in China reaching the sea. The whole South China Sea will be another dead zone. We’re killing the oceans with these dams, because the nutrient cycles are being stopped. Then you’ve got evaporation. In the film we talk about how 8% of the total water behind Glen Canyon Dam is lost to evaporation every year. That’s a lot of water.
We’re having a big drought here in California and people are talking about building dams again. That’s not the solution. The solution is to replenish our aquifers. The Ogallala Aquifer is under the whole Midwest and responsible for all that agriculture. It used to be, on average, 30 feet under the ground. Now it’s 300 feet. In another decade it’ll be gone. And it’s fossil water. It’s millions of years old. So it’s not being replenished. Instead of building dams, why not replenish our aquifers, which is completely possible to do.
The film makes the case for protecting these areas and rivers so we can actually enjoy them. You just made the book Simple Fly Fishing, which talks about fishing on rivers that are healthy and the beautiful art of simple fly fishing, or tenkara. What’s so special about tenkara? The book is a metaphor for society. The overlying problem is growth, which is what no one wants to address. Whatever gains we make as a society in cleaning up our act and becoming more so-called environmental are completely erased by growth. Whether it’s population growth, the growth of companies, or the growth of consumerism. We’re not getting anywhere. In fact, we’re losing, every single day. The only solution is to go back to a simpler life.
You perfect a sport when you can do all of these things with less stuff. The most impressive ascent of Everest was by the Swedish guy who bicycled from Stockholm to Kathmandu and then soloed Everest and bicycled back to Stockholm. That is cool, as opposed to this huge multinational guided thing with computers and internet cafes at the base of Everest. I’m really stoked to see some of the routes I did on Capitan that took us nine or ten days being soloed by guys in their gym shorts. That’s the way sports should go.
Unfortunately, fly fishing has gone the opposite way. The industry has made people so insecure that they feel like unless they have a $1,000 rod, $500 reel, and multiple ones, they won’t catch a fish. They have reels with drags on them that can stop a truck. So it’s an industry based on enticing people to consume more and more. Which is the problem with our society. We need to get back to a simpler life where we consume less. We buy used clothes, we patch our clothes, we make things last. We buy less, but buy better quality that’ll last a long time and hand it down to our kids. That’s what tenkara’s all about. The technique goes back to 210 ad, when it was first written about. That’s the way I and a lot of people in my generation learned to fish. We bought a bamboo pole, or cut one, and put a line on the end with a worm and we caught fish. Tenkara is a pole with a line on the end and an artificial fly. I started doing this as a novelty. Then I realized the combination of the flexible pole and being able to control the action of the fly—which you can’t do with a stiff fly rod—I can make that fly dance in front of a trout’s nose and he can’t resist it. I’ll go out with some of the best fly fishers in the world, and at the end of the day, they’ll maybe have caught 10 fish, I’ll have about 50.
In Simple Fly Fishing you ask fly fisher Lefty Kreh to describe in two sentences how to cast a line. Can you describe in a couple sentences how to use the tenkara system to catch a fish? I could teach somebody to cast in three minutes. It’s that simple. If you want to turn someone into an angler, they have to catch fish. They can’t go three days without catching a fish (laughs). As soon as they catch that fish, they’re hooked. I was just down in Argentina and I had a waitress in a lodge and I promised to teach her fishing. I gave her a three-minute lesson casting a tenkara rod. I told her what to do, and she went out, she landed two rainbow trout! Two twenty-inch rainbow trout all on her own. So it’s a metaphor for society in that if we have to go to a simpler life, it won’t be an impoverished life, it’s going to be a great life.
A lot of people learn a sport without ever learning the basics. A lot of climbers learn to climb in a climbing gym. Then they go out on a real crag and they don’t know how to place protection or anything. They never learned any of that stuff. Fishing’s the same thing. People start out and immediately take a casting class or they go out with a guide. Unless the guide is a real teacher, your mind just shuts off. It’s like being driven by a chauffeur to a place in the city 10 days in a row. Unless you actually drive there on your own, you’ll never be able to do it because your mind shuts off while that guy’s driving you there.
Tenkara teaches you the absolute basics. The most important thing is that it gives action to the fly, instead of this dead object that’s floating on the surface with no drag. The thing is dancing around like a real fly does. If you get it in front of a trout’s nose, it’s a killer.
Fishing is such a male-dominated sport, women may be intimidated to pick it up. You look through fishing magazines and there are women fishing in their bikinis. To fish, you either have to put on a bikini, or deal with the burly tattooed guy. It’s not only male-dominated, but if you look at magazines and stuff, all the guides, they all have these great big bushy beards, they have tattoos, and they’re talking about ripped lips, and it’s become this testosterone-laden sport, where it used to be the gentle, contemplative sport. It’s you against the fish now. And it’s crazy! Women look at that and say, “Gee, that’s not me.” But 38% of our business right now is women’s fly fishing stuff, because no one else is paying any attention to [what they want].
Your wife doesn’t fish. Has she tried the tenkara? No, she doesn’t want to poke holes in a fish’s mouth. But you know, catch and release causes very little damage to the fish. There’s the rare occasion where you could kill or hurt a fish. But I’ve caught the same fish in two different casts. I’ve caught a steelhead, released it, cast again and caught him again.
The fish was probably so annoyed. You’re tormenting fish, no doubt about it, but it’s pretty harmless for the good that it does, which is to create anglers who really care about the environment and clean rivers and stuff like that. If you don’t have any relationship with a river, then you don’t care whether it’s polluted or not. It does a lot of good in that respect. If you really didn’t want to hook a fish, but you like the idea of outsmarting one, you just put a fly on that doesn’t have a point or barb. The fish will tug on it and that’s it. You get the same enjoyment.
Can you talk about the idea of “reading the river” and how it’s important to fishing and being able to catch something? Like I said, I could give people a three-minute lesson and then they can really start catching fish—if I tell them where the fish are. It’s like robbing a bank: that’s where the money is, but there better be money there! It’s the hardest thing for people to learn, and that’s something they have to learn on their own, studying and even going out with guides who point out where the fish are. But that’s the enjoyable part—learning.
You’re known to go off on your own when you’re fishing. Is that a good time for contemplation? It takes an incredible amount of concentration to be a good fisher. You have to really study the water flow and think like a fish: “Where’s the fish going to be in this kind of water? What insects are likely to come out at 2 o'clock this afternoon?” It’s very intense.
People say, “I don’t fish because I don’t have the patience.” That’s a different kind of fishing. That’s throwing a worm or some bait and sitting there waiting for something to bite it. Fly fishing’s not like that. It’s a completely proactive thing. Each person is in his own world. You may as well just go and do it yourself. Plus you want to get to the good places before your buddies.
Do you consider fly fishing a sport? I don’t think it’s a sport. A sport belongs in the sport pages of a newspaper. Climbing doesn’t belong there, and fly fishing doesn’t belong there. It’s a passion. With the tenkara, if you catch a big fish, you have to replace that reel with physical action. You have to run after the fish, you’ve gotta do all kinds of stuff to get that fish in. But that’s the fun of it.
Does Patagonia have a particular fishing ethos that’s different from other companies? I think we’re more concerned about protect- ing resources than a lot of companies. There are 30,000+ manufacturers of fishing gear in America. Of those, only 13 belong to the global organization 1% for the Planet. You’d think a company that’s dependent on having clean rivers and healthy fish populations would feel more responsibility to do some- thing about protecting them than your average taxpayer, but no. It’s really a crime.
Then, I’m interested in getting people into fly fishing because they’ll be advocates for protecting their resources. Right now, it’s a dying sport. Kids are sitting at home, playing their Game Boys and they’re not out. Especially urban kids, who have a long ways to go before they can catch fish. I’m particularly interested in getting women and their daughters into fly fishing. There’s tremendous interest from women, if it’s done right.
You started fishing with your brother back in Maine. Were you fly fishing? No, I didn’t get into fly fishing until I was 18 years old when I was in the Tetons. One of the mountain guides, Glenn Exum, who owned the Exum Guide Service, was teaching his son how to fly cast. I was watching him out in the meadow and he looked over at me and said, “Hey. Come on over here, son.” He taught me how to cast, and that was it. I put away my spinning lures and became a fly fisherman.
The last time we talked you said you had to survive off cat food one summer because you were so poor— —that was the summer!
So once you learned to fish, you didn’t have to eat cat food anymore? (laughs) I only did that for one summer. I mean, I ate porcupine and ground squirrels. The butcher shop in Jackson would save bones for me. I scavenged a lot of different things. And yeah, I ate fish.
From top: Yvon Chouinard, 2013. Photo: Jeremy Koreski; Yvon Chouinard on the Henry’s Fork River in Idaho fishing for Rainbows, 2013. Photo: Jeremy Koreski; Salmo Salar, no reel no problem, Iceland. Photo: Malinda Pennoyer Chouinard; Don’t fence me in. Yvon Chouinard wrapping up a bad day of fishing. Still beats workin’, Wilson, Wyoming. Photo: Tim Davis