The rush of emotion took me by surprise. I had awkwardly cast the line several times, usually landing it in a foreshortened blob onto the river instead of the soaring, graceful arch I dreamed of. But it was blissful just to be thigh-deep in a sparkling Idaho river with the Tetons ripping up the distant skyline. When the line pulled taut, I looked around, almost alarmed — what was I supposed to do now? I’d never caught a fish before.
I pulled it in until I could see the flashing rainbow under the water’s surface at my knees. The thrashing trout calmed when I wrapped my hand gently, firmly around it and slid the hook from its lip as delicately as I could, terrified of causing any unnecessary harm. I wanted desperately to keep holding the fish softly in my hand, looking into its bright, lively eye, taking in its shimmering spectrum of colors and feeling its mysterious life pulse — who doesn’t dream of holding a live, wild animal in their hands? But by breathless instinct I plunged it immediately back into the cold river, feeling its muscles surge as it shot out of my hands downstream. My throat tightened, and a thrill rose in a wave up my chest.
A few weeks prior, when an invitation for a fly fishing press trip with Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, landed in my inbox, my first thought was, hell yeah! My second thought was, this is probably where I should say I’ve never fished before in my life. I’m a vegetarian — haven’t eaten meat since my freshman year of college, when a friend passed me a dog-eared copy of Diet for a Small Planet. I was not morally opposed to fishing or hunting for sustenance, but most sport fishing and hunting culture turned my stomach. If anyone could open my mind to fishing, it would be Chouinard, I thought. His penchant for simplicity and environmental responsibility appealed to me, so I made the squirrely flight to West Yellowstone with an open mind.
Indeed, over hot coffee that morning in Idaho, he made a passionate case. “We need people out there who love rivers,” he said. “You protect what you love. If we don’t, they’ll turn into sewers.” His idea is that people who feel deeply connected to rivers and streams will be more likely to stand up and protect them, and what better way to connect with a river than fishing it? He’s especially driven to introduce fly fishing to women and children, people who might previously may have been turned off to it but will be key decision makers affecting freshwater use.
Soft spoken and relaxed in the water, Chouinard gave gentle pointers on technique as we women fanned out up and down the river. His story goes, his first time fishing as a boy, his older brother secretly hooked a fish to his line, making Chouinard believe he had caught it himself and hooking him on fishing for life. Later on, he learned the art of fly fishing from legendary Teton guide Glenn Exum. Repeatedly feeling the tug of fish on my line — eight times that day — I was thankful he’d pointed me to the particular deep spot in the river where the fish couldn’t seem to resist the blue-bodied fly he’d tied by hand for me. I began to understand how learning the subtleties of where fish hang out and what they’re attracted to would be a lifelong process. And Chouinard’s mantra, “the more you know, the less you need,” rang true in a new way.
Fishing is a metaphor for life for Chouinard, an example of how a simpler life doesn’t necessarily equal an impoverished life. He laments how fishing has morphed from a contemplative pastime into what he calls a combat sport. Knowing cringes passed among the women of the group as we discussed the machismo of amassing collections of expensive rods and flies, and the cruel images of anglers “ripping lips.”
One way Chouinard envisions connecting women to fishing is by passing on the ancient Japanese Tenkara technique. The flexible, telescoping Tenkara-style rod has no reel, so it’s simpler to use and a fraction of the cost of typical fly rods, and portable enough to take backpacking or bike touring. It’s best for catching smaller fish, but with the proper modifications and technique, Chouinard says he’s landed massive salmon. Of course, Patagonia is also launching a line of women’s waders and fishing gear in the spring. The designs are thoughtful, but in his classic style, Chouinard was quick to assure us that fly fishing can be done in gym shorts.
As a climber and mountain biker based loosely in Colorado, I have precious little experience in bodies of water. Usually a stream is an obstacle to be pedaled through or babbling company along a climbing approach. But those hours spent thoughtfully focused on the river in Idaho shifted my perspective. Witnessing the magical, fluttering life under the water’s surface and considering the agricultural runoff upstream reinforced my proclivity for organic food. It deepened my consideration as a consumer, opening my eyes to another level of consequences from unchecked industry and consumption. My view of rivers went beyond the surface for the first time.
As we packed up along the riverbanks after the second day of fishing, one of the guides conceded something I feared, but hadn’t had the guts to ask yet: He said about 20 percent of the fish we’d caught would probably eventually die from some form of the trauma of being hooked, reeled in and handled. My heart dropped. Over the next couple of days I wrestled with that and concluded that, while those intimate moments with the fish and the river certainly changed me in a wonderful way, it would be hard for me to personally justify the sport if I’m not fishing for sustenance. But if Chouinard’s goal in introducing women to fly fishing truly is to connect us more deeply with the rivers and streams that are the life veins of our planet, I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.