YVON CHOUINARD: Reaching the Top by Doing the Right Thing


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Country like this could bring out anything in a man--ecstasy, murder, grace. I grow aware of this as I follow Yvon Chouinard along the rocks down an offshoot of the Snake River, in Wyoming's Jackson Hole, in the Grand Tetons. Chouinard, 60, the president and founder of Patagonia, the outdoor-clothing and -gear company based in Ventura, Calif., that seems more interested in protecting the environment than its profits, is about to teach me fly-fishing. Ahead of us, the quicksilver water burbles and shushes. Across the river, the cold mountains, patched with snowfields and dark bruises, poke into a hot, dry sky more white than blue.

All this is new to me. Even the Rockies look different here, more brooding and stuck up. The only fishing I've ever done is the kind Chouinard dismisses as too easy for words--"with live worms!" At the local store, where we got our one-day licenses, I noted the names of the flies on sale: Ausable Wulff, Hare's Ear, Goofus Bug, Wild Muddler. Wild Muddler appealed to me. Chouinard--who is small and tightly built, with the forearms of the blacksmith he once was--wears green canvas sneakers with holes, a pair of yellowed sweat socks, denim shorts, a beaten cap, a Patagonia vest, of course, and a T shirt bearing the words CUTTHROAT BUSINESSMAN. It is a reference to the cutthroat trout he would like to catch (named for the red slash across its throat) and to the antithesis of the sort of businessman he is. He glides from rock to rock like the champion mountain climber he also once was, while I muddle wildly, tottering like a top at the end of its spin, tangling my fishing line and attempting to heed my instructor.

"It's all about process," he says, "fly-fishing and everything else. To fish with a fly is to imitate the fly at its various stages of development. As the fly is born and grows, it changes at different times of the day and year. Sometimes the fish go for the nymph, the youngest stage, at the bottom of the river. Sometimes they wait for the flies when they are emerging upward, attached to a self-created gas bubble. When the fly matures, it lies helpless on the top of the water until the bubble explodes and frees its wings. The fish will try for it then too, and you imitate that stage with a dry fly on the surface. It's a matter of educating yourself--about the insects, fish and water. It's all about process."

He begins my education by showing me dry-fly casting on a path above the river. Move the arm, not the wrist; keep the arc of the cast between 2 and 10 o'clock. But today the fish we are going for, whitefish and cutthroats, are loitering on the bottom. So we will wet cast and roll cast instead, with little weights on the line and flies that look like nymphs. Roll casting requires less arm movement. You swing out the line upriver and let it drift down in a natural motion. I find I'm not half bad at this, thanks wholly to Chouinard, who is as aware of the process in teaching as in everything else.

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