2009 Angler of the Year

2009 Angler of the Year

Yvon Chouinard: Patagonia founder, environmentalist, world traveler, fly fisherman

  • By: Paul Bruun
Angler of the Year

The laughter, resonant with enthusiasm, is penetrating…even from across the river. The man is having a good time but who doesn’t when they’re catching fish? It’s obvious from a glance at this behavior that size is unimportant: Nine-inchers elicit the same commotion as do fish twice that length. These trout are special in another way. They’re rising in a run beside an island in Grand Teton National Park (GTNP), where more than 30 years ago the man taught his own son and daughter to fish with a fly rod and a tiny piece of worm.

Jackson Hole and GTNP, where he first spent summers starting in 1956, are still the home-water places of Yvon Chouinard, despite his meteoric evolution from climber, blacksmith, surfer, author and adventurer to Patagonia founder, world traveler, reluctant businessman, philanthropist and outspoken champion of the environment.

Yvon Chouinard’s parents didn’t emphasize fishing but his older brother, Jeff, did. First they chased brook trout in the tiny creeks, and later pickerel and bass in the cozy ponds, of Maine. After the family migrated to California, and before most kids were allowed even to play across the street, Yvon was bicycling 10 miles to Toluca Lake, hiding in the bushes like a commando and catching bass on wooden plugs he carved himself. In school he liked baseball but got so nervous that he always clutched in the games. He says he was a geek, an outdoor loner who frequently ran away from home.

An interest in falconry required climbing cliffs to capture young birds and when the climbing itself became his event, he eventually began packing a spinning rod along. Simple reasoning: trout could supplement a delicacy-filled diet of ground squirrels, porcupines and mountain grouse he climbed trees to thump with an ice axe. On his first trip to scale Wyoming’s highest point, Gannett Peak, Yvon’s spinners cast in the upper Green River and other Wind River Range tributaries landed many fresh dinners.

In the 1950s, Chouinard and his unruly climbing pals lived at Guides Hill, a former CCC camp near the shore of Jenny Lake, between Jackson and Yellowstone National Park. A rehabbed old incinerator became his first Jackson Hole summer home. The guy never owned a tent until he was 40 but was expert at stuffing a leaky old Army down sleeping bag into caves, cracks in talus slopes and under alpine firs. Near the incinerator/bunkhouse, Yvon first noticed climbing pioneer Glen Exum teaching his son, Ed, to fly cast. Glen invited Yvon over and included him in the class.

Glen was a wonderful dry-fly fisherman but because I hung around with a Pennsylvania guy named Joe Faint who fished wets, I traded climbing stuff for his wet flies,” Yvon recalls. At about 17 or 18 he and his yellow combination pack rod graduated from wet-fly to nymph fishing.

Association with Mike Borgo facilitated the changeover. Borgo had been climbing and fishing in Colorado, where he studied the rudiments of the soon-to-tame-the-West outrigger method from Aspen nymphing pioneer Chuck Fothergill. Chouinard stayed with nymphing for several years but eventually discovered that the practice wasn’t efficient for Snake River cutthroat, a species that likes to chase its prey.

“I’m not a perfectionist,” Chouinard explains as he assembles a new dropper/soft hackle leader arrangement. “I’m serial obsessive…a seventy-five percenter. I get bored with doing the same thing. So I isolate one thing, study and improve on it until I feel good about it, and then move on.

“I’m doing the same thing with fishing that I did with climbing. I started with jam cracks then moved on to the big walls. From there I became totally interested in ice and then finally the Himalayan adventures but I set a 24,000-foot altitude limit.”

So he continued dredging with nymphs until the challenge of dandruff-sipping cutthroats in his favorite spring-creek system forced him “to graduate to dry flies,” Chouinard says.

“When those cutthroat got on one (Pale Morning Dun) stage, I learned lots more about selective trout from that…emergers, cripples, spinners and tricos. I call that my Cinnamon Ant Period!” he says, joking. “The last few years I have been into soft hackles. Sylvester Nemes has been a great influence. I’m going backwards, relaxing and learning there’s a lot more to soft hackles than most people think, especially in heavy water.”

Still the loner, the runaway, Chouinard’s style emerges repeatedly when he and his fly rod, a small pack with some fruit and snacks and a lightweight vest with his always-evolving soft hackles and baby streamers stroll and wade five or six miles along the Snake River in an afternoon.

Whether it’s creating new fly patterns, forging pitons, brining and wood-smoking whitefish fillets, sewing the first waterproof cover for that leaky Army bag or championing synthetic clothing to the outdoor market, Chouinard continually seeks new and better ways. His late brother Jeff once said he was shocked when their parents loaned Yvon several hundred dollars to buy a forge to create stronger pitons. Jeff said: “I thought,‘What kind of a business is a forge, for God’s sake?’”

The world eventually learned about the forge Yvon carried in the trunk of his beater Chevrolet and how he introduced double-tough American-made climbing protection. More important, from that same blacksmithing smoke materialized the Ventura-based Great Pacific Iron Works and a man whose business vision would become as sharp as the recreational skills he continually honed.

By the early 1980s, Chouinard’s climbing hardware company was paired with a fast-growing rugged outdoor clothing and gear purveyor simply called Patagonia. The only hint to the existence of this tiny office in Ventura, California, was a small “Friends Of The Ventura River” sign.

“I saw Mark Capelli at a City Council meeting one night when all kinds of paid biologists endorsed plans to channelize the river. One guy, Mark Capelli of Friends of the Ventura River, stood up and argued brilliantly against the project because of the damage it would do to wildlife and especially the tiny remaining native steelhead population. The power to protect was totally amazing!” Yvon remembers.

“That’s when I learned the value of one person and became involved with environmental activism. It was a short step from there to what we called corporate tithing. That started out with giving 10 percent of our profits—before taxes—and then 20 years ago we decided to get more serious. If we didn’t make a profit, the problems don’t go away,” he reasons. “We switched to a one percent”—currently $3 million—“of sales figure”—currently $300 million—“and tax ourselves whether we make a profit or not. We were serious and threw down the gauntlet to other businesses.” The Patagonia founder originally encouraged (and guilted) 80 or 90 other companies beginning with REI and North Face into a corporate-conservation alliance.

Chouinard is a modest consumer, choosing to wheel about in creaky cars exuding Bondo and appearing at functions or on trips wearing older but familiar clothing while his friends and hosts usually sport the latest Patagonia duds. He’s a fastidious fly tier who relentlessly prowls fly-shop shelves for the latest quality materials. During several West Yellowstone hackle hunts, Yvon became friendly with extreme bugmeister and Blue Ribbon Flies founder Craig Mathews, who was similarly donating between one and two percent of his profits to environmental causes.

“We give to about 400 different groups every year,” Yvon says proudly of the latest 1% For The Planet organization he and Mathews shaped and is now moving up on a thousand members. “We especially look for radical organizations that can’t get funding from elsewhere.”

Chouinard’s activism has occasional critics, but it is rare for any of them to duplicate his and his wife Malinda’s generous and thoughtful track record. In addition

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to the corporate donations, both of them give at least 30 percent of their annual salaries from Patagonia to environmental groups. To date, the company has given away more than $30 million and that figure climbs closer to $50 million when the Chouinards’ personal gifts are added.
“At our company we make every decision based on whether it’s good for the planet or not. I can take a risk and if it works, others will follow [e.g., the expensive but healthy changeover to organic cotton; turning recycled plastic drink bottles into cozy fleece]. Patagonia is a privately held company and no venture capitalists are dictating what we can and cannot do,” he says.
If the growing trend of touting company greenness is truly important for business, Patagonia and the Chouinards already have a lifetime supply of honors, hardware and recognition for greening practices that they instituted long before the buzz term hit Forbes and Business Week. Patagonia merrily cruises along continually championing new environmental promotion schemes; among the latest are the World Trout Initiative with designer T-shirts (organic cotton, of course) created by phenom artist/writer/activist (and FR&R contributing editor) James Prosek and the latest Freedom To Roam campaign designed to facilitate wildlife migration paths throughout the West and Northwest.

Some 20 years ago, Yvon joined his late Alberta rancher friend Yuri Krisjanson on a British Columbia climbing/camping trip that just happened to include fly-fishing on the Dean River. After landing his first steelhead, it was Chouinard, not the chrome sea-run rainbow, who was terminally hooked by anadromous trout and salmon.
“I began to fish British Columbia in the spring, summer and fall…three trips every year. I joined Tom McGuane at Rob Stewart’s Lower and Upper Dean River camps with the handmade wooden jet boats, but it got to be too predictable,” he sighs. “The guide tells you where to fish and boom, you catch a fish. So I quit lodges!”
In typical Chouinard fashion, he examined the famed British Columbia waters of the Skeena Drainage and assembled a circle of equally passionate and preservation-minded pals including former teacher Rob Brown and conservationist Bruce Hill. “I love the Skeena, where I can fish on my own, with friends…no guides,” he announces.
Along with the steelhead addiction, naturally, came the Sirens’ seductive song of the Spey rod—yet another new area for Chouinard’s patented T-R-T formula—test, research, travel. And then the trip tempo increased. With Sage, Thomas & Thomas, CND, Winston, Burkheimer and other custom long rods in hand, he moseyed to Russia, Alaska, Iceland, British Columbia, Gaspe’ Peninsula, Norway and Sweden.
“Steelhead are easy. They take anything you throw at ’em because they’re playful. Now the Atlantic salmon, they are the king of fish! Atlantics are just giant brown trout with an attitude! I learned to slow down for steelhead—to get my fly down to their level. I’ll speed up for Atlantics…. They love to smash things so keeping flies above them gets them to come up. I’m starting to feel better about myself and Atlantic salmon fishing…but that’s after 15 years!”
Both personally and through the environmental funding procedures that he has organized, Chouinard takes keen interest in various watchdog and enhancement organizations such as the Atlantic Salmon Federation and Save Our Wild Salmon.

A fishing discussion with Yvon Chouinard is never purely about his newest experiments. He’s been studying bamboo and has recently been using a delicate but lively fly rod made by a Japanese friend. “Bamboo is symbolic with my feeling: get simpler and simpler,” he says. “Next summer I might just fish with a small Muddler. I’ll catch as many fish as I did this year…but it would get boring and would probably destroy the fly-fishing industry!” he roars.
Over the summer, he added a handmade dozen-foot-long Italian Sesia horsehair line, a gift from an Italian friend, to the tip of his reel-less, 12-foot Tenkara collapsible rod for one-handed casting in small mountain trout streams like Japanese and Italian traditionalists. His latest intrigue with the super-sinking Czech and Polish nymphs came after deadly efficient Madison River experiments with Craig Mathews and Italian pal Mauro Mazzo.
But in a moment he can firmly switch to a less pleasant tone and explain, “The U. S. and Canadian government policy toward anadromous fish is to extirpate them because they’re in the way of ‘progress.’ The current Administration and people like them are interested in sterilizing the oceans and ultimately coming in with fish farms everywhere. This president has been a terrible puppet, allowing industry-driven disassembly of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and every other environmental law they can get their hands on,” he rails.
Next he laments that despite the great gains made with the 1% For The Planet fund-raising program, there is nothing like it for the fishing industry, whose memberships are conspicuously absent. “Somehow they don’t feel a responsibility despite making a living from clean air, clean water and the environment. They have no more responsibility than the average taxpayer…it’s really sad.
“The strongest force in our society is civil democracy, especially where the government is the problem. It’s what got us out of Vietnam and gave us civil rights. It’s standing up to federal marshals. That’s why we have to support environmental non-profits,” he says.
If you spot Yvon steelheading the Kispiox, polish up your thoughts and resume on environmental tithing before getting too deep into a discussion about Bob Clay bamboo Spey rods or the latest line tapers. Fly-fishing means the world to Yvon Chouinard, but it is our future that concerns him most. That’s the only thing about this man that will never change.

Paul Bruun lives in Jackson, Wyoming. Find more Angler of the Year reporting at www.flyrodreel.com.