In an era when hunting and fishing gear is sold in sprawling box stores, it can be hard to remember from whence we came. Humans have always hunted and fished. Across the span of time, we’ve relied upon our skills acquired through experience to achieve hunting and fishing success. Substituting box store gadgetry for knowledge earned the hard way marks a defining moment (albeit at least a century in the making) in hunting and fishing history.
Few hunters consider that their forbearers killed woolly mammoths with little more than a long stick with a sharp rock lashed to the end. So it was heartening to read Patagonia owner Yvon Chouinard’s recent post on the Fly Fisherman magazine website. In a story titled, “Lessons from a Simple Fly,” he wrote: “Outdoor pursuits and crafts that I’ve been involved in—from mountaineering and whitewater kayaking to spear fishing and tool making—the progression from novice to master has always been a journey from the complex to the simple. An illustrator becomes an artist when he can convey his message with fewer brush strokes.”
Simplicity. Distilling what you do to its purest essence. Chouinard writes that fly-fishing has become “a needlessly complex and complicated pastime.” He then describes how he spent a year fishing for saltwater fish and all manner of trout and salmon in waters of the Caribbean, Iceland, Labrador, the western U.S. and British Columbia using just one fly: The Pheasant Tail and Partridge. This nondescript, traditional wet fly pattern imitates aquatic insects such as mayflies and caddis in trout streams or, in larger sizes, saltwater critters such as shrimp and jellyfish. Using just this pattern, Chouinard consistently had good fishing and deemed his one-year experiment a success.
This isn’t surprising. Much of my fishing, fly and spin, boils down to using a small handful of flies or lures. Why? Because consistent success builds confidence. For instance, nearly all my walleye fishing is with a jig and a leech. Most of my fly fishing is done with a small handful of flies. But like any other angler, I possess boxes and more boxes of spin tackle and flies. And I’m always acquiring more of both.
Yet I strive for simplicity. I enjoy hunting and fishing the most when I am least encumbered with gear. I like to carry everything, so I need in a jacket pocket. That’s why I really enjoy upland bird hunting; all I need is a shotgun, some shotshells and a dog. In fact, upland hunting may be the facet of hunting and fishing that has changed the least in the past 100 years.
In contrast is deer hunting. At the risk of offending you, dear reader, may I say that most of what happens in the deer woods today really isn’t hunting at all. Food plots, trail cams, heated box blinds, love potions—the list goes on—are products that carry today’s deer hunter farther from the hunt. I shudder to think of the cost per pound for today’s wild venison. But all you really need to hunt for deer are a knife, some rope and a weapon; gun or bow.
For some reason, the modern hunting and fishing culture doesn’t celebrate simplicity, perhaps because it is hyper-focused on success. Too many hunters and anglers are willing to do anything within the bounds of the law to kill a big deer or catch a big fish. After all, when you show off the pictures of your trophy, no one asks you how you got it.
We may be able to attribute this gear-crazed attitude to our need for instant gratification, a growing reliance on technology or the urbanization of society, all of which is true. We could say hunters and anglers also succumb to the pressures of the outdoor product marketers, which is true as well. But none of the above wholly explains why hunters and anglers have drifted away from simple pleasure of interacting with the natural world. One may rightfully ask: Are we losing our collective soul?
Recently, I had an email from a reader who mused that today he’d be “laughed off the lake” if he launched his father’s boat from 40 years ago: a 14-footer with a 10-horsepower outboard. While small boats remain common on the inland lakes along the North Shore, you won’t see such craft bobbing around on the state’s popular walleye waters. But that doesn’t mean today’s anglers get any more fun or enjoyment from their fishing. Perhaps by using all of the gadgetry that comes with the modern fishing boat they catch more fish, but catching isn’t everything.
For me, the real satisfaction of hunting and fishing is all about doing it simply. I seek to escape the gadgetry and technology ruling my everyday life. I seek to be a part of Nature, not apart from it. The more of my everyday world that I can pare away, the better. This doesn’t mean that I seek to return to the days of a loin cloth and sharpened stick. I appreciate a good rifle and a well-balanced fishing rod. But I respect those who take simplicity more seriously than me, choosing the flint lock, the long bow or the tenkara rod.
Chouinard’s exercise of spending a year fishing with just one fly was really a way to force himself to reconnect with what really matters in fishing. To accomplish what he set out to do, he needed to be a good fisherman. He had to hone his skill at manipulating a fly with rod and line, reading the water to locate fish and using stealth to approach close enough to catch them. When he mastered the basic elements of angling, he could catch fish with just one fly. His journey from complex to simple was complete.