The Things We Carry

There is a ritual I seem to go through every year between the end of one fishing season and the onset of the next. Henry David Thoreau is involved. In the second chapter of his most famous work, “Walden,” the chapter titled “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” you’ll find two of his most famous words. Actually it’s the same word, repeated for emphasis: Simplify, simplify. I think he was calling me out about my fishing vest. I have seen combat soldiers in Iraq, in full battle-rattle, less burdened than me in my vest.

Just to prove that simplicity can be achieved, Thoreau stated his admonition in a two-word sentence: Simplify, simplify. (Though it must be said that some of Henry’s sentences wouldn’t fit into a wheelbarrow.) We read those words, we commit them to memory, we speak them aloud, and we say, to Henry and to ourselves, “I know. I know!” And yet.

And yet, my fishing vest. And my flyrod stand. And my fly boxes. And the compartmented pack that must ride along in the canoe even though the contents of the vest alone could stock a modest flyfishing department. Then there’s the little chest of drawers at camp stuffed full of extra reels and fly lines, leaders and spools of tippet.

In the off-season I ponder the ways of (fisher)man and vow that next season when I return to the waters I will cast a lesser shadow, displace smaller volumes of air and water, leave a lighter footprint. I will not even wear a fishing vest! I will carry only two small fly boxes, one for nymphs and wets, one for dries, and tuck them into my shirt pockets. I will trim the tippet with my teeth and leave the clipper in camp. No Gink, no four spools of tippet, no extra reel, no Leatherman, no stream thermometer. That’s the dream, anyway, from the movie called “Fat Chance.”

One evening a few years back my pal Trout Boy (not his real name) and I were fishing on a fairly remote pond, camping near the shore and spitting blackflies for amusement. We shared the pond with only one other angler, a lean man who was sleeping in the open bed of his pickup truck. He wore a plaid shirt and he wore no fishing vest on top of it. We got to comparing notes on trout flies. The man told us, with no trace of hubris, that he used only one fly, and he carried three or four of them in one of those snap-shut plastic boxes that L.L. Bean’s flyfishing department gives away. Our own fishing vests bulged with assorted boxes of flies and in a smackdown we would have overwhelmed his arsenal probably a hundred to one. Maybe more. But, casting an inexpensive flyrod from his beaten-up old canoe the man did as well as we did, not just in the fishing department but in the actual catching department. Thoreau would have called him Brother.

After all, we generally cast just one fly at a time. Why not settle on one fly, maybe two, carry a handful of them, and be happy? Simplify! Do I enjoy changing flies? Snipping off one and tying another onto a spidery tippet in the gathering gloom of trout fishing Happy Hour? I do not. For one thing, the trout see me doing it and choose that precise moment to rise all around me, only to vanish when I am ready to cast again. And does the new fly produce better results? Usually not. And yet.

And yet, in the off-season I look Henry D. squarely in the eye and tell him that this will be the year of simplicity. Then I tell him to face the wall while I order a couple dozen more elk-hair caddis or pheasant-tail nymphs and wonder which pocket of the vest I’ll stuff them into.

Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.