Building Community through Pig Farming

It was the next episode up on The Fly Tapes podcast during my long commute to work: Jay Johnson. I’d never heard of the dude, but the previous 12 episodes had been a good time so I clicked the “play” button.

Adrienne Barnett prepares to tie a San Juan worm in the Iron Fly blindfold challenge.
Photo by Aaron Reed

The story (published in The Fly Fish Journal) that host Jason Rolfe read, and the interview that followed, stunned me. I listened again. And then I texted and emailed the link to my buddies.

In 2011, Johnson and a group of co-conspirators launched a movement that today travels under the Pig Farm Ink brand. Groups of anglers get together in cities (40 at the latest count, in three different countries) and host events designed to build community around fly fishing and fly tying.

There’s Iron Fly – based loosely on the reality TV show Iron Chef – in which experienced fly tiers compete blindfolded and with off-the-wall (sometimes literally) materials, and in which newbies are coached through the steps of tying their first flies.

Iron Flydol combines fly tying and karaoke. Get Trashed events are river cleanups with points awarded for garbage collected, but also for fish caught; teams compete and root for – and coach – first-time anglers. The noobs’ fish are worth ten times as many points.

Alcohol, quite a bit of it, is often involved; in the Get Trashed events, a team’s own empties count toward their point total.

The Central Texas Pig Farm events began with planning sessions at the Real Ale brewery in Blanco, Texas, over the summer and culminated in two events in early October: Iron Fly at the YETI flagship store in South Austin, and Get Trashed on the Guad in Canyon Lake.

Each event drew about 40 participants, with some overlap. One guy, who had tied his first fly on Thursday night, caught his first fish Saturday morning. He won a handcrafted landing net from Heartwood Trade.

Another fellow (he showed-up to Iron Fly in a kilt) brought his entire family to Get Trashed; they collected 34 bags of trash in just a few hours. The group photo of the participants from the Get Trashed event is on the top of this post.

The highlight for me, other than seeing so many folks having a good time, was meeting – in real life – some of my Instagram heroes. Odom Wu (@odomwu) showed-up with his son, fifth-grader and avid angler Ethan.

Participants in Get Trashed on the Guad compare notes after paddling 3 miles of the Guadalupe River. Diablo Paddlesports loaned four of their super-stable kayaks to the event.
Photo by Aaron Reed

Ethan, who may be the coolest fifth-grader around, was pleased with his big find of the day – a deer skull. Odom was pretty pleased that Ethan held the winning raffle ticket for the Traeger grill.

The therapeutic value of fly fishing – of nature in general, for that matter – has been much studied, and heralded, in recent years. Cancer survivors have Casting for Recovery. Veterans have Project Healing Waters. The rest of us, and those folks too, have Pig Farm Ink.

Fly fishers are largely solitary creatures, or we at least habitually travel in small packs. But, the truth is, most of us do like to get together with like-minded people from time to time. And by like-minded, I mean people who use long rods to present bits of fur and feather to fish, usually in moving water.

Around the tying table and on the river, these things don’t matter: politics, religious beliefs, profession, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, hair style, or any of a thousand other things.

Leaving all of those things out of the equation, we often find we have plenty in common: a keen interest in the fish and their waters, a willingness to do our part to conserve both of those, and a curiosity about the natural world. We thrill to the take of a fly, no matter how large the fish. We try, constantly, to improve our casts.

John Geirach famously said that creep and idiots cannot long conceal themselves on a fishing trip. That’s especially true when it’s two or three or four guys or gals wading a stream.

Alcohol can serve as a key ingredient in keeping energy high
Photo by Aaron Reed

Spend enough hours hiking a river with a fly rod in hand, with another angler for company, and eventually it will get more personal – kids, family, work, other fish and fishing trips; it will come bubbling up eventually.

It’s not a bad basis for a friendship.

Of course, one of the key goals of Pig Farm events is to attract newbies – conventional anglers or non-anglers who are fly-curious. It’s one of the reasons the events are designed to be … well, “unstuffy” would be one way to describe them.

The bottom line is that fly fishing is neither as difficult nor as expensive as we sometimes make it out to be. And the sport is home to some of the most generous and genuine people I’ve ever met anywhere.

It’s not a bad basis for a community.

Ethan Wu shows off his favorite kind for the day – a deer skull. Ethan and his dad Odom also collected plenty of trash.
Photo by Aaron Reed

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