Photography on the Fly: Origins
Fly fishing is a sport and lifestyle that I am passionate about. I love sharing my experiences with others as well as seeing other people’s fishing adventures. Social media has made sharing and viewing fishing pictures and stories easier than ever. My social media presence exists entirely through Instagram and as such photos are what I encounter and consume the most. To some people, photography and fly fishing go hand in hand. To others, photography is seen as something that can take away from living in the moment in being truly present. As an amateur photographer and fly angler I find myself constantly walking the line between these two perspectives trying to find the fulcrum between the two. As with all things, there is the good, the bad, and the happy medium between the two. My journey as an angler and a photographer parallel each other, and in telling my story and evolution in these two mediums I hope it will help someone out there that is struggling to find balance between these two art forms.
My origin story as a fly angler is pretty mundane. I grew up fishing traditional tackle but never had any experience with a fly rod until I was 23. Whether it was due to a lack of access to fly equipment or lack of money the result was the same, a very late entry into the sport of fly fishing. Growing up, my father would take me trout fishing every Sunday. It was my favorite day of the week and I looked forward to it all week. My Dad would ease my door open at 6:00am and say “It's time to move Beau”. Little did he know that I had been awake for hours anxiously waiting for him to open the door so I could pretend to be fast asleep. To this day I have a hard time sleeping the night before a fishing trip, the excitement of the unknown adventures so close at hand won’t give me rest. We would drive out to the creek my Dad was raised on while listening to music, and eating biscuits from the local store. My Dad instilled the love of nature and trout fishing in me and taught me how to read water. Fast forward to age 23. It is my first summer off as a newly hired teacher. I finally had the time, access, and money to give fly fishing a real go. I bought a Redington kit rod from Watauga River Fly Shop, a fly box, tippet, and a handful of flies. Those were the first infantile steps that would start a journey that has introduced me to more people, taught me more life lessons, and has taken me places I would have never thought possible. That summer I was a bonafide troutbum. I fished almost every single day and when I wasn’t fishing I was practicing knots, reading articles on how to fly fish, and researching my local area for new bodies of water. I fished alone back in those days and as a result my progress as an angler was slow. I would catch a fish or two here and there on my solo trips but never really got the numbers that I would see people get online in their videos. Through practice and my stubbornness I started to learn and get better little by little. Eventually, I started have more success. Each fish was a success story to me and I started taking photos of my success stories with my cell phone. My early Instagram posts are a time capsule of sorts that stands as a monument to this period of my life. This time of my life marked the marriage of fly fishing and photography because no matter how rudimentary my skills in either were, I was doing both regularly. I’d be lying to you if I said those early photos don't make me cringe and laugh to look at from an artistic point of view. I have thought about deleting those older photos because they do not appeal the image or aesthetic that I have cultivated on my page throughout the last couple of years. However,if you scroll way back on my page you will still find them. I have chosen not to edit my history as an angler or photographer. Those photos serve as an important reminder to myself that everyone starts somewhere and can go anywhere from that starting point if they have drive and passion.
Not Long after my first summer fishing solo I started to fish a lot with my friend Jeff Bowers, who was already a proficient fly angler. I learned more in the first two weeks fishing with Jeff than I did my first three months fishing alone. Jeff pushed me to become a better angler, and under his tutelage that's exactly what happened. This was a formative time in my life as a fly angler. Most notably, I stopped fishing in stocked water and started exclusively fishing my local wild water. I was enamored with the sense of adventure, the challenge, and the colors of the wild fish and to this day these aspects of the sport are what drive me. About six months after meeting Jeff we had the idea of forming a collective fishing page with our other fishing buddy Brad. We wanted to showcase the wild fish of Western North Carolina both big and small and if we got some sponsors that would be cool too. This was the birth of TroutfishNC. Using our three individual stores of fish pictures we began posting three pictures a day for three months straight. The response was more than we had ever hoped for. After a several months we had a few thousand followers and a couple local sponsors as well. This is when photography became a much more prominent aspect of my fly fishing journey. Jeff and Brad had their own cameras and I soon bought my own. I became more aware of what angles, lighting, and a little editing can do for an image of a fish or a landscape. The recipe was simple, the better our photos were, the more the page grew. Here comes the negative side of the social media, photography, fly fishing cocktail. I eventually became obsessed with the growth of the page and it wasn’t really about fishing anymore. It wasn’t about hanging out with my friends or exploring new water. It was all about what is going to get the most likes, follows, or comments. During this time I was not present in the most important moments and it cost me relationships and friendships in the process. The stress of this eventually manifested itself in me being removed from the TroutfishNC page, which at the time was a pretty traumatic event for me. I have nothing but love for the TroutfishNC guys and they made the right choice. I had spent two years in an unhealthy, obsessive mindset that centered around growing an Instagram account to over 6,000 followers and overnight I was back to square one. It was the single best thing that could've happened to me at the time. This event made me refocus on what I had originally enjoyed about the sport of fly fishing, and I was no longer doing it to grow a page, I was doing it for myself.
Now comes the period of my fishing and photography career that exists in the Goldilocks Zone. I had put an immense amount of pressure on myself leading up to my exit from TroutfishNC. Now I was a solo fisherman again, much like my early days as an angler, and the pressure was gone. The only person I had to please was myself. I retreated into what I loved most about fly fishing in WNC, finding wild water. I explored new water every chance that I got and started to document those adventures through photography. I wasn’t happy with the camera or photography skill set I had at the time so I upgraded my camera and began doing research on photography. I started shooting in manual mode and trying to get a hang of the exposure triangle (ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed). This coupled with using real editing software instead of Instagram’s built in software made huge developments in the quality of the photos I was taking. It has been a learning process ever since. I have recently upgraded my camera again and am continuing to learn as much as I can. I can proudly say that I have developed a style of photos that I consider my own. My personal page has experienced noticeable growth as a result but that is not the point. I do not post my photos with the intent of searching of new followers or likes, but for a more profound and practical reason. Each photo I take fossilizes that moment. Each time I look at that photo I relive that exact moment and the moments leading up to it. It helps me remember. Our brains are hardwired to forget more things than they remember. Imagine the amount of energy it would take to remember absolutely everything. Here are a couple of quotes from Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, a Plant’s-Eye View of the World:
“For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours…. Yes, forgetting can be a curse, especially as we age. But forgetting is also one of the more important things healthy brains do, almost as important as remembering. Think how quickly the sheer volume and multiplicity of sensory information we receive every waking minute would overwhelm our consciousness if we couldn’t quickly forget a great deal more of it than we remember.”
Instagram serves as way of connecting with others that share my passion, as a fishing journal where I can see where and what I was fishing during various times of the year, and so that I do not forget the journey. Forgetting things is normal, but I do not want any of my fishing adventures to be among all of my forgotten memories. My photos let me live in the moments I photograph and that's why I take photography as seriously as I do fly fishing. The better my photographs, the more vivid the memories are because I have to take the extra steps in those moments to think about the situation artistically and make those calculated changes in my camera to preserve that moment. I have only been doing this for the last three years but I can look at an image of a fish that I took and I can tell you, who I was with, where we were, the run or hole I caught the fish in, and everything that went on during that day. Those are the most important things to me, who I share these moments with, being present where I am at, learning my local fishery, and the journey to those moments.
This may have not been the photography tutorial that some of you wanted, don’t worry I’ll write that soon enough. My Dad once told me that philosophy is a way of using the most words to say nothing, and this may have just been me philosophizing my journey. Regardless, the point remains. There is good and bad within all things and there is also a way to balance between the two. Fly fishing and photography go hand in hand in my experience so I would encourage anyone reading to take the plunge a start taking more photos. However, know the reasons you are doing it and stay focused on what’s important to you. I have my reasons and thanks to my experiences I have my balance back.