Long before Keep ‘em Wet entered the lexicon of hashtags and facebook posts I had a gut feeling there was a need to keep the fish where they should be. I won’t say I was militant or even on the forefront of some sort of conservation movement, I simply understood the impact of keeping a fish out of the water. As any rookie guide can probably attest to, learning to properly handle fish is acquired through a few hard lessons. It is not with great pride, I can admit I likely killed a fish or two to get a hero shot for a client.
At least one memorable incident had a lasting impact on my fishing psyche. It was probably two decades ago, in my first year of guiding southwest Alaska. Regulations allowed sport fisherman to harvest rainbows, but as per lodge policy, we always released them, regardless of the fish and game regulations. In this case, after a long struggle, a botched netting, a hand to hand passing of the fish with little rest, several drops in the mud and sand, and a multitude of photos with an array of cameras, this monster rainbow was back in the water to be “revived”. As I tried to get it going, I knew it was not going to turn out well. There are few things that feel worse as a fisherman than seeing a beautiful fish, worthy enough for a grip and grin shot, struggle to be revived and ultimately end up where it should not – belly up. It gave me a head shake, wiggled free and immediately twisted to it's side. As I chased the struggling beast of a rainbow down river, trying to grab it to resuscitate, I knew it was a lost cause. As it sunk into a pool, I was pissed. What a waste. I could not be too angry with the client, everyone wants the bragging rights to a huge a rainbow. Instead, I was mad I let it happen. I won’t go so far as to say I made a policy or changed radically, I just knew I had to work fast when a fish was landed. Get the fish in, keep it in the net until the photo is ready, snap a shot and get it back in.
With that said, over the next decade or two I had no benchmark or clear delineation of what was best for the fish while still getting a good photo for a client, a friend or myself. I have to admit, as a fisherman, the obvious implications of the keeping ‘em wet ethos seemed like common sense, but it was never really verbalized. I’ve always veered from the tail splitting green mesh nets, dragging fish on the beach or the finger in the gill hero shot as a guide, but I did not have a clear method or approach to handling fish. I never realized I have a ton of fish photos, but rarely is there a shot of me holding the fish. Other than a hatchery steelhead destined for the grill, rarely did the fish get my greasy mitts all over them. Ultimately, the fish was the focus on my photography not me with the fish.
It was not until I was introduced to Bryan Huskey’s photos, and subsequently, Bryan himself that I understood what Keep ‘em Wet really meant. His photos were remarkable with an element unlike anything I’d seen. The artist in me saw something very unique in a world of "fly fishing photographers". In one of our first meetings I asked him about how / why / what gives him the ability to portray something with such a unique perspective. His answer was simple, "I don’t like to take the fish out of the water.” He followed up by explaining how he was hardwired to keep the fish in the water, touch it minimally, and often did not have someone to hold the fish or land the fish and as a result, the camera angles were always foreshortened, cropped or combined water and an aspect of the fish. It was a brilliant accident. He told me how he sometimes had to lay down with his back on the bank, butt on the edge and his legs in the water in order to get the fish in the frame and keep it in the water. He explained the need for an exceptionally long handled net because you can wedge it between your legs, keep the bag in the water, deal with disengaging the hook and get a shot or two - all while the fish never left the water. His focus on keeping the fish in the water made his photos remarkable. I not only respected the craft and the outcome, but I understood how simple it was to respect the fish and get the shot.
As an artist, water and fish are intertwined. Although I paint lots of fish, most of my paintings are more than fish. Every person who as ever netted a fish in a clear, freestone creek knows how magical those trout look, but each fish is framed by the water. The best images of fish include water. Fish are amazing to paint and draw, but the water is what makes the image complete. I’ve always been drawn to reflective and refracted surfaces. Water has a way of multiplying and enhancing anything. Put a simple pencil in a clear glass of water and see what happens. It bends, cuts in half, expands, and ultimate it changes. Likewise, the colors of the fish are bent, twisted, more abstract and enhanced when combined with water. With water, you can use brushstrokes boldly and get away with it. You can add outrageous colors and make it work. It is fun to play with the water that surrounds fish. In other words, my art is a natural way of encouraging and promoting all of what Keep ‘em Wet fishing embodies.