Val Atkinson is one of fly fishing’s best-known names; you’ll find his photographs on magazine covers, catalogs, posters and books. He’s been kind enough to donate photographs for use on CalTrout’s website and the Fall River Conservancy site (and other places), and we thought it was time to see what he’s up to these days.
Q: You’ve been a fly fishing photographer better than 30 years; what originally made you decide to try and make a living in the fly fishing field?
I went to Columbus College of Art & design (Ohio) and studied commercial art & photography for six years, plus my father had been a serious amateur photographer and I picked up the passion from him.
After graduating in 1971, I decided to come to California, but I wasn’t sure what to do with my photography trade. I shot architecture and weddings, but then one day I went fly fishing on Hat Creek for a few days with a bunch of friends.
I photographed our adventure and sent those pictures into Fly Fisherman magazine and they bought them all for a photo essay. I got a check for $500 and thought “bingo”…I could combine my two passions.
In those days everything was black & white, and because I’d attended an Ansel Adams workshop, I could print vivid black and whites in my home darkroom and my compositions were classical (learned in art school). At the time, there were really only three or four competitors in the whole country.
Q: How has digital photography changed your business?
Digital is absolutely fantastic for the world of imagery, but it’s made it tougher for professionals to make a living in photography.
Couple that change in technology with the economy — nobody’s got extra money in their budget — and it’s gotten harder to make a living in the fly fishing world.
There’s also an emerging attitude from some in the industry that “good enough” works. It’s my biggest nemesis.
However, I’m still working and traveling constantly and couldn’t be happier about that.
Q: You’ve been generous in your support of groups like CalTrout and the Fall River Conservancy; what do these groups mean to you?
I’m proud to say I was with California Trout when it first got started; I became friendly with Dick May (ED: one of CalTrout’s founders), and they even gave me my first assignment when I barely had two nickels to rub together. I drove around for a month and took B&W pictures of all the newly designated Wild Trout streams.
As someone who cares about the environment, I know that CalTrout can accomplish more than I can as an individual. We have to protect these things, and nobody’s going to do it for us.
Q: You’ve traveled the world on assignment (and we can’t help but notice you’ve fished a little along the way). If you won the lottery and could pick one place to live (and fish), where would it be?
If I was starting all over again I would move to New Zealand. I’ve been there 23 times and I’ve fallen in love with the place.
It’s just a wonderful place to trout fish. The little towns are great, the people are delightful and it’s so beautiful I can’t put it into words.
I’m really in love with nature so even when I’m not shooting pictures or fishing I love just being out in the New Zealand countryside.
Q: Where are your home waters, and where are your favorite places to fish in California? (If the latter include remote small streams with Brook trout, please include GPS coordinates)
Fall River. I love the pastoral beauty of the spring creek settings, and I enjoy fishing for trout with dry flies. It’s my favorite home river fishery.
Q: I can tell you love it from your pictures.
Susan Rockeries and I bought an old two-story house on Fall River and restored it over the last 20 years, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. We still have a place in San Francisco but I get up to Fall River whenever I can.
Happiness for me is selling a few images to an art director in the morning and then going out fishing in the afternoon.
Q: One of your better-known pictures has to be the drake sitting atop the pint of Guinness; how did that picture come about?
I had gone to fish some spring creeks in England and Ireland. We were in Ireland and we’d been fishing in the morning, but found our way to the pub in the middle of the day.
The drakes were coming off the little creek right behind the bar, so as a joke, we picked up one and put it on a beer.
It immediately sank. So we ordered six more Guinness in turn, each of them with bigger, thicker heads until on the sixth we were finally able to float the green drake.
It’s one of my favorite pictures, and of course we had to finish the beers.
Q: Can you offer a couple quick tips for better outdoor photographs?
There are plenty of “how to take better pictures” articles out here, but I can give you a short list of the things that most amateur photographers should know, but often forget:
Q: You’re running hosted trips to exotic locations; where are you going next?
A few years ago I hosted a few trips; the last couple years I’ve expanded my trips. I pick a special designation — usually a nice lodge — and then try to interest
a few folks into sharing the adventure. We recently went to India to fish for Masheer and to experience the magic which is India. It was totally an amazing trip.
I’m going to Argentina to fish for sea-run browns. Anyone interested in catching giant trout from a really nice lodge (Kau Tapen) should contact me at my web site or email me at (email@example.com).
Val Atkinson’s “Why I Fish” video