Outsiders Looking In: The Fly-Fishing Photographer

While the solstice has come and gone, summer is still in full swing. It’s the season for time spent on the road and in the sun—the perfect time to revisit our recent release The Fly Fisher. We spoke to contributor Elias Carlson, a photographer and fly fisher from Idaho, to dive deeper into the sport and international past time. Read on to hear what he had to say, or browse The Fly Fisher to get a grip on the essence and essentials of fly fishing. 

When did you start taking photographs, and when did you start fly fishing?

I started taking photos when I was about 25. My wife and I had bought a little Canon Digital Rebel with some money we’d received as a wedding gift. Playing with that camera is what got me hooked on photography, but I really got sucked in a year or two later when my dad gave me his old Olympus OM-1n 35mm film camera. I immediately fell in love with shooting film, and never looked back.

My dad was really good about taking me on hiking and fishing trips when I was a kid. Back then we were usually fishing with lures, or bait, but later on my dad and younger brother both got hooked on fly fishing. As a result, I dabbled in fly fishing for a bit in my early 20s, and really enjoyed it. But it wasn’t until my late 20s that I rediscovered it and fell in love. Now it’s a bit of an obsession.  

When did you figure out how to combine the two passions?

For me, photography has always been intertwined with the outdoors. When I was learning the basics of photography, I used every weekend hike or backpacking trip as an excuse to shoot film; with photography and writing both, I’ve always been most drawn to the subject of nature, and in particular the way humans interact with it. So it was a pretty logical and natural progression to start taking pictures of my fly-fishing trips as well. Of course, it’s always a challenge trying to do both at the same time. Unfortunately, the best light, and the best fishing tend to occur at the same times, so I often have to choose between catching fish or taking photos. But catching a nice fish and taking a nice photo are both equally exciting for me, so I suppose it’s a win-win no matter which I choose. 

Your work on a shoot for FILSON sounded exciting—any other particularly notable tales from the road?

That trip was definitely a memorable one. I was with my brother Joseph, and our good friend Ryan Tuck, and we all tend to get into “fish mode” when we’re out on the river. It’s this sort of monomaniacal obsession with fishing that happens when you start to get into the groove: It’s a sort of laser focus that takes hold of you. Time disappears; food doesn’t matter; all you can think about is that next perfect cast, and drift, and the fish that might take your fly as a result. Now we try to take it a little easier, and actually enjoy the spectacular scenery around us, but I’ll always look back on this particular trip fondly. I think it may have been the trip where I crossed some invisible line from “person who enjoys fly fishing” to “real fly fisherman”. Whatever that means.

I’ve been fortunate to fish in some truly incredible places with some wonderful people. It would take a lot of words to cover it all, but whether it’s small-creek fishing here at home in Idaho, backpacking into alpine lakes, or steelhead fishing in Oregon and Northern California, each trip holds special memories and moments. 

I’ll never forget catching my first golden trout in California’s Golden Trout Wilderness. A golden trout has been on my list of dream fish since I was a kid, when I read about them in a fishing book my grandpa had. I was on a 6-day volunteer fish-counting trip with my brother. After six to eight hours of hard (but fun) work every day, we had a few hours off to do what we liked. My brother and I spent our afternoons exploring the tiny alpine creek we were surveying with our fly rods. Most of the fish were tiny, but we found a few holes with fish as big as fifteen-inches long. These fish had probably never seen an artificial fly, and as long as you didn’t spook them getting close enough to cast, they’d hit pretty much anything you threw out there. Golden trout are a truly stunning fish—unlike anything I’d seen before—and they are quite rare. I felt incredibly fortunate to have a chance to see them up close in their historic habitat. 

What’s your favorite thing about being out in nature?

There’s a feeling I get when I’m outdoors—I suppose I’d call it a sense—I get this sense that something special, unique, and ephemeral can happen at any moment; that if I just get myself out there enough—eventually, unexpectedly—I may get to see something incredible nobody else has seen before, and which may never happen again. It could be a sudden change of light, or weather, that renders the landscape around me in a way that stops me in my tracks. It might be a chance encounter with wildlife. Or it could simply be a quiet moment, admiring the iridescent scales of a wild fish, or the colors and textures in a patch of wildflowers. Regardless of what it is, I find that if I’m open to it, I always receive some small gift and precious from nature. And it’s often these moments that stick with me years later. I don’t often remember what I did for work on a particular day five years ago. But I can tell you dozens upon dozens of stories about moments, large and small that happened to me in the outdoors over the course of my life. Though they happened years, sometimes decades ago, I can remember those moments with crystal clarity.

What can we learn from the great outdoors?

This is actually something I think about a lot. I think learning from the great outdoors is a very personal, lifelong process that is unique to each individual. I think what it comes down to is that when you’re out in nature, especially if you’re out somewhere truly remote for a few days or more, something happens in your brain. I tend to experience this slowing down in romantic, or even mystical terms. And I often use that time to ponder my life from a more centered place, or to simply be quiet for a while.

All that said, on a biological level, I think what’s happening is that our brains are clicking back into a well-worn track that exists on a subconscious level. I had a really interesting conversation with Chris Eyer, the guy who packs mules in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He said that our brains and bodies know how to live in the wild. If you look at the timeline of human history, as a species we’ve spent far more time in nature than we have in cities, looking at computer screens in little climate controlled boxes. 

For most of human history, we’ve been outdoors. It’s really only been a few hundred years, really since the industrial revolution, that man has been able isolate himself so completely from nature. And I believe our bodies and brains remember that. They sense the disconnect we’ve created in modern society, and crave a space where things make more sense. What each person learns from that is entirely up to them, I suppose. For me, getting out into nature is more of a way of creating a healthy space for myself to recharge and reconnect. It’s a place I go for inspiration, or healing, or to reconnect with the roots of what it means to be human. Then I can go back to my work and life happier and healthier.

What makes the perfect travel buddy?

I think it’s pretty simple really, although not necessarily easy to find. You just need a mental, emotional, and physical peer. Someone who is on the same wavelength as you; somebody who moves at the same speed; someone who values the same sort of experiences you’re after. Ideally, they’d be self-sufficient enough that you don’t have to babysit them on the river or on the trail, but not so far above you in ability that they leave you in the dust. Traveling and outdoor adventures in general are an odd combination of both curating an experience, and letting go of your plans when they inevitably go astray. So they should adaptable enough to roll with the punches when things don’t go perfectly to plan. And, finally, if you can talk for hours with someone and enjoy every second of it AND sit quietly beside a fire for hours without saying a word and be equally happy, then you know you’ve found a good travel buddy. Both my wife Theresa and my brother Joseph tick every box on this list, so I feel pretty fortunate to have a couple perfect travel buddies I know I can count on. 

Idaho’s not known for its metropolitan pleasures, but rather for its natural wonders. What are your places to hike, climb, and photograph near where you live?

I grew up in the Seattle area, so I actually know the Pacific Northwest and the North Cascades mountains a little better than I do Idaho at this point, but there is a whole lot of great stuff to do and see out here. I have some pretty decent fly fishing within 20 minutes of my house, mostly small creek fishing, but during certain times of the year, in certain spots, I can catch some really nice cutthroat on the bigger rivers. And there is a ton of lake fishing for bass, and stocked trout if that’s your thing. Priest Lake, about 45 minutes north of me is an absolutely fantastic summer spot for hiking, fishing, or just a picnic at the beach. And there are dozens of great hikes in the Selkirk Mountains, most of which are within an hour or two drive from my house. Opportunities to photograph are everywhere.

Images by Elias Carlson

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Author: nathan

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