Talk long enough with seasoned anglers and eventually you’ll hear someone say, “there’s an art to fly fishing.” That’s a curiously poetic phrase. They’re usually talking about technique, presentation or tying, but it’s interesting to see the correlation one makes between angler and artist. The Black Gnats are equally interested in this connection, so we’ve started a recurring section called “The Art of Fly Fishing” to highlight the unique stories and individuals that bring these two worlds together. This week’s featured artist is …
Josh Udesen is many things – an educator, an accomplished fishing artist, a fly fishing guide and an outdoor and travel enthusiast. His guiding credentials include the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska (Tikchik Narrows Lodge) and six summers of guiding on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. His teaching background includes a stint as a high school studio art teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, as well as a high school career teaching History and Comparative Religions at Riverstone International School in Boise, Idaho. Josh also has some of the coolest and most respected art in the sport of fly fishing. He’s one of only a few artists to be commissioned by Montana Fly Company and has his artwork featured on many of their accessories, including flasks, gaitors, fly boxes, reels, and much more. Josh was kind enough to answer our questions for another installment of the “Art of Fly Fishing” with the Black Gnats.
Black Gnats: Who or what inspired you to get into fly fishing?
Josh Udesen: My dad. Long before it was cool or trendy, my dad was passionate (obsessed) about fly fishing. Be it passion or obsession, I grew up in a house centered on fly fishing, upland bird hunting, camping, rivers, lakes, canoes and being outside. I think my family trajectory was solidified the moment my mom married my dad. He took her to the Bahamas for their honeymoon in the late 60s to go bonefishing, at a time when most people from Minnesota had never heard of a bonefish. From then on, all of our family vacations seemed to center on trout streams, steelhead runs, fish or fly hatches. When most kids were dreaming of becoming hockey/football/basketball stars, I was plotting how to get to legendary places to fish. From chasing steelhead on the Deschutes, to getting a brook trout to rise on the Brule, landing big browns on the South Island or figuring out how to fish permit on the flats — my mind was a map of places I needed to fish. I’m not sure if I was inspired or if it was part of my DNA, but chasing fish, long drives to rivers, being outside, moving water, open skies, early mornings and thinking of the next day of fishing are simply part of my reality.
BG: Who or what inspired you to get into art?
JU: Much like fishing, art is in my DNA. I’ve sketched, drawn, painted and created things my entire life. It wasn’t until my mid- to late-30s I actually began to “do” art with the intent of selling it. In that regard, I was inspired by two people: Bob White and my newborn daughter. Sound like an odd combo? It is!
The legendary artist, “super” guide and all-around great person, Bob White was head guide when I started guiding at Tikchik Narrows Lodge in southwest Alaska in the early 90s. As a 21-year-old looking to figure out what to do with my life, he was an inspiration. He seemed to have a brilliant life and was doing things I loved. He guided in cool places, sold enough art to make a decent living and was exceptionally kind and generous. He genuinely seemed to like what he did. At a point in my life where I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, he provided a great example. Although his inspiration was formative, it took me nearly 15 more years to figure out he was doing it right.
My infant daughter
Being a hyperactive individual with an infant in the house and a wife in an arduous graduate program, I was, for all intents and purposes, a single dad headed into a new world. I was very aware of the fact I was going to be alone … at home … a lot. With a baby asleep and a wife at school/in the library/on a medical rotation in a far off town for a month, it was clear I needed to occupy myself. I hate TV, I had read most of the books on my shelves, my fly boxes were filled with flies I’d never use and I was alone for hours in a house I couldn’t leave. This propelled me to rediscover my love of painting, drawing and art. Considering I hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since college, I was out of practice. The easel in the storage shed was my salvation. Hours alone suddenly had purpose. I no longer dreaded the long stretches of quiet time. It was a great discovery and truly helped me find a passion I never fully realized.
BG: When did you realize that your passion for art and fly fishing could be combined?
JU: Once I realized I had a passion and interest in pursuing art beyond a hobby, I was drawn to fish for two reasons. First, they’re an unbelievable subject to paint and draw in an artistic sense. Nothing engages color theory with such perfection. The colors you can combine are textbook in terms of what I learned in the classes I took. For every color on a fish, there’s a compliment. It’s astounding how varied your palate is with fish. You can use outlandish colors and legitimately get away with them. It’s nearly abstract in the vivid nature of the palate, but in the end, you’re not exaggerating if you employ some wild colors.
“There is a long history of mounting a giant fish you caught, but in this age of catch-and-release, a painting is a more viable, artistic and realistic option.” –Josh Udesen
Secondly, I realized people love to have art representing their adventures and fish they caught. I thought I was alone in my affliction for fish. I wanted give people the opportunity to send me photos of fish they caught and build commissioned work from their images. Everyone loves to remember the fish they caught on a great day and art is a great reminder of each person’s unique story. There is a long history of mounting a giant fish you caught, but in this age of catch-and-release, a painting is a more viable, artistic and realistic option.
BG: What’s the most inspirational body of water that you’ve fished and why?
JU: I think you’re asking a seriously tough question to anyone who’s wet a fly. How about a top 5, in no particular order?
- River X in Alaska: When I guided in Alaska, I lived on a little tributary to the Nushagak. It was barely big enough to navigate a small jet boat, but it was my personal trout heaven. I often go back there in my mind to reminisce about how lucky I was and how fat the trout were.
- East Cape of Baja: Roosters … sight fishing an aggressive, beautiful and hard to catch fish on an empty beach and accessible only by a dune buggy. That’s what dreams are made of.
- The steelhead rivers in British Columbia: When you fish there you feel like you’ve arrived. It’s the big leagues.
- Tarpon on the flats: Humble pie tastes pretty good, even if you’ve only got a sniff.
- My local trout river: Because I have a blue ribbon fishery I can fish any day with a drop of a hat. I’m lucky and this river helps me remember it’s a luxury to fly fish.
BG: If money were no object, and you could do only one thing, what would it be?
JU: Without hesitation, I’d hit the road and travel. Subsequently, while traveling I’d fish, paint, read, climb, eat, drink good (and bad) beer and explore. I’ve been fortunate enough to say I’ve been to over 50 countries, circumnavigated the globe and lived in some cool and unique places. I am addicted to exploration … both internationally and domestically. From the hills behind our house to the far off mountains of central Asia, my wife and I always feel the need to explore. We don’t need fancy hotels (or any hotel for that matter) but we do want to see more and push ourselves to get out the front door. I’d love to continue filling my passport and see more with a bit more insight. I certainly don’t complain for a minute about the life I am leading and I am pretty content, but my wife and I always plot, plan and reminisce about travel – from next weekend, to a life of living in another country. We’re driven by exploration. I think we would hit the road with no hesitation.
BG: If you could fish with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?
JU: My dad. It’s been a year and a half since his death. I’d like a little more time to remind him how much his passion for fish defines me. Nothing fancy or exotic, just a little more time on the Brule River looking for the hex hatch with a guy I miss.
BG: Where do you see the future of fly-fishing?
JU: The world of fly fishing is a different beast than it was just a few years ago. On one hand, it’s amazing to see the sport I love being loved by many. At the same time, I selfishly protect the thing I love. As anyone can attest, when you go to a place you’ve gone to for years and used to have it to yourself and you suddenly have to share it, there’s a bit of frustration. At the same time, it’s there for everyone. I might get frustrated when I have to move to the next spot, but a crowded river often pushes me to try something new and I usually learn something as a result. With great awareness and interest, there is great pressure on fisheries, but greater conservation. Like anything, I think the key is balance. There’s a clear need to assure the accessibility of all fisheries and increase education on etiquette and fish handling.
“The bottom line is, getting on the river with whatever equipment you have is fun and that’s all it takes.” —Josh Udesen
Oddly, I recognize the balance of old and new. The more people get into fly fishing, the more the industry and fisheries are pushed. At times it seems a little excessive, but then again, I have multiple spey, switch, glass and tenkara rods, so I’m just as interested as anyone in the latest craze. It’s exciting to see the sport expand, but at the same time it’s a little discouraging to see an industrialization of something so seemingly simple. I’m as guilty as the next guy. I have a garage filled with rods, lines and the newest stuff I “think” I need. Anyone who fishes with me knows that I use what works and could care less about who made it. My go-to 5wt is a dozen years old and I’ve fished with a Hardy Marqui as a hand-me-down for 20+ years. I get lots of laughs on the steelhead rivers because of how loud they are, but now they’re back in fashion so I figure if I hang onto things long enough they’ll become cool again. The bottom line is, getting on the river with whatever equipment you have is fun and that’s all it takes.
BG: What would you say to someone interested in fly-fishing but is too intimidated to start?
JK: Although I understand the sense of intimidation, there’s no need to be intimidated. We’ve all been there. The vast majority of us fishing are sociable people who enjoy nothing more than sharing our knowledge. When I was learning how to spey cast just a few years ago I was right back to the beginning again and realized how frustrating it is to do something I thought was second nature.
“Find someone you know who fishes and have them take you out. The learning curve is steep, but it never goes away so there’s always a challenge.” –Josh Udesen
Get the basics down and go to the river. Don’t be afraid to ask.
When you’re on the river, engage with others, even if you don’t know them. Be courteous of their fishing, but watch, ask, and listen. One of the greatest rewards is introducing people to what I love. I can think of many instances of good friends who went from little or no interest in fishing to becoming engaged, interested and great fisherman in their own right. Find someone you know who fishes and have them take you out. The learning curve is steep, but it never goes away so there’s always a challenge.