“I consider my home waters the Delaware River system and undisclosed locations in the Berkshires for wild trout; local Capital District streams for smallmouth bass; and Cape Cod for striped bass.”
Have you been fishing much this year?
Yes, I have been out over a dozen times; it’s been terrific up until the recent hot weather. Fishing the classic hatches on top has been productive as well as nymphing. Oddly this spring I didn’t do much streamer fishing. The water has been a little low and too clear most of the time. Each year is different.
About how many days a year do you fish?
As many as I can! On average I would say about 90–100 days a year, down a bit from when I used to fish 100–150 days a year. Gas, time, money is in shorter supply these days, but no complaints.
Are you strictly a fly angler?
Pretty much ninety-nine percent of the time, but I do eat fish, so species depending—cod, grouper, snapper or porgy—I’ll do what it takes.
Do you have a particular favorite fly that you tie? I have a few heavy-duty streamers from you and they have produced well up in Maine for brook trout.
I like to tie perfect comparaduns, which is a difficult tie to begin with and more so because it’s hard to get the right deer hair, fine and stiff yet hollow with even tips. I like to mess with designing huge streamers and had a bit of a breakthrough with the Phenom, which guide Jeff White helped me refine. It has a cult following on the Delaware and some guides use the pattern out West. How to tie the pattern is on Al Caucci’s website.
Where are your home waters?
I consider my home waters the Delaware River system and undisclosed locations in the Berkshires for wild trout; local Capital District streams for smallmouth bass; and Cape Cod for striped bass. I need to explore L.I. Sound more. Essentially, I need more friends with boats! I love fishing the Gulf, but I can’t say it’s home water, but I do go down there every year. I’m horrified by the disaster down there. This is a terrible calamity for fisheries and their economy; it now seems to be threatening the Western Atlantic.
The Gulf accident really is heart-breaking. Further proof that the “drill baby drill” mentality is foolish and dangerous. On a happier note, the Delaware for all its ups and downs (literally) over the past 15–20 years still manages to be an outstanding fishery. For my own experience though, I think it’s been much less reliable over the past four to five years.
Although the fish seem to be getting bigger on average and the spring hatches are still great. There’s no doubt that the stingy management of the flows by NYDEP (New York Department of Environmental Protection) and NYSDEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) are compromising the fishery. The water is simply too warm in the summer and the river crowds up with anglers upriver. Summer sulfurs and other hatches are happening after dark now. The floods of recent years, due to poor flow management, adversely affected insect life; we lost a lot of caddis species and the dependable summer afternoon Isonychia hatch. Unless we get a steady reliable flow, this is the way it’s going to stay for the upper part of the river system. [Editor’s note: Check out the Friends of the Upper Delaware River for more info.]
So, who introduced you to fishing?
My old man.
Was your dad as keen on fishing as you are?
Flick Sr. fly-fished for 141 days straight without taking a day off in 1984 when he was 56 years old. That’s my age now. He went out West in a RV with an Adirondack guideboat tied to the roof. He fished rivers, creeks, and lakes for trout and salmon. I have his journal from that trip. He was a very elegant caster but never got into the entomology thing, didn’t tie flies, didn’t streamer fish or use nymphs much. He waded wet most of the season. For the both of us “keen” isn’t really a strong enough word. He was way, way into it in the old-school “upstream-dry-fly-or-die” way of fishing.
That’s not you, though, right?
No, I’m more into the modern “match-the-hatch,” “down-stream and across,” technical fly-fishing, usually carrying sink-tips, streamers, and nymphs, as well as dry flies.
Do you have a particular fish that sticks in your memory?
Many. And of course, the ones that got away that I got a glimpse of before we parted company! A huge Musky in Ontario, the size of a log, snatched a jointed Rapala on November 1, 2004, at about 9 a.m., a fish I needed to land for my first book. I got it to my feet and while fumbling for my salmon net, the lure floated out of its mouth. We both froze for a few seconds, and then it swam away. I’m sure it was in the upper size limit for the species—larger than 4 feet for sure. Later that week I managed to get a smaller one to paint.
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You caught many fish yourself to illustrate for your first book, FISH. How did the idea for that book come about?
I went to see Scott Usher at the Greenwich Workshop to ask him questions about the sporting art print market for a study I was putting together comparing the fly-fishing market to the angling market. I got his name from Ed Gray, of Gray’s Sporting Journal. The owner of the gallery that carried my work, Russell Jinishian, was a good friend of Scott’s and may have discussed a book project using my work with him previously.
I had a pleasant meeting with Scott, he wanted a copy of my study and as I was leaving, he asked me if I wanted to do a fish book. Of course I did and he told me to comp a layout, write a book proposal and come back in two weeks. So the “idea” was more of a hit the ground running type of deal. One of the selling points I made in the book proposal was that there was no coffee table “art” book on gamefish out there with a mass appeal—not just about fishing—and it turned out to be a cross-market seller.
Is there a place you’d like to go fish that you haven’t been?
Number one would have to be Kamkatcha to fly-fish for trout and salmon. After that, the Amazon River fishing for whatever and however.
Are you planning any fishing trips this year?
I’m returning to God’s Lake Lodge in Manitoba to fly-fish God’s River for giant brookies and the lake for pike.
The brook trout are huge up there. What’s the largest you’ve caught?
I couldn’t bring myself to dangle them off of a Boca Grip, but I estimate in the 6- to 7-pound class for the biggest ones, 23 to 24 inches with 17-inch girths. God’s River brookies are densely muscled and very deep-bodied. They’re whitewater and fast-water fish. They have to be because in the slower water the pike eat ’em.
Nick Karas has a section on God’s River in his excellent book Brook Trout. What are some of your favorite books about fishing?
My favorite collections of short stories (with or without a theme) are The Longest Silence by Tom McGuane, The Habit of Rivers by Ted Leeson, Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing by John Gierach, Full Creel by Nick Lyons, and Trout Madness by Robert Traver. My favorite fishing novel is The Earth is Enough by Harry Middleton.
That’s a fine list, but I don’t really know the last book by Middleton.
Harry Middleton, oh man, check out that book. Tragically he died too young and is relatively unknown. The themes running through The Earth is Enough is what I’m all about: stewardship of the land, lifestyle choices, the dubious march of “progress,” the healing power of nature, and it’s a fine coming of age story as well! ’Nuff said, just read it!
There’s something about fly-fishing that attracts writers and artists. Or perhaps fly-fishing itself inspires people to become artists and writers. I suppose it’s a chicken or egg sort of question. We all get inspiration in all kinds of ways, but what inspires you about fly-fishing in particular?
I’m inspired to paint fish, but not because of fly-fishing. For me painting fish and fly-fishing are totally separate. The only similarity is that both activities are all-absorbing and demand total concentration. I’m not in the chorus of artists and writers elevating fly-fishing to an art form. I see all fishing as a blood sport. Fly-fishing can be the most graceful expression of it, but it’s rooted in primal hunting and stalking instincts. I even have a problem with calling fishing a sport. The quarry is not an opposing team or willing player—it’s the prey.
That’s true. I call it a sport, but I know it’s actually hunting. It definitely feels like hunting when you do it and there is a difference, as you point out. I really cringe whenever people call it an “art” and even more when they call it a “hobby.” You’ve really combined your passions, art and fishing.
The creative urge, like the desire to hunt, can be just as urgent and primal a need for artists, but it comes from a different place in the psyche. I enjoy solitude in nature and concur with almost all the mental, physical and spiritual fly-fishing benefits erudite writers describe, as well as the near absence of haunting human hobgoblins—real and imagined. John Holmstrom, founder of Punk Magazine said it nice and simple (he knows me from my Lower East Side days), “Flick’s loud onstage and off, I guess the fishing is his quiet time.”
He got it right. You must be drawn to other artists who paint fish?
I’m drawn more to artists who do what I do: the plain study or “plate” style artwork more than the in-situ work. Joseph Tomelleri is simply amazing. I used to draw with colored pencils achieving a good degree of realism, but what he does with the medium is unprecedented and remarkable.
I like Ron Sutterby in the UK; he’s painted the incredible range and diversity of the European brown trout populations in a masterly fashion. Michelle LaGory’s work for Wyoming Game Fish is excellent. You can’t beat the watercolor work of Ellen Edmondson, Hugh H. Chrisp, and Lavett Smith, who from 1926–1939 painted the illustrations for Inland Fishes of New York. I’m also a fan of James Prosek.
In-situ artists whose work I admire are Stanley Meltzoff, Mike Stidham, and Mark Sussino. I also like Ogden Pleissner and Arthur Shillstone when it comes to painting fly-fishing scenes. My all-time favorite painter is Winslow Homer. Everything he did evolved toward pushing the boundaries of figurative art, including composition, rendering light, use of color. Some of his pieces reflect an oriental contemplation; some appear almost abstract. His mastery of watercolor remains unchallenged.
When did you start drawing and painting? How did you really get into it?
I started drawing at 3 years old, painting by 5 years. I was encouraged because my father was a cartoonist; I came from a creative family.
Were you trained as an artist in school?
I took formal watercolor classes in the mid-1960s from Ms. Henry at the Art Barn in Mamaroneck, New York. After that I got into advanced art classes at Mamaroneck High School and later a night school course in figure drawing at SUNY Purchase. I took a scatter-shot approach to art in Evergreen State College, studying film animation, painting and drawing, performance art, music, and even dance. There didn’t seem to be much interest in figurative art in the mid-1970s, so I dropped out and went to work in NYC doing graphic design.
That’s right, you worked on a few magazines for many years.
I started off in publishing working for the East Village Eye in 1980. I art directed a few short-lived underground publications after that and landed at the infamous High Times Magazine. I did a short stint as art director of Masters of Rock Magazine, now defunct. My publishing career off and on lasted about thirteen years.
Back to fish for a second, which fish are the toughest to paint?
With my technique, brook trout.
Because of the tiny scale pattern, coloration, or what?
Yes, both. The more that’s going on, the more work I have to put into it.
What materials do you use?
Arches watercolor paper, the best watercolor paint I can find, usually Schminke or Lukas. I’m not particular about brushes, I use some sable some synthetic.
You live in a renovated/converted church. When did you move in there?
After I finished the book FISH, I realized I didn’t want to do another book in a studio flat. I moved in with my girlfriend Lori Groh in March 2005, who had bought and started to renovate the church a year earlier. Though the renovation work is far from finished, I now have a proper studio and can even rig up a fly rod without scraping the ceiling. We also have three chocolate labs, so having a lot of space is really great.
Your younger brother, Walton Ford, is a painter, too. Did you grow up drawing and painting with him?
We did grow up drawing and painting together. We came from a nurturing and supportive family creatively. I jumped around a lot with my interests in drawing and painting from nature to movie monsters, underground and superhero comics, psychedelic art and figure drawing with competing side trips into super-8 movie making and being in a rock band. My brother Walton always seemed more focused on being an artist, a painter. He was very precocious and picked up tips from me, but his talent and focus has propelled him to great heights.
Walton, as far as I know, paints natural history subjects almost exclusively. It’s fascinating that you both are so nature-oriented. It’s what makes me such an admirer of your work and of your brother’s work, although in a different way. The nature-thing is so strong for me—it’s the “power and the beauty” factor. Similar for you?
Very much so. Using just the shape of a fish silhouette on a white background is in itself a design marvel. I get absorbed in rendering the subject. Each species demands different approaches, techniques, and solutions. The more I do, the more I see in the subject and the better I get at it. I know my kind of work is considered illustration more than fine art, but to me the constant challenges are rigorous and fully engaging. If I’m making a statement it’s simply “look at this animal.” I find them perfect and amazing.
“The creative urge, like the desire to hunt, can be just as urgent and primal a need for artists, but it comes from a different place in the psyche.”
Exactly! The focus on the one subject. Your technique is super meticulous. About how many hours does it take to do a larger fish?
There’s no hard fast rule on how long a fish painting takes, complexity of pattern and scale size more than anything can affect how long the process takes. The smaller the scale size and the more complex the pattern and number of color groups I’m working with determine the length of time. The longest I’ve spent on a painting so far has been a 42-inch lobster, a 44-pound monster on a 60-inch sheet that took a little over two months to paint, six to seven days a week. That’s because on close inspection, a live lobster has just about every color on its exoskeleton! For most game fish commissions I tell buyers to give me a few weeks.
I assume you didn’t work from life on that amazing lobster. Do you work from preserved specimens or do you strictly use photos?
Actually I made a trip to the Cape to meet the lobster boats on the last day of the season to see what the colors of huge lobsters are right out of the deep. The colors are almost psychedelic! We’re used to seeing “unhappy” lobsters in tanks, mostly blackened shades of brown, but for some time after a molt and fresh from the sea, the colors are unexpectedly vivid.
I’ve never really thought about that with lobsters and crabs, but you’re right. They have that brilliant iridescence that fish have, too. I know fish change almost right away out of the water. Impossible to preserve that.
I have never used “preserved” specimens per se. I’ve used freshly killed fish for a pretty extensive “database” of tracings, which I have converted to ink on vellum drawings. I have a good range of sizes of most individual game fish species on vellum. I do take photos of the fish right out of the water. I also rely on “photographic memory.” I have the ability to see and hold in my mind’s eye color and iridescence and details, which I incorporate into the paintings. I strive for accuracy, hence the tracings. But it is far more than just filling in the blank space. Between the tracing and the photographs there is a great deal of freehand drawing and judgments I must make to pull off the drawings.
It takes knowledge of fish anatomy and being able to give the subject volume. For the book BIG I had to do without tracings obviously. I did not catch the fifty world record fish in that book. In most cases the fish photos had no color and the fish were not fresh, sometimes mangled, so I had to imagine them as they may have appeared alive before I could paint them using measurements and weights with some artistic license. These days I can use my “database” with photos supplied to me of fish caught by buyers who want to commission me to paint their trophy or lifetime catch. I’m doing fewer tracings these days, there’s only a limited number of desirable game fish species; that is until I can get down to the Amazon.