Matt Harris is one of the most renowned fly-fishing photographers in the world. He has been working for the top firms in the industry for long years and travelling to worldwide destinations that include Argentina, Australia, the Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Iceland, India, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Scotland, and Zambia among others, where he has taken incredible pictures and also fished for various species. He has also written for the leading magazines on fly-fishing. It is our pleasure to share Matt’s amazing stories with you.
Fd: When did you start fly-fishing? Can you tell us about your memories from those times?
MH: I started fishing when I was around six years old, but I came to fly-fishing late - I was in my mid-twenties. I bought a "Beginners" outfit and was thrashing around like an idiot when a great guy called Rod Tye met me on the bank and took time out to teach me how to cast. With Rod's help, I finally managed to put the fly out a decent distance, and around three seconds later, I was playing my first trout on the fly. Rod - who was a celebrated fly-tyer and a brilliant fisherman - very tragically died of cancer a few years ago, but I'll always remember him as a very generous guy who took time out to help me and started me out on a lifelong passion. Good on you, Rod.
Fd: When did you get started with photography? And, how did you become a professional photographer?
MH: I wanted to be an illustrator, and thought I was a pretty big deal at drawing and painting in the "small pond" of my school art class in West London. However, when I went away to study illustration as part of a Graphic Design degree, I quickly realized that in the "big pond" of a degree course, I was small fry - there were kids either side of me who could draw WAY better than I could. The degree offered other specialisations like animation, film-making and typography, and I did some more thrashing around, trying them all and excelling at none of them. Then, finally, I picked up a camera, on a field trip to Amsterdam. I knew in about 5 minutes flat that that’s what I wanted to do. I LOVED it and I still do.
Fd: Photography is one of your passions along with fly-fishing. How do you handle both at the same time when you are outdoors?
MH: The trick is to know when to put down the fishing rod. If you are serious about pictures, then you have to recognize when something special might happen and simply forget the fishing. I ALWAYS have a camera with me, even when I'm intent on just fishing, but making great pictures demands that you put EVERYTHING into just making images. That can be pretty tough - especially when the big silver beasties of the Alta are around - but if you want to make really great pictures, you have to learn to recognize an opportunity and have the discipline to put the rods away.
Fd: Do you have any mentors in regard to fly-fishing photography?MH: When I first saw Val Atkinson's images, I realized how beautiful fly-fishing can be. I met Val briefly in NZ & he is a disarmingly friendly, likeable and unassuming guy, and a real inspiration. Steve McCurry is NOT a fly-fishing photographer but his portraits are stunning and have been a huge influence. Other mainstream photographic geniuses like Sebastião Salgado and Josef Koudelka also inspire me and just make me want to go and take pictures.
Fd: When you go out on a photography and fly-fishing session, do you have certain ideas of the pictures and the work you will do, or you prefer to see where the moment takes you?
MH: I do pre-visualize images and I often work out where the best spots at a given location are BEFORE I arrive, using google images, websites and so on, but light is what makes images unique and special, and it is constantly changing, so being able to respond to what the light offers is what allows a photographer the chance to make really memorable images. I assisted a brilliant advertising photographer, Nadav Kander, as part of my apprenticeship, and Nadav was ALWAYS there way before and way AFTER the light had worked its fleeting magic. If you can consistently be in the right place when magical things happen with the light, often BEFORE or AFTER everyone else is on the water, then you are half-way home. If you regularly find yourself still drinking your coffee or kicking your boots off and sucking on a cold beer after what you felt was a long day, just when that stunning shaft of light comes gleaming through the clouds, then you may want to think about another career.
Fd: What is your favorite camera system? Which are your favorite lenses?
MH: I use Canon kit, but I really despair about how many amateur photographers get so caught up on cameras rather than technique or aesthetics. You don't hear painters obsessing about paintbrushes or draughtsmen comparing pencils. Canon's cameras are great - light and impossibly good quality - I LOVE the EOS 5D mk3 because it is so small and light and does everything important that its big brothers like the 1ds Mk3 or 1dX do, but it’s still just a box with a hole in it. It is the lenses I care most about and - like all manufacturers - Canon makes good ones and bad ones. Their 70-200mm 2.8 is great and the image stabilizer is a genuine advance, allowing the ability to shoot in lower light. For portraits, the 85mm 1.2 is a killer but it’s a LOT of very heavy glass to smuggle, past all the hand-baggage weight-limit "jobsworths" at the airport.
Fd: What do you think about the new Era in photography (digital cameras, software, etc.)?
MH: Digital photography and online picture libraries in particular have made photography a much cheaper commodity, but digital cameras and software have taken image-making to a much higher level in terms of what is possible. Being able to shoot in MUCH lower light is singularly the biggest advance in my opinion, along with the fact that digital files have a much wider tonal range than transparency film. Shooting huge numbers of images really does help you become a better photographer if you are able to analyze what does and doesn't work, and obviously without film costs you can do this. Adobe Lightroom is an amazing bit of software and although I'm not a techie, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It really is life-changing.
Fd: What would you recommend to the starting photographer and to the anglers that want to have better pictures of their fishing trips and catches?
MH: A million things...Think about where the light is coming from, fill the frame with your subject, use a polarizer and lens hood etc. etc... But mainly, look at LOTS of pictures and try to understand what you like about them.
Fd: You have been travelling all over the world for years because of fishing.
A) Which are your favorite fresh and saltwater spots?
MH:Freshwater: The Yokanga River in Northern Russia. The Alta in Norway. A stunning river in NZ that I promised not to name and that gave me my first wild brown trout over ten pounds. The Dean and the Kispiox in BC. Lake Strobel, and Kau Tapen on the Rio Grande in Argentina. The upper Cisnes and the high lakes in Chile, Agua Boa in Brazil. The Brooks in Alaska. The Taimen rivers of Northern Mongolia. The Madison. The Kverka and the upper big Laxa in Iceland, The Saryu in India for Mahseer, the Zambezi for tigerfish, Lough Corrib in Ireland... and a million more.Saltwater: Jardines de la Reina, Isle of Youth, Cayo Largo and Cayo Cruz in Cuba, Cosmoledo, Astove, Providence, Farquar and Alphonse in the Seychelles, the Lower Keys in Florida, Weipa, Wigram Island and Exmouth in Australia, Casa Vieja in Guatemala, North Riding Point in the Bahamas... How long have you got? :0)
B) Could you tell us some of your best memories from your trips? Any funny story or risky situation?
MH:I have a million great memories from my trips - here's a few: Seeing my guide Bemba's ecstatic face when we caught the snook, that completed the first and, I believe, still the only Super Slam recorded at Jardines de la Reina in Cuba. Watching another great friend, Vova, my guide on the fabulous Yokanga River in Northern Russia's Arctic Circle, jabbering wildly and grinning like a Cheshire Cat when we somehow managed to land our third 30 pound Atlantic Salmon of the week - a 35lb silver stunner - after an epic chase in a tiny inflatable raft.Swimming - really swimming - after a big Bumphead Parrotfish with my guide, the irrepressible Jakko Lucas, in the Far Western Seychelles.Really choking at the heartbreak of losing a MONSTER Taimen right at the net on the last day with my buddies Matt Ramsay and Rich Hone on the Eg River in a remote corner of Northern Mongolia. The moment that my first double-figure brown trout was swallowed up by brilliant guide Craig Simpson's landing net in New Zealand.An absurd string of VAST, titanically strong and flamboyantly painted Peacock Bass, including many just either side of the magical twenty pound barrier, which I managed to rattle out using unconventional 10" GT flies with my brilliant guides at Agua Boa Lodge in Brazil.Three double-figure bonefish in one mad day with another great friend and guide, Leroy at North Riding Point in the Bahamas.Landing 27 - twenty-seven - Giant Trevally and two Yellowfin Tuna in ONE long, long day with the incomparable Keith Rose Innes at an amazing secret spot in the Seychelles ( Keith's counting, not mine ).The moment when I first peered into Lake Strobel and saw a wild rainbow trout of close to twenty pounds with Martin and Luciano at Estancia Laguna Verde.The monster and potentially world-record breaking barracuda that my old pal, the brilliant Arno Mattee, was so close to wrestling into our skiff moments before it chewed through the leader.My first Permit, also with my great mate Bemba at Jardines de la Reina in Cuba.Perhaps best of all, my eldest son Charlie pleading with me to let him have just one more cast after we'd caught a million huge rainbows on an epic day surrounded by huge coastal brown bears on the Brookes River in Alaska.
Most are lost in the translation but a few stand out... One of my favorites involves one particularly difficult character on the Rio Grande in Argentina, who - rather than accept that he wasn't catching anything because he simply couldn't cast as far as I can spit - had been complaining all week about every last thing, including the brilliant guides, who I liked enormously.
I'd finally had enough.
I decided to persuade our resident "rotten apple" that I had worked out where he was going wrong and he really needed to use a 6 meter leader like the rest of us if he was going to catch anything - a bald lie.
I watched from the truck with my guide, Nico Cerwinski, as my victim earnestly measured out the huge leader before wading into the river where Tierra del Fuego's notoriously powerful gales instantly and predictably wrapped the nylon all around him. Watching him carefully untangle himself before going into a back-cast that instantly caused the exact same thing to happen all over again had Nico and I in genuine tears of mirth and brought me as close to "death by laughing" as I want to come.
I also met up with the one and only April Vokey recently and was shooting images of her on Norway's stunning Gaula River for Per and Enrico at the Norwegian Flyfishers club. April is a great gal and a brilliant fisher, and she looked like a million dollars. However, she was kitted up from head to toe in Patagonia's new jacket and waders - all in a singularly un-photogenic grey. I had a bit of an artistic tantrum and started grumbling about the color and how dreary it was for pictures, and how it made my lovely model look like a refuse collector and so on...
After trying every creative trick in my repertoire without success, I finally blurted out:
"Grey???? Grey for chrissakkes!!! What were they THINKING OF?? Which ****ing IDIOT chose grey???" to which April replied, with a poker-straight face:
Apparently, multi-talented gal that she is, she had just designed a whole new women's range for Patagonia.
All in grey.
We looked at each other for a long moment and then both fell about laughing.
We're still friends.
C) Any special memories of the people you fished and worked with in your trips?
MH: For me, fly-fishing is very much about all the great people that I've met along the way:All the brilliant guides I've had the luck to fish with - many of whom are mentioned above. Guides are almost ALWAYS better fishers than us - the talentless devils they have to watch thrashing around - and I take my hat off to each and every one of them.The great characters, like true "force of nature" and genuine fly-fishing genius George Anderson, the one and only Andy Mill and his equally talented son Nicky, the IMPOSSIBLY enthusiastic Rich Walker at Maui Jim, the fantastically hard-working and single-handedly world-changing Orri Vigfusson of the NASF, the pioneering Duffloq family in Chile, Jimmy Allen and his great family and mob of guides at Bear Claw Lodge on the Kispiox, the brilliant and very sadly no longer with us Jack Charlton, who's Mako reels are beyond compare, the obsessive perfectionist and all-round Atlantic Salmon-guru Topher Browne, Devan, Wayne, Serge and James and all the guys and gals at Alphonse, Craig Simpson, Dean Bell, Ian Cole, and Steve Carey in NZ, my old mates Pete Morse and Alan Philiskirk in Australia ( don't mention the cricket ), Daniel, Trond, Per, Enrico, Dan, April, Charlie, Chris and all on the Gaula this year, Roar, Ronnie, Morten, Ellen, on the Riesa, my friends Jon, Sverre, Kjell and Jan Edmund on the Alta, all the brilliant guys from Sweetwater's camps on the Eg & Urr Rivers and Daniel, Fabian, Peter, Handa and all at Mongolia River Outfitters... and a million others of course.
My great saltwater mentor, the little Cuban Wizard and all-round genius Coki is someone I have a particularly special regard for - he is one of the most instinctive and brilliant guides on the planet and really does warrant the tag "genius" - despite his innate latin temperament, he very patiently taught me how to fly-fish in saltwater, and I owe him a special "thank you".
All of the guides - every one of them - on the fabulous Yokanga, especially Vassili, a wonderful, warm and special man who very sadly passed away this year.
And finally, an old friend of mine, Pat Butler, who is 83 years young and a true inspiration. Pat is a former Londoner who now lives in Western Australia and who has packed more into one lifetime than most could even begin to imagine. Even now, he is wading around the vast boulders of the formidable rivers of the Kola peninsula and across the blisteringly hot Cuban Permit flats. Pat, you really are an inspiration. Good on you.
Fd: Which is your favorite specie, and why?
MH: I love it all - from sailfish to the tiniest trout, but if I had to choose, I'd pick Atlantic Salmon - BIG ones - in Russia or Norway, for that electric moment when they come from nowhere to hit the fly, and Permit, for the sheer, heart-thumping rush I experience every time I even see one. Both fish conjure a raw, adrenaline-charged excitement that I think is just about the most fun you can have standing up... apart from having sex standing up, obviously...
Fd: Do you have spots and species in your bucket list?
MH: I am shortly heading off to Tsimane in Bolivia to fish for and photograph the astonishing Dorado that inhabit the Secure River watershed, and I have seldom been more excited about a trip.
I still long to catch a 40 pound Atlantic Salmon and a really HUGE tigerfish. I keep losing the milkfish and I've never even seen a Roosterfish or a Marlin - there's still PLENTY out there...
Fd: As a final point,a) What does fly-fishing mean for you?
MH: Fly-fishing - along with my family - is my life. I photograph kids for advertising campaigns and I love that too, but fly-fishing has taken me to some of the wildest and most spectacular places on the planet and has afforded me adventures and thrills and spills that I never dreamt of experiencing. I am very lucky to have a fantastic and gorgeous wife - Cath - and three great kids, Charlie, Tom and Pete - that put up with my travels, and I owe them a great deal.
b) What does photography combined with Fly-fishing mean for you?The images above my desk - amongst them, one from a trip to the now "off-limits" Giant Trevally wonderland of Cosmoledo in the far western Seychelles and another of the fabulous Lilyok Pool on the mighty Yokanga - all serve as a constant reminder of all the magical places I've visited. Looking at the mighty peacock bass and the vast tarpon up on the wall, I know I've been very, very lucky. I'm currently working on a book of my images and some of the stories that go with them. Photography freezes moments in time in a way that no other medium - including video - can do, and I hope that my images are able to convey some of the very special experiences that Fly-fishing can offer.
You can see more of Matt's work at: www.mattharrisflyfishing.com
Thanks a lot, Matt!