On August 14, 2008, I wrote about the varied images of flyfishing’s current persona and the frustrations and uneasiness it causes some, as well as the excitement and growth it suggests to others. Near the conclusion of the piece I suggested someone well versed and traveled in the industry and scene write about its’ varied images…I suggested Brian O’Keefe. I emailed him the link. I got a response back that is so full of energy and complexity that I have to share it. It positively exudes all the energy, hard work, risk and love for life that I found positively intriguing to read. I haveto share it because it has much wisdom that I found reassuring and thought provoking. The link is to the original post should you want to read it first. Either way, enjoy the positive energy and depth of this man.
Thanks for the invitation to add my two cents to the article. I may not have time to do it justice right now, as I am just about to launch a fly fishing/photographer’s web magazine and it requires a ton of work for the next two weeks. The subject in the blog is near and dear to my heart. Even though I am 53 (YIKES!!!), I still have the attitude of a 25 year old Deschutes River guide. I enjoy the discussion of which you speak.
When my Grandfather was a dry fly purist in Montana, the stereotype for fly anglers was very easy to describe, everyone was 60 plus and had a creel. Today, the mix is much more interesting. I get around quite a bit and the younger anglers, female anglers and others have given fly fishing a new, fresh face. Someday I would like to organize my random thoughts and do a small book, or series of stories, called From Guide to Guided. Not that being guided is the paramount, trophy accomplishment, but there are ways to take an activity like fly fishing, and through a stepping stone process, turn it into a living, or at least be able to stay in tune with the pulse of the sport, the biz, etc. I was lucky, I guess, because I had an art teacher mother that was raised in Missoula witha fly rod in one hand and a paint brush in the other. I grew up near Seattle, where she taught at the U of W. I went to dozens of art shows, galleries, etc. I started taking photos at an early age and did things like take high school yearbook shots, black and white fish shots for Fishing and Hunting News, etc. After high school, I went to New Zealand in 1973 for 11 months, then Kashmir for browns before taking a stab at Oregon State and Central Oregon CC. While at school, I worked at a sporting goods store and ran the fly fishing dept. I worked with reps and in particular, really respected our Cortland rep, a true professional. From there, I started guiding trout and steelhead, working on my own BLM permit and teaming up with Steamboat Inn, on the North Umpqua and the Fly Shop in Redding, CA where I did steelhead trips on the Klamath.
I was blazing film and getting the occasional cover. I was always poor, had leaking waders, but lived a great life. I skied a lot back then, perfect for the guide seasonality. Then I headed to Alaska in 1978 to work at a fly out lodge. Several seasons up north put me at my 30thbirthday. I had guided Dennis Black of Umpqua Feather Merchants and when I decided to move on from guiding. I called Dennis and he gave me the NW and Alaska rep job for Umpqua, then Orvis, Buck’s Bags and many more. I worked that gig for all it was worth. I hit the big years of the middle 90’s with a list of great companies as fly shops were opening in every town possible. I took the money I made and bought cheap, sage brush land on the way to a ski area. Years later, as Bend grew, ka-ching. I quit the rep job in Sept of 2007 and have been doing project work for Cabela’s, the International Sportsman’s Expos and doing club talks, etc. And, I’m fishing my brains out. I’m headed back to 1978 poor, but I’ve still got a little real estate stash and am starting this new web magazine that should pay the bills. So, the reason for this autobiography was to look at several key points:
- early photo interest – developed into photo assignments from Chile to Cuba, etc. and working with all the fly mags, many factory catalogs, web sites, etc.
- worked in fly fishing retail – watched and learned from a seasoned rep
- guided – met my future boss and got a foot into the door of fly tackle wholesale distribution
- then stayed in the fly scene for over 25 years at every level : fly shop visits, fly tackle development, fly fishing media, fly club presentations, sport show exhibitor and presenter, fly casting instructor and dabbled in fun casting competitions, DVD production, fly fishing TV and on and on.
None of this was planned, it just happened. It did not hurt getting all that varied experience and not being a dishonest or bullying rep. I stayed loose, mobile and had fun.
Now, to the other side of the sport, once an angler gets some sort of notoriety. I am still embarrassed at club introductions. Some guys will go on and on when I would really like to be introduced as just a fishing bum with a camera. I have just as much respect for a local guy in Washington who has six lakes wired, who has several steelhead streams dialed in and can tie great flies and cast well. He may not get an invite to float a river in Argentina for free (nothing is free, more on that later) but he might be an excellent father, husband, dedicated nine to five worker, etc. That describes a lot of my local fishing buddies. They fish with my old rep samples and when I drop a dozen salmonfly patterns off in May I know there is a game of cribbage and a pitcher of Black Butte Porter about to happen. Just good guys, the backbone of the sport. Last night at a Bend pub, the woman bartending told me that she likes to fly fish and lived with two female roommates who also fly fished. Is that cool or what? So, thanks to my long and winding road down the fly fishing highway, I do get a fair amount of invitations and offers to some pretty incredible destinations. Here is the typical scenario:
- Call or e-mail from a lodge owner or guide, “Come on down.”
- Rarely is airfare part of the deal, so a $300 to $1,200 ticket is paid for, by me.
- Sometimes a hotel is needed, taxis, shuttles, etc…ching-ching…
- I’m there to shoot photos, so it’s up early, shoot the lodge, the food, the boats, the fishing, underwater shots, wildlife, etc (in the film days this was a $300 purchase).
- Tip the staff, buy a hat, fly home.
- Now, once home it is time download 6 memory cards (on my old overloaded computer that takes all day) and select the keepers. Then make a 300 dpi and 72 dpi version of each shot, name them and burn discs. Mail them, all the while bouncing between mowing the lawn, answering 100’s of e-mails, paying bills, playing with the dogs and “home stuff”. It almost takes a full day of digital computer time for every day shooting. So, a six day trip to Alaska will require at least four days of office work and that many days to “catch up”.
Several times a year someone will tell a group of people, “This is Brian O’Keefe, he gets paid to fish.” Not true. And, I would much rather someone say, “This is Brian O’Keefe, he is a damn good carpenter, or a great gardener, or something about my goats or turkeys or the 100 pound pumpkins I grow for friends kids”.
Being an accomplished angler is all good, but there is nothing significant about that accolade if that individual hasn’t or doesn’t contribute to a family, a community or country in other positive ways. I know quite a few people whose entire life is about fly fishing. I hate to say it in public, but they are kind of boring. If I talk about fishing, it’s about goofy road trips, boat ramp disasters, a bear in camp, forgetting wading boots, that sort of thing. At a function, if someone starts rattling off fish numbers, I will look for someone else to hang out with. Give me a person who builds fence, farms, drives truck, is a teacher or coach, etc, anything but fish numbers. Or, “My uncle has a bamboo rod he got at a garage sale and…” NOOOOO!!! I usually end up with people with scars, beater trucks, cool dogs, a minor drinking problem or all of the above.
OK, ok, enough already. Wow, I really went wild. I really have to get back to work. Does this make any sense? From my point of view, I’m still a fish bum, I’m occasionally a little irresponsible, but I try to do good work, be good to the Earth and not be real serious. This journey has, and is, a great ride and I know several others who have taken this path or ended up on it accidentally, like I did. Take the Beck’s. They work harder than anyone I know. We just see their photos, but they are hosting trips (hard work-little fishing), working the sport and fly fishing show circuit and are in and out of airports weekly. It might look like fun, but it can be grueling. Gary Borger, Jack Dennis, Lefty, Whitlock, the list goes on, they are hard workers and have given as much to the sport, if not more, than they have taken out. Do you have any idea how many times they have heard, “My uncle got a bamboo fly rod at a garage sale…” NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!
This was fun, thanks.
Of course, by now you can see how much hard work has gone into that luck.