I had the opportunity to spend a few days with Jeff Currier last summer, on the river, around a dinner table, driving backroads, and sitting tailgates.
You’ll find Jeff in books, on TV, and lecturing around the world. He’s a Catch and Release IGFA World Record holder, a National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame record holder, and has well over 400 species of fish on the fly to his name, from parts of the world I can’t even pronounce.
Currier may be the epitome of a trout bum, or maybe more so a “fish bum.” He loves to catch them all. But beyond his fishing acumen, Jeff is brilliant self-taught artist. His primary medium is watercolor with pen and ink. You can commission Jeff to paint a fish for your wall, or you can purchase his popular fish (87 different fish species so far!) coffee mugs, frosted beer steins, and solar long sleeve shirts on his website.
I recently sat down with Jeff to ask him a few questions about his life, his fishing, and his artwork. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
Jeff, can you give me a little of your background? It’s a really broad question, so I’ve attempted to break it up into chunks.
Q: Where did you grow up and how did you start fishing? Can you talk about those early years and maybe hit on what parts of that influenced the work/person you are today?
A: I grew up in Topsfield, MA, but summers were spent at the family cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, NH. My dad fished and was an excellent fly fisherman. He had me holding a rod watching the red and white bobber about the same time I learned to walk. By the time I was six he took me on my first opening day on the Ipswich River in Topsfield. That was the day I became a fisherman.
That day on the Ipswich River Dad had me drifting a night crawler downstream in the current on a spin rod. He was doing something I’d never seen before—fly fishing. If I remember correctly he had a streamer with a small piece of worm. So, yeah, the truth is he was worm fishing. But Dad was working the bait like a fly and it was magic. Of all the anglers, and there were numerous anglers, Dad was the only one that caught a heap of trout. The rest of us watched in awe. That was the first time I was ever pissed off. Why the hell did he set me up to dangle a crawler and he got to fly fish?
I begged to fly fish from that day on. He knew I was a bit young so he held me off a few more outings but then he let me toss his rod up in NH that summer off the dock. The pumpkinseeds were suicidal and, of course, when a kid is catching fish nothing can go wrong. I was casting decent by the end of that summer and for Christmas that year I got a telescoping fly rod. The rod was the biggest piece of junk ever, but I put it to work the next summer and caught about every warm-water species in MA and NH from smallies to crappie.
I’ve never looked back since those early days fishing. Unfortunately, those great fishing times with dad dissipated for the next 20 years due to a little brother that came along and then a sister. Dad worked his ass off supporting the family and sadly he hardly fished. Luckily that changed once all the kids were gone. He visited me out west every year and his skills were still there.
Q: When did you begin creating artwork or what was the genesis for that creative talent?
A: The art gene was always there. Art class was my favorite from kindergarten to Grade 12 and I excelled in it. I always got elected class artist – pretty much every year. But I rarely drew fish. Some probably, but it was more animals and monsters and spaceships.
I did a lot of detention time for drawing on the desks in jr. high and high school. I loved going to school to hang with friends but most classes bored the hell out of me. In high school my guidance counselor suggested art school but Dad would have none of that. Every time the subject came up Dad would ask me if I wanted to grow up and be a “starving artist”? He made it sound terrible so I wasn’t up for it either.
Somehow I made it to college and graduated from Northland College in Ashland, WI, in four years. My degree was a naturalist (Dad never asked me if I wanted to grow up and become a “starving naturalist,” but it would have been similar). Those four years in college were the best of my life but my time for art went out the door.
It wasn’t until well into my working years that art found a niche again. I decided to write a book about Saltwater Fly Fishing. That’s another story in its own. But I illustrated the book with pen and ink line drawings. I envisioned the cover, “Written, Photographed and Illustrated by me.” To my delight, Greycliff Publishing accepted the manuscript but insisted converting all my line art to color. Hiring wasn’t an option so I spent the next four months learning to watercolor paint. I had the work completely redone in four months and they loved it. The book was out that year, “Curriers Quick and Easy Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing”. I was an author and once again, an artist.
Q: How did you end up in Victor Idaho?
A: When I wasn’t enjoying the learning part of high school, getting accepted to college looked bleak. To get me to try harder Dad made a deal. The deal was, first of all I could go to a college surrounded by great fishing. Second, if I graduated, he would support whatever I wanted to do after and that included moving west and becoming a trout bum. You already know from my earlier response I graduated in four years with a naturalist degree.
The day after graduation I drove to Jackson Hole, WY in my 76 Dodge Aspen and got a job at the Jack Dennis Fly Shop. I never looked back. I fished more than most people work and worked less than most people fish. I barely managed gas, beer, and food money. Jackson was an expensive place to live and in 1993 my wife, Granny, and I migrated across Teton Pass to Victor, ID.
Q: You’ve fished in 62 countries, caught over 435 species of fish on the fly and were recently featured on the cover of Fishing and Travel with your five most memorable catches which included golden mahseer, peacock bass, Napoleon wrasse, Atlantic salmon, and Tanzania tigerfish and yet when I asked you on our drive, you told me a 9-1/2 brown trout might have been the most significant fish of your life. Can you share that story?
A: Ha! Yeah, favorite memories always veer from one great one to another. I’m especially fortunate and grateful to have a bunch to remember. In 2003, I was competing on Team USA in the World Fly Fishing Championships in Jaca, Spain. This was an era when the American Team sucked. For years America was the “Gentleman’s Team”, basically old guys that could afford all the expenses to compete in a worlds fishing event overseas. I was the first of the new and younger generation of World Competitors for the USA. I got sponsored.
Despite being the first of the “new and younger” Team USA, I was not taken seriously by any of the competition. In fact, my older teammates agreed I’d be better, but regardless, I’d never have a chance at competing with the top Euros. Well, going into the final session in Spain I was in 4th place as an individual out of more than 160 of the world’s best anglers. The problem for me was that my final session was from shore on a lake and not one of the four previous competitors at this same beat had caught a fish. I was destined to blank in which case not catching a fish on the last session would have dropped me down to about 15th place. But miracles happen. It was a three hour session and exactly 14 minutes in, a 9.5” brown trout gulped my dry fly from the waves and in less than three seconds I hooked him and brought him to the net. That fish moved me to 3rd place and I will forever be the first American to take home a medal in the history of the World Championships of fly fishing. My older teammates, who were super great guys, shed a few tears when they played our National Anthem with me on the podium. I was smiling ear to ear. Yeah, that was an important fish, but for Fishing and Travel Magazine, the tiny brown trout would not have made sense to everyone.
Q: You shared some harrowing adventures with us over dinner one evening: hippos, crocs, tigers, snakes, spiders and poachers. Was there one moment that stands out more than others where you maybe thought “this is it for me?”
A: Yeah there’s been a few but hands down, in May of 2008 my face to face encounter with a Bengal Tiger while fly fishing for mahseer on the Ramganga River in India was the one. The time where I was 100 percent a goner in my mind. And it was terrifyingly close. I saved my own life by feeling the sixth sense. Even though my host said there hadn’t been a tiger in the area in more than 30 years, somehow I knew one was near. I could feel I was being stalked by an apex predator when my hair started to stand. Next I had trouble breathing. Then my legs stopped moving. My own legs stopped me without my control! And a good thing, if I made a few more steps forward I’d have walked under the perched to pounce tiger. When I was frozen involuntarily was when I finally saw the tiger. I tried to scream but I was so scared my vocal cords were paralyzed. I’m here so obviously the tiger turned its nose and left. The full story is a long one. It scares me just telling it but after a bunch of beers around a campfire, perhaps you can get it out of me.
Q: The photos around your house look like they were taken from the pages of National Geographic. In all of your travels what’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?
A: Oh man, that’s like asking me what’s my favorite exotic species to catch. There are so many incredible fish and there are so many incredible places. But, if you’re forcing me to pick one, I’ll go with Kendjam on the Iriri River in Brazil. Ok, let’s go with two, my other favorite is the rapids of the Mnyera River in Tanzania.These rapids are teaming with giant tigerfish. My South African friends that brought me there refer to this place as the Garden of Eden.
Q: You consider the Ranch on the Henry’s Fork your home waters. What makes it so special to you?
A: The Ranch has the most technical dry fly fishing perhaps on the planet. When you get the stars to align and attach the right fly, make the perfect cast followed by a flawless drag-free drift, the reward is almost always a huge rainbow trout. For me personally, the Ranch presents the ultimate fishing challenge. These wily fish make me better at my sport and keep me humble.
Q: I watched you hunt the fish really hard while we were out in Idaho. After catching so many fish what continues to make that hunt exciting?
A: Two things, first of all, while you see me fishing, I’m taking in everything that’s around me. On that trip it was the absolute beauty of Idaho. The birds, the animals, the flowers, the Tetons, the smells and being with friends. All those side things change with every trip and keeps it interesting along with catching fish.
Second, you may have noticed, we hit two difficult to catch fish fisheries. I had a great outing with you guys and perhaps those waters looked easy, but we hit it right. Both the Teton Flats and the Henry’s Fork Ranch are challenging. As long I’m constantly challenged I’ll never get bored. In all my trips both near and far, I purposely target the difficult fish and fishing venues. I love it!
Q: I had asked you if you could only fish for one fish the rest of your life what would you choose and you said it might be smallies. You sticking with that?
A: I am. And this year is proof even to myself. I’ve caught more smallies this year than in recent memory and I’m having the time of my life. I was fishing them just a couple weeks ago. And, I’m excited to say that earlier this summer I caught my personal largest. Slightly over 20” with an indescribable girth.The beast came from Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. It was a sight cast and I watched the bronze-back rise to my white streamer.
Q: Being on the US team you’ve had to adapt to a number of fishing situations to put fish on the board. Do you have a favorite method of fly fishing – dries, streamers, indi, etc.? Why?
A: Hands down its dry fly. There’s nothing better than convincing a fish to come to the surface and eat your concoction of a fly. That’s often difficult in itself which I love. Then, just to witness a fish taking food from the top. It’s a sight to behold. One I’ll never get sick of regardless of the size of the fish or species.
Q: I’m pretty sure I know the answer after our last outing but do you have a “go-to” fly in your box?
A: Ha! I’m certain it was Lawsons Mahogany Dun Thorax size 16 that you saw me vacuum my local waters with. That fly is ridiculous although you still need a good drift!
Q: I’m a firm believer in lucky hats and/or very specific routines, do you have any fishing superstitions, routines or lucky talismans?
A: When I was younger and less experienced I had quite a few superstitions. But these days not so much. However, yes, I will change hats if I had several bad days. And for ice fishing, when I’m headed to the lake in the dark, if a fox or coyote crosses the road, I turn the car around and head home.
Q: Do you find any similarities between the “art” of fishing and the art of drawing/painting? Is there a common thread between the two that attracts you?
A: They can both be done almost anywhere at any time and there’s a wide variety of mediums I can use. “Mediums” makes good sense with the art, but in fishing I’d compare mediums to “choice of water body, species and flies.” For instance, I do most my art at the kitchen table but often times I’ll pull out a sharpie on a river when I spot a friend sporting a boring looking fly box or backpack. And sometimes, despite the pike eating dark colored streamers, I’ll go with a bright colored one just for the fun of seeing it. And even though the Green River may be fishing best, I’ll go to the Snake. Because I can.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration for your designs?
A: Fish have always lured my curiosity. There are so many different species that come in unique shapes and sizes. Literally, in a single river, lake or pond. For me, all kinds of fish are interesting. A Utah sucker may not be as pretty as a rainbow trout but a rainbow trout’s mouth is boring to that of a sucker. I know that seems weird for most people, but next time you bump into a bycatch sucker, carp, chub or etc., give that creature that “extra look” like you would for a big brown trout. Hopefully you’ll see what I mean. I have been so captured by the hundreds upon hundreds of different species that they inspired me to paint them. I’m way behind however, so far I’ve recreated only 87 of them!
Q: How would YOU describe your art? Do you have any favorite pieces?
A: Accurate yet not scientifically scale to scale or spot to spot. Colorful but never overdone. All finished pieces are easy on the eyes and different from all other artists. My favorite fish to paint is the Snake River Cutthroat.
Q. Favorite artists. I’m always curious to know who inspires those that inspire me. So, who are some of your favorite artists (painters, musicians, writers, etc.) and why? Who inspires you?
A: Mike Stidham was and is in my opinion the best fish artist of all time. He was tops in the fly fishing world back in the 80’s and 90’s. I had the luck and pleasure of meeting him many times because he fished a lot and often came to the fly shop I worked at in Jackson Hole, WY. He knew I dabbled in art and we talked art often. He always answered my questions and gave me advice. To my delight, we ended up doing a couple book projects together—Jack Dennis Tying with Friends and Jack Dennis Fly Tying Volume II. I wouldn’t say Mike took me under his wing, but he cared about me becoming a better fish artist. I have a Stidham watercolor of a largemouth bass chasing bait in my office. It’s my favorite.
I also admire the fish art of Joseph Tomelleri. His fish are done scale for scale and 100 percent scientifically accurate. They are incredible. I met Joseph once at a show and he was really nice to me.
And of course, Dave Whitlock. Dave’s a friend and one of the coolest dudes in fly fishing. He and I have done art together at shows but the best time was at a Simms Ice Out event many years back. Dave rocks!
I hardly have time to read but here’s a writer you probably haven’t heard of—Philip Wylie. The descriptions in his book, Crunch and Des, paint a picture in my mind like no other. His book inspired me to be more descriptive in my own writing. There’s also my good friend Paul Bruun who has written the sports column for the Jackson Hole News for more than 40 years. Paul’s writing is superb, unique, descriptive, engaging and subtly humorous.
As for music I’m all over the place. When I need a boost I crank up Back In Black so loud the neighbors complain. I love some old 60’s music. Today I had Richie Havens busting out a few songs. Now I have on the Guy Clark channel on Pandora. Its good while I’m working. Later on, I’ll probably play the one song I know how to play on my guitar, Blackbird.
Q: You obviously have a long list of achievements; what would you consider your greatest accomplishment?
A: While I’m really proud about winning medals in fly fishing on the world stage, unquestionably, when I look at all the fish species I’ve taken on fly—that’s what I’m most blown away by. The focus I had at a very early age, the time I’ve put in, travel, research, work, blood sweat and tears and etc. —435 fish species on the fly is my greatest accomplishment. It’s taken a lifetime to get this far and the list is not done yet!
Q: I admire your outlook on life. Do you have a specific “life philosophy” or have any “life advice?”
A: Your time is your time and you don’t have as much time as you think you have. Absolutely don’t spend your whole life working. The old saying, “You can’t take it with you” is the most ignored saying there is. And it shouldn’t be.
Travel as much as you can and do as much of it as you can while you’re young.Travel teaches you more about life and the world than any teacher can offer. Traveling while you are young allows you more time to enjoy your gained knowledge and while being young your body can physically get more out of every trip you go on.
Last, never overdo it in trying to impress others. If you devote 100 percent to everything you do, you will be happy with yourself. That’s number one. And chances are, others will be impressed anyhow.
Q: Let’s talk about the car. Can you give my readers the short version of the Dodge Aspen? I realize this could be a whole article unto itself.
A: Yeah, it is a book in its own but I’ll try to be brief.
In my teens I trashed everything I touched, much like every teenager does. My Nana, whom I was very close with, passed away and the family didn’t know what to do with her car, a white and rusty 1976 Doge Aspen. Nana couldn’t make it to the shopping mall without this car breaking down.
Like any 17 year old, I was nagging my folks for a car. Dad thought it would be a good lesson for me to own this particular car because I’d get to experience adult hardships head on. Perhaps he thought, I would shape up a bit. Well, I honestly think Nana became the car and watched over me like an angel for the next 25 years. I drove it till I was 43 and put 550,000 miles on her. Hard miles might I add! I had virtually no problems and therefore no car repair bills nor car payments. That saves you a ton of cash as we all know. I used that extra money wisely on fishing travel and it paid off!
Q: The Cubs face the Red Sox in the World Series—who are you rooting for?
A: And the questions keep getting tougher. I’m a baseball fan at heart and have a liking for young underdog teams. Chances are, that will be the Cubs.
Q: What’s next? What’s still on the list in terms of places or fish or adventures?
A: Unless something comes up quick, and they often do, my next trip is back down to my beloved Baja with one of my best friends. We go every year at least once. The goal for me is to catch my first striped marlin on fly.
A trip on my list that I’m aching for is to the Central African Republic. I want to catch a goliath tigerfish and I look forward to the entire difficult and challenging experience that will come with. I really hope it comes to fruition in the next few years. I’ve been on many of these incredible expeditions and the more physically able you are the more you get out of it. I’m staying healthy but my body feels the changes nature keeps providing.
Q: You can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and your website, which features your blog, artwork, and a shop where folks can purchase mugs, shirts and hoodies with your designs. Is this the best place to inquire about commissioning your work also? How else can folks connect with you?
A: Through the “contact Jeff” button on my website is best. Email is the first thing I always check and that contact button sends me an email. All the other ways of messaging such as FB and IG get to me also, but it can be a few days before I check them.
Q: You recently moved. Can you tell me about that?
A: Yep, my wife, Granny, and I packed it up and left Idaho. It was a splendid 34 years but we’ve turned every rock. When we need some Idaho it will be easy to visit as we have so many friends there and always will.
Our new home and life started in Hayward Wisconsin May 9, although I’ve been traveling a ton so I haven’t been there much. I’ll settle down soon and let’s just say, the fish here are in trouble!
Interview originally published on AllenOutside.com. All Rights Reserved.