Flylords got the chance to sit down with Charleston-based painter, illustrator, and business owner Paul Puckett. He shared the story of how he found his way into the fly fishing industry and how he began his career, as well as gave advice to artists hoping to break into the fly fishing space. Check out his comments and artwork below!
Could you tell us how you made your way into the fly fishing industry and fly fishing art?
Just like for any kid growing up, at my elementary school and middle school there were always art classes. Once you get to high school, you either stick with art or you don’t. I stuck with it—I just saw it as something I like doing.
Whenever I’d get with my cousins as a kid we’d always draw cartoons. We were all into comics, so we were always trying to recreate comic books. And then when I started getting into fishing, [I started incorporating it into my art]—that was in high school.
There was also an art gallery in Highland Park Village a long time ago, which then moved to Preston Center, and I don’t think it’s around anymore, called Collectors Covey*. I’d go in there and look at paintings by Eldridge Hardie, John (Jack) Cowan, and Mark Susinno. I saw this world in which I could turn what I loved doing, which was fishing at the time, into my artwork. There was a lady in there who started noticing me coming in there all the time—this thirteen- or fourteen-year-old kid. In high school, I started doing these little trout paintings and she let me sell a couple there at the gallery. I found out later my friends’ parents had bought [the paintings]. I thought total strangers bought my art, but it turned out it was a couple of cheerleaders of mine, which was still really cool.
Back in ‘95, after high school, I found out that an ex-Highland Park guy was starting Westbank Anglers in Dallas**, which was connected to the one in Jackson Hole. I got in touch with him to see about showing my artwork in the fly shop. They needed some emergency help to open the store, so I came in, worked for about two weeks to get the store open, and then they offered me a job. So that was my walk-in to the world of the fly fishing industry.
I went to University of North Texas for college and worked summers, Christmases, spring breaks, and random weekends at Westbank. When I was about to finally finish school, I wanted to try to move out to the Wyoming store and maybe be a guide and work in the shop. During the Wyoming days I didn’t really paint much, which is amazing because it’s one of the most amazing places to be an artist. But I goofed off and fished for four years here and there, and then moved to Atlanta.
In Atlanta I got a job in the radio industry and was stuck in a cubicle. I realized really quickly that I thought it was stupid, and that I wasn’t pursuing this thing I had—this ability to draw, paint, and do what I love: fishing.
I quit that job and knew I was going to give [fly fishing art] ten years. That was back in ‘05 or ‘06, so that ten years has passed, and I’m still doing it!
*Collectors Covey has closed its store, but maintains its website and continues to sell its remaining inventory. For more information, click on “Collectors Covey” above.
**West Bank Anglers is no longer in business in Dallas.
What inspired you to start creating your “catch and release” paintings?
That derived from working at Westbank. That was about when “catch and release” started being this continuous term you would hear working in the fly shop. It had been around a lot longer before that, but you’d have guys come in and be like, “Man, I caught this amazing trout.” [Someone else would say,] “Oh, did you stuff it or get it mounted?” [The guy would respond] “No, man, catch and release.” I was like, “Well, what if [clients] gave me photo[s] and I painted fish the exact same size, color, and shape as the ones they caught? Then [they’d] never have to worry about not keeping a trophy anymore.”
There was a guy in Montana that I’d seen on a fly fishing show that was doing some of that [type of work], so I didn’t totally come up with that concept by any means, but I started doing [catch and release paintings] for customers at the Westbank in the mid- to late-’90s. They’re all watercolor on watercolor paper.
I did a couple that I remember specifically. One was for Bill Wiggins. He passed away six or seven years ago, but his family, I think, is still out there. He was so proud of this Atlantic salmon he caught. I want to say it was probably 35 inches. I was in college at the time and I’d never done one that big. I was so worried about screwing it up that it took me eight months to do. I was just sitting with it, procrastinating, because I was worried about failing. I finally did it and I was so proud of it. I saw pictures of it a couple of years ago and was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I thought that was so amazing.”
And then there was another one in 2006 for a father who took his son out to Alaska, and they caught this huge 50 pound king salmon. I think it was 50 inches as well. And just recently, [the son] got in touch with me and I did a permit painting for him. He’s going to hang it next to his salmon [I did for him] 14 years ago.
Tell us about your pop-culture-inspired, pen-and-ink drawings—how did you come up with those ideas?
I was in Atlanta, sitting in a Starbucks. I don’t even like coffee, but I love going to coffee places because it gives me ideas sitting there. I’m a big people watcher, and I’ll just be staring at someone—right through their soul—and I don’t even realize I’m staring at them, but I’m thinking. Just looking at people, watching people, all these ideas happen. [So I was in this Starbucks] just envisioning Scarface holding that machine gun from the movie and thought how funny it would be if he had that same look on his face, but holding a big brown trout.
[That was the first one, and] I think the Pulp Fiction one might have been the second one, where instead of holding guns, they’re each holding a rainbow trout. And then it just kept steamrolling. I started doing those back in ‘08 maybe, and then I started getting a lot of attention. Those are definitely what put me on the map, as far as [being] a fishing artist, but what’s funny is that those were a side project. The watercolors and the paintings were really the main thing that I wanted to have people see my artwork for, but it’s funny how [my career] started with those silly drawings of Pulp Fiction and Big Lebowski, and all that kind of stuff.
I think now people know me more for doing actual fish art than someone in Big Lebowski holding a brown trout, which is fun. A lot of people do that kind of stuff now, so that’s given me a reason to move on from it to some degree. Every now and then, when an idea pops in my head, I still play around with it. I just don’t wake up and try to figure out what new character I’m going to do like I did 10 years ago.
What’s got your artistic interest piqued right now?
I’m inspired right now by the ‘60s and ‘70s saltwater guys with the blue-jean shorts and t-shirts. I feel like we’ve gotten so technical with everything [in fishing] and how you have to look—it’s almost like a fashion show. Those guys back in the day, they’d just wear their tucked in t-shirt, an inch- and-a-half-wide leather belt with a cool buckle, and blue jean shorts—all stringy and nasty—and just nasty old tennis shoes. That was it. That’s what they wore going out to catch 125 pound tarpon, and it wasn’t glamorous. They weren’t looking for anyone to see them do it, they just wanted to go do it.
Andy Mill and his son are doing the Mill’s House podcast, and they’re posting really cool vintage pictures. There’s this one of these guys in a jon boat, and the guy had an old wedding cake reel and a gaff, which is so 1973. [After seeing the picture, I thought,] “Man, what if I painted that, and they’re fighting this tarpon that’s out of frame?”
No one’s doing that [kind of work] in salt water [paintings]. There’s a few artists like Brett Smith that do it in trout-type settings where it’s an old 1920s style angler with his overalls and old straw hat. I just figured I would take that idea and move it over to the salt water paintings. So I’m going to start doing more time capsule paintings like that.
What do you hope people experience when they view your work?
If it’s an illustration there’s usually some humor in it. It could be the obvious thing, like Elvis Presley holding a fly rod, but there’s usually something else to it, whether it’s from the slogan or the message that I say. With a landscape—a fishing scene or something like that—it’s more about hopefully you feel and want to be in that moment. I’m not really trying to say anything more than, “Welcome to this situation that, hopefully, you’ve been in before and you’ll be in again. Enjoy it while you’re looking at it.” [I try to invite people in] and say “Welcome to my moment.”
What advice would you give to artists trying to break into the fly fishing industry?
You have to know it’s going to take time. You can’t rush into it, you have to experience all these things in order to make your art better. You have to hope that every painting or drawing is better than the last one. And if it’s not, you need to seriously look at that and practice, practice, practice. When I decided in 2006 that I was going to give it 10 years, I would say [things started taking off for me] at about year five. And that’s just how it goes.
Work in a company in the fly fishing industry because you go to industry shows. You need all the people [at the shows]—they are the ones that help you by word of mouth. They’re going to be the ones that think of you and say, “Oh, I got a guy that can probably do that drawing for a catalog.” And next thing you know, your phone rings. Get totally consumed with the industry, figure out a way to meet these people, and just connect with people. I haven’t done this on my own, I’ve had plenty of people who have helped me along the way. And get to know some of your favorite artists. It’s amazing how they’re just an email or phone call away.
The awesome thing about being in this industry and this type of art is that it’s so acute. You know that fly fishing and fishing people are going to like it. I can’t imagine being a contemporary artist where you don’t really know your market. But in this industry, you know who it is. It’s someone who likes the outdoors, and you can pinpoint for advertising—it makes it a lot easier.
What is your favorite fish to paint?
Probably a Tarpon—they just have so many interesting lines in their face and body. It’s almost like they’re a knight wearing armor. They just have so many things going on that make them interesting to draw: cool plates on their gills, on their faces, and on their jaws. And they can leap 10 feet into the air.
How did you get hooked on saltwater fishing, and what’s your favorite fish to catch?
My life was all trout, trout, trout until 2004 when I moved to Atlanta. When I moved to Atlanta, I wanted to start going to the coast more. The first time I did, I got down there and saw this tailing redfish, and I was just totally mesmerized by it. Atlanta has great trout fishing—just an hour and a half north of Atlanta, you could be trout fishing in the mountains, so I never really thought I was going to become a saltwater junkie. But I found myself driving three and half hours through the Georgia coast, living around the next tide and when the next possibility of tailing redfish would be. I just got totally addicted to it. And then the bonefish came, then the tarpon came, then the permit came.
Saltwater fishing is just more of a challenge. I’m pretty sure if I went trout fishing tomorrow, I would probably catch fish—I’m not saying I’ve mastered it by any means, but I have that much confidence in my trout fishing. I cannot ever say that about saltwater fishing, and the unpredictability of it is what I love. You’ve got the weather and the tides. Nothing goes right typically, but when you get that day where everything goes right, it’s amazing. That’s what the allure of it is.
My favorite fish to catch is probably a permit. I look forward to April every year because I go to Mexico for permit fishing. When I went last year I only had two shots [to catch one] the whole week, and I didn’t catch one. The worst part about it is that you hardly ever catch them. And that’s probably why they’re my favorite to catch—honestly, it’s the mystery of it.
Is there anything else you’d like our audience to think about?
I think people forget about how important artists are in this industry. They’re everywhere—on packaging, emails, newsletters, products, shirts, hats. Let’s remember all the artists out there in the industry, not just me. All these other guys that are living, drawing and painting, and giving this sport that we love life when we’re not actually on the water. Everybody should check out artist Chance Yarbrough. He’s a good buddy of mine down in Victoria, Texas.
And, everyone should check out Captains for Clean Water, which is a grassroots nonprofit that advocates for clean water and healthy estuaries in Florida.
Check out Paul’s apparel collection at the website for his company, Flood Tide Co.