Faces of Fly Fishing: Derek DeYoung

Derek DeYoung was born on a bayou near the shores of Lake Michigan where his love of fishing was ignited. Over the years his art has veered from the classical fishing art, placing more importance on using a unique style and palette. Using oil paints on canvas, he artfully captures all the subtle intricacies fish possess; their patterns, dimension, and texture. We have been admiring Derek’s artwork for several years now, and are excited to add him to our list of “Faces of Fly Fishing”.

1. When did you first pick up a fly rod? Do you remember the first fish you ever caught on the fly, and do you think that moment changed your life?

I can definitely remember the first time I picked up a fly rod. I had the good fortune to be raised on a small Bayou in West Michigan, and in the Springtime the Bluegills and Sunfish would make their colonies of spawning beds in the shallows in front of our house. My brothers and I would flip over logs and rocks, hunting for worms to use as our bait. But my old man had a completely different approach. He stood on the end of the dock, clumsily casting a 6 weight Shakespeare Fly Rod outfitted with an automatic reel, spooled up with whatever fly line he must have found in a clearance sale at the local grocery store sporting goods department…I think it was probably 4 weight line.  His favorite fly was a little black spider. I can remember sitting in the tall grass behind him, where only occasionally he would miss time his backcast and cause a bullwhip CRACK just above my head. After a number of to and fros with the line, he would abruptly stop the fiberglass rod, sending the line shooting forward out over the water, unfurling just right as to lay the foam spider down in a small opening in the lily pads. Then he would wait….wait… wait, and… giving the spider just the slightest twitch…BANG! The gills couldn’t seem to resist it. I knew then, even though I was only six years old, that I would prefer to fish like that! I’m sure my first fish caught on fly had to be a Panfish, and I caught it right there in front of our house. There wasn’t a lot of “to do” about it. No photo taken, or pat on the back… just tug it in, unhook it, careful not to damage the foam spider fly (we only had a couple of those), and then toss it in the old washing machine drum dad used as a live well, left in the shallows next to the rickety old dock. Then…repeat until we had enough for a meal. Fishing, in general, changed my life. It was what I dreamt about, it was often the first thing I did when I woke up. Fishing was the most fun thing my Dad and his three sons did together, and being the youngest of the three, I took great pride in trying to catch as many fish as my older brothers.

2. When did your passion for art and passion for fly fishing collide? 

Since I could hold a fishing rod and a pencil, art and fishing have been a big part of my life. But it wasn’t until the ripe old age of 10 that I made the decision to be a fish artist. It was as a 4th-grade student at Peach Plains Elementary where my art teacher, Ms. McElfish (seriously, that was her name) announced to the class that there would be a statewide Wildlife Art Competition, and if you wanted to enter, the artwork was due at the end of the month. After class, I took one of the fluorescent orange memos with the info about the Competition from her desk and my eyes found their way to the “1st PRIZE…. $200”. I can remember being so excited that I could barely contain it! I couldn’t wait to get home and look through the Cabela’s Catalog and pick out $200 worth of fishing lures and gear. I sincerely had no doubt that the prize money was as good as mine. After days of indecision on what my subject should be, I finally settled on drawing my dad’s trophy walleye. I sat in the basement every evening for a week, set up in front of the mounted fish, drawing away, sure that it would WOW the judges! I remember that mid-December day of the Art Exhibition. After a two hour drive through the snow and slush, we arrived in Lansing, our state capital. My older cousin Jennifer attended Michigan State University and came out to watch little Derek win his award. Because so many kids entered the competition, the exhibit was vast. We split up, searching for the blue ribbon that would signal where my drawing was located. Then I noticed my Mom come around the corner with a long look on her face. She put her hand on my shoulder, and broke the bad news, I did not win. Nor did I get second, third, or even an honorable mention. I was staggered like a boxer, wobbling on my feet. I know now that it wasn’t just me who was staggered… my family believed in me, and truly thought I would win. It was a silent and miserable ride home that afternoon. But it was losing that Wildlife Art Competition that got my parents talking about enrolling me in evening art classes with a local painter. It was in those classes that I learned the fundamentals of drawing and painting. It was there that I began to understand that it took more than talent to be a great artist. It took dedication and hard work.

3. Describe some of the similarities you find between fly fishing and art. Do you think fly fishing is an art? 

There are definitely lots of similarities between fly fishing and art. But my appreciation for both activities comes down to history. Today it seems there’s a better, quicker, more effective way to do nearly everything. But by adopting these new more technologically advanced methods, are we not losing something very worthwhile and life-enriching?

Why spend hours developing a sketch, and weeks working on a painting based on that sketch? Don’t they have apps on your phone that can instantly turn a photo into a painting?

Why spend an afternoon searching under rocks and logs for nymphs? Then study them… spending countless hours at the fly vise tying flies to represent them? Aren’t there lures with holographic paint jobs that vibrate and flash and catch way more and bigger fish?

Why take years to understand the characteristics of each hue of oil paint? You only need a little Crimson, it is such a strong color. You’ll need more of the Sevres Blue because it’s not quite as intense. Use a palette knife to thoroughly mix them together. The sound of the knife working back and forth bringing the oil paint to a buttery texture, and revealing the lovely scent of linseed oil. Can’t you avoid the bother and mess by digitally painting on a computer? And how much faster would it be never having to wait for paint to dry, or worrying about what order in which the colors are applied to the canvas. Or for that matter taking all that time and effort to stretch and prepare a canvas…

Technology is evolving by the minute, but I don’t think humans are any better at art or fly fishing then we ever were. Today our lives have so little in common with our ancestors. But art and fly fishing, are more or less the same. Yes, the equipment has evolved, but the ideas are the same. In our fast-paced lives, it is amazing how cathartic slowing down and putting 100% of your focus on an activity that is something humans have done for hundreds, and with art,  thousands of years.

Are fly fishing and art one and the same? I think sometimes they are. When done right, they are. If you approach to fly fishing as an art, it certainly contains all the visual beauty needed to be considered an art. But, if you classify chuck and ducking as fly fishing, then no, I really don’t think that is an art.

4. Do you have a favorite drawing or a single piece of art you have completed? 

My favorite painting I’ve ever done?? Always my latest painting, well I guess that’ not always true, but I hope for that. If that is the case, it tells of an artist who is getting better painting by painting. That their artwork is evolving rather than becoming stagnant. I couldn’t stand it if my art looked the same year after year. I learn something new from each painting, and then my next painting tends to be a reaction to what I learned, so as time goes on, there is a strong evolution of my paintings.

Along the way, there have been a few paintings that stick out as my favorites. Early on, I painted “Abstract Brown Trout – Rubberlegs”. It is from my “Abstract Fish Face” series of paintings, and just had that right balance of being painterly but also quite representational. Later, I painted a Steelhead laying in the shallows with an Owl on his back. This appealed to the Illustrator in me. I can’t look at it without be transported in my mind to the mysterious nighttime riverscape that is featured in the painting. And very recently I painted “Cubist Cutthroat”. It was my third attempt at this Cubist series, and it is everything I hoped this series could be. Some paintings seem to represent a short story, but this one is definitely a poem.

5. Where do you live? Do you think your local fishery inspires some of your work?

When it comes to where I live, I have followed the lead of our nations blue hairs (old folks), living in northern Michigan during the spring summer and fall, and heading down to the Florida Keys during the winter. There is no doubt that my work is inspired by the fish that I chase in my home waters. My favorite fish tonight as I sit in my salty old Hewes Redfisher watching for rollers.. is undoubtedly Tarpon! They seem to occupy every inch of my mind from the moment I see the Caribbean Blue highway divider as I enter the Florida Keys south of Homestead until four months later when the truck and boat are packed to the gills, and we begin our journey back north in the Spring. I think I love Tarpon because they are so visual, sometimes following the fly to within yards of the boat, and once hooked… they JUMP! They are a stunningly handsome fish! They are referred to as a 200 lbs. minnow and I guess it takes their large size to properly show off their subtle pearlescent colors, scale patterns and the machine-like structure of their head.

When we get back to the north woods with the smell of pine in the air, and the sound of Lake Michigan waves lapping on the shore, my mind turns to Lake Trout. Out West I had a few encounters with the endangered Bull Trout and these Lake Trout remind me of them, but there’s plenty of them, so they aren’t quite so hard to find. By June, as the water temps warm up, Smallmouth Bass, Carp, and Cisco move into the shallows. At that point, I abandon my deep water spots in favor of fishing shallow shoals near my home. Throughout the year, as the fishing opportunities change, I find myself inspired to draw and paint those different things I’m seeing out on the water. With that said, I tend to sell a lot more Brown Trout then Carp, so I concentrate the majority of my time on fish that are popular amongst fly fisherman.

6. Derek DeYoung, has become quite an iconic name in the fly fishing art community, how long have you been pursuing this passion? Do you have any advice for a young aspiring artist? 

When I was a kid, I’d never thought my name would mean anything in the world of fly fishing art, I assumed that I would be a world-famous artist on par with Picasso, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt. So I guess I still have a lot of ground to cover! Seriously though, good Art takes dedication. For those of you who are seeking a life and career in the arts, it’s not always fun, some days its work. To be the best artist you can be, you’ve got to practice. Only if you are truly dedicated to your art will you be able to create anything worthwhile. Just like the old saying goes,“it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”, The life of an artist can’t be summed up by a single piece of art. It’s about the process, the research, the sketching. For me, its all the days spent on the water, taking reference photos, taking mental notes on the subtle colors of a fish. Committing myself to art in this way, I have found more happiness in it than I ever thought possible.

7. Tell us a story about one of your favorite days on the water.

When I reflect back on some of my truly amazing days of fishing, a few stand out… many seem to have happened to my Dad. But one day in the Florida Keys seems to rise to the top of my list.

I had caught a handful of Tarpon on the fly, fishing with guide friends, but had yet to catch one from my own boat on my own.

It had been a lovely day on the flats. I’d seen plenty of Tarpon and Permit. I caught a few bruiser Barracuda and even jumped a few Tarpon, but couldn’t keep one buttoned up for more than a few seconds. I kept at it, long into the afternoon, as the sun sank low in the sky, making it harder and harder to spot fish. Finally knowing the day of sight fishing was done, I sparked up the engine to head home. As I skipped across the storied turquoise waters of the Keys, I began thinking of my Grandpa Marvin (who passed away in 1987) and how I would give anything to have him there in the boat with me, if only for a day. I broke from this thought when I noticed I was passing one of my favorite juvenile Tarpon spots. On a whim, I spun the steering wheel and careened off to try just one more spot. Ten minutes in, it was evident that the sun was just too low, I couldn’t see into the water well at all. I decided to call it a day and began reeling up my fly line. Just then, I saw a sparkle of light in the dark water 25 feet off the back of my boat. I figured it was a small Barracuda but I still made a cast to the spot. I could see my white toad fly, suspended just a couple inches beneath the water’s surface in stark contrast to the darkness of the water. I stripped the fly a couple times and paused. For some reason, I gave up all hope that what I’d seen was a Tarpon. So when at that very second, out of the darkness a 5 foot long flash of silver lightning like a spell from Voldemort’s wand (Harry Potter reference) slammed into my fly, I was shocked! Before I’d even processed what occurred, the fish had spit my fly and was gone, leaving nothing but the dissipating waves from his violent strike as evidence that anything had happened at all. I don’t know why, and this wasn’t my normal practice, but I was suddenly in the midst of a dialog with Grandpa Marvin. I asked him to give me one more chance at this fish and promised that if he did, I wouldn’t screw it up. As my prayer was made, so was my cast, and all in less than a second. The fly landed on target, in the center of the swirl. I squared my shoulders to the fish and began a series of short strips. I was never so aware of every aspect of my body and gear making sure the line laid perfectly in my stripping basket, and that I was ready to strip set the fly firmly into the jaw of this giant Tarpon. Though I knew he was unlikely to strike again, I had complete confidence that he would. I stripped a few more times and paused….BAAAM!!! He came back to claim his meal, I stripped hard and felt the fly make a solid purchase…and I knew I had him. I stood there in the late afternoon sun watching this Tarpon run and jump and splash. I laughed so hard I cried and the whole time had absolutely no doubt that Grandpa was there in the boat with me laughing in amazement at this spectacular fish.

8. Do you have a bucket list fishing trip that you can’t stop thinking about? 

Bucket list fishing adventure is to New Zealand. In the end, I’m a trout guy. And outside of being one of the most scenic places on the planet, it boasts some of the most technical fly fishing for giant trout in small streams to be found anywhere. I’d love to go stay there for a month, paint, fish and be inspired by it all.

9. Favorite Rod / Reel setup? 

My favorite rod and reel (if I had to get rid of the rest of them) would have to be my Orvis Helios3, 6 weight with my Abel Super 6 decorated with my Brown Trout Flank artwork. I absolutely love that set up and use it all year long for so many different fish….from Carp, Trout, Smallies, and Lakers, to small Cuda, and Snapper in the FL Keys. Why it sticks out as my favorite is because it has a soft touch out front, but a ton of power at it’s base. What that equates to is a very accurate cast. As for the reel, Abels are like a fine watch..hand polished, hand anodized…the care that goes into them makes them something you want to keep and cherish your whole life and pass down to only the most deserving of relatives.

10. I know you collaborate with a ton of companies, are there any, in particular, you would like to highlight so our readers can check them out? 

Collaborating with other companies in the fly fishing industry has been a great way to introduce my work to many more people than I could on my own. Collaborations also allow me to work with companies that can produce highly specialized products that I just wouldn’t be able to make on my own. It’s fun to see my work on great outdoor products. If you’d like to learn more about what companies I collaborate with, check out on my website here.

11. What’s next in the world of Derek Deyoung? 

To be honest, my happiness in life seems to parallel my creative energy. So I try to give myself every opportunity to explore new ideas and directions with my work and in my business. I think Snoop Dog said it best in his song Gin and Juice, “Somehow, someway, I keep comin’ up with funky ass shit like every single day.” If I can do that.. you can bet that I’m having fun with and am challenged by my work.

You can find Derek on Instagram @derek.deyoung or on his website https://www.derekdeyoung.com/

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