We are sitting here with Paul Puckett for Trout Week’s second-annual Artist Spotlight. We’ve already done a couple of interviews with Paul, but we’re going to jump in and talk a little bit more about what trout fishing means to him and how they fit into his artwork and his lifestyle.


Flylords: Paul, what was your first interaction with the trout, and did it involve a fly rod? What was that first experience like?

Paul Puckett: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it would probably trace back to, I would probably say 1989 or ’88 actually in Missouri when we took my grandmother on a little trip to Lake… In Branson, Missouri, there was a place called Lake Taneycomo, which is actually a part of the White River and it’s so dammed up that they called it a lake, but it’s moving water. It was a river. There were these trout out there rising. I just learned how to cast a fly. I just couldn’t cast it more than 20 feet, and these fish were just all right at about 35-40 feet out. It was so frustrating, but I loved every second of it. It was something that challenged me and made me want to get better.

So, trout were the first species that made me catch the bug of fly fishing. Then I would say the first time I finally caught a trout in a dry fly was in the summer of ’93 on the Pecos River in New Mexico. I caught a little 10-inch brown trout on a little mountain creek with an elk hair caddis. Then after that, it was over for me. I knew my future was going to be fly fishing and that was it. It has been ever since.

Flylords: After that, has the dry fly bug persisted in you?

 

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Paul: Yeah, I mean, there’s nothing like a western stream or even an eastern stream and just seeing, walking down and scoping out the creek and then just seeing that head come up and eat some sort of dry fly, then you spend the next five minutes trying to figure out what that dry fly’s going to be, what you’re going to use, and then finally casting to that fish, and making them eat the dry fly. There’s just nothing like that experience for sure. Whether you’re a full ingrained salty bone fisherman by now, you still can always come back to that stepping stone of catching a trout with a dry fly.

Flylords: Do you think that the sight fishing element of trout is why redfishing in the low country connected with you so much?

 

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Paul: Yeah, sure. Yeah. It’s one thing to see a tailing redfish and catch the tailing redfish. It’s a one-step process. But the cool thing about trout fishing, is you get a little bit deeper involved. It all comes from the entomology aspect and the bugs in the river. What’s crawling around? What’s hatching? What stage are they in? If you throw a full-blown Mayfly pattern, well they might be feeding on cripples or emergers. There’s just so much more involved and if you learn all those steps and the patience that it takes to do that, I think that makes you a lot better fisherman and angler no matter what you end up fishing for in the future. But yet, just that visual aspect of seeing all that happen and then taking the layers apart and figuring it all out.

Flylords: Through your decades of fly fishing, what one trout fishing excursion or trip has stood out to you the most?

Paul Puckett: Probably when I was lucky enough to go down to Argentina about five, or six years ago. I fished with the Patagonia River Guides crew. It wasn’t the fishing itself, I don’t think it stuck out that much more than a great trip to Montana or Wyoming. But it was everything in between, like getting to those spots and being in a truck with the raft in the back and hardly seeing anyone else out there in that country. It reminded me of what Montana might have been like back in 1890 or 1910. That stood out the most to me. Not so much the actual fishing, but just the adventure of going to the put-ins and fishing and not seeing another boat or another person all day long.

Flylords: What has been your favorite place in the US to chase trout?

Paul Puckett: When I lived out in Wyoming for four years, the Snake River’s great, but all the little feeder creeks and little slews and beaver dam stuff that feeds into the Snake are usually where I found myself spending the most amount of my time. Hard fish and hard-to-catch fish, fish that have all the time in the world to come up and inspect your fly, and getting those fish to be tricked was my biggest challenge and ended up being pretty successful in the end. I spent a lot of time just crawling down behind some tall grass and just being two feet away from a cutthroat trout that is just sitting there sipping emergers. I could just be two feet away from that fish and had no idea I was there. I would just watch and study that activity. I learned a lot from that, just studying the fish eating, not even fishing for them. Those little feeder creeks to the Snake are definitely where I would probably if I had one last place to fish and I knew that was the case, I’d probably go back there and fish for those cutthroat trout in those little streams.

Flylords: How have trout been involved during your decades of fly fishing and your career as an artist?

 

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Paul Puckett: I think the first thing, the first thing that pulled me to paint fish was trout because there are so many different colors, like a rainbow trout, just a spectrum of colors in a rainbow trout. Here I am with these paints and there’s no real right or wrong way to paint that rainbow trout because if you were to take it out of context and look it at you, you’d be like, “This has to be a joke. There’s no way this many colors and beautiful shades of red and purple are in these fish.” So I think trout drew me definitely towards painting. Brown trout are amazing, cutthroat brook trout. There’s just the array of colors and things that are going on with them. They’re just so much fun to paint.

Flylords: What lessons did they teach you along the way where your painting was involved?

 

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Paul Puckett: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the first ones I would do back in the nineties, how I got started were painting people’s fish and most of them were usually trout. I guess the lesson was that just, it taught me to see how every fish was so different, the markings and the shades of color, whether two rainbow trout were caught out of the same river. I learned that stuff when I was painting people’s fish and it taught me just to look closer, and more detail, and let’s not just paint a rainbow trout, let’s paint this rainbow trout that this guy’s photo is. It teaches you to look at all the little imperfections on the fish and all the different little markings that make each fish individual.

Flylords: You’ve talked a lot about rainbows. What do you think the most challenging color palette is amongst the trout?

 

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Paul Puckett: Yeah. Not just the color palette, I would say just the markings. I was going to say brown trout, but brook trout probably because you do a rainbow trout and a brown trout, and most of the markings are dark on light. For Brook trout, the markings are light on dark. So with watercolor, you have to figure out a way to put those light colors down first and paint around them, and the second you paint over one of those spots, it’ll never be light again. Because watercolor, you can’t go back and just add white to it, and you paint the light color stuff first and just start working around it. It’s very time-consuming and very nitpicky. But brook trout are probably the most challenging to paint in that regard. If you do it right, they just look beautiful.

Flylords: Do you think the statement, “Trout don’t live in ugly places,” holds? Or do you think the fish might be more beautiful than some of the places they swim?

Paul Puckett: Yeah, I mean, it is true though. I don’t think… I mean, I can say probably when I lived in Texas, some places where they stock trout probably weren’t the most beautiful. But in Dallas and Fort Worth, it’s like they put them in a park and you can catch them, it’s fun. But when it comes to wild trout, I don’t think there’s such thing as an ugly place they live and yeah, it’s hard to compare it. Is the fish more beautiful than the place it’s in? It’s all kind of a package deal I think. We’re just lucky enough to be able to seek out those adventures and go do them. It’s just, trout are the most beautiful creatures in the world to me.

Flylords: How many of your more iconic journal entries feature trout?

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Paul Puckett: I would say I’m not quite half and half, but when I go out west, which is pretty often, most of my journal entries are typically when I travel. I do them every now and then here, just red fishing in the backyard. But most of them are when I travel. So a couple of years ago when I did the whole month out in Montana, a lot of my journal entries are travel stuff and landscape stuff, river drawings. Then last month when I went to Wyoming for the one fly, most of the stuff in there is about trout. I mean, we’re probably close to half and a half…

… if I’m not saltwater fishing. But yeah. My challenge is when I draw a trout in my journal I don’t have colors, it’s all pen ink, but how can I portray that and shade that to where your imagination can take over and bring those colors out in my mind?

Flylords: Do you think there’s a difference between the emotional and creative juices that get going when you’re fishing, whether it’s salt water or trout? What inspires you in the saltwater side of things versus in trout? Is it a different mindset?

Paul Puckett: Yeah, yeah, I’d say so. To me, trout is more calming, more hearing the wind through the trees, the grass, and the bugs. It’s more of a calm down and let’s take in that that between fish, let’s just enjoy the day. Salt water to me is more like war. It’s more of a battle. You’re just battling the tides, the wind, the currents, the fish, and the sharks.

It’s two different mindsets for sure. I think they both come out in the paintings that way when, yeah, it’s just in trout, the best thing trout did for me personally was getting all of the I need to catch a fish out of my system. Because when I lived out in Wyoming, I fished so much and I caught so many fish and I just fished, I fished, I fished. Now, when I go fishing, I don’t have that feeling that I have to catch a fish today. I’ve gotten that out of my system. I want to just enjoy the moment, whether it’s trout or saltwater and I can enjoy watching someone else catch fish, or I don’t have to catch a fish at all because now what I typically do more of is saltwater fishing. It makes life easier that I’ve caught thousands of trout and they were good to me in that sense.

Flylords: I want to shift a little bit to your connection to the Snake River. Obviously, that watershed is a big topic for Trout Unlimited, and pretty much every stakeholder in that watershed. What has the Snake meant to you and how do you feel and hope for the progress being made there?

 

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Paul Puckett: Yeah, I mean, it’s gone through a lot of changes as far as since I lived there, but I feel hopeful. There are a lot of good people out there doing what they can, whether it’s TU or other organizations that are always on top of it.

Learn more about the challenges facing the Snake River, here!

Flylords: Let’s say you’ve got two days to go trout fishing in the southeast, where are you heading?

 

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Paul Puckett: Yeah, I’m probably going to go ahead and call the White River still in the southeast. Because that’s the river I grew up learning how to trout fish on in high school and college and it’s just such a cool place. I don’t get to be there as much anymore because it’s out of the way for me. But I would say the White River, just from a foundation aspect, and then up probably your way up in Pennsylvania with my father-in-law, when we go up there and see my wife’s family, we get in the truck, we drive about 30 minutes, we just hopscotch around different bridges and creeks and go down and catch a fish, move on to the next spot and that kind of stuff is special to me for sure because he loves doing that so much and it gives him the feeling that he’s showing me his water. So that’s a lot of fun.

You don’t typically usually remember a certain fish, but I remember stopping at a little sidebar and having a beer and I knew that I went fishing that day. But that’s the stuff in between that is usually what you remember the most.

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