How the son of a legendary songwriter draws inspiration and power from family, fly fishing, and boat building.
[by Ben Romans]
John Townes Van Zandt— or “JT,” as his friends know him— didn’t follow in his famous father’s footsteps. A gifted soul, Townes Van Zandt created some of music’s most iconic lyrics and melodies, but his life was one of angst, addiction, and heartache. Almost by accident, JT, an exceptional angler and boat builder, selected a different path—a life on the water. Since then, he’s become a devoted family man, a renowned fly fishing guide, and starred in a film—all while reconciling with his father’s legacy in his own unique, personal way. Here are a few of his thoughts on how fly fishing can change lives, and why blazing your own path can help you become a better person.
Q:How were you introduced to the sport of fly fishing?
A:I broke my leg really bad while riding a bicycle in 1991, and while recovering, I focused my energy fly fishing. It was all a mystery to me. But there was a fly shop in downtown Austin at the time called the Austin Angler. I hobbled up the old stairs on crutches and into an antique wonderland of old wooden store fixtures, fine rods, reels, and surgical accessories of all kinds. There was a large fly tying room with every possible material, and a large, round, oak table that visitors hung around and tied. The welcome I received was unlike any retail experience. I was a lost Houston kid with no direction, but suddenly felt like I finally found my tribe. I became close friends with everyone and eventually worked at the shop. I learned so much. It was before the sport was “cool,” and it wasn’t as fancy or showy. It simply spoke to me, and I cherish that time.
Q:You’re not just a skilled guide; you’re also a skilled carpenter who specializes in building custom boats. When and how did you decide to make both your life pursuits?
A:Carpentry helped me earn supplemental income while I guided in Colorado. I had a knack for woodworking. The exactness of it is a lot like tying good flies. There’s a repetitive discipline, and you learn to be efficient. Eventually, I worked in several cabinet and furniture shops back in Austin, one of which made boats. I learned all I could and enjoyed the skill of woodworking. Eventually, I fished less, and stress took over. Woodworking became a beast of burden. I decided to change my life after my first son was born in 2011. With the support of an incredible woman, I went back to fly fishing full-time, and I guide on the Texas coast year-round, primarily for redfish. But I’m thankful for my career in woodworking. Dedicating myself to complex and demanding projects with no room for error or delay made a man out of me, and I accomplished success on a level beyond my expectations. I’m confident and proud, and knowing I can design and build a boat that I can catch fish from continues to give me joy.
Q:The film Low & Clear was a sensation, and it included songs you penned. Is there anything that inspires or “appears” to you while you’re fishing that carries over into your other talents?
A:Fishing for me, especially sight fishing, washes away most of my other conscious thoughts. When a client is on board, my mission is clear—help them become the best fishermen they can be, that day, and give them skills they can take away (and hopefully have fun while they’re doing it). Any other time, I’m a little anxious, and not exactly sure what to do with my time. So many emails, so many chores; it never stops. But as you get older, you let some of it go to a certain extent because it doesn’t do your brain any good to think about things you can’t control. I’ve made it my focus to become a better man by working on my numerous shortcomings. I love being on my boat. I love to fish with people. I come home happy and it gets the snowball of life rolling in the right direction.
Q:You recently offered a heartfelt account of your life and rapport with your father in a short film from YETI. Looking back, how did that relationship affect you as a husband, a parent, and as a person that deals with people from all over the world on a daily basis?
A:It took me a long time to get everything figured out—that was a consequence of my relationship with my father. I had to take everything apart and put it back together in a way that made sense to me before I could really get started living my own life and pursuing my own happiness. Once I figured out that I didn’t have to live my life the same as my father did, I was off and running. He had a very unique perspective, and he taught me a lot. But his examples were the opposite of the “right way,” and he spoke in code. It just took a while to process. We all have to figure out our own lives and to our own selves be true. It’s a beautiful thing. Be happy first—then you can be a good husband, dad, whatever you want to be. I’m blessed I was my father’s son. I have met and become friends with people around the world through his music. Townes has never been so famous that it’s like a “celebrity thing,” but he is a significant artist. When I meet people who love his music, it’s always a very personal and heartfelt thing—he touched lives, and it’s special and genuine each time. I represent his legacy, and folks spill all that on me at times. That’s fine. It’s a welcome burden, and an honor. But it only happens on dry land, never on the water. Fish don’t care who my dad was.
Q:Can you describe your perfect day on the water, and your perfect week—does it include a specific location, elements of weather, boat building, fishing, or family?
A:All of those things! The perfect week is being booked Monday through Friday, with the weekend off to spend with the family. Fish would be high on the sand. Someone would cancel on one of those days because of weather, but I would still go out by myself to scout out some fish and maybe kill a couple for dinner with the family. We would cook outside most of those nights, and perhaps have friends over to eat, drink some wine, and play some music. I’d read the kids books and put them to bed, then crash, or go to the garage and stare at my skiff for an hour—and then crash. All the while, we’ll be excited about an upcoming trip to the mountains, Mexico, or wherever. I like keeping every decision as simple as possible, and maybe having a fire if it’s cold.