Thoughts on conservation, exploration, and fly-fishing Zen from the young owner of two Bahamian lodges, a burgeoning TV star, and a philosopher.
[by Zach Matthews]
You fished with notable anglers while filming ESPN’s Pirates of the Flats series. In your experience, what separates a truly great angler from a hobbyist?
Time and experience. It takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, right? That commitment of time is unfortunately beyond the reach of the casual angler. Every day you fish your brain files away information. Tide, wind, water clarity, the moon cycle, the hatch, all become part of your growing database. The bigger that database gets, the easier it is to solve the riddle. Many casual anglers are mechanically as good as anyone, but they may lack the database to solve the puzzle that day. Even people who have natural intuition and talent—people we call “fishy”— still need time to move into the upper tier of anglers. No matter where you fall on the proficiency curve, the good news is you’re still allowed to love fly fishing, and that’s what makes it special.
You own Abaco Lodge as well as Bair’s Lodge in the Bahamas, and you’ve guided in Wyoming, North Carolina, and Argentina. How does operating internationally differ from working in the United States, especially from a conservation standpoint?
Having just moved back to the U.S. after several years living abroad, I must say it’s great to be home. I have a much stronger appreciation for good roads, fast Internet connections, and sushi! Exploring is a big part of my life; I’ve been struck with wanderlust as long as I can remember. Doing business abroad poses a unique set of challenges. I often have to remind myself that the reason the resource is so spectacular is because the execution is so difficult.
I believe we as anglers have an obligation to give back and protect the places we love. The conservation movement is well established in the U.S., but that is often not the case abroad. The good news is that change is happening. In the Bahamas, I’ve seen not only my employees, but also the communities around us begin to recognize the value of the fishery. When local anglers see the economic impact, they tend to become conservationists—and that’s a wonderful thing. I’ve seen guides police their own flats to protect them from netters, pick up trash, and educate their communities on the value of bonefish. This is all a relatively recent phenomenon. The best news is that this is a part of the world that doesn’t need to be repaired, only protected.
You majored in philosophy at the University of North Carolina, then devoted yourself to fly fishing after a serious skiing accident broke most of the bones on your left side. What principles now guide your passion for the sport?
Fly fishing inspires what the Buddhists call mindfulness: it requires enough concentration that you cannot think about anything else, but not so much that it is taxing. It engages your body, while the rhythm of casting is almost meditational. Taken together, it allows you to completely detach from the problems of the world, and that is a hard state for people to find today—a place of total distraction without adding an additional burden. It will heal what ails you; at least it did for me. I think that is why you see the success of things like Project Healing Waters. The world would be a better place if more people could get outside and find Zen.
A benevolent dictator kidnaps you and sentences you to choose one fishery where you have to spend the rest of your life. Which place would you choose, and why?
A less philosophical question! Hands down the answer is the Indian Ocean. I love the flats there—it’s both beautiful and diverse. You could spend your life in the Seychelles and move between permit and milkfish, giant trevally and bonefish, sailfish and dogtooth tuna. The fish and the ever-changing tides, wind, and moon cycles create an infinite puzzle. A lifetime would not be enough to scratch the surface.
You recently completed an expedition into Guyana, where you became among the first in the world to catch the enormous arapaima on the fly. Do you worry one day there will be no new species left to catch—that the lodge culture will insert itself into every fishery?
The world is getting smaller and finding something truly new is now all but unheard of. But the sense of exploration is still real, and the exhilaration of figuring something out on your own can happen anywhere. Even in Guyana—and Stu Apte had been there and done that in the 1970s—it still felt new and untapped to me. That doesn’t diminish the value of the experience for me at all. “Inserting yourself in a culture” has a negative connotation; I like to believe embracing a culture and helping them recognize that their resources and traditions can run parallel to fly fishing creates opportunity for them to prosper in the ever-encroaching modern world.
That is why I’ve also been involved in Project Guyana, which has conservation goals driven by tourism dollars. The local Rewa community had the option of selling their mining and timber rights, or working with anglers. As they have seen the flow of money coming in thanks to the arapaima fishery, they have connected the dots quickly and become staunch conservationists. Al Perkinson from Costa Sunglasses and I started a non-profit called Indifly (www.indifly.org) to help indigenous people use sport fishing as a sustainable means of conservation through generating local economic activity. It’s been a huge success, and we are just getting started. I think cooperation like this can be win-win, and there are many other opportunities like that in the world.
Zach Matthews is the host of The Itinerant Angler Podcast (itinerantangler.com) and a frequent contributor to American Angler and other outdoor publications.