5 Questions with Pat Clayton of Fish Eye Guy Photography

Pat Clayton prepares to do what he does best: photograph fish in their natural environment.
All photos courtesy Pat Clayton, Fish Eye Guy Photography

As water use debates continue to intensify throughout the West, one Montana man has discovered that pictures really are worth a thousand words. Pat Clayton–better known to online fans and gallery patrons as Fish Eye Guy–uses his remarkable photography skills to help raise public awareness in a way that words alone never could. Armed with underwater camera equipment, years of trial-and-error experience, and a fanatical devotion to his craft, Pat is to capture both the intimacy of trout’s secret lives and the grandeur of the riparian landscapes they depend on. By confronting everyday people with powerful images of endangered fish and threatened natural wonders, his art can convert casual observers into more active stakeholders. We caught up with Pat at home in Phillipsburg, Montana, and he was kind enough to tolerate a couple personal questions before diving deeper into subjects closer to his own heart with typical zeal.

1. How and where did you get started fly-fishing?

The sockeye salmon of Alaska’s Bristol Bay have been a focus of Pat’s work.

Growing up in Seattle, I was a bait chucker in Puget Sound. When I was 19, I moved to Jackson Hole after I read an article somewhere that said it was the wildest skiing in the country. I started fly-fishing because it seemed like the thing to do. It was more about exploring the backcountry and being outside than fishing. Each season brought new excitement: swirling waters were mysterious and exciting, distant creeks wending into the mountains brought the promise of adventure. Between construction and restaurant work, I learned how to row rivers, navigate the backcountry, find the fish, and eventually use a camera.

2. What sparked your interest in photography and conservation? When did your two passions converge?

Native cutthroats in Montana are in danger in parts of their range.

After years in the field, the fact that our salmonid species were in serious peril became painfully evident. Documenting their plight through photography was the natural extension of my passions. I felt the need to capture it all while the fish were still there and I was physically capable. Plus, this kept me doing the same thing I had been doing, but with a camera in my hand, rather than a fly rod. I have many dreams of future projects, from saltwater excursions, to returning to Alaska, to an in-depth project on cutthroat, to filming the last steelhead. 

My most memorable moment was near Yellowstone, as I was standing midstream focused on my quarry, head beneath the water. I peeked up as I often do for safety reasons. Mere feet from me was a pack of a dozen wolves who apparently had no idea I was in the creek, and I got to watch them for a few minutes at eye-level in shock and awe. 

3. What are some of the challenges of underwater photography, and how have you overcome them?

Through trial and error, Pat mastered the art of underwater photography.

Photographing underwater is about the most difficult kind of photography one can do, and I have no formal training. It just took time and commitment to figure it all out. The learning process involved endless years of failure, struggle, equipment malfunction, hypothermia, and duress. Native fish in their natural environment are a true thing of beauty, and in time I was able to dial in my routine, camera, locations, and timing. 

4. Where have you focused the majority of your conservation photography work?

Dolly Varden in spawning colors from Alaska’s Bristol Bay region.

Everything from Montana’s Smith River to the most remote frontier of Alaska and from cutthroat trout to sockeyes. All my early forays eventually would lead me to Bristol Bay. I grew up with salmon in a declining system and knew that this gem in Alaska was the last of its kind. I pieced together a long mission to the north country to do my best to document the last great salmon run. This was an inspiring, angering, and at times heart-wrenching experience. Seeing what was at stake and contemplating how we could even consider a massive mine in its headwaters was overwhelming. 

This focused my energies on many fronts. I made more pilgrimages north to Bristol Bay and the Arctic National Wildlife refuge, as these were – and are – the front lines. The last truly wild and functioning salmonid ecosystem left in North America lies squarely in the sights of extraction industries. In time, I circled back to my local waters as the plight of our native fish here in Montana retook center stage. It is a heavy burden to witness the decline of native species and to see ecosystems in peril. 

5. The last year has seen some difficult conditions for trout in your home state of Montana. Where is this leading and what kind of solutions are there?

The spectacular Smith River suffered severe low flows last summer.

We are at risk of losing many of our main-stem river coldwater fisheries here in Montana. This is mostly due to declining flows. What is being done to preserve them is nowhere near enough to keep up with rapidly increasing use, buildup of sediment and nutrients, lowering snowpack due to global warming, exploding development, and the corresponding increase in pollutant levels. All this has added up to disturbing drops in brown-trout numbers, mysterious fish kills, native fish pushed higher and higher into watersheds, algae explosions, streambeds bereft of water, and rivers closed for months at a time. All meaningful scientific statistics are trending in the wrong direction. 

Incrementalism and small-scale collaboration, while helpful, have proven woefully insufficient. Even in non-drought years, rivers like the Big Hole are chronically de-watered, a shadow of what they could be. Bozeman’s home river, the legendary Gallatin, is neon green from nutrient load as sewage overwhelms the watershed. While the upper Gallatin has fallen victim to collapsing poo ponds and spraying of nutrient-laden effluent into the forest, most of the lower river disappears into agricultural ditches with nothing more than token preventative measures being taken. 

The Madison and Yellowstone have had multiple fish kills, and now bass and pike are working their way up these watersheds as flows are diminished and temps rise. The Smith River and its one-of-a-kind canyon stretch was so de-watered this year that floating season ended a month early, as water tempertures spiked to un-survivable levels. Without securing water rights from upstream users, this river may never return to its former glory. 

The gorgeous Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, near Pat’s home in Philipsburg, Montana.

There is a whole suite of “could-be” rivers such as the Jefferson, Sun, Teton, Shields, and innumerable others that are all currently in dire straits. Critical spawning tribs like Mill creek on the Yellowstone, Indian Creek on the Madison, the Wise River on the Big Hole, and countless others that could act as coldwater refuges while injecting cold water into main-stem rivers are also completely or mostly de-watered. Bull Trout and Cutthroat are on the ropes, extirpated from 95% of their home ranges, hybridized and harassed, with the remaining few standing strong asking only for a chance. 

Our rivers have always been managed as “working rivers,” meaning that fish get whatever water is left over, but with global warming and drought, there are no leftovers. Only a small token flow remains, nutrient-laden and overheated, just so that the bad optics and bad PR of a fully de-watered river can be avoided. The only way to stem the decline is to impose statewide mandatory-minimum stream flow legislation and/or a multi-million-dollar investment campaign to purchase senior water rights. Montana’s tourist economy,, with rivers and fly-fishing being a large part, has now met or even exceeded its agricultural economy. At the state level, little is being done to slow the decline, and in regards to nutrient load, we are actually going backward, to the great detriment of our economy and our fisheries. 

Nonprofits, politicians, and lawyers won’t fix this alone; there needs to be a groundswell from the bottom up demanding that we save our rivers for future generations. A number of groups and industry people have stepped up, asking for a statewide governmental coldwater task force, a good first step. Big solutions to big problems must be the order of the day, and it must be people-powered. At stake are our irreplicable riverscapes and fish, which are large economic drivers for many communities. 

Editor’s note: The views expressed here are Pat’s and don’t necessarily reflect those of the Orvis Company.

Click here to see more of Pat Clayton’s brilliant photos.

The Ivashak River in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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