Story and photos by Nick Price
“Shiny and black. Look for shiny and black,” Val Atkinson says with an easy tone. His eyes project downward on the dirt two-track path we’re walking along. We are on Hat Creek in Northern California, heading out to fish and look for arrowheads.
Val is carrying a fly rod — the one rod between us for the day — and a camera with a small, fixed lens is slung across his shoulder. He’s wearing lightweight fishing pants and a long-sleeve fishing shirt. The noted fishing photographer is now 73.
“See all of the broken shells and this mound over here?” he asks, pointing what might look like, to the casual observer, a pile of dirt. “This is a midden. People were living here thousands of years ago.”
Along with arrowheads, Val is hoping we see a few salmonflies too, maybe even enough to get the fish keyed in on them.
Large, white oaks are sparsely laid out in the tall bunch grass above the water where we walk. A dense community of ponderosa pines covers the nearby surrounding hills. Cumulous clouds have started to gather over those hills to the west and have darkened. There may be weather later in the afternoon. It’s the middle of May.
“Shiny and black,” he says again. “Look for shiny and black.” I love that Val keeps repeating this, though I’m not sure why. I suspect in part to keep me on task, not wanting me to get ahead of things.
“I’ll be damned,” Val says, bending over. “A perfect little bird point. I cannot believe it. This is awesome. We’ve only been looking for a few minutes.” He blows a little dirt from the palm of his hand and shows me the small, obsidian arrowhead.
When I’d first called Val months before, from my home in Idaho, to ask if I could do a story on him, we had never met or spoken. I’d hoped he might sense my genuine admiration and be game to meet up. “Sure,” he said. “Why don’t you come stay at my place on the Fall River? I can show you the Fall River and Hat Creek, and we can fish, too.”
Val needs no introduction in the world of fly-fishing. Back when I was just an elementary school student, he was off filling his passport with stamps from exotic locations, shooting images for a handful of clients, including the outdoor travel pioneer Frontiers, where he would work for 18 years. He’s in a fly-fishing hall of fame, and his photography has appeared for decades in fly-fishing publications and books. He even has four books of his own. As a fly-fishing photographer, guide and writer, I have admired Val’s work for years, but until now I’d never met him.
Back on Hat Creek, Val finds another arrowhead. “This never happens. There’s a lot of history here,” he says. Hat Creek was home to the Atsugewi, who were hunters and gatherers, and was California’s first catch-and-release stream. “There were really big fish in here,” he continues. “Then it silted in, and the weeds in the stream vanished, and the fish population has come down.”
I sense we are near where Val would like to fish. The water is fast and boisterous, unlike the calm water we passed a mile or so upstream. “I think you should tie on a big salmonfly and go fish that run down there,” he says.
“Why don’t you go down there and fish it yourself?” I respond. I’d rather get shots of Val fishing.
“Because I would get almost as much enjoyment watching you fish,” he says with a little smile.
I relent and, after walking to the river’s edge, look back at Val standing on the grassy bank, scanning for feeding fish. We had just seen, moments prior, a few salmonflies fluttering awkwardly above us, like stoned butterflies. The water is fast and flows over a steep gradient of mossy rocks. Val points to the seam he wants me to fish, and sure enough, there’s a fish rising in the outer section.
I cast upstream, maybe 30 feet or so. I immediately have a powerful take and miss. Val has his camera pointed my direction, and I remember I’m supposed to be shooting him.
Val has an uncanny ability to frame the right moment in his photographs. One of my favorite shots of his shows three old men standing in front of a tan Chevrolet El Camino with a sliver of Hat Creek in the background. One is smoking a pipe, and all of them have their fly rods as they grin at the camera. He captured the joy of the moment perfectly. The image still stops me in my tracks. I want to know more about all three of the men.
As it is, though, I wade across the stream to the far side, with cold water to my thighs. I cast across to some deeper, very fast water that beckons. A few fish slash at my huge salmonfly imitation before I finally hook and land a nice little brown trout.
It’s time for lunch. Val and I sit on the bank. The growing and distant thunderstorm to the west kicks up a breeze that smells of sweet, freshly mowed grass.
“What was your first published image?” I ask.
“Waiting for Hatch Time,” he says. “I was 26 or 27. It was used in Fly Fisherman.” Val took the shot just downstream of where we’re eating our sandwiches. It’s a well-composed black-and-white image looking out from his old camper van to Hat Creek that includes a small blanket hanging from the van. A jug of wine and a brimmed hat are in the foreground.
“Hemingway said, ‘A good story is one you can feel,’ ” Val says. “That’s the way I feel about photography. Screw the rest. I’m really focused on good light and composition. Waiting for Hatch Time is really well composed, and I love the light in it. I am very simple.”
The fact is that Val is simple. He usually carries one camera and two lenses. He’s curious, loves history and is a voracious fan of nonfiction, especially Zane Grey’s fishing journals. “He was a very descriptive writer,” Val says. “Most folks associate him with Westerns, but he was also a passionate fly fisherman.”
Val is also perpetually teetering between seriousness and humor. “I’m always semiserious,” he tells me, grinning, while we pack up our trash from lunch. “I like your company,” he adds, “but I think the two of us are talking too much.”
Unfortunately for Val’s sake, I don’t think there’s going to be much of a stop to our conversation until we are both sound asleep tonight. I’m sure he will continue to share his thoughts without too much prompting. But he’s not garrulous.
Val graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, where he studied photography and graphic design. “I’m not a cover photographer,” he says. “I don’t leave room for a bar code. I learned about composition in art school.”
Val has taken many cover photos, but I know what he means. I push a little more and ask about photos of fishermen smiling with their catch. “What do you think of grip and grins as covers?”
“I think they are stupid,” he says in a resigned tone. “They think big fish will sell magazines.” To be fair, this is the closest Val has come to criticizing anything. Speaking the previous night about the demise of Hat Creek and the Fall River doesn’t count.
Val shot film for 30 or more years and easily adapted to the digital technology most photographers use today. “I’m curious about everything,” he says.
By now we are back on the trail heading to Val’s SUV after fishing Hat Creek. He walks with a strong gait. “How’d you make the transition to full-time fly-fishing photography?” I ask as we replace our wet wading boots with dry shoes.
“Let’s hop in,” he says. “I want to show you a few things.”
We head back on the two-lane highway toward Fall River. He says “nothing really clicked” until he documented a fishing trip with some friends in black and white. “I sent them to Fly Fishermanmagazine, and they bought the lot,” he recalls. “I actually received a check in the mail. The light bulb went on. I told myself I’d become a fly-fishing photographer.”
Back at Val’s elegantly restored, two-story white ranch house, we walk to the kitchen. The wooden floors creak underfoot, and the room is tidy and sparsely decorated, with white walls. There’s a long, wooden dining room table at the far end next to a wood-burning stove. Val has a book, Art Flick’s biography, and a publication about the demise of Hat Creek set on the table, presumably for me to see. “I want to show you my fishing room above the garage,” he says.
I know guests will be coming over shortly for wine, then dinner. Val’s not rushed, though. We walk up a narrow wooden stairway above his garage to a spacious room with low ceilings, a wood-burning stove in the middle and windows on three of the four sides. Much like the interior of his house, it’s minimally decorated and tidy. There are a few things in this room, though, that Val wants to talk about. I am seated in a chair next to an old pair of leather knee-high boots.
“My father left on his bedroom table, after they hauled him away, an extensive collection of his favorite transparencies, this pair of old hiking boots and a box of opera tapes,” Val says. “He loved opera.”
It’s the first time he’s talked about his family with me. “Dad probably died if not penniless, then not far from it,” he says. “Mom and Dad divorced when I was 18. Mom remarried a hardworking pillar of the local community who had a good deal of money — vice president of the Columbia Cement Company. He was a stern but kind man and financed me through art school and bought me my first car at 19.”
“Was your dad passionate about photography?” I ask.
“Yes,” Val says. “My mother would quip that he would spend more money on film when his kids really needed socks. I was subjected to photography from day one, and unconsciously he probably did steer me into becoming a photog.”
We head back downstairs and get ready for the guests. One of Val’s books, The World Of Fly Fishing, is on a coffee table in the guest room. I flip through the pages, and it occurs to me that Val’s life of simplicity has been incredibly rich, experiential and admirable. He’s been to New Zealand almost 30 times. He flew to Patagonia every spring, summer and fall for years. He’s been to Russia, Christmas Island, Bhutan, India, Iceland, Norway and plenty more places.
Val has not been checking off countries from a bucket list. Far from it. He relishes investing himself in the people he’s met and places he’s been and still visits. His images are a testament to a wonderfully genuine, kind and humble man.