I had a chance to sit down with Barry and Cathy Beck, the first couple of fly-fishing, at the Denver International Sportsmen’s Expo. They’ve been in the fly-fishing business their whole adult lives, running a fly shop, hosting guided trips throughout the world, and capturing images that are found in publications galore. They need little more in the way of introduction, so we’ll get down to the nitty gritty.
MG: First…give us a little background. How did you first meet? How long ago was it? What got you started in fly-fishing and photography?
Barry: I grew up in a fishing family that had a tackle shop for 44 years, so I’ve worked in this industry all my life. I did my first show when I was 16. I just got lucky about 30 years ago, walking into the right restaurant at the right time…I wound up trading a frame of fully dressed salmon flies for an introduction to Cathy. So, it cost me a few flies but it was certainly worth it.
MG: So you got roped into this whole deal?
Cathy: Unknowingly…at the time I didn’t know any of this was going on. Yea…and that was in our hometown, Benton [PA]. Actually, Barry grew up about 16 miles from Benton, and I was living there. And we still do, after 30 years.
MG: Did you folks ever consider a more conventional lifestyle…something besides fly around the world, fishing and taking pictures?
Barry: Certainly. We didn’t think we’d be traveling around the world. We bought my parents’ fly shop, and ran it for a number of years. Starting hosting some trips, and one thing led to another. We sold the shop, and started hosting for a company called Frontiers. Then we signed on with Sage, and were then traveling for both; we found ourselves getting published in more and more magazines…and the rest is history.
MG: Now…you have children and grandchildren, and you guide internationally. How do you do it? What keeps you motivated?
Cathy: I guess…um…money! [laughs] You have to have money when you go to the grocery store. Lefty Kreh told us long ago, don’t have all your eggs in one basket. In other words, if you work for one company, and something happens to your job or that company, you’re down the drain. Get your money coming in from a number of different sources if you’re planning on making your living from this industry, because one person or one company can’t do it for you. And that’s the advice we have, for the most part, followed, and it’s worked for us. We’re selling more photos than we ever have before, but it would be hard to make our living on just photography. We need to host trips, and do those other things.
MG: Does the entire Beck family fly fish?
Cathy: Ah…yes and no. Our youngest daughter fly-fishes. Our oldest daughter fly-fished as a kid, but she and her husband have children that are teenagers. Our oldest grand-daughter fly-fishes, just a little bit. But we have two grandsons, that are new to the family, and the chances are they will fly-fish because they live on the water.
MG: What about outdoor photography?
Barry: That’s just Cathy and I.
MG: How many days do you spend on the road each year? And together?
Barry: We’re out 45 weeks a year. Always together, or we just don’t do it.
MG: Who does the packing? Would you consider yourselves light packers or heavy packers? Do you bring the kitchen sink when you go?
Barry: We each do our own packing. Of course, with camera gear there always winds up being more gear than most would like to carry. If we’re on assignment, we try to keep fly tackle to the bare minimum, but if we’re hosting a trip, say for Sage, we bring extra gear so people have the chance to fish with a Sage rod. Or if they break a rod we’ve got a replacement waiting there for them.
Cathy: It’s hard to travel light when we’re hosting. For example, we were just in the Amazon, and one couple’s bags didn’t show up all week long. So you have to be prepared to loan clothes and loan tackle to ensure people have a good time.
MG: You two started taking pictures more than 30 years ago, so you must have been using film. Has the growth of digital photography changed how you work?
Barry: We were very lucky early on to meet a gentleman by the name of Ron Taniwaki who works for Nikon cameras. Years ago, when digital was first starting up, he warned us that if we stuck with film we’d become dinosaurs. So we started experimenting with digital immediately, have grown with it since, and we haven’t shot a roll of film in six or seven years now.
MG: You’ve surely seen that there are a lot of new publications popping up, and as a result of digital film there are a number of budding photographers appearing along with them. Combined with what seems like a renewed fascination in fly fishing related adventure travel, we’re seeing some really fantastic work. How do you think that will affect fly fishing publications, and the sport in general?
Barry: I think that is a good thing. The more images we have out there the more people will see them, and the more interested they’ll become. You know there’s that old adage…a picture is worth a thousand words or whatever, well the picture says it in one. When people see an image that makes them want to do something, or be there, someone’s captured that image and it’s a good thing for our sport.
MG: To the outsider looking in, it seems like Cathy and Barry Beck live in this perpetual vacation. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s work, but obviously there are a lot of people that would love to trade places with you. Do you do anything recreationally besides fly-fishing for a break?
Barry: Well Cathy’s a gardener. She does it whenever she can, although we’re not home much. My hobby is a Land Rover…we’ve got a couple of old ones that I fool around with. You know, we’ve been blessed to have a wonderful lifestyle, but it truly is a job. We’ve known people who’ve bought fly shops…it was their dream to own a fly shop. And then the reality sets in that it’s a job, and that you have to run it like a business. If you don’t, unless of course you’re lucky enough to have a lot of money, it fails, and your dream becomes a nightmare. So it’s work, regardless of how you look at it, but it’s work that we enjoy.
MG: Besides fly-fishing, do you do any other types of photography-related travel? Do you ever go anyplace that is not related to fly-fishing?
Barry: Once in a while, if the opportunity presents itself. But to be honest, we have two people in an office marketing our images because we’re on the road so much. They rely on their salaries and their sales, so we’ll shoot whatever. Within the last couple of weeks we shot snowsuits on kids. We’ve shot cats, horses, you name it…we’ll point the camera at it, but our first love is fly-fishing.
MG: When you are out on the water, do you talk to each other? Is there conversation going on, and what is it?
Barry: We call it the quiet sport!
Cathy: We certainly don’t talk to each other much. I mean we’re together 24/7, so there is plenty of time for talking about family, and family issues…you know, household stuff, and business decisions. But there are very few times when we are alone on the water. I can’t remember the last time we were alone…on the water. So we’re usually talking to somebody else.
MG: Who spins the best fishing stories?
Barry: We both have fun with stories. Every once in a while a good one comes along, so I think it’s 50/50.
MG: Do you have a really good one?
Barry: I have a really good one. Cathy will be a little mad at me, but I can tell it.
Early on we had a couple of guides working for us. They set Cathy up one day. The shop was really busy, and one of them called and said to Cathy that if she sang the Campbell’s soup jingle we’ll send you a free case of soup. So in the middle of a very busy morning in the shop she starts singing. Everybody starts laughing, and then she realized it was a guide that put her up to it.
So we got over that. Then a week later the phone rings, and some gentleman says he’s from the White House, and that President [Jimmy] Carter wanted to talk to Cathy. He wanted to invite her to a program he was having, and have her give some casting lessons and do some fly tying. She starts thinking it was the guide, trying to put her on again. So another man picks up the phone and says “Cathy, this is Jimmy Carter.” And Cathy answers back “Yea, and this is Ladybird Johnson,” and hangs up. The phone rings again, and the first man says “Please don’t hang up. This really is the President. We called Flyfisherman Magazine, and they suggested we call your shop, and talk to Cathy.”
Cathy gets all embarrassed, and hands me the phone. The other man says “this is Jimmy Carter, and all I want to do is learn how to fly-fish.” So I explain what happened, and why she did what she did. Everybody thought it was pretty funny. So when we first met President Carter, the first thing he did was walk up to Cathy and give her a hug and say “Cathy, you don’t look anything like Ladybird Johnson.” [laughs] I thought that was pretty funny.
MG: Do you have a favorite place you like to go fishing?
Cathy: Barry would say New Zealand. If he could live anyplace he would like to live in New Zealand. I would have to say home. If I could be anyplace I would have to say home. We have a great trout stream, and it’s a beautiful valley. It’s not to say I don’t appreciate all the beautiful places we’ve been, but if I could only fish one more place before I died I would want it to be Fishing Creek back home.
MG: So do you have a preference of freshwater over saltwater for your fly-fishing?
Cathy: No. When we’re in saltwater we never think about fishing in freshwater. And when we’re on a trout stream, or fishing for peacock bass, we never think about what we could be fishing for in saltwater. We’re just happy to be there, fishing.
MG: Who is the better angler in the family?
Barry: Cathy is certainly the better angler. She’s caught larger fish than I have, and she’s certainly the better caster. But that’s fine by me. It makes me proud, and I’m happy for that.
Cathy: I have to disagree with some of that. I’ve certainly caught more fish and bigger fish than Barry, but that’s usually because I’m the one holding the rod and he’s the one holding the camera.
MG: Have you ever had an argument about who’s on deck first? Do you ever play rock paper scissors for who’s on deck first?
Cathy: I always get the deck first. And I always get the deck the most. So what’s to argue about? [laughs] It’s a good system! [more laughs]
MG: Now we’ve all been out there…on deck. A fish is spotted, and it’s on us. Then all of a sudden something inside unravels, and we choke. Do you have a good story about choking?
Barry: I’ve choked lots and lots of times on permit. I don’t know how many times you’ve been on a permit flat with a guide. You can be on a flat with a guide, a saltwater flat, and when the guide sees a bonefish he casually points out the fish. But when a permit comes along his whole demeanor changes. His personality changes…it’s a whisper. It’s like this is the fish of the fish. I can’t tell you how many casts I’ve made, and blown, where it’s too close to the fish, or lines the fish. Even that once when the fly is right, the odds are the permit is not going to eat anyway. So that fish can rattle me to no end, and always has. Cathy is much cooler. I’ve watched her cast to permit, and I’ve watched her cast to bluefin tuna, and she just takes it all in stride.
One of my proudest moments with Cathy, it’s another story: we were in England, and we were casting, along with a number of casters. We were told we’d have 20 minutes to do our program, and you needed an introduction. We were listening to all the introductions for all the celebrities that were getting ready, and the introductions were almost 20 minutes. You’d have though God was about to go out on the water. So Cathy crumples up her introduction. When finally asked for it, she said “just go out there and say I’m Cathy Beck, I work for the Sage rod company, and I want to share my thoughts on casting with them.” The reply back was “I can’t do that.” Then Cathy says “I haven’t discovered a cure for cancer, let alone the common cold. This is just fly-fishing. We’re supposed to have fun with this.” And off she went. [laughs]
MG: You folks have been doing this for thirty plus years. Do you feel like you’ve slowed down at all?
Cathy: We feel like we want to! [laughs]
Barry: We traveled more last year than we have in any other year.
Cathy: It’s taken us a long time to get to this point, to really enjoy what we’re doing and really enjoy where we’re at. We’ll just kind of roll with it for as long as we can.
Barry: I think it keeps you young! I look at Lefty Kreh as the best example. Lefty is in his 80s, and we just did a clinic with him. He still travels and still teaches. He is as intense today as he ever was. I think because he stays busy…it keeps you healthy.
MG: Is this what you are going to do for the rest of your lives?
Barry: I don’t know what else to do. It’s all I’ve ever done!
Cathy: We’ll certainly do it for as long as we can.
MG: Well thanks very much for your time. I really appreciate it, and hope the readers will enjoy it as much as I have.
Barry/Cathy: Thank you!