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Is Pat Clayton The Finest Fish Photographer In America?

With a sense of urgency, feisty spirit and an incredible eye, this talented witness turns trout and salmon into art muses for conservation

Yellowstone cutthroat trout, famous around the world, and swimming here in the national park they are named after. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Yellowstone cutthroat trout, famous around the world, and swimming here in the national park they are named after. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
During winter, when others are bundled in thermal layers and plying the slopes, Pat Clayton loves to ski but he makes his living by taking the polar bear plunge into icy rivers. In summer, after the snow melts and high water begins to recede, Clayton inconspicuously humps it into the high country, carrying 50 pounds of camera gear and a surfer’s wetsuit in his backpack, checking out pools and rivulets of water few of us notice.

Is Clayton the best underwater photographer of imperiled freshwater fish species in North America?

That’s debatable, though a strong case can be argued in his favor.  If he isn’t the finest, then the peripatetic Mr. Clayton, who is also a conservation firebrand, can at least stand accused of possessing a fearless heart. 

Besides taking pictures of fish that make us think, and giving scientists visual reference points in an age of climate change for where wild fish still are, Clayton creates truly breathtaking art. It adorns the homes and offices of people who dream of the liquid jewel places we affectionately call trout and salmon land. 
Salmon massed in Lake Iliamna, part of the complex of freshwater where wild salmon spawn and then return to the sea. Not far away is the site of the proposed Pebble Mine. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Salmon massed in Lake Iliamna, part of the complex of freshwater where wild salmon spawn and then return to the sea. Not far away is the site of the proposed Pebble Mine. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Through his company, Fish Eye Guy Photography, Clayon has amassed a portfolio that is likely to never be replicated. Yes, it’s a historic touchstone for our time. The only question is whether he’s documenting visions of what once was, or wake-up calls for what’s at stake in the decades ahead?

I first became aware of Clayton’s luminescent images a few years ago after Orvis underwrote a three-month trip he took to southwest Alaska. There, Clayton highlighted the menacing threat posed by the proposed Pebble Mine, slated for construction in one of the last, best—and still healthy—headwaters for wild salmonids left on Earth.

For most Americans, Pebble Mine is merely an abstraction if they know about it at all.  And yet, many consumers feast upon what nature, through eons of engineering, produces there. To highlight what could potentially be destroyed, Clayton immersed himself in the fish spawning streams that flow off the Alaska Peninsula into the north Pacific Ocean, birthing the fertile commercial fishing waters of Bristol Bay. He’s embarked upon similar missions to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to the drainage of Montana’s legendary Smith River where a controversial hardrock mine is being planned, into the Gallatin River southwest of Bozeman where there is growing concern and awareness about sewage effluent from Big Sky possibly harming that blue-ribbon trout mecca, and into the vaulting lakes of the Wind River Range in Wyoming holding the last vestiges of golden trout.
A rainbow trout navigates the current of the famous Gallatin River. Conservationists have expressed concerns about talk of releasing treated sewage from the Big Sky community into the blue-ribbon trout stream. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
A rainbow trout navigates the current of the famous Gallatin River. Conservationists have expressed concerns about talk of releasing treated sewage from the Big Sky community into the blue-ribbon trout stream. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Clayton’s photographs are analogous to Thomas Moran’s colorful paintings of Yellowstone (before it became a national park) and which were used to convince Congress to safeguard it as the first preserve of its kind in the world.  He defends them by making despoilers aware the whole world is watching.

Upon his return from Bristol Bay, Clayton’s pictures were circulated by Orvis, Patagonia, Trout Unlimited,  Wild Salmon Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others, reaching millions of citizens. Despite the Pebble Mine’s estimated billions of dollars’ worth of gold and copper that could be dug up, his photos seemed to ask, what about the value of irreplaceable habitat for five species of salmon (which account for 75 percent of local jobs) as well as Dolly Varden (bull trout) and wild rainbows?

He wants us to ponder: is it worth risking the survival of those treasures so that international investors can turn a profit and likely create environmental impacts that would need to be monitored forever? Is the prospect of jobs worth threatening fish that remain central to the survival of indigenous culture closely tied to the persistence of salmon and aquatic life related to it?  

Is there not enough vanity gold jewelry in the world? And show us, Clayton asks, where mining has ever successfully been done in the middle of an ecosystem as special as that as the Alaska Peninsula? 

With modesty, Clayton told me, “I’m just glad I can help raise awareness.” 

Clayton does far more than that. Displaying his photographs is considered a statement for ecologically-conscious anglers. Yet for as soothing and placid as his photographs are on the wall, he has pushed the angling community to speak up.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, homeland to caribou and other species sensitive to climate change, is designated as a "national wildlife refuge" for a reason. The Trump Administration wants to open it up to energy development, with the burning of fossil fuels extracted from it, ironically certain to hasten the tundra's demise and bring rising seas inundating native communities.  Clayton's photographs are his testaments to the value of wild places most Americans will never see but are part of their own common natural heritage.  Imagine if a portion of the Arctic Refuge were allowed to resemble the Pinedale Anticline in Greater Yellowstone where the Bureau of Land Management has allowed a gas field to become a sacrifice zone for energy development at the expense of migratory pronghorn, mule deer and sage grouse. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, homeland to caribou and other species sensitive to climate change, is designated as a "national wildlife refuge" for a reason. The Trump Administration wants to open it up to energy development, with the burning of fossil fuels extracted from it, ironically certain to hasten the tundra's demise and bring rising seas inundating native communities. Clayton's photographs are his testaments to the value of wild places most Americans will never see but are part of their own common natural heritage. Imagine if a portion of the Arctic Refuge were allowed to resemble the Pinedale Anticline in Greater Yellowstone where the Bureau of Land Management has allowed a gas field to become a sacrifice zone for energy development at the expense of migratory pronghorn, mule deer and sage grouse. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton.
Late last summer, he went north again, this time to chronicle the fish species that inhabit the North Slope in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being targeted by the Trump Administration (first by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and now by his proposed replacement, David Bernhard) with oil and gas drilling.

Clayton enlisted a bush pilot to fly him and a companion to the foot of the Brooks Range, the same mountains beloved by the Murie family of Jackson Hole. In solitude, they spent weeks traveling via packraft from the mountains to the Beaufort Sea. Of all the far-flung places he’s gone, this product of Washington State holds special reverence for his adopted home region, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He’s used Jackson Hole, Bozeman and Phillipsburg as a basecamp for getting into the mountains.

Not long ago, he shared a picture of a necklace given him by residents of a Yupik community concerned about climate change impacts transforming the Arctic (being partially wrought by the burning of fossil fuels), melting the tundra permafrost and releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making sea ice disappear which is affecting seal-hunting polar bears, and bringing rises in ocean levels.  He shared this observation: 

“Camped on a sandbar next to a remote Yupik village, the locals took to calling me fish paparazzi, they laughed at me and came down to check on me time to time, confused I was taking the fish's picture instead of eating them. They gifted me this grizzly tooth, it sat in a drawer until Black Water Siren made it into this, so cool, so pretty, and a little gothy. Grizzlies are burned into my headspace, I consider myself lucky to share their space, providing wonderment and inspiration. They have made me so scared as to trigger a physical response, the heart races, your mouth goes dry, your brain surges with electricity but one has never acted on what they could easily do. #sharedspace #bearspray first, not a .45.”

Yes, Clayton speaks to the intrinsic value of wild places. Although he is wily and introverted, it’s impossible to meet him and not be moved by his exuberant sometimes cantankerous spirit. 

He feels an urgency based upon the changes he’s witnessing firsthand in Greater Yellowstone’s high country that is affecting the outlook for wild native fish.  His photographs are testaments to the impacts of development and climate change. He’s snorkeled and waded through rivers filled with toxic abandoned mine tailings and he’s seen the drying happening with wellsprings of water in summer, their levels going low from heat and lessening precipitation, despite human dumpages of snow during winter.

While charismatic megafauna—bears, wolves, mountain lions and ungulates—seize a lot of the public attention, Clayton says fish are akin to aquatic sprites, products of carefully-engineered natural evolution, that sometimes persist on thin margins. They migrate, just as elk do, and they encounter formidable obstacles, including non-native fish displacing them.
Like a shark rising, the colorful dorsal fin of an Arctic grayling pierces the surface of a waterway in the Montana high country. Above, wild cutthroat trout.  Photos courtesy Pat Clayton
Like a shark rising, the colorful dorsal fin of an Arctic grayling pierces the surface of a waterway in the Montana high country. Above, wild cutthroat trout. Photos courtesy Pat Clayton
Clayton has been outspoken and especially defensive of the Gallatin River, whose water quality is being threatened by water and sewage disposal challenges in the ski and summer resort community of Big Sky where planning has not kept up with expanding infrastructure challenges. Not long ago, sewage effluent poured into the Gallatin.

As Clayton shared hundreds of digital photos of Greater Yellowstone’s westslope, Yellowstone and Snake River cutthroats, bull trout, Arctic grayling, goldens and rainbows, he made me vow that I would never reveal the locations in writing of where they were taken. In addition to climate change and development, fish populations are also imperiled by social media leading anglers to the last spots where fish still find refugia, he notes.

Modern cameras are to blame. Many people are unaware of GPS geotagging technology that shares the locations of where photos are taken. Unwittingly, discreet remote venues are getting overrun, and in some cases, small fish populations hammered, because the locations are shared via Instagram and Facebook.  

With regard to the places where Clayton is documenting wild fish, he always fears it could result in a stampede of anglers bee-lining there, seeking only their own enjoyment and not comprehending how they are impacting rare fish sanctuaries. 

“I’ve seen it happen,” Clayton says. “That’s the problem with social media and geotagging. It’s like revealing maps that lead people to buried treasure. They can’t hold back their impulses. They want to claim that they fished these streams before the trout went away and they don’t stop to reflect that they’re part of the problem.”

Clayton’s first bit of advice: all photographers should turn their automatic geotagging feature on cameras off. Next, don’t be the person who, for reasons of sating personal egos and fame, sets out to claim the last best wild country for themselves. Fish are examples, he says, of species that have low tolerance levels for disturbance; they live on thin margins, and in conditions with decreasing water and warmer temperatures, are stressed.

I would add one more advisement, this one on Clayton’s behalf: support an artist who is devoted to the cause of conservation. Every time you buy a fine art print or greeting card from Pat Clayton, you are advancing the work of an advocate operating on a shoestring and who knows from personal experience how uncommon and fragile the headwaters of Greater Yellowstone are.

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Enjoy This Gallery Of Pat Clayton Images

Golden trout, high in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming where glaciers are rapidly disappearing from climate change. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Golden trout, high in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming where glaciers are rapidly disappearing from climate change. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Montana's Smith River
Montana's Smith River
While submerged in the cold flows composing pisctorial portraits, Clayton was checked out by a beaver. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
While submerged in the cold flows composing pisctorial portraits, Clayton was checked out by a beaver. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
A spawning cutthroat trout attempts to move upstream against the rapids. Somewhere on the Beartooth Plateau, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Montana. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
A spawning cutthroat trout attempts to move upstream against the rapids. Somewhere on the Beartooth Plateau, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Montana. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Arctic Char, Bristol Bay, Alaska. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Arctic Char, Bristol Bay, Alaska. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
An Alaskan brown bear feasts on a salmon, just as grizzlies in the Pacific Northwest used do before bruins were extirpated from the region.  Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
An Alaskan brown bear feasts on a salmon, just as grizzlies in the Pacific Northwest used do before bruins were extirpated from the region. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
As he trekked across the tundra, Clayton met another inhabitant, a musk ox. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
As he trekked across the tundra, Clayton met another inhabitant, a musk ox. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Before he returned to the northern Rockies after a visit to the Arctic in autumn 2018, he took this photograph of the Northern Lights. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton
Before he returned to the northern Rockies after a visit to the Arctic in autumn 2018, he took this photograph of the Northern Lights. Photo courtesy Pat Clayton


Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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