by Kirk Deeter
Photograph by Jess McGlothlin
In the 15th Century, Florentine magnate Lorenzo (“Il Magnifico”) de’ Medici was a patron of the Renaissance, supporting the artistic pursuits of Botticelli and Michelangelo (among others). As such, he helped lead European culture to a Golden Age that resonates to this day. The movement was more than symbolic. Societies moved beyond an era of dark subsistence into the realm of expression, and scholars, poets and artists working in various media were inspired to create works that could be appreciated by the masses in the present, yet also endure as masterpieces for following generations.
Fly-fishing is often called an “art form,” and in truth that’s probably an unfair analogy to anyone who has seriously endeavored in oil painting or creating sculptures from metals or rock, but we’ll stick with it, because it sets up this valid point: That Al Perkinson, an artsy, sometimes quirky, intensely sharp, deeply strategic, and clearly fearless marketing whip for sunglasses manufacturer Costa del Mar, is quietly and deftly leading a renaissance movement within the sport of fly-fishing. What Al supports and inspires through Costa’s patronage is literally changing the way anglers of all ages see this sport, instilling a conservation ethic that protects present and future resources, and makes fishing possible.
Granted, to my knowledge Perkinson hasn’t added the tag “Il Magnifico” to his business cards. And while I’m a huge fan of the Costa-sponsored GEOBASS crew that produces edgy video content from remote corners of the globe, I’m not quite ready to equate their work to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” But I will say that you would be hard pressed to find a person in this sport who is shaping the culture of fly-fishing with clearer conscience and more aplomb than Perkinson. Which is why we’re naming him Angler of the Year.
Perhaps not so ironically, Perkinson is a classically educated artist, having majored in sculpture at North Carolina’s St. Andrew’s University, before earning a graduate degree in arts administration from New York’s Columbia University.
“When I was a young student, I asked one of my counselors, ‘Can a person learn to be creative?’” Perkinson explained. “And the answer was yes. So I set out to study art, because I figured if I did go into business down the road, I would be able to be a creative business person.”
As for his fishing education, Perkinson’s roots followed a familiar progression: worms and bobbers with his brothers in the creeks and bass ponds of his native North Carolina; regular family vacations to the coast where they pier fished for spots and whiting; following Curt Gowdy and The American Sportsman on television, and so forth. He eventually developed a love for flats fishing, and admits that the answer to the “if you had one day to fish for anything” question would be sight fishing in skinny water for permit, bonefish or tarpon.
“I’m almost exclusively a fly guy at this point, but I do appreciate other types of fishing, and I like to fly-fish for many different species, including trout,” he said.
He credits a long list of mentors for inspiring him down the fly-fishing path.
“I’d say that [the late] Jose Wejebe probably worked with me the most, not only in terms of casting, but also in instilling an attitude of being prepared to react,” described Perkinson. “It starts at the beginning, when you strip out and stretch your line. Every time you practice, pretend there’s a fish out there. You don’t just throw it loosely around. That attitude is key to being a successful angler.
“I’m also very grateful to have had the chance to learn from Flip Pallot, and I have worked with Rick Murphy a lot as well. Oliver White is another who has taught me quite a bit. I have been with Oliver, it seems, every time I have caught a new fish species for the first time.”
A few years ago, this author had an interesting opportunity to fish with White—and Perkinson—and add an exotic creature to my own list of fly-caught species, the giant arapaima of the jungle waters of South America. But more important than the “what” of that trip was the “why” angle, which led to a deeper understanding of what makes Perkinson tick.
We went to Guyana, an anachronism of a nation cloistered in the northeast corner of the continent, which is still climbing out from under a long shadow cast by British colonial rule, then dictatorship and—perhaps most notably to some Americans—the lingering stigma of the Jonestown massacre.
The southern part of the country, enveloping the Rewa River, has some of the largest remaining expanses of intact virgin jungle in the world, accounting for the highest concentration of endemic species to be found anywhere on the planet. Among them is the arapaima.
Perkinson’s vision, however, wasn’t so much a quest to catch this large fish. Rather, it was a social experiment to see if sportfishing could somehow be the catalyst for the local Makushi native village of Rewa to fend off encroaching economic drivers like poaching, mining, timber cutting and other factors that threaten the tribe’s way of life and the forest itself.
So Costa sponsored an expedition including White, guide Matt Breuer and others, to figure out how to catch the world’s largest scaled freshwater fish on a fly. And they did. Concurrently, Costa involved the tribe by training guides (lead guide Rovin Alvin went to the Bahamas for a crash course) and building lodge infrastructure. And when all was set, Costa brought writers and photographers down to tell the story. Costa also produced an award-winning film, Jungle Fish, that eloquently made the case for all of this, and held a “world premiere” (with sodas and popcorn) in a grass hut in the native village . . . all the while working with USAID and the government in Guyana to manage tremendous logistical challenges and scads of red tape. And they succeeded.
Today, Rewa Eco Lodge is an example of what could and should happen through fishing. Every year, a very limited number of bucket listers chase one of the world’s most elusive wild fish, and the money they spend yields astonishing results. A full 85 percent of the village is employed. There’s a new medical center. There are clean water facilities, and gardens that sustain the tribe in the many months when American and European anglers are nowhere to be seen.
“I think that anyone who enjoys fishing, and fly-fishing in particular feels awe, and an inherent reverence and love for nature,” said Perkinson. “It’s when you get into figuring out exactly how to protect it, [that’s] when things get complicated. It’s when the scientists, lawyers and politicians get involved that the challenges arise.
“But anglers can play an important role in all of that,” Perkinson added. “Years ago, the attitude was that mankind went into wild places to subdue nature, but now when you are out there, you realize nature is a precious and diminishing resource. Nature is at our mercy now; we are not at nature’s mercy any longer. Ultimately people realize that the role of hunter or fisherman as protector is far more interesting than that of conqueror.”
Guyana is not an isolated example of this philosophy. I’ve seen it in other stories I’ve covered. For example, Costa resurrected the Cat Cay tuna tournament in recent years in the Bahamas. Sure, part of that has to do with the classic chase for monstrous bluefin tuna (by sight) in “Tuna Alley,” just like Hemingway did in the Islands in the Stream glory days of bluewater fishing. But another really important part of that, I learned, was to give life support to the sportfishing economy on the neighboring island of Bimini, which in recent years had lost some of its identity to drug running and rock-n-roll booze cruises from the Florida mainland.
In fact, through establishing the IndiFly Foundation, Perkinson’s template of using fly-fishing to support indigenous communities and the environments they live in has been recreated throughout the world. Programs are either in place (or being explored) for locales ranging from Papua New Guinea and French Polynesia to the Shoshone Indian lands in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
Perkinson clearly isn’t afraid to tackle challenges. In fact, he sets an example with an “If not us, then who?” attitude that’s, frankly, sometimes lacking in an industry dominated by so many preoccupied with moving widgets.
Sometimes that starts with some serious introspection, such as Costa’s recently launched “Kick Plastic” campaign, which Perkinson is helping to spearhead.
The fact is that every year, millions—if not billions—of plastic bottles and packaging products accumulate in the world’s oceans. They end up ingested by, or entangling or otherwise harming myriad species of fish and sea birds, the cumulative effect of which is just now starting to be understood.
“Those things take 500 to 1,000 years to disappear, and one could argue that the first piece of plastic ever made is still with us in some form, so we are trying to influence the fishing community to curtail usage, recycle, and try to clean up our act,” Perkinson said.
And yes, that also includes Costa, which obviously uses plastics in production of the sunglasses it makes (I had to ask). The company is incorporating recycled and biodegradable plastics into its own manufacturing processes, as well as limiting or changing the plastics used in packaging materials.
“It starts with looking at yourself, of course,” explained Perkinson. “One important point is that so much about this sport that we all like to do is to achieve some level of personal satisfaction. It’s not selfish, but we like to fish for our own pleasure. But when you flip it around, and you realize that fly-fishing can be used as a tool to help others, it actually opens the potential of the sport, and makes it more inclusive.
“The tent is big enough for all types [of anglers],” he added. “The biggest challenge is to reach outside the tent and bring others in to work for a common goal.”
And therein rests yet another example of Perkinson’s renaissance mantra. Costa supports the video revolution (Costa is the presenting sponsor of the highly popular Fly Fishing Film Tour); it inspires Web and social media content in fly-fishing; and it works with Trout Unlimited on a “5 Rivers Rally” event that brings together college students from campuses throughout the East Coast for a fly-focused summit. Perkinson also leads the charge to involve Millienials and the rest of Generation Next by supporting their expression in various forms. Not talking to them. Inspiring them to experience, and create themselves.
New media . . . traditional media. Bass . . . trout . . . permit . . . tarpon. Old . . . young . . . male . . . female. Home pond . . . famous river . . . forgotten corner of the world. Through Perkinson’s eyes, all important, and all good.
For seeing it that way, and acting with resolve in ways that make this sport better now, and will keep it around for generations, I’d say Perkinson’s vision is more than good.
I’d call it magnificent. 01_BWO%20Bug%20Small.tif
Kirk Deeter is the editor of Trout Magazine.
Photograph BY Jess McGlothlin