Photo of the Month: Through the Fog

Photo of the Month: Through the Fog

Monday, January 20, 2014

Question and Answer with Matt Supinski

A few months ago, I was contacted by the editor of Stackpole Books about doing a review of Matt Supinski's newest book, Selectivity: The Theory and Method of Fly Fishing for Fussy Trout, Salmon, and Steelhead.  As a part of the review process, I decided to do a question and answer session with Matt Supinski.

Today, we finally got together and talked on the phone for probably an hour.  He was a genuinely nice guy to talk to who has a seemingly endless supply of great stories about his journey as a fly fisherman.  The good news is that many of those stories ended up in his new book as he explains the various elements of cracking the Selectivity code.  When he mentioned that brown trout were his favorite fish, I knew I would really appreciate his book a lot.  First of all, I want to thank Matt for taking the time to talk with me.  I'm hoping to get a podcast or something similar up from the interview at some point, but in the meantime, here is what we talked about.

The Basics

Q: Tell us a little about where you are from and about your regular job as a guide and lodge owner.

Matt: I am at the Gray Drake Outfitters and Lodge.  I am the owner and we run a lodge, bed and breakfast, and I am a full time guide that works sometimes 250 days a year on the water, so that is quite consuming.  Since we have trout, steelhead, and salmon, we guide pretty much 12 months out of the year.  I’ve been a hotelier and also went to culinary school and have used that to work as a food and beverage director. 

Originally I was born in Niagara Falls, New York and spent most of my time in western New York fishing the Niagara frontier.  I spent a couple of years in Poland as a boy when my dad moved back there to get his masters degree in Chemical Engineering.  The first chapter of the book has stories of when I was on the farm.  We had a trout stream that ran through it to the Baltic Sea.  We had a trout stream with Atlantic salmon and browns that ran into it.  My job was pretty much to take cows and sheep out to pasture and butcher a couple of chickens for dinner, and then I got to trout fish with my uncle’s Hardy bamboo rod and to fish for Atlantic Salmon.  That was kind of a bonus to living in a communist country at that time. I got kicked out of the school because I wasn’t a good communist.  I was American so they booted me pretty quickly out of there. 

Q: How long have you been fly fishing?

Matt: I’m 56 right now and I’ve been fly fishing since I was 7 years old.  Do the math. It’s been pretty prolific, and I only took jobs where I had within an hour or two quick access to trout streams. My biggest stint was in Washington, D.C., at the Sheraton Washington, etc., but the Pennsylvania spring creeks were only an hour and a half from my Georgetown Condo, and so that was key to making sure I was a happy boy.  I had to have trout or salmon within an hour and a half of my working environment and so that was critical.

Q: You have had the opportunity to fish in some amazing destinations around the world.  Do you have one specific favorite?  If so, tell us about what makes it so special.

Matt: I’m a big fan of Montana spring creeks, because I just love the Absaroka Mountains and just the general feel for that whole Paradise Valley area. Being in the hotel business, I would just take a month off and go fish Nelson’s, Armstrong’s and Depuy’s and I just love spring creek trout because they kick my butt. 

The stream we had in Poland was a kind of limestone spring creek so I got used to that type of crystal clear wild brown trout water.  It was sort of ingrained in me so that’s why I like spring creeks so much.  When I spent 10 years in D.C. I got to fish Pennsylvania a lot, and now we live on a tailwater.  But here’s the hard part, you just asked me a big whammy question; it’s tough. I love tailwaters, I love your Clinch River down there, the Holston, it all fascinates me.  I like to find a trout that will kick my ass and try to find where the toughest places are.  Silver Creek is another one. It taunts me because it is tough to catch fish there.  If I started catching a bunch of fish I would probably quit.  Always looking for the chase is really cool.

Q: If time and money were no consideration, what species of fish would you prefer to chase?

Matt: You know, I’m a trout guy, a bum by heart. That is at the core of our religion, and you constantly keep coming back to trout.  People ask how could you go back to fishing little eight inch brook trout on the Rapidan in Virginia or something, and I say it’s because it is so much fun to see a little trout come up and give you a refusal.   Trout is really what it’s all about and that is why most of Selectivity, three quarters probably, is really into the trout aspect.  Trout is always, was always, my passion.  I’m a trout bum.

On Selectivity: The Theory and Method of Fly Fishing for Fussy Trout, Salmon, and Steelhead

Q: As a fly fisherman who appreciates fooling particularly difficult fish, the title of your new book really resonated with me when I first heard about it.  Most of us remember one of the first times everything “clicked” on a particularly difficult fish and came together just right.  Do you have a particularly memorable fish from early in your career that still stands out as a major learning moment for you?  Tell us about that fish and what you learned.

Matt: Yeah, if you go into the book, there is a section on the garbage feeder.  It is like a two page section on cracking the code of the garbage feeder.  The fish was a thick, 24 inch wild rainbow trout on the Big Delaware River, which we fish a lot because my mother-in-law has a place up on the Neversink River in the Catskills maybe 50 minutes away from the Delaware.

I spent 7 hours on that one fish that was a rod length and a half away from me and feeding on everything including Blue-winged Olives from #18s to #26s, Heptagenia Sulfurs, regular Sulfurs, Invarias, Rotundas, the occasional Isonychia, occasional ant, occasional beetle, occasional stick, occasional twig.  The thing tortured me for 7 hours.  I must have made 50 fly changes. I went from 6x to 7x, I finally used my memory to bring me back to a #20 hot orange ant that used to fool fish for me on the Yellow Breeches at Allenberry Resort. There is a big flat section of river there that has some really cautious wild brown trout and at times they’re feeding on little #32 midges and little white midges and are almost impossible to catch.  The only thing that would really fool these fish was a little #20 bright orange ant with grizzly hackle.  I really gave this wild rainbow everything in the world to look at and was at my last ditch effort.  

My wife was ready to bail.  She was sitting in a lawn chair.  I don’t think we were married then.  I think she was ready to break up with me.  I was this lunatic spending seven hours on one trout. 

I put this hot orange ant on and went down to 7x.  The fish took it and took it about 200 yards downstream I finally landed it and it was like the biggest prize you ever have.  So it is a combination of the selective/reflective extremely, I call it the ultra selective/reflective fish, and then all of a sudden, a perchance flashback to something that worked for me in the past, years ago, just transcended itself to that experience even though there were no orange ants around.  This fish pretty much had all the pick of mayflies and terrestrials that he could possibly look at. 

That cracking the code of the garbage feeder, which is a two page spread in the middle of the book, if you summed up Selectivity, that episode sums it up.  Most of your selectivity issues or problems or issues, you always are trying to find closure.  Closure is so important to a trout stream, because we always come back after a day where we get our asses kicked by fish and we’re trying to find closure.  So we go to the vise and we try to tie the pattern a little bit differently and we think maybe I should use 6x or 7x or 8x and I needed closure. 

So the next day I got a bucket and with no fishing rod, I went down to the river and started digging for ants.  Why the hell did this sophisticated, wild rainbow, the most intelligent fish on the planet on the Big Delaware take a hot orange ant, which didn’t really imitate anything.  It didn’t make any sense to me.  I was actually kind of disgusted that he took the ant.  I was almost disappointed even though I caught the fish.  I dug up ants, and I found black ants, and brown ants, and I found a couple of mahogany ants that were a little bit bigger, and I took them back to my cottage and put the mahogany ants and brown ants in water, and guess what color they turned the next day? 

Me: Did they turn orange? 

Matt: The mahogany ones turned a bright orange, so there was the closure.  Was it selectivity? Yeah, but I think it was probably selective/reflective in overdrive. These trout have PhDs and then some.  By September each year they’ve seen everything and are next to impossible to catch which is why I spent so much time on that puppy.  These wild rainbows were brought to the Delaware back in 1870s and are so intelligent they make brown trout look stupid.  It’s usually kind of the opposite and rainbow trout are stupid compared to brown trout.  That sums up Selectivity.

Q: When did the idea for this book first occur to you and how long have you been actively working on it?

Matt: I think I’ve really been working on it since the ‘80s.  It took about 4-5 years to write it and edit it.  I also had the fortune of fishing with two very powerful mentors.  In Pennsylvania, I got to meet Vince Marinaro who wrote In the Ring of the Rise and The Modern Dry-Fly Code, and I got the pleasure of buying Vince’s friendship.  At the time he had cancer and he hated everybody.  He hated Trout Unlimited people, he hated everybody, and he was a curmudgeon, and he only fished the Letort when nobody was around. He was sort of this elusive ghost I was trying to chase.  He kept calling me the damn yuppie from D.C. driving around in BMWs.  He hated us D.C. yuppies coming to his limestone country. 

I bought my way with really fine Italian wines and smoked salmon from Scotland since I was the food and beverage director.  Once I offered him a plate as a gift, he took me under his wing and showed me a lot about midging and back eddies and the very selective/reflective trout of the Letort. So that started my passion for this crazy #28 midge garbage, and then, coincidentally, I moved to Michigan to take a hotel job.  Who do I run into on the river but Carl Richards, who with Doug Swisher wrote Selective Trout. So Carl was a good friend of mine for many years and together we fished the very intricate caddis hatches we have on this river.  It is kind of ironic that it started at a young age, and then I had the opportunity to fish with Vince Marinaro, and then I wind up fishing with the guy that wrote Selective Trout.  It was kind of like destiny that it was meant for me to write Selectivity because it just all came into place.  Carl kept saying about Selective Trout that it was fascinating, but at the same time it was confusing for people because it was introducing emergers and spinners and not normal nomenclature that people would normally use.  He hoped that someone would take that concept and expand on it further as fish became more educated and more selective.  So, it was sort of manifest destiny that I wrote this book because of my background.

Q: What is the most important advice you could give someone trying to figure out a tough fish?

Matt: Two things, patience and observation, are the most critical things. Frustration tends to dampen the whole experience.  That’s what happens to 90% of people, they get so frustrated that they go for something easy like bluegill and bass fishing, which I have nothing against by the way, but it’s so easy.  If I started getting big numbers of fish I would probably give up on it because it is too easy.  I think patience and observation and noticing little tiny details are the two things we lack today.  We’re so, with I-phones and instant media and gratification, we’re constantly marching and marching in quest of something and we don’t slow down and smell the roses or watch the trout. There are three types of selective phases and if you understand the types of phases that they’re in, you can catch them.  It is a constant observation and live knowledge progression that takes over.

Q: Over the years, I’ve heard many discussions on fussy trout.  Usually the discussion centers around several different arguments, and two of the more common arguments involve whether color or size is more important when matching the prevailing hatch or food available to the fish.  Do you want to take a side on this argument?  Why?

Matt: Oh yeah, absolutely.  In the selective/reflective chapter, I talk about the all systems go checklist.  I have the beautiful photography of Jason Jagger from Colorado who did some of the most amazing close-up photography of trout inspecting flies.  Vince Marinaro started that in In the Ring of the Rise.  He was the first to come along with that.  As far as color, there’s two schools.  There are the agnostics, but then there are the believers.  In that checklist, I say the first thing is the refractive window, looking at the wings and tails coming through, the profile.  The second thing is the body size and the banding of the body.  There are definite segmentations on mayflies and those are flush in the film.  Third is color, because they can see color.  Fish have very finely tuned eyes, especially in shallower rivers. They can see translucency, hue, and color.  I talk very specifically about these three things and size. The final one I talk about is movement.  Mayflies are not always drag free, little tails are twitching and the drying the wings.  Caddis are bouncing around all over the place and also stoneflies.  Color is not folklore like many people say, and I’m a believer in it.  Catch and release is what fuels this whole selective thing.  The trout are different today than when Marinaro and Richards and all those guys wrote because of the tremendous pressure.  These are the sorts of things that fuel that whole process.

Q: Obviously, as the author of a book called Selectivity, you recognize the ability of fish to become extremely discerning in their feeding habits.  I have heard many people argue that fish have tiny brains and are not capable of becoming as picky as we give them credit for, further arguing that some other factor, such as the weather, must be to blame when fish won’t eat.  How do you respond to that mentality?

Matt: I basically just address it and say, you know what? You can take your Adams and your 4x or 5x tippet and catch a trout on occasion. You’ll be very happy that you fooled a trout, but you’re going to get your butt in situations be totally humbled and embarrassed unless you adapt your thinking to understand that these fish are very innately behaviorally intelligent or whatever you want to call them.  Each fish has a life survival strategy.  You’re going to get your butt smoked someday and you’re going to come back and take a look at Selectivity and say “Hey maybe I should be paying attention to this.” The problem is that these people sit in their comfort zones.  You better be prepared for these situations because it is going to embarrass you and humble you.

On being a widely published author

Q: You have published numerous articles and several books as well.  What is the best part of being an author?

Matt: The best part of being an author is that it forces you to understand your fish a lot more, and it challenges you always to write something refreshing and exciting and new.  If I didn’t get a wow out of it myself I don’t want to publish it.  There is a lot of junk I don’t read anymore because it doesn’t get me excited.  If I can’t get excited I have no interest in it.  I follow the tune of my own drummer, so I set my standards for myself first and don’t look at what other people are doing.

Q: Is there any downside to being an author?

Matt: People think that you’re walking around in a tweed coat, smoking a pipe, sitting by a fireplace drinking a scotch or cognac.  People think you are constantly pontificating about yourself.  They think you're some kind of holy god.  People are afraid of you, but I’m just a normal dude wanting to make it through the day, stick a few fish, get a few shots, and make it to happy hour.  So that’s the key to life’s success.  As a guide, if I can do that, and make a client happy and teach them something new, that’s what I try to do.  Authors tend to be regular Joes, but they tend to be stuck in a category of upper echelon by other people.

Q: The past several years, print versions of fly fishing magazines (and really most magazines) have been having a tough time selling.  At least some of that is because of the availability of information and entertainment on the Internet.  As an author, is it becoming easier or more difficult to get articles published in magazines?  Why?

Matt: Speaking for myself, I’ve been blessed with the fact that I’ve never had a problem getting publishing.  The thing I see today which is lacking is that magazines are so cramped for space because of advertising.    Advertising is hurting this whole great industry.  They make articles so short now that people lose interest in the articles.  I used to submit articles with 10,000 words because my enthusiasm took over.  We need to get back in touch with telling stories.  I got a review just today from another blog or something, and he was very fascinated by my book because I took the how-to stuff and made it anecdotal and told a story. The problem with magazines is you don’t have enough space to personalize them.  So the beauty of blogs is that you can really go on and tell a story.  You have the space to do it, the time to share more experiences and it’s not about page and size.  I think that’s what hurt the industry.  You look at magazines from years ago and they are like volumes and now they are barely a pamphlet.  I’m trying to convince some of these editors that you have to change your focus because you are boring people, but bloggers are going to continue to be a very powerful tool because you have the space and time.

Q: Do you see blogs completely edging out magazines?  How does the future of hardcopy magazines look from someone who has been at this game a while?

Matt: That is very interesting.  I think you are going to always have the written word in magazines because there’s nothing like getting a magazine and sitting by the fire or reading a meaty book.  Now, you can take your Kindle or iPad and get just as meaty.  There is no question that the Internet has put a major damper on it.  There’s a difference though.  If you are sitting outside by the pool or the ocean, from a practical standpoint I think books and paper will always be there.  But by economics, I think there will be some challenging times, and I think we are already experiencing that.

Atlantic Salmon

Q: Based on a quick scan of your new book, fishing for Atlantic salmon is obviously a passion of yours.  However, Atlantic Salmon are not a species you just head over to your local river to target and in fact take a considerable investment in gear and travel expenses to get started.  Furthermore, they are notorious for being difficult to induce to take a fly.  What got you into the Atlantic salmon game in the first place?  What keeps you going back?

Matt: What keeps me going back is ‘A’ they are one of the most beautiful fish in the world, and ‘B’ they live in some of the most beautiful places in the world.  They think a lot and are top water oriented.  Most of my Atlantic Salmon fishing is dry fly fishing.  Also, you’re dealing with a fish that doesn’t need to eat.  I think most selective trout fishermen will eventually get into Atlantic Salmon fishing.  That thrill to hook that one fish in three days is such a religious experience.  Why they take a floating bomber for really no reason is really cool.  They are just sophisticated brown trout.   You hook a 25 pound Atlantic Salmon on a dry fly and the rush you get is just mind-boggling.

Q: Many people have stories of fishing for a long time before getting that first Salmon.  Did you have that type of entry into Salmon fishing or did you experience beginner’s luck?

Matt: It took like two years before I landed that first fish.  I hooked one on the second day but lost it when I put my hand on the line like I was fighting a trout.  I think it is so cool that you can put a dry fly 15 feet above the fish in a pool but if you put a streamer on its nose it will run away from it. They’re kind of funky fish.  They are constantly playing with your mind. That is what selectivity is, one giant mind game that you eventually jump into and play along with the fish.

Q: If you were trying to convince someone to give fishing for Atlantic salmon a shot, what would you tell him or her?

Matt: Come with an open mind, read as much as you can about the fish.  Go with one of the best guides you can get.  Try to hire the most seasoned older gentleman you can find who has been doing it for decades and decades.  These guys are a fountain full of knowledge about Atlantic Salmon.   There are days where you just have to sit and watch them.  Go with a reputable lodge that has a tradition of introducing people to it.  Soak up as much knowledge as you can from your guides.  It is definitely a mentorship.  You need a slow, mentoring hand at that sport.

Out of Curiosity

Q: As a Tennessee boy I recognize that we have a lot of excellent but underutilized fisheries.  If trout is your game, the South Holston tailwater boasts incredible Sulphur and BWO mayfly hatches and thus grows some very large brown trout.  Several other fine tailwaters consistently produce lots of quality trout.  If you enjoy smallmouth bass fishing, we have numerous rivers including the Holston that routinely put out bass over 20”.  Of course, the Great Smoky Mountains offers the chance to chase wild trout in freestone streams and offers everything from brown trout to 30” in the lower elevations to native brook trout up high.  The fishing for striped bass can be excellent as well.  Recently, fishing for musky has been taking off here as well.  So, have you done much fishing in Tennessee?  If so, tell us a little about where and what you thought of it.

Matt: I fished the Clinch River back in the ‘90s.  Carl Richards was a big fan of the Clinch. He loved it.  In fact, before he died, he spent a lot of time fishing the Holston and Clinch and the tremendous sulfur hatches.  I’m really jealous about your fisheries down there.  I hope to spend more time down there.  You’ve got it all.  You’ve got some beautiful tailwaters with some monster brown trout.  Brown trout are my number one favorite fish. I love Salmo Trutta.  They’re so beautiful, elusive and beguiling, they love dry flies and so surface oriented. You’ve got the Clinch, the Holston and you’ve got these mountain freestone streams that are so gorgeous.  You have natural beauty there that we don’t have in Michigan but you have great diversity of fishing down there.  You have selective trout, selective mountain freestone trout, selective tailwater trout, you have smallmouth and all kinds of warm water stuff.  You have a pretty special area.  I plan on spending more time on the Holston and Clinch River area because there are some monster brown trout down there.  It is definitely on my bucket list to spend more time down there, plus you have friendly people and good food.  You really have it really good down there.


  1. Great interview, David. Very informative.

  2. This was a great interview! The second time in three days I've read about his book. Looking forward to it! Thanks.

    1. Michael, I haven't read the whole book yet but the part I have read is fantastic. The photography is well done and there is just so much great information to make one a better fisherman.

  3. Wow very interesting..

  4. Awesome! Makes me wanna fish the SOHO sometime.

    1. Thanks Kevin. We should it it up together when it gets warm. Give me a holler if you are interested!