Fishing with Scott
A tortured artist makes peace with the river. By Steve Marsh
On our way to Wisconsin’s Rush River, Scott Seekins asks a question: “So this is going to be a fishing article, right, not an art article?”
“Yeah, probably more of a fishing story.”
“Good. Because nobody in Minneapolis wants to read about art.”
It’s not the kind of statement you’d expect from an artist. Unless that artist is Scott Seekins, who’s known around town as that weird guy who wears ornate all-white get-ups in summer and all-black ones in winter.
There is an Eeyore quality to Seekins’s personality, and it bleeds into his paintings. Most of his work is pop self-portraiture in the key of self-pity—Seekins getting beaten up by Batman or dumped by Britney Spears. He’s also painted a small series of trout-fishing self-portraits on both canvas and wood. They are variants on the woe-is-me theme: Seekins, in full 19th-century garb, alienated and casting alone in a beautiful albeit kitschy trout stream. Ever the artist, he even painted a pair of his waders white once, in order to preserve the integrity of his aesthetic. “People want to see white, not Gander Mountain,” he says.
But when you’re out with him in the creek, it seems like he actually enjoys it.
Seekins has been fishing the Rush River for more than 10 years now. “I used to fish more in town,” he says. “But algae has made the city lakes scummy.” So he comes here as often as he can, with almost anybody who will make the hour drive.
Lately, that’s meant trips with another artist: ultramasculine Serbian sculptor Zoran Mojsilov. “Zoran uses live bait. He catches grasshoppers in the fields,” Seekins says, marveling at how well Mojsilov gets along with the farmers and the other fishermen he meets in western Wisconsin. “He’s totally peasant—the people out here love him. Whereas I get hassled by all the rednecks and the white trash . . . just like in the city.”
Seekins buys his flies at Lund’s Fly Shop in downtown River Falls—classic ties from the 1930s with names such as Mickey Finn or Royal Coachman. “I do so much fine work, I don’t like to tie my own flies,” he says. His favorite is a streamer called Black Ghost. He spends about $9, and the shop’s proprietor, a young guy named Brian Smolinski, seems bemused by his curly black extensions, sculpted facial hair, and 19th century–style three-piece polyester white suit, accessorized with an ascot and a giant brass brooch, all worn in the heat of a late August afternoon. But Seekins is a regular, and Smolinski knows his name. “Get everything you need, Scott?” he asks as we head out.
Seekins learned how to fish from his adoptive parents in South St. Paul. “My dad was a fly fisherman, but not a trout fisherman,” he says. “He had these old cane poles from the ’30s—he was after bass and panfish.” His dad was a cattle buyer at Swift Cattle Company, and he fished to forget about work and paying the bills.
“It’s therapeutic,” Seekins says. “It’s a massage for your brain: You go out there and you could have lost your job, your relationship is falling apart, you’ve been kicked out of your place, you have no money, all these different stresses . . . and once you’re on the river fly-casting, you forget their names.” He doesn’t smile, but his tone brightens. “You don’t even remember their names!”
Our first fishing hole is a couple miles outside of El Paso, Wisconsin, next to a little pasture for a dairy farm. It’s right out of a Norman Maclean story: The water is low but moving quickly enough to whiten along the rocks and eddy near the banks, and about 50 yards away there’s a dying tree with a pair of bald eagles perched on the top branch. The raptors must be counting on brook trout, too.
Seekins is in the river with his waders, and although he definitely looks like a man out of place—or, more precisely, out of time—he’s pretty graceful casting his neon line. He’s looking for a hatch of mayflies, something that his Black Ghost streamer might resemble to the fish. “Trout are very particular,” he says. “Wrong size or wrong color fly? Forget it.”
The day is too hot and clear for fish to bite in this spot, so he suggests another place a short drive away, where Lost Creek and Rush River meet.
On the way, Seekins explains river etiquette to me, and he talks about how a man dressed like him in this place can run afoul of decorum, even when etiquette is impeccably observed.
“You’ll hear it all,” he says. “Fag Elvis, Afghan fag, Libyan fag.”
Our next fishing spot is even more serene than the first and seems to portend better luck.
“This is my church,” Seekins says as he wades into the creek. “I joke that I’ve stayed in Minnesota this long for the fishing, not the art.”
After about 25 minutes of casting, Seekins catches his first brook trout. It’s a tiny thing, but five minutes later he catches another, this time more respectable. It’s after 7 pm, and the shadows are growing longer, so Seekins is down to his last few casts.
“I’ll try one more streamer, and then we’re out of here.” He looks up. “I know I keep saying that. But you become a fanatic.