Can a 16-year-old, fly-tying prodigy apply his skills and hard-earned patience to save the environment?
When James Carlin was 8, his father introduced him to fly fishing on the Big Wood River. When he was 11, he got his own gear and was hooked up with Guy Robins from Lost River Outfitters to take his knowledge up a notch.
Robins is an internationally-known guide. In their hours together on the river and tying flies, Robins took long memory walks through his own childhood as a budding 9-year-old fisherman in Scotland and over his adventures fishing across the globe. He nurtured a natural, but untapped skill set from the youth’s soul.
“We talked about everything, from fishing to conservation,” Robins told me recently. “He’s determined and thoughtful and so passionate about the sport. And, he’s exceptional at it.”
A quiet, detail-oriented eye made Carlin particularly attune to how the river behaved and how to use that understanding to lure a passing fish to to meet his line.
His first tie of a zebra nymph got him a rainbow trout.
Carlin became like a mother on a mission to graduate her baby to solid foods. He began crafting the fly menu to exactly what he learned his scaly pursuits would want to take a chance on.
“I’m naturally inquisitive and love solving problems,” Carlin explained. “I mean a lot of the flies, at first, I was just messing around with what looked cool, and then I created them to what helped me personally.”
“James is incredibly creative and his ideas are limitless,” Robins said. “But anglers love his flies because they really work.”
Carlin’s signature fly called the DB zebra nymph has given fisherman far and wide the beginning of many a fish tale.
He started his own business, Bigwood Flies, and Robins began looking for ways to integrate Carlin into the broader angling community.
“I didn’t know where it could go, but I could see the passion,” Robins said. “It makes your job so much easier.”
Carlin got attention wherever he fished. His generosity with his experience and stewardship of the fish and surrounding lands distinguished him.
In 2016, he was included in an invitation-only derby held by Idaho 2 Fly, a nonprofit that hosts excursions and competitions for men treated for cancer. Carlin was the youngest, “by 30 years,” Robins recalled, yet managed to place third among 60 seasoned anglers. “He blew the competition away.”
“I fell in love with this world of competitive fishing,” Carlin recalled. “And then we discovered this new, super efficient technique of Euro nymphing, and, the USA Youth Fly Fishing team. . . I found a whole new way of looking at the water.”
Carlin and Robins attended some clinics and expos nationally, and then decided to hold their own. Twenty kids were invited and stayed at the Sun Valley Community School dorms.
“He knew the water really well, and he was guiding all these coaches,” Robins remembered.
Carlin worked that summer with Ketchum’s Silver Creek Outfitters, learning and building his brand.
By the second clinic, “I had so much more experience that coaches invited me to the national championships,” Carlin said. “I went there without high expectations and knowing I had a lot to learn. But, in the end, I finished 13th, and was asked to join the team.”
“They saw he was a leader,” Robins said. “And compassionate, kind and polite. He’s a great, great kid.”
Now, “I am part of a selective group of 15 that goes to different countries to compete in the fly fishing championships.” He will travel to the Czech Republic next summer for the world championships.
“I couldn’t have done any of it without Guy,” he paused to give his mentor credit. “He taught me how to tie my first fly and everything he knows.”
Now living in Malibu, a high school sophomore, he’s miles from fly fishing and has founded a business club, taken up driving, surfing, basketball and homework. Still, his mind is not land-locked. “I’m working on adding apparel to the fly line and writing a manual about Euro nymphing.”
And from his environmental defense mode has sprung the blueprint for a collapsible water bottle. “We wondered how we can minimize the bulk and prevent people from having to buy plastic ones, so we came up with a collapsible size. We are looking for investors now.”