Matt Zudweg is a Muskegon river fly guide, award-winning artist, and fly designer. He guides with Feenstra Guide Service over 100 days per year. Matt lives in Howard City, Michigan, with his family.
T|N|T: Matt, as far as I can tell, you lead at least three different professional lives… you’re a working fly angling guide, an award-winning traditional wood sign-maker, and you also design and market “decal” products… how do these worlds interact?
M|Z: At least three professional lives is right… pretty much every career I started, I still do to some extent. My original plan was to take my lifelong love of fishing and be a professional guide, but I got a job at a sign shop along the way, and that soon turned into my traditional sign art business. I sold my work under the Matt Zudweg Award Winning Signs logo which eventually turned into Carvedfish.com, as most of my work involved a fishing theme and many signs featured my original fish carvings. For nearly a decade I was swamped with orders for restaurant and lodge clients. During this time I also designed a series of funhouse mirrors, originally for restaurant clients, and that business has also grown over the years and has become CustomFunhouseMirrors.com.
Although my art career was going well, guiding was something I still had a huge desire to do, and I knew my life wouldn’t be complete unless I pursued it. In 2003 I began guiding under the d/b/a Trout-Guide.com.
Building a guide service from scratch was more difficult than I thought it would be, so I started taking trips for other guide services, too. Kevin Feenstra befriended me soon thereafter and gave me trips here-and-there until eventually I was guiding more for Kevin than for my own business. Kevin took the time to help hone my fishing and guiding skills over the next few years and eventually offered me a job guiding exclusively for him, which I accepted.
The decal business began like this… several years ago, my Fine Artist friend Derek DeYoung and I traveled the U.S. with our art, sharing booth space at fly fishing expo’s. Although my art sold well, I knew I needed a product everyone could afford. Before one of the shows, I designed a few decals and offered them for $5 each. To my surprise, the first show I sold them at had a line to my booth almost the entire time of people wanting to purchase my decals. New decal designs having been rolling out ever since then. As far as how all these careers interact, it’s pretty much guiding first these days as that’s the career I’m most committed to for the future, but even when I book 200 days a year, that still leaves time in between trips to produce my other products.
If it were not for my art business being based in my home studio, I would not be able to drop everything at a moments notice and take someone fishing for the day. Each career has made the others possible, and in recent years, especially, it’s taken the ability to succeed at each career to provide for my wife and three children. For several years I tried to hide the fact that I was an artist to my fishing clients and tried to hide that I was a fishing guide to my art clients, fearing they would think I must be less accomplished at each. What I’ve found though, is that most clients don’t think that way at all. They just appreciate that I have the ability to be my best at each.
T|N|T: In terms of your guiding life, what are your clients like? Has guiding turned out to be the sort of life that you thought it would be?
M|Z: My clients range from complete novices that have never done any fishing at all to anglers who are quite accomplished and could easily be guides themselves. Guiding is much harder than I ever thought it would be. The hours are long and sometimes the weather and fishing are pretty brutal, but I have such a passion for showing people the joy of fishing that it’s very rewarding. One day can seem horrible and it makes me wonder why I’m doing this, but then the next day I help a client catch the fish of their lifetime and then it all makes sense. There is a thrill for me when a client lands a great fish that is even more gratifying than if I landed the fish myself.
T|N|T: Are there any developments in American angling over the last ten years or so that have really excited you?
M|Z: It seems everyday something new is available whether it be new fly line tapers, new tying materials or new clothing. Although the use of two-handed rods is nothing new, I am really excited about its attention in recent years. At Feenstra Guide Service we’ve become most well-known for swinging large flashy streamers to hard-hitting fall steelhead. Spey rods are ideal for this and some recent developments in line tapers also make this type of fishing well-suited for single-handed rods, as well. Although our sport is steeped in tradition, there are very creative people in each generation that will continue to bring new developments to fly fishing.
T|N|T: You do a great deal of commissioned sign design and production … tell us a little about your clients and how and where your signs get displayed?
M|Z: To be honest, I don’t make nearly as many signs now as in years past. My guiding schedule gets more attention these days. Most of my work has been purchased by restaurants such as Max & Erma’s where my vintage style has helped create a nostalgic atmosphere, but my work has also sold well with lodge and log cabin owners and even with people whose home décor is quite contemporary but are looking for something to bring a bit of nostalgia to the mix.
T|N|T: With so much commercial art going in the digital direction, how is what you’re doing different and special? What do you see as the unique value in what you’re doing artistically?
M|Z: I started working at a sign shop in 1988, just when hand-lettering was becoming obsolete and computers and vinyl lettering were taking over. Although I did and still do offer vinyl and digitally printed lettering, I was more interested in the “art” of sign making. I love going through advertising history books and filling my head with visions of vintage sign art. We’ve really lost the art of sign making because of computers. It seems anyone who can use a computer thinks they can create a sign, and it really shows in the poor design quality of many signs that surround us today. With my work, I try to mimic the quality of design and hand-lettered execution that would have been seen a hundred years ago. I think the more contemporary we become, the more we long for something from the past. My signs give the feeling of something old, but can be personalized.
T|N|T: Are there other people working in the area of angling-related arts whose work you really respect and can get excited about? Who are they?
M|Z: There are several artists in the fly fishing world whose work I really enjoy. Derek DeYoung’s work is top on my list and his work is the dominant theme in my own home. David Ruimveld, Bob White, and Jeff Kennedy all come to mind as well. I recently became acquainted with Rob McAbee. He designed a line of fly fishing clothing under the name Bugslinger.com. His designs are cutting edge and fit in well with us “Generation X” anglers.
T|N|T: I’ve seen some of your fly creations, including the Zuddy’s Copper Stone and the Chewbaca… cool flies… what’s your design philosophy when it comes to your original patterns?
M|Z: It’s got to be a quick tie and it’s got to catch fish. I would probably sell more flies if I made them more complicated, but that’s not me. One big advantage of being a guide is that I get to test my patterns on a daily basis and tweak them until I’m completely confident in them.
T|N|T: Where did you take your last big trip out of state? Do you target vacation or adventure angling destinations?
M|Z: I’m a bit of a homebody and if it weren’t for my best friend, Derek DeYoung, I’m not sure if I would ever leave my beloved Muskegon River. Derek is much more of a traveler than me and has dragged me on numerous trips that I’ve really enjoyed. Derek now lives in Livingston, Montana, and I try to spend a week with him each year fishing Montana’s amazing rivers. My last out-of-state fishing trip was on the Big Horn… boy, will that river spoil you.
T|N|T: Michael Delp begins one of his essays in The Last Good Water by writing, “What it is, is this: After decades of fishing you come to realize that you live in a house made entirely of desire.” Can you relate to that idea?
M|Z: That is well said. I often wonder if I’ll ever get tired of fishing… and then I laugh. One of the great things about fly fishing is that the more you fish, the more skilled you become, which results in higher quality fishing experiences. One of my clients is pushing 90 years old and has been fly fishing since he was very young. He’s one of the best anglers I guide and very much a purist. His excitement of each trout, bass, or steelhead on the end of his line is just as pure as if it was his first fish. The desire for the next plateau in fishing is something like a drug no matter what age you are. I’m the kind of person that always needs something to look forward to. No matter how skilled I become at fly fishing, there is always another level I can achieve with even greater rewards… that’s what keeps me hooked.