Eric L Knowlton is an artist wood carver and an avid fly fisherman from Alaska and he specializes in carving trophy trout. He graciously accepted to answer some questions I had for him and I would like to thank him for his time! Enjoy everyone!
If you are interested in Eric’s work, you can visit the link here:
Or drop him an email at:
How and when did you start doing wood carving?
I got my interest in carving from my grandfathers and dad as a boy growing up in rural Oregon (we spent a lot of time in the woods hunting and fishing, and did selective horse logging on our own land).
Wood working is a tradition on both sides of my family, my dad’s side being English-Canadian (Knowlton / Lac la Brome, Quebec) and my mom’s side (NW Coast native – you call them First Nations) – I am Coos indian of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians of the Oregon coast (Federally recognized by the US govt.) Both sides had loggers and carpenters and everyone built their own houses, cabinets, etc. You might recognize the name Umpqua from the fly fishing manufacture. They are referring to the Umpqua river, and I spent most of my pre teen years at the head waters of this river and the Willamette river in Oregon.
My earliest carving was whittling small items with my grandfathers but I would draw all the time and my parents recognized that my twin and I had a natural talent. As a teen, my dad took me to a wood carving demonstration after we had moved Anchorage, Alaska. As a young adult and avid fisherman, I saw a wood carved trout at a store in Anchorage and I was hooked!
Commercially, I have been carving since 2003 at the age of 33. I learned from the late artist Ed Walicki of Michigan and from reading Bob Berry’s books and then exploring the craft on my own. My reason for taking up fish carving is that I had always been fascinated with trout and with combining my drawing and painting talents with my woodworking skills. The reason I decided to make it a commercial venture was after seeing a skin mount trout a friend had caught and I realized there had to be a better solution. A web search turned up Ed Walciki (I had already read Bob Berry’s first book which dealt with carving mostly with knives and chisels – I have the scars to show why that is not a popular method!). I bought Ed’s VHS tapes and would later spend a week with him at his cabin on the Au Sable river outside of Grayling, Michigan. I learned more in that week than I had in my whole life.
How much is Alaska and your surroundings influencing your art?
Alaska is a beautiful country – it is literally awe inspiring! In my early 20’s, I would often do watercolor paintings of salmon & trout and river scenes, inspired by the experiences I had walking the wild streams and rivers fishing for kings, sockeye and trout. Some of my favorite scenes are of the hardy but small spruce trees along the rivers edges, the tall grasses that grow to heights of six feet under the midnight sun and the blooming fireweed – natures calendar. We watch the fireweed as a gauge on the season – it blooms bottom to top – as it tops out, you know the saying… Winter is coming!
Growing up in coastal Oregon and the foothills of the Cascade range, Alaska meets my ‘living’ requirements: mountains, rivers, lakes, forests and of course, trout.
I love Oregon – but I stay in Alaska through the long winters because I cannot tear myself away from the incredible trout fisheries we have here. Wild trout. Abundant trout. Grayling, salmon, dolly varden and arctic char – then there is the ocean. My blood is tied both symbolically and literally to the sea. Salmon were and are the lifeblood for many coastal tribes. Our tribe still celebrates the chinook (king) and coho (silver) salmon runs in Oregon.
After high school, I commercially fished for halibut with my commercial art teacher. If you’ve seen Deadliest Catch, it is a bit like that but minus the crab pots. We used 1 mile long lines, every 20′ was a 6′ leader with a hook and herring. Around March, still winter in Alaska! I love being on the ocean and seeing the whales, the dolphins, the sea birds and just riding the waves. There are so many things that make the artist’s mind juice when you are surrounded by wild nature and its rugged beauty.
The only thing I am not fond of in Alaska is the wind. I loved the wind on the sand dunes in Oregon, but here it is too cold!
Your carving seem to represent the ultimate alternative vs harvesting fish, how important for you is
catch and release?
I am an advocate for catch and release because we could easily wipe out or destroy the stocks.
I am ALSO an advocate for those who chose to live a subsistence or partial subsistence lifestyle the right to responsibly harvest fish for food. In my region, I find those fish to be sockeye salmon, halibut and cod. I no longer target king salmon or coho salmon because their stocks have had trouble in recent years in my area. The issue lies mainly at the feet of Fish and Game in Alaska and NOAA allowing commercial fleets (remember, I worked in the industry in my 20’s) to overharvest for commercial sales. These stocks would be better managed by Alaska if they were used for sports and subsistence only – halt the commercial slaughter that is preventing our stocks from replenishing.
When I was young, you never considered releasing a catch unless it was under the legal size limit. From the tribal heritage, it was literally like throwing away food. And when you are an excited teen or young person who finally catches a prize sized trout, you think you have to keep it just to prove to everyone you’ve finally mastered your skills and you are proud, as you should be. However, it’s a rushed thought and old thinking of ways that are not necessary both from the traditional standpoint or for the angler who first catches their first trophy sized trout.
I had already started making the move away from spinning gear to fly fishing in my mid 20’s as I was catching more trout than I could ever keep and I didn’t like the mortality that the spinners and hardware lures seemed to have – or bait. Bait was messy (effective and deadly) but the fish took it too deep – you were keeping it no matter.
Nowaday, I do not killed trout or char anymore. I have taken grayling for food, as needed twice on long trips in the bush. I do still regularly subsist on salmon, cod and halibut that I personally catch each summer. This is my traditional food. But I only catch what I intend to keep in these cases.
Talk to us about you artistic process?
For those that want a physical reminder of the memory, my wood carvings serve as the ultimate option for the catch and release angler – I call it ‘Carve and Release’! I offer a variety of options: my rustic carvings (no scales burned/carved in) are great for the lower budget. My Fish Portraits (traditional ‘European’ style mount – half body profile on a wood panel) is the best way to preserve the exact size and detail of a released trophy, and offers the best value.
My ultimate pieces, though, and my favorite, are the full body pieces that I match the length and girth (approximate is fine – I often measure the fish in the photo based on the anglers known hand size or any other items such as net, rod, etc.). I carve the details to match the anglers exact fish, something a taxidermist cannot do with a fish mold since you cannot get one from a live fish that was released, close – sometimes, but not exact. All the scales are burned in one at a time. On larger pieces, I will slice the head open and carve the interior mouth detail, then glue it back up so the seam is invisible. My largest pieces (over 24″ to 60″) are hollowed out then glued back up as well, to reduce weight and to make the wood more stable.
I paint every scale one at a time – the overall fish has several applications of paint. I spend a lot of time on the heads as this is the area most of us are drawn to. I carve the fins as if they are moving in the water, not flat and stiff as a taxidermist poses them – my pet peeve is the adipose being posed in a weird lifted up position – ???
The display bases sometimes take as much work as the fish carving. I try to replicate a part of the environment the fish was caught in. Some clients want a space to put a brass placard with the information about the catch, so I will incorporate an area into the design of the base.
With the Fish Portraits, I match the wood panel to the clients decor. For cabins, I use pine; elegant, I use dark or rich colored hardwoods; for rustic, I use a rough cedar panel painted then aged to look as if it’s been there for years.
Do you have any future projects you want to get done?
Future projects – yes! My regret is that I will never have enough time to complete all the ideas in my head. You’ve seen my ‘Out of the Myths’ series, a combination of my tribal heritage and my love of trout and salmon. I plan to extend this series into other animals and fish of the NW Coast such as eagles, ravens, orcas, wolves and bears.
Birds are another area I want to work on – but not birds alone. I have always been fascinated watching eagles and osprey as they fish near me. I had an immature bald eagle SWIM up river after a fish while I was wading nearby. The two pieces that I know I have to do soon are a lifesize bald eagle on a gravel bar, one foot on the gravel, one on the still live but barely thrashing king salmon, the eagle’s head is turned with a defiant glare daring any seagulls to risk their lives for a taste.
The other piece – well – this may be two – no there are three:
An osprey having just caught a trout in its talons, wings just taking off again
A bald eagle, same but coming in for the trout, just catching it, wings behind it and upstretched
Finally, a series of arctic terns (one of my favorite birds) – circling in a hover above the stream, with one just dipping down to touch the surface to catch an outbound salmon fry (this is how we find trout in the open season before spring – find the terns, you’ll find the trout!)
Below the surface, a trout rises in a semi curve to take the same fry – the piece is connected – river rocks on base, trout, water (black walnut sculpted), fry, tern with other terns connected by hidden brass rods through wings so they all appear floating overhead.
I almost forgot one more – my favorite bird, the belted kingfisher, wall scene:
Kingfisher on a branch overlooking a scene below:
spawning salmon (sockeye or chinook), being followed by a hungry trout
This is a scene I have witnessed on Alaska’s smaller streams often. Once the salmon start making a redd (spawning bed), the trout rush up to grab stray eggs.
This only makes more ideas – like a bald eagle in the same scene.
I really want to carve a full size bald eagle just to see what sort of reaction my daughters cat has.
And of course, upland game – I grew up hunting grouse, pheasant and quail for food – they are some of the most beautiful birds. My ultimate commission would be to carve every trout and salmon species, and all of North Americas upland game birds, waterfowl and shorebirds – then we could work on representing the abundant sea life of the Pacific ocean!
Here are some of Eric pieces: