Only his wife and close acquaintances know Bryce Tedford has a steelhead trout jumping out of his pants, just left of his navel. "The head pokes above my shorts, and the tail curls up to be visible as well," the 37-year-old California-based fishing guide said of his fishing tattoo.
But to Tedford, whose mother paid for the outdoor tattoo when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Western Washington, the significance of the ink runs much deeper. Prior to getting it, he had fished mainly for king and coho salmon along the beaches near his Bainbridge Island home. "The steelhead was almost a mythical fish to me," he explained.
Tedford steelheaded on rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest before moving near Sacramento last year to captain bass-fishing expeditions. His tattoo may have faded, but not his feelings for the trout it depicts: "The steelhead is the epitome of fly-fishing; it has guided much of my life to this point."
Tedford is just one of the tens of thousands of anglers who have chosen to express their love of fishing with permanent body art displayed on their skin.
Social media drips with fishing ink. Examples range from the practical (a finger-to-elbow-length ruler for instant measuring) to the elegiac (a Minnesota girl's entire back as an ice-fishing tableau honoring her late "Papa").
The vast majority of the fishing tattoos, however, make statements both profound and personal.
Just across the state line in California, every inch of Stefan McLeod's arms and hands express his love of fishing, and an uncompromising personal commitment to the preservation of the Truckee River watershed. The co-founder and inaugural president of Trout Unlimited's Truckee River chapter, McLeod, 35, displays the organization's name and logo in a vibrant Japanese water motif on the outside of his left forearm. "I would die to protect the Truckee Watershed," he said. "It means that much to me."
McLeod has filled the inside of that arm with a solid black "Patagonia trout" bearing his surname scripted in white ink. Two Callibaetis mayflies — one real, one an Adams dry fly — cover the backs of his hands. "They're one of my favorite aquatic insects," McLeod explained.
"The tattoos are incredibly detailed and done in an elaborate graywash — the black-and-white of tattooing." His wrists bear images of flies he's created and sold, and his left forearm exhibits "a full portrait of the most memorable, most beautiful brown trout I've ever caught — dot for dot — and the water and stones of the riverbed surrounding it."
Of all the designs on this admitted fishing tattoo addict, it's the "sacrilege" on the inside of his left elbow that resonates most personally. "It's a big old barb with a goofy nightcrawler curled on it," he explained. "That's blasphemy to a fly-fisherman, but my best friend, Scott Taylor, hated fly-fishing. He was into bait, a hardcore worm-soaker, and I lost him to suicide a few years ago. I look at it sometimes and laugh, but it still brings up heartache."
More understated is the triple-tailed Western green drake designed by noted Idaho angler and artist Jeff Currier that adorns the right ankle of Tom Bie. "It's a very personal thing," said Bie, who got the mayfly tattoo in 1998, the year he started his magazine, The Drake. "It was a way to keep me motivated for what I knew would be a difficult endeavor."
Currier's drake also serves as the logo for Bie's publication. The fishing tattoo, Bie noted, also occasionally attracts actual green drakes to his ankle while he fishes.
Marylander Jeff Little's attraction to kayak fishing knows no limits. If his story of crunching through an icy Baltimore Harbor on a 17-below winter night to catch a 45-inch striped bass doesn't prove his passion, then the tattoo on his right biceps certainly does.
The outdoor tatoo combines a tiger-striped smallmouth bass with a silhouette of Little reeling it in from his kayak. Below the image appears the fish's scientific name, Micropterus dolomieu. Although Little fishes for striped and largemouth bass, blue catfish and others, "the smallmouth is what I understand the best and means the most to me."
When Little looks at his body art, he thinks of his regular fishing buddy, Jed Plunkert, a West Virginia tattoo artist whose professional name, Jedediah Von Horror, belies his avuncular personality. When the rivers froze over in 2013, Little explained, he spent seven hours in Von Horror's studio.
"He took the concept and brought it to life," Little recalled. "I didn't want it to be ostentatious. I like it and will show it to people who appreciate it." Those include subscribers to his Pivotshare channel "tightlinejunkiejournal," where highlights of the entire tattooing process — from line drawings to final inking — appear
Like most tattoo artists, Von Horror (née Plunkert) sports plenty of ink himself. "They are like a scrapbook of times in my life," he said of his tattoos, "and a lot of those times have to do with fishing." His first one was a Lucky 13 lure on his right forearm. He commemorated his years as a shark fisherman with tattoos on his neck and calves of the first mako, hammerhead and thresher he caught.
Little said the same qualities that make Von Horror a great guide make him a great tattoo artist. "He's an entertainer, and he really likes getting to know people," he said. "When you're tattooing someone, you have to engage them fully for a good seven hours. That's a feat."
Since outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen make up a large part of his tattoo clientele, Von Horror takes "a ridiculous amount of reference photos of wildlife. You want to get weird angles, understand the different sections and muscles, the anatomy and mechanics." While trout are the most common among the fishing crowd, "the saltwater species along the Outer Banks — marlin, mahi-mahi, snapper — are my favorite. They're so vibrant."
Thanks to Von Horror, the calves of a local sheriff feature a mahi-mahi chasing some blue runners; a red snapper form-fits to another angler's leg; and across another client's arm spreads a pine-lined Canadian lake and the feisty muskies the client has battled there. Of all the fish he's done, Von Horror likes the 20-inch smallmouth he did for a buddy who fishes with him once a year: "He's a big hunter, and has a lot of wildlife tattoos. But he had me do the smallmouth to remember the time we spent together."
New Jerseyite Eric Hornung, avid angler and self-described "regular dude with kids who really likes doing fish tattoos," has "FISH ON" emblazoned on his knuckles, a brown trout on his forearm and a "Pacific Northwest-style salmon" on his thigh. He did them all himself and has majored in piscatorial depictions since 2006. "I like doing pissed-off fish," he joked. "I want my fish to have a soul, a little personality and a little character, a sparkle in their eye, and some attitude."
Hornung's work exploded when he put it on Instagram. Clients from all over the country have descended on his Anti-Hero Electric Tattoo shop in Andover. One woman, Hollie Brown, recently red-eyed from Salt Lake City to New York and drove another two hours to have him tattoo a fishing scene depicting a stream with red cliffs and red rocks in the background. "It's a brown trout catching my go-to fly, a Shimazaki ant," Brown said.
"She was a total gamer," Hornung recalled. "We worked on the design ahead of time, and when I got the drawing just right, she was on her way here." Brown said she has recently become addicted to saltwater fishing, which she's done in New Zealand and Mexico. "I just asked Eric if he's ever done a tarpon," she said with a laugh.
The Internet, however, has its downside, too. "People will bring in printouts of the same damn thing and want me to copy it," Hornung lamented. "I only do custom tattoos. My philosophy is to get people chatting. They might not know what they want at first, but I find a thread and keep pulling on it. I never stop talking."
In some ways tattoo artists like Hornung and Von Horror play amateur psychologists, much like bartenders or barbers do. But whereas a haircut grows out, a tattoo lasts forever. "What gives me the right to mark someone for life?" Von Horror asked rhetorically.
"But when a person has tried to catch a fish for so long and they want to remember it for the rest of their life, when a person wants to remember someone they fished with or where they fished, they put their trust in me. They know that, because I fish, I get it."