The name Eric Clapton is synonymous with rock and roll, but in certain circles he’s just as well known as a fly angler.
Clapton has been fishing his entire life but didn’t get into fly fishing until his status as a rock star was well confirmed. He even planned tour dates around famous rivers he wanted to fish. There was a time in his life when Clapton lived the ‘Rock N’ Roll Lifestyle’ like few have done but, since putting down heroin and alcohol in 1987, his life has been more like a John Gierach book than a rock and roll memoir.
Clapton’s recent angling obsession has been Atlantic Salmon. In August of 2016 he landed a fish measuring 42 1/2 inches on the Vatnsdalsa river in Iceland. That would be the fish of a lifetime for any angler, but Clapton returned in 2017 to land another salmon measuring 41 1/2 inches and weighing in 3 pounds heavier than the first. Not content to rest on his laurels, the rock and roll icon is heading back to Iceland this year and is predicting a personal best, if not a record.
I am deeply honored that Eric Clapton took the time to sit down for an interview and shared his thoughts on fly fishing with G&G readers. Below is our conversation.
G&G: Eric, may I call you Eric?
G&G: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. It’s ridiculously exciting for me, I’ve been a big fan since I was in high school. I was in several bands and my buddies and I used to cover your songs, so I apologize for that. We were awful.
EC: (Laughing) Well, thank you just the same.
G&G: I remember seeing the photos of that big salmon you caught in 2016, good lord what a fish that was, it was easily the biggest salmon I’d ever seen. What went through your mind when you hooked that fish?
EC: Oh, it was total panic. The first run was like nothing I’d ever experienced. You know, that fish took me nearly a half mile downstream.
EC: Yeah, and most of it in that first run. I nearly broke my knee chasing the thing down river. It was absolutely insane, and then it just bulldogged me. You know how some fish, regardless of size, are just tougher than others?
EC: Well, this thing was a beast. It took me two and a-half hours to land it and I never expected to land it. The whole time I thought there was no way. It was Sturla, my guide, Sturla Birginsson who held it together. He coached me through it. You know, I’d never hooked anything like that fish. I was learning as I went. I’d have never landed it without him. The next year I caught another salmon, it was an inch shorter but a heavier fish, and just as tough. I landed that fish in forty minutes, but only because of what I learned fighting that first big one. That’s the only way you learn. I was just lucky not to lose it.
G&G: Yeah, for a while there it was like, every time I went on line it was, “Oh look, Eric Clapton with another huge salmon.” I was kind of starting to hate you.
EC: (Laughing) It was not just you. Oh, some of my mates were so sore with me. I mean, not really, they were all happy for me, but I took some ribbing for it.
G&G: I’ll bet. Who are your fishing buddies?
EC: Well, Gary Brooker and I still fish together a lot. He was the one who taught me to fly fish, you know?
G&G: Gary Brooker of Procol Harum?
EC: That’s right. Gary turned me on to the fly rod when we were on tour. We used to joke that “Whiter Shade of Pale” was about matching the Hex hatch. ( Laughs) We used to fish all of the places we played. America, Japan, all over Europe. We weren’t very good back then but we sure loved it. We hung out with Rodger Daltrey and David Gilmour, both those guys own nice pieces of water. Gilmour’s place on the Test is just stunning.
G&G: So you were fishing with a bunch of the same guys you were playing music with?
EC: Oh yeah, the British rock scene was full of fly anglers. All of those guys were riding around with guitars and wet waders in the boot. It was great fun. A little too much fun, of course. Some of those guys were using way too much, myself included at one time. Some of us came through it and some didn’t but fishing was a big part of it for those who did. I’d have never gotten clean if it wasn’t for fly fishing.
G&G: Really? Fly fishing was a big part of your recovery?
EC: Absolutely. That first summer after I got sober was just amazing. One of my best fishing seasons ever. It was like I was on fire. My senses just tuned in. I’d gotten to the point that I couldn’t fish at all. I’d given up on dry flies completely. If I fished at all I was just dredging with nymphs. More often I’d just be on the nod, with my rig in a knot, by the best run on the river while my mates were out there killing it. That all changed after I got clean. I really learned to present a fly after that. It wasn’t long before I started Spey casting and then it really took off. I could never have done that high.
G&G: So it was fly fishing that helped you stay off drugs.
EC: It was fly fishing that got me off drugs. I just couldn’t function and I was tired of watching Gilmour catch all the fish. He’s a hell of an angler you know. I felt like I’d made my mark in music but I really had to establish myself as an angler, and I was never going to do that as long as I was using. I was certainly never going to get my Spey cast down.
G&G: So, the two-handed rod was that important to you.
EC: Yeah, it was. It became clear to me some time after The Yardbirds that it was all about the Spey rod. You see, a Spey rod is like a Stratocaster. There are some things you can only do with a Strat. Certain sounds, and the way that instrument speaks, it’s a special tool. The two-handed rod is like that. There are some things you can only do with that rod. You can’t explain that to some knuckle dragging Les Paul guy, believe me I’ve tried. They just don’t get it. That’s why I play a Strat, and that’s why you see photos of me holding huge salmon and not Jimmy Page who, if you do see a photo of him, is holding some sodding carp!
G&G: Wait, Jimmy Page is a carp angler?
EC: Yeah, if you call that angling. I guess he’s a guitar player too.
G&G: So, if I’m hearing you right, you are not fond of Jimmy as an angler or as a guitarist?
EC: Are you kidding? Why would I be? I never knew what Relf saw in that guy.
G&G: You mean Keith Relf, of the Yardbirds?
EC: Yeah, he’s no great angler either, by the way. He’d do well to cast past the end of his rod. He and Page were made for each other. The carp brothers!
G&G: I guess I think of carp as a pretty challenging species and, frankly, Jimmy Page has always been sort of a personal hero to me.
EC: Yeah, well, I haven’t seen any pictures of you with a record salmon either.
G&G: No I guess you wouldn’t. Those salmon beats are above my pay grade.
EC: Well, I guess if you’d been a better guitar player you could afford to do some real fishing. Too bad, mate. I hope you enjoy your carp pond and your Led Zeppelin records. Christ! You deserve Zeppelin. You and Page should get together with Ginger Baker and go fish some mud hole in Africa! What a lot the three of you would make. The Knuckle Dragger, the Mad Thistle Arse and the Poor Yank!
G&G: Damn, Eric…
EC: Mr. Clapton!
G&G: Fine, I honestly don’t know whether to be insulted or ecstatic that you just lumped me in with Jimmy Page and Ginger Baker. I guess I don’t have any other questions.
EC: Good, I’ve wasted enough time on you and your stupid Kink and Kerosene.
G&G: Gink and…
EC: Whatever, mate! I’ve got salmon to catch. Sod off!
I guess that abruptly concludes my interview with Rock and Roll Icon Eric Clapton.
It wasn’t what I expected, and probably not what you expected either. If you enjoyed it, well, today is your lucky day. I’m sure there’s plenty more like it out there.
If by chance you are reading this and thinking, “ Hey, wait a minute! I’m Eric Clapton and I don’t remember that,” I really would love to interview you. Or Jimmy Page.