Last year I was sitting in a tiny airport in Esquel, Argentina when I ran into what I was convinced was my doppelgänger. From the Pelican case with a Flyfish Journal sticker to the Moleskine notebook, we were near mirror images of each other. The only real difference was the condition of our (also identical) Orvis t-shirts: mine was splotched here and there with blood and wine incurred after two weeks of exhausting fishing, his was pretty clean (he was just setting out on a trip). In any case, we got to chatting and it turned out that my double is Justin Witt, piscatorial man-about-earth and the founder and operator of Hemispheres Unlimited. The unusual story of how he came to be one of the sage’s of international fly fishing travel is an inspiration to guides and anglers everywhere.
MC: Let’s start at the beginning. You say you’re originally from Hayward, Wisconsin. Can you tell about your early fishing experiences and how they’ve formed the person and the angler you are today?
JW: Sure. I’ve been fishing for pretty much as long as I can remember, actually probably a little bit longer than I can remember. My dad was a fisherman. My uncles are all fishermen, my grandparents—pretty much everybody’s been fishing the entire time. Granted, I will say that I grew up with a pretty different fishing culture. For the most part, those fish that were caught in the first decade or so of my life were brought home and eaten. But those early experiences served as the foundation for what was to come. Fishing was the thing that made most sense to me throughout those years as a kid, and it’s still the thing that most occupies my mind and my focus as I travel around the world these days looking for new water.
MC: So how did you come to operate Hemispheres Unlimited. What happened in between Hayward and here?
JW: There was sort of a dark period of about a decade where I was running a marketing communications company. Basically, it was one of those deals where I was living the American dream working 80+ hours a week. Work had taken over my mind, and when it came to a head, I was running a marketing communications firm here in Atlanta, a print media company on Cape Cod and an import/export company that dealt, oddly enough, with fly rods out of New Zealand.
Then I had an aneurysm bleed in the left temporal lobe of my brain that nearly killed me. I was in the ICU for a long time. By the time I came out of that, I had realized that I didn’t want to live that way anymore. I sold some businesses and closed some businesses and sold my house and cars and pretty much everything else that I owned that couldn’t fit into a backpack. Then I went to Patagonia for the first time. I flew down to Cape Horn and started walking north. I walked for almost seven months, crossing the Andes back and forth between Argentina and Chile, and during that I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And it was moving water.
So I started Patagonia Unlimited, my first fly fishing travel company. During the fishing season I fished and guided and during the off season I hunted and lived down there. Eventually, I got the wandering itch again and wanted to start exploring, and that’s how I ended up doing alternate seasons in other hemispheres. I went to Kamchatka, the Bahamas, India and a bunch of different places, and I just started to explore what I wanted to do when I wasn’t in Patagonia. That ended up merging into the concept of Hemispheres Unlimited, which is basically a travel business for fly fishing that only deals with locations, guides and staff that we know and we know well. I spend a lot of time in each location we represent.
MC: What would you say to younger guides trying to get a sense of what their career possibilities are? How did traveling and guiding work in the early years of your career?
JW: The reality is that there are a lot of fly fishing guides in the world and most of them, I would say 90% , have basically local careers. Then there are a few of us that have been to enough places and have enough experience that with a couple e-mails sent out, we can get three or four offers all over the world. It’s a small group up there at the top. To cut my teeth I just sent e-mails to people in the business and say, “I want to be in Patagonia this winter. What can you offer?” I think the first year I got offers in Bolivia, Russia and the Bahamas, and then henceforth you just keep building your resume, checking out the possibilities and moving around.
MC: Aside from having seen your share of great fishing, what surprising realizations or surprising discoveries have you made as a result of being an itinerant guide?
JW: Well, I’ve learned that fishing is fishing all over the planet. When you get as deep into it as we are for those of us who are on the water as many days a year as I’ve been over the last decade or so, it becomes the kind of thing where you can figure out what you’re doing pretty much within any kind of an environment within a fairly short period of time. That said, the commonality in all of the locations that I’ve been to over the years that has most stuck out to me is that the planet is in trouble. I see trouble everywhere we go whether its Kamchatka or Patagonia or the middle of nowhere in the Himalayas.
Even in those furthest flung destinations, we’re always aware of the difference between the way that those locations were ten, twenty years ago and the way that they are now, and we’re always looking at threats to those locations that need to be dealt with in the present tense, whether it’s mining, general human population expansion and development or other sorts of pollution. There’s things that have to be looked at everywhere in the world. It’s something I didn’t understand when I was young, and I didn’t pay any attention to it during those years growing up in Hayward. Everywhere I go and every year that I do this it gets further and further beaten into my head that conservation has to be a focus in our community, because if it’s not, then our kids literally are not going to have anything like the opportunities that we have in salt or fresh water.
MC: With all these places in various degrees of peril, is there a particular place that you’ve traveled to that you feel is doing it right or kind of gives you hope or could serve as a model for other remote fisheries going forward?
JW: Basically, what I’ll say is the places that give me hope are the places where I’ve done long, long, long hikes into the middle of absolutely nowhere that are still essentially untouched. As far as a country that does it right or a system that has been put in place to sustain the environment, the answer is no. I mean, there’s progress being made. There’s no question that there’s progress being made in the Gulf, in Belize, the Bahamas. The United States has come a long way, too. Obviously, we don’t have too many rivers that can catch on fire anymore, but we once did.
Overall though, it’s still a matter of how far out can you get and that’s probably why our catalog has gone in the direction that it has. Even in the days when I was working all those seasons in Argentina, the program that I thought more of than anything else was a program that we called the trout bum. The trout rbum was set up for a portion of the market that nobody else is serving, for young guys that were not necessarily swimming in cash, but that wanted to come down with a backpack and a rod strapped to it and go way, way out into places where there were fish that had never seen flies. We sold the heck out of that, and I had a lot of really awesome guys go out there with me. Those are the kind of trips that I most enjoy, and Patagonia still has a lot of nice country, but it’s a matter of getting away from the lodges and away from the roads and away from the access.
MC: Are you noticing any interesting trends in destination travel, maybe since the time that you’ve been doing, it in terms of who the clients are, what their backgrounds are?
JW: Yeah I have, but I’m not sure whether it’s a change in the market or its a change in the sort of client culture that I’ve ended up building. When we first started with the company down in Argentina, over the course of the first couple of years, it became clear that there were certain types of clients that I just flat out didn’t want. Well, we fired them. We had clients that were not invited back. Then you’ve got other clients that you’ve got great energy with, who’ve have good onda, which is a word for resonance or being on the same wavelength. When we have onda with clients, what happens is they have an awesome time and you have an awesome time, and they go back and tell their people who are also going to be people of the same wavelength. And then you end up over the course of several years building a clientele that works very well with you.
All in all, I think that there are a lot of young folks who are not the normal super monied types of travelers who are these days looking to get out and see the world and cast flies at fish that they’ve never heard of before or seen. That’s awesome. It used to be that we only had guys that were pretty much minimum age 45 to 50 years old and very, very wealthy. These days a lot of young people are looking to be on a plane and go fish if they can afford to, and they manage to afford to. That’s really cool.
MC: Ok. Leave us with a story. What’s in your top tier of memorable experiences?
JW: When I was on my walk down there in Patagonia by myself, I sometimes was two or three weeks out without seeing another human being or being able to get a hold of any salt or anything to eat. I was just eating fish for a very long period of time.
I was coming from the Chilean side over to the Argentine side at one point, and I didn’t actually realize that I had crossed the border, and I was moving upstream on a river system that was just absolutely gorgeous. I was getting a lot of really interesting fish out of it, and then I came to a waterfall. It was an absolutely spectacular waterfall that is really an amazingly beautiful piece of property, and I stayed there for a couple nights. Then as I continued my journey, I really wanted to get a hold of some supplies, and so I cut up over the mountain and was coming down the other side looking to try to find a road, and then eventually a town.
I came upon the home of the gentleman who owned the estancia that the waterfall was on. This gentleman was probably in his late 80’s at the time. I still know him. He’s still riding the range and taking care of his cattle and everything, but he invited me in, as most of the Argentines that I met out in the middle of nowhere on that trip did.
We were talking about life and this and that. He was asking me pretty simple questions, and I was asking him simple questions, and I ended up saying to him, “Wow, it’s got to be such an incredible thing to own that beautiful waterfall.” He looked at me with surprise and then he said, “What do you mean, own the waterfall?” Then I said, “The waterfall is inside your property. You own the waterfall. It’s your family’s waterfall.” Then he burst into laughter, and when he came out of the laughter, he said, “That waterfall has been here for thousands of years before my family existed, and it’ll be here for thousands of years after my family is gone. No one can own a waterfall!”