From cave art of woolly mammoths to hero shots of trophy fish, we feed off visual story-telling. Without  Instagram and the rock star poses, the trophy fish and the Michael Mann montages that sell destinations, gear and dreams, today’s fly fishing world would be a much quieter place. Dictated to by geography and history, everyone would keep in their lane… but not Fly Fishing Nation’s globe-hopping Stephan Dombaj. When it comes to lanes, think of him as a talented Pricasso, boozed, in a rally car, armed with a loudhailer. The Mission met him in Issue 6.

“Look for Stephan from Fly Fishing Nation. You can’t miss him. Tall, dorky, Eighties pornstar-looking German.”

Dre (Andre van Wyk of Feathers and Fluoro) perhaps overestimated my ability to identify different generations of German porn stars, but he was right, you can’t miss Stephan Dombaj. I was at iCast in Florida, USA, in 2017 trying to dredge up some “global” advertising spend for the mag and Dre, concerned about my ability to make friends and influence people was trying to hook me up with someone to talk to about fishing and to drink with. Which, in a nutshell, is what iCast is. I found Stephan. He stood out.

How does one stick out in a crowd of tribal, uniform-wearing fly fishing people (the uniform being raccoon sunglasses, tans, peak caps and bush/boat casual attire that says, “I’m just as comfortable poling a skiff as I am ordering the rib-eye with Café de Paris butter”)?

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You dress your six foot five inch frame like an Eighties porn star. In the crowd of fly fishing store owners, buyers, retailers, industry players, guides and ‘celebs’, Dombaj stood out because instead of looking like he was about to spend a week on the water, he looked more likely to spend a week on a rotating water bed with company.

“In the crowd of fly fishing store owners, buyers, retailers, industry players, guides and ‘celebs’, Dombaj stood out because instead of looking like he was about to spend a week on the water, he looked more likely to spend a week on a rotating water bed with company.”

Could he have been a pornstar? No idea, but he definitely could have been a gunslinger of a different sort. Dombaj should have been born in another century, in another country, with a different accent, a different kind of shooter, but with the same moustache and quick eyes. On account of his lanky build, I imagine he’d have a name like Minnesota Slim, Slick Stevie or Deputy Dombaj. He’d have gone there (Where? Anywhere!) and returned to show and tell the tale. When challenged and called a liar, even back then, in the Old West, he’d have the grainy black and white photos of salmon and permit to back it up. Then, haters silenced, he’d push his transparent aviators back onto the bridge of his nose and proceed to stoke the campfire coals with his penis.

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But he wasn’t born a gunslinger in the Old West. Dombaj is a 29-year-old German fly fishing photographer of Croatian descent living and operating in this time and place. He’s the driving force behind the social media behemoth Fly Fishing Nation. From guiding full time, he transitioned into photography and now, shooting for major international brands, Dombaj produces impeccable #fishporn that your average weekend warrior would spend a lifetime trying to capture.  I’m sure you’ve seen his pics. His shooting style is Annie Leibovitz in the boardroom, but Terry Richardson in his heart of hearts. Bouncing between Cologne (FFN HQ) and London (where there’s a lot of business), Dombaj spoke to The Mission about photography, the similarities between surfing and fly fishing, the problems with #fishporn and what many brands just do not get.

On fly shops

“Bigger companies are taking over and smaller fly shops worldwide (who do it for the love of it), are disappearing, so this place (Fly Fishing Nation’s HQ in Cologne, Germany) is much more than a temple of enthusiasm. You can order everything online these days, prices are all the same, but what they get here is the overly hot coffee, company and advice because whatever they need we’ve got it. Especially in Europe, we know our backyard. And if there’s stuff we don’t know we have the network to ask the right people. It’s the transfer of knowledge that’s important. Fly shops are still a great solution.”

On inter-generational hostility and generosity

“In Germany when I wanted to get into fly fishing age 13, it was really tough for me to get access. The old guys, the established fly fishermen, would not take on a little boy who wanted to learn how to cast a fly rod.  I had to learn casting by reading books and just watching the first videos on social media. In the beginning those people hated us, the young guys, kicking up some mud. Later these old guys would hang out with us, but we had to prove ourselves.

“Thinking about it now, it was a great thing that we ran into a wall.  We didn’t know how the industry worked from the inside out so we made a lot of mistakes. We burnt some bridges, that’s for sure, but what we were, most of all, was progressive and different. Sometimes a little bit too aggressive and maybe a bit too young and stupid but I guess that’s part of it.

“Now that we have matured a little, I know I never want to end up like a lot of these old guys. It’s all about supporting the next generation. Otherwise fly fishing is going to die out. I think offering young guys the chance to try fly fishing is important.”

On hero shots

“My background is guiding so you grow up with hero shots because they’re the only things that a prospective client is expecting to take away from a place. Naturally, we got really good at it. All the guys from FFN were professionally involved in the industry as guides, camp managers or scouts. Hero shots get the job done. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool thing and I like to get a hero shot of a proper fish that I would like to remember, but that is the service you provide as a guide for your clients. They catch a nice fish; you take a shot; everything is perfect; they release the fish; they go back home and they have that memory in print or digital form.

“It took six or seven years in Argentina working as a guide to understand that everything that surrounds the hero shot is actually adding to the whole experience. It’s the way these guys cook their BBQ, it’s the way they share the mate, it’s the way the gauchos drive the sheep across the property. And it’s the way your rod guides are frozen in the morning.  It’s not all about the fish. The one dimensional approach of hero shots skew the bigger picture. There should be more story-telling pictures around the hero shots. Because hero shots are just a tiny fragment of the whole.”

For the rest of Stephan’s interview including (but not limited to) his thoughts on anglers’ obsession with size and numbers, storytelling, his heroes, natural light and homemade movies, formulas, failure and ‘the importance of the journey’ – get stuck in to issue 6 of The Mission, available for free (as always) below. Or buy the print version here (we ship worldwide).

All photos either by Stephan Dombaj or c/o Stephan Dombaj and The Fly Fishing Nation.