On a recent rainy June morning, a team of Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologists carrying electro-shocking equipment stood knee-deep in a cold pool in tiny Bear Creek, thrusting long-handled fish nets at a shadow darting beneath the bubbling water.
Acclaimed fish artist Joe Tomelleri leaned in from the creekside and studied the action, ignoring the raindrops.
Suddenly, CPW aquatic biologist Cory Noble smiled as he pulled his net out of the water and swung it toward Tomelleri, who peered at the wriggling wet trophy inside.
Noble’s net held a six-inch fish with a dark back. Vivid black spots along its side and belly were highlighted by smudges of orange and dark oval marks.
It was a rare greenback cutthroat trout – a threatened species the agency has worked for decades to conserve and protect from extinction.
As Noble held the net at the water’s surface, Tomelleri wet his hand in the creek and reached into the net, gently lifting the greenback out and depositing it in a glass case filled with creekwater. He then raised the case so he could more closely examine the greenback, front and back.
“It’s beautiful,” Tomelleri said as he held the case up for the surrounding CPW team to see. He studied the distinctive spots and coloration, made more intense because the fish was caught at the peak of the spawning season.
“They are stunning because they have these spectacular tall parr marks on their sides,” Tomelleri said. He was referring to the dark ovals or bands on the sides of young trout, called “parr” marks, which serve as camouflage and help identify juvenile fish.
“They have an orange band on their sides; it’s really a series of spots as opposed to a continuous band, and pitch-black spots on their sides,” Tomelleri said, smiling broadly. “It’s really beautiful.”
Indeed, there were smiles all around with the CPW team that had assembled to welcome Tomelleri and guide him up the tiny creek on the southwest edge of Colorado Springs. In addition to Noble and the aquatic technicians, the CPW team included Dr. Kevin Rogers, aquatic researcher and cutthroat specialist who has spent much of his career studying the greenback, and Paul Foutz, senior aquatic biologist for CPW’s Southeast Region.
Why did CPW want the artist to join its aquatics team on Bear Creek?
“Joe Tomelleri is the world’s pre-eminent fish artist,” Rogers said. “Fish are hard for the public to see. Joe brings them to life with his illustrations. They’re better than photographs. They are exact replicas of actual specimens and wonderful for showing folks what they look like.”
Rogers said it can be hard for the public to form a bond with animals they can’t readily see or identify. And that makes it hard for agencies like CPW to win public support for its wildlife conservation efforts.
“When we’re trying to promote these fisheries and let people know about these gems that are still with us on the landscape, it’s great to have Joe there drawing them for us so we can use them in posters and books,” Rogers said. “It’s a real privilege to have Joe out here today and show him the stream. He’s done so much for all our public outreach.”
In fact, Tomelleri and the CPW team were assembled not far from a large CPW sign overlooking Bear Creek that alerts the public to the special resident living in a five-mile stretch of the stream, its history, appearance, diet, size and the challenges to its very survival such as habitat deterioration, pollution and human interference.
At the center of the sign is a large Tomelleri illustration of a greenback.
“Joe’s illustrations bring to life organisms that many don’t get to see in person or hold in their hand,” said Paul Foutz, the senior aquatic biologist. “Connecting them to the unique beauty of each individual species is critically important to establishing support for our conservation and recovery efforts here in Colorado. Joe’s work helps recruit new stewards for our important aquatic resources.”
On the sign, as in all Tomelleri illustrations of fish, the greenback is displayed as a static profile image. Tomelleri never draws fish leaping dramatically from a lake or creek, wildly contorted in pursuit of a fly or shedding water.
Tomelleri’s style conforms with the historic scientific “left-lateral view” presentation of fish to enhance the ability of scientists and the public to identify a fish via the precise display of eyes, mouth, gills, fins and tail, markings and colors – down to the exact number of scales on each specimen.
“Fish are notoriously difficult to take photographs of to show all the details that someone needs for scale counts, or fin ray counts, that you need to distinguish them from all the different species,” Tomelleri said. “Since the mid-1800s, fishes have been drawn this way.”
Tomelleri drew them in a scientific pose because he is a biologist. It was during graduate school nearly 40 years ago that he began drawing fish to illustrate a publication at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. That was 1985, and quickly he transitioned from working as a biologist to what became his life’s work: drawing fish.
“I’ve done about 1,300 illustrations, maybe 900 to 1,000 different species,” he said. “Most are freshwater fish with some saltwater. I’ll do male, female and juveniles so the general public and scientists can see the variants in species.”
CPW has used Tomelleri’s illustrations for 30 years on calendars, fishing regulations, signage, posters and in a native fish book of Colorado.
His scientific illustrations have educated and inspired people about all the 100 or so unique species fish in Colorado from its native cutthroat to cold- and warm-water sportfish, as well as the variety of shiners, suckers, chubs, dace, darters, catfish, carp, sunfishess, walleye and more.
If Tomelleri’s name isn’t familiar to you, no doubt you’ve seen his work if you have ever looked at CPW fishing brochures, fish posters or studied fishing catalogs on the CPW website.
But his work goes far beyond CPW and Colorado. His art has appeared in magazines including In-Fisherman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, National Geographic, Canadian Sportfishing, Playboy, Wine Spectator and many others.
His illustrations are used by at least 38 states and they are in about 75 books that document the fishes of a particular state, region or country, such as Mexico. Tomelleri’s fish illustrations hang in museums, are sold in galleries and have been featured in many advertisements, including appearing on Busch and Busch Light cans in a series in recent years.
His fish illustrations are created in his studio in Mission, Kan., where he spent anywhere from 20 to 80 hours drawing each specimen. The drawings don’t begin until Tomelleri has precisely measured each fish, studied it – even using a dissecting microscope – and counted every row of scales.
That attention to detail and his artistic expertise have made Tomelleri well-known among aquatic biologists, both Rogers and Foutz agreed.
“Joe’s expertise and his amazing illustrations are an inspiration to so many of us in the field of ichthyology and fisheries science,” said Foutz, who is also a Fort Hays State graduate and first heard of Tomelleri’s work from professors.
“Not only is his work beautiful, but it is unique due to the precise scientific detail with which each illustration is completed. Fish taxonomy and identification of individual species often requires meticulous observation of fin-ray counts, and scale counts; not to mention the other fine details of a fishes’ morphology. Joe’s illustrations incorporate all of that, down to the finest detail. Quite simply, they are unbelievable!”
Despite all the years and all the fish he’s handled and drawn, Tomelleri said Colorado’s humble state fish, the greenback cutthroat trout, remains special to him.
“Today is amazing for me because this is the first time I’ve been able to see a greenback cutthroat trout alive in the field, not in an aquarium, out in the natural habitat,” Tomelleri said on that chilly and wet June morning as he sat beside the splashing creek. “The greenback is important because it just about went extinct. This population was rediscovered in 2012. It was the only known existing population in the world.
“And it’s special I’ve seen all the other subspecies of cutthroat. This is the first time that I’ve gotten to see the greenbacks in the wild. The spawning male adult is spectacularly colored!”
Rogers is thrilled to help make the introduction.
“This is a special day for Joe to be able to see a native greenback cutthroat trout in the wild,” Rogers said. “But it’s an even more special day for us because we really need him to draw these incredible illustrations to share what these fish look like with the public so they can really appreciate the natural diversity we are trying to preserve.
“We are grateful to Joe for all his work all these years. We couldn’t do it without him.”
Written by Bill Vogrin. Bill is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife southeast region. Video by Jerry Neal. Jerry is the senior videographer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.