Fly Boys pushed the envelope of steelhead fly-fishing in this film as they catch steelhead, with dead drift dry flies. The adventure is interwoven with steelhead education, conservation, & a historical perspective, & educates the viewer about the current state of wild steelhead. 69 min.
Fly Boys pushed the envelope of steelhead fly-fishing in this film, and catches steelhead as few others have, with dead drift dry flies. The adventure is interwoven with steelhead education, conservation, and a historical perspective seem though the eyes of such legends as: Bob Clay, Denise Maxwell, Russell Chatham, Tom Morgan, Jerry Kitsch, Steve, Pettit, Keith Stonebraker, Rusty Vorous, Lee Spencer, and Bill Flick. The film educates the viewer about the current state of wild steelhead and helps garner film support for their preservation by reigniting a passion for catching these fish on a fly.
Raising a ghost to a Dry Fly
Article Review by Brett French of the Gazette Staff
It shouldn’t have happened. There were just too many ways that things could go wrong - and they did. Plus, it was just a wild idea.
But despite a series of setbacks and some long odds, seven Bozeman men managed to helicopter in to a remote British Columbia river and catch steelhead on dry flies while making a documentary film of the unusual adventure.
"We got really, really, really lucky," said Jesse Atkins, 29, one of five Bozeman anglers featured in the film.
The main fishing concept alone was sketchy - catching steelhead on dry flies. Steelhead are sea-running rainbow trout that are known to be finicky, where fish caught are measured in hours spent angling, not in numbers hauled in.
And the idea that the wild fish would rise to eat hatching bugs, although documented in angling literature, is seldom seen and may never have been captured on film.
"This kind of thing is not supposed to happen," said Paul Tarantino, 37, the owner of a Bozeman restaurant and the producer of the film, "Raising the Ghost."
But it did happen, and the Fly Boys, as they called their new filmmaking venture, have documented it. Just don’t ask where they went.
"There are a lot of local guys up there who would shoot me if I told you," Tarantino said.
The idea for the film was born after Tarantino and Atkins met and ended up fly fishing together. Both had always wanted to make a fly-fishing film but couldn’t agree on a worthy subject.
"When you sit down and think about making a fishing film, there are a hundred different ways you can go," Tarantino said. "What’s really spectacular about this video is we spent seven days on the drainage - a tributary to the Skeena - which is one of a few in the world where steelhead feed on mayflies. For what reason they key in on mayflies, I don’t know, but they’re 4- to 12-pound steelhead."
The film idea took a leap forward when Josh Brandner, 25, a recent graduate of Montana State University’s film school, sought a job at Tarantino’s restaurant. Suddenly, the idea men had a filmmaker under their wing. What’s more, he liked to fish.
In June 2007, the group agreed to pursue a film on the dry-fly-gulping steelhead of the Skeena River. Other members of the team included angler and still photographer Bob Carroll, Bozeman angler Nick Watson and cameramen Kalen Higton and Ryan Stumpe.
The Skeena is a coastal river with six large tributaries. The stream runs southward out of British Columbia, emptying into the Hecate Strait south of Ketchikan, Alaska. Its headwaters flow from the Skeena Mountains and the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness. The river is one of the few remaining that hasn’t been dammed and that still contains all native steelhead and salmon.
The filmmakers decided their first job was to interview local and regional steelhead experts, including Tom Morgan, Russell Chatham, Rusty Vorous and Bill Flick. By September, they had arranged to drive four anglers and three cameramen to British Columbia, meeting a helicopter on a remote forest road to sling-load their gear into a tributary of the Skeena.
The plan was to find where the mayfly hatch might occur, set up camp and fish. For their seven-day stay, they were packing in one raft, a wall tent and wood stove, food, camera gear, a small generator and all of their camping and fishing equipment.
Their odds of finding the hatch weren’t good. The information was spotty. Rainy weather could easily spike the river flow and muddy it up, killing any chances that the mayflies might hatch. The river was also coming off what regional anglers considered its worst year ever for steelhead fishing. On the 70-mile long tributary, the men eventually zeroed in on a two-mile stretch.
Like many backwoods adventures, things didn’t go exactly as planned.
"After four days in, we were thinking this could be a complete bust," Tarantino said. "It was stressful."
No dry flies were hatching, and no one was catching steelhead despite extensive hikes along the rocky stream that they compared to Montana’s Gallatin River, only twice as wide, without any streamside trails, bordered by 4-foot tall boulders and dense forest.
"When you’re trying to make a movie and you get to the 11th hour and don’t have anything fish-wise, it’s a hard thing mentally," Atkins said.
Tarantino said it became evident after the first two fishless days that they would have to consider moving camp if they wanted to catch fish. But they only had one boat and what seemed like a ton of gear to move.
"Our original intention was to use the raft just to cross the river," Tarantino said. "We just planned on walking up and down the bank."
Confronted with the possibility of a filmmaking disaster, the crew loaded up the boat with all the gear that they could cram in. Atkins, a whitewater rafting guide, was put in charge of rowing the boat and carrying one cameraman. The rest of the group shouldered 60-pound dry bags and began trudging downstream. They said it took about an hour and a half to walk a little over a mile without gear.
"The boat was extremely heavy, and it would have been easy to get in a high-maintenance situation," Atkins said. "It was really nerve-wracking going through the whitewater."
Eventually, the move paid off. On the fourth day, Carroll finally caught a fish - a 6-pound steelhead, although not on a dry fly.
"It felt good to get one under your belt, take a little of the pressure off," Carroll said in the film.
Meanwhile, all the other anglers were cold, wet and more than a little frustrated. Spirits were as low as the coastal clouds.
"You keep second-guessing yourself," Atkins said in the movie. "I think they’re ghosts."
The crew was also concerned about making it the rest of the way down the river since they had left the one site where they knew the helicopter could land. Tension mounted.
Flies finally found
It wasn’t until the fifth day that Atkins found a pool where steelhead were rising to hatching mayflies. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any of the dry flies Tarantino had tied to match the hatch. Instead, he scrounged through his fly box and found a cat puke stonefly he had for trout fishing. The steelhead didn’t seem to care, immediately grabbing the stonefly and, almost as quickly, breaking the light hook.
Atkins was stoked. It took him three hookups before he finally landed one of the big steelhead.
"Those fish weren’t selective," Tarantino said. "All you had to do was get the fly to dead drift over their head and they’d eat it. It was more of a hunt to find them."
The 10 flies Tarantino had created to imitate the big green drakes were tied on bonefish hooks, which meant they often sank and had to be dried after every cast to float again.
"Our concern was a small fly with a strong enough hook," Atkins said. "In hindsight, we could’ve tied something larger like a size 6 in a steelhead hook. As far as matching the hatch, we were way off. The mayflies were huge."
By the seventh day, on Sept. 17, 2007, the anglers caught seven steelhead on dry flies in one hour, a total of 17 fish for the whole trip captured on film.
"Compared to the numbers of fish other people caught in British Columbia that year, we rocked," Atkins said.
Out of more than 150 hours of raw film footage, a 69-minute rough cut of the film has been edited, with a final version expected by the end of July. The film was shot in digital MiniDV format.
There are three motivations behind the making of the movie, Tarantino said. One is to excite people about fishing for steelhead and reignite the passion of steelhead fishing to get anglers to support conservation of the sea-running trout. The second is to talk about the conservation of the species through the voices of experienced anglers and fisheries biologists who remember when the big fish ran in much greater numbers, what has contributed to the current population declines and what can be done to bring the steelhead runs back. And they wanted to pass the torch of conservation and preservation of steelhead on to the next generation of anglers.
"If we don’t, (steelhead) could be lost," Tarantino said, "because it’s really the anglers who are battling to keep them around."
In the interim, Tarantino is marketing the film to potential sponsors and partners. His goal is to show the film at conservation events and in fly-fishing film festivals as well as to create DVD copies for retail sale. He’s hoping that "Raising the Ghost" is the beginning of a new fly-fishing filmmaking business. (And no, he’s not related to famed Hollywood filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.)
"We don’t expect to make millions of dollars off this thing," he said. "As far as we’re concerned, we’ve succeeded."
But he still wants to make more movies geared toward conservation while taking cool adventures.
"We’ve got to look at these first films as all about showing people what we can do. It’s our investment in the future," Tarantino said.