Aside from Robert Redford’s masterful interpretation of Norman MacLean’s novel, A River Runs Through It (1992), when was the last time you saw a good movie about sport fishing? I want to call your attention to two recent outstanding documentaries that capture and convey the soul of fishermen and the waters they are drawn to, as well as challenges of the modern fisherman.

Rivers of a Lost Coast

Rivers of a Lost Coast (2009) by Justin Coupe and Palmer Taylor, narrated by Tom Skerritt, is an 84-minute wistful tale of fly fishing for salmon and steelhead on the fabled rivers of northern California, especially the Russian, the Smith and The Eel. This is a tale of the love affair between the soul of a fisherman, fish, and wild rivers, as well as how we can let natural ecosystems slip away if we fail to perceive changes in the bounties of nature that nourish our souls.

The main characters are a fly fishing community rooted in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club, which for a time in the mid-twentieth century was the epicenter of fly fishing for West Coast salmon and steelhead. This community was the place where world championship distance casting over 200’ first occurred, the shooting head fly line was birthed, and many new flies were developed in order to enable dedicated fly fishers a chance to tap into what was at one time the best salmon and steelhead fishing in the Lower 48.

Burt Mopin in his pram. Photograph by Conrad Calimpong

A central character in Rivers of A Lost Coast is the iconic Bill Schaadt, who passionately lived to fly fish, and his competitive relationship with his nemesis Bill Lindner. These two men became legends in their own time, fishing for salmon, stripers and steelhead with dedication–almost obsession–and they were definitely characters.

The Lost Coast anglers developed many new flies, but the one I liked best was Schaadt’s “dirty pool fly,” which he created for snaggers. A section of razor blade was connected to the curve in a large hook. Schaadt, who was an excellent distance caster, would spot someone trying to snag salmon or steelhead, and cast out to catch their lines. When his fly connected with the snagger’s line, it would be automatically cut as he hooked their line.

Chock-full of archival stills and film, seasoned with beautiful nature photography, and mixed with interviews with old-timers who knew Schaadt and Linder, filmmakers Justin Coupe and Palmer Taylor use the colorful lives of fly fishermen to set the stage to tell the sad story of the decline of the salmon and steelhead of California.

Ted Lindner and Matsui Okisaka in a morning lineup on the Singley Hole, Eel River. Photograph by Al Perryman

In the 1960s and 70s, the north coast of California was the place on the West Coast to fish for steelhead and salmon. Thanks to articles in major magazines, fishermen flocked here from around the world, often fishing elbow to elbow with Schaadt and Linder and others. For a time, it was Valhalla, and then the fishing began to wane due to due to dams, slash and burn logging, offshore trawlers, and the lowering of the water table by agriculture, the origins of which they trace back half a century. At first they tried to fix things with hatcheries, but that only slowed the decline and made the gradual decline harder to see.

One angler talks about years past of his landing 200 fish in a season, and then his most recent years with 1-2 and then none. This film ends on the note that since 2008 there has not been a salmon season in northern California, except for the Klamath River–the first such closure in 158 years.

This is a nostalgic tale about how one comes to know a river, blending your soul with its soul, and become a conservationist through enjoying and celebrating nature’s bounty. Hopefully it will move modern folks to take to the waters and learn the magic that can only come from wild places, wild fish and wild fishermen, and then band together to restore and save these wild places for generations to come.

This award-winning documentary comes with a beautiful 41-page color booklet, for $29.99, plus shipping and handling from http://www.riversofalostcoast.com/.

Red Gold

In the early 1970s, the burning issue for Alaska was whether to sink oil wells in the North Slope tundra at Prudhoe Bay and build the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. In the summer of 1972 I had the good fortune to travel the length of the then-proposed Alaskan pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, interviewing Alaskans all along the way. That trip hooked me. Alaska is now my official Valhalla.

Recently, whether to develop oil fields in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore has been the hot topic. I have not visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge yet, but my visit to the North Slope 40 years ago changed my misgivings about the pipeline, and made me begin to look more closely at environmentalists who flat out opposed the pipeline without ever having been there or watched how wildlife reacted to what was going on. If you have never been up to Prudhoe Bay, the caribou prefer walking on roads built by the drillers, and in winter they cuddle up to the warm pipeline that keeps the oil flowing. It’s my understanding the herd in those parts is thriving around the drilling.

A sockeye caught on an Alaskan stream. Image by Jon Warrenchuk (“Akdude”) on Wikipedia, released in public domain.

The next hot issue for Alaska is a possible huge hole in the ground–the Pebble Mine–that is smack dab in the epicenter of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. Any proposal to alter the wild landscape of Alaska stirs the soul.

Red Gold (2009) is a 55-minute documentary about the proposal to build the Pebble Mine: a huge copper, molybdenum and gold mine proposed for the Bristol Bay area of southwestern Alaska.

The film opens with an announcement by former-Governor Sarah Palin about the opening of the salmon season. That sets the tone. There is no narration to this film. The people on both sides tell their story, and you decide.

This is a beautifully shot film with an engaging soundtrack, and nice editing. It is not a hard-sell film. People on both sides of the Pebble Mine project do have their say; well, both sides appear on camera and talk, but there is a definite pro-fishing bias.

We get a chance to get to know some of the warm-hearted fishermen who call the Bristol Bay area their home. Seeing their babies and dogs and hearing their colorful stories juxtaposed with those of stoic geologists from the Northern Dynasty Mining Company, it’s pretty hard to come away not feeling sympathetic to the fishing community.

If I hadn’t been to Alaska and had the chance to talk with some people from Northern Dynasty Partnership who wish to build the mine and are a sponsor of the Midnight Sun Shoot-Out (which funds a lot of shooting sport programs in Alaska), shake their hands, shoot clays and have a beer with them, it would be easy to quickly decide that this is a sure disaster in the making. But these guys were nice people, who also like to fish and hunt.

Exploration drill rig at the prospective site of the Pebble Mine. Image by Erin McKittrick, released under Creative Commons license.

The Pebble Mine folks basically told me that they plan to build the most environmentally-conscious copper mine in the world, if they get their permits. And if they get their way, they will be pumping a lot of money into the Alaskan economy. The other thing they said that stuck with me was, “would you rather get your copper from mines in South America that have very little environmental regulation, or one that seeks to operate under the highest environmental standards?”

The Pebble Mine is a $350-$400 billion project. If it goes through, this would be a huge hole in the Alaskan ground, with huge dams to be built on earthquake-prone territory, and the mountains of mining wastes would be tremendous. It hits you in the gut if you like to fish and hunt, but you also need to make wise decisions and not get swayed by just emotion. Making a decision about something like this is a matter or hearts and minds.

The Pebble Mine is not like extracting oil from the North Slope, which really has had a very minimum impact on the environment up there.

The biggest danger from drilling for oil in the Arctic and transporting it southward has always been spills like the 1989 catastrophe in Prince William Sound that still fouls the pristine waters up there. What is the Achilles’ heel of the Pebble Mine? Is it a dam busting in an earthquake? Is it groundwater contamination? Is it arsenic leaking into streams, like one fisherman talked about?

A year in making, Red Gold won the Audience Choice Award at the Telluride Film Festival, and the Directors and Audience Choice Awards at the Mountainfilm Festival. It is produced by Felt Soul Media (Travis Rummel, Ben Knight, and Frank Smethhurst) in partnership with Alaska Trout Unlimited, and with support from a number of outdoor and fishing companies.

You can get a copy of Red Gold here for $25.00, as well as T-shirts. The DVD also comes with a 60-page booklet.

Watching this film will make you want to plan a fishing trip to Alaska and buy and eat wild Alaska salmon. just writing about it moved me to pick up some tasty sockeye fillets from Trader Joe’s.) Red Gold” will stir you up. If you then want to know more about this controversial project, check out the Pebble Mine page on Wikipedia. It’s pretty comprehensive.

To be honest, I would rather not see the Pebble Mine in the heart of the sockeye salmon capital of the world, but then again, until someone comes up with an alternative source for the copper wire that powers our electricity and runs our electrical machines…what can be done?

Recently big game fishing made it to mainstream media in the acclaimed HBO film Hemingway & Gelhorn (2012), starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman (if you see a rowdy drunk in the barroom scene that looks like me, well…it was a lot of fun to cheer for Clive kissing a marlin).

Currently in pre-production is another Ernest Hemingway film, Hemingway & Fuentes, produced, directed and starring Andy Garcia (as “Fuentes” the fishing boat captain who inspires Hemingway to write The Old Man and The Sea), with Hemmingway portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Garcia does like to fish. This could be a good one.

First three images courtesy Rivers of a Lost Coast, fourth image by Jon Warrenchuk and released in public domain, fifth image courtesy Erin McKittrick via a Creative Commons license.

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