Fly fishing, a niche within a niche, a subculture within a subculture, inspires far more than its share of art, literature, and film. Sure, fishing has plenty of media, but fly fishing media, much like fly fishing itself, commands a different level of artistry.
Fly fishing films are a genre unto themselves. We’re not talking about dusty instructionals by crusty masters, or traditional fishing shows with peppy hosts. Fly fishing films won’t make you a better angler, and they don’t try to. They might make you smarter, or at least more attuned to this sport and culture we love, and they definitely make you want to go fishing.
You might argue that the original fly fishing film was the 1973 psychedelic masterpiece Tarpon, starring literary icons Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan, and Tom McGuane. If you haven’t already, watch that one. The modern fly fishing film started in the late-90's when Tom Bie, editor, of The Drake Magazine, released Feeding Time. Bie took the vibe of ski films—quick cuts and action-packed footage set over a musical bed to provide vicarious thrill—and applied it to fly fishing.
By the early aughts, the fly fishing film had come into its own with filmmakers like RA Beattie and the Angling Explortion Group. The films gained momentum, popularity, and centrality to the culture when the Fly Fishing Film Tour started bringing rowdy festivals to fishy towns all over the country. These gatherings became touchpoints where fly anglers, especially younger fly anglers, could gather to enjoy their favorite media, eachothers’ company, and usually more than a few drinks.
Fly fishing films have evolved from a sort of underground oddity to the centerpiece of our media culture. They’ve gotten more sophisticated and much better produced. Fly fishing films, like the filmmakers and audiences who first brought them forward, have grown up. They’ve been around long enough for those of us who were there at the outset to get some gray in our beards and maybe a little thin up top. Since we’re turning into grumpy old bastards, we figure it’s time to start doing what grumpy old bastards do—arguing about which ones belong in the canon.
Here are our picks in no particular order:
Once upon a time very few people in fly fishing had ever heard of roosterfish, and the idea of chasing them from the beach on fly was virtually unheard of outside a small band of charismatic miscreants. Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your perspective on these things), up and coming cinematographers Travis Rummel and Ben Knight found out and decided to make a film profiling this fishery and the people who had it virtually all to themselves back then. Running Down the Man launched the careers of both Felt Soul Media and Frank Smethurst, all of whom would shape fly fishing media for a very long time. The fishing is insane, the characters are fantastic, the soundtrack is banging, and this one really re-set the bar for what fly fishing films could and should be. It’s also arguably one of the greatest/worst spot burns in the history of the sport, something people have been complaining about with fly fishing films ever since.
California used to see runs of salmon and steelhead that not just rivaled, but bested its northern neighbors. In a single generation, we managed to destroy every single anadromous fishery there. But Rivers of a Lost Coast does far more than mourn a paradise lost. This film profiles of some of our sport’s Left Coast pioneers—Bill Schaadt, Ted Lindner, and Jim Green, among others—who get far less attention than their East Coast counterparts. This is so much more than a conservation film: it’s got fighting, drama, crazy characters, inappropriate firearms, and so much more. It will also make you think differently about the history of California rivers and the future of other anadromous fisheries.
A fly fishing film inspired and partially narrated by the greatest living fly fishing writer, John Gierach, The Artic represents the moment when the genre really came into its own. The film opens in Gierach’s office as he taps out a story of his trip to the Northwest Territories in search of giant char before taking you there with Gierach’s guide. It captures the meditative and thoughtful feel of fly fishing literature, before shifting into jump cuts and hero shots. Of course, there’s also drunken debauchery, a slightly forced denouement complete with sad piano music, time lapse of the Northern Lights, oh yeah and utterly incredible fishing: Pike smashing topwater, grayling and lake trout slurping dries, and the star of the show—a hairy wilderness river with the biggest Arctic char in the world.
Perhaps the first fly fishing film that told a complete, focused story, Doc of the Drakes documents the relationship between 83-year-old angler with Parkinson’s disease and his guide. Together, they chase big trout on Idaho’s famed Silver Creek through the brown drake hatch. Because Dr. Franklin’s condition limits his mobility, the two bob downstream in float tubes with Pete physically hanging on to his friend and client and urgently coaching him through one of the most amazing rises ever captured on film. The misses are numerous, and Pete’s fight to keep a positive attitude heroic, though not nearly as heroic as Dr. Frankin’s. The ultimate payoff, however, is perhaps the greatest ever shown in a fly fishing film.
Though not the fishiest film ever made, or the most slickly produced, Streamers Inc was one of the first fly fishing films to be actually funny. The film works on several levels—it makes fun of fly fishing culture poking fun at the intense hand-wringing that was going on at that time as streamer fishing was rapidly gaining popularity. It also spoofs the Cops style, ride along, reality tv law enforcement drama, which is begging for ridicule. Fly fishing still needs more levity and self-deprecating humor and in that sense this film was way ahead of its time.
This is the wild card. Most of the best fly fishing films have great set ups, interesting character development, some kind of narrative arc, and lots of great fishing footage. This film is great because it tells a perfectly contained, very simple fishing story in less than three minutes, a feat that has never been achieved before or since.
We could have picked anything from Rolf Nylinder for inclusion on this list, because just about everything he has created counts as brilliant. We settled on this one because it’s a near-perfect example of his ability to combine, flawless cinematography, riveting storytelling, poetic writing, unexpected weirdness, and compelling characters in a fishing story. He’s also really honest about the fact that he loves catching fish while waxing poetic about all the aspects that surround fishing. We think Rolf doesn’t get as much respect as he deserves in fly fishing filmmaking, probably because he’s Scandinavian and we’re pretty Amero-centric in this industry.
Our newest selection, Mighty Waters is a recent release from Cold Collaborative, who has produced several great films in recent years. This one features very little actual fishing, which we realize may be a turnoff for some people, but makes up for it in narrative and impact. Did you know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went bonefishing in the Bahamas, or that he was on a boat just days before his assassination with Nassau legend Ansil Saunders? Well, watch the film, and you’ll know.