Short Story The Spirit of the Tillamook People

Brian Ratty

 

 

Production Assignment:
Fly Fishing, New Zealand
by Brian D. Ratty

©2017

Brian Ratty

Author’s Note: Over my thirty-five year career as a professional photographer/videographer, I was fortunate to have many wonderful assignments. This adventure took place in November of 1981 when location video production was just emerging as a reliable replacement for the 16mm film format. The story was featured in a national trade magazine in 1982, with my picture on the front cover. As an avid fisherman, this was a dream assignment for me.

There was definitely something about skimming the tree tops at 120 miles per hour with my new Ikegami 730 video camera and a goodly portion of my not-so-athletic body hanging out of a four-man helicopter, with five passengers and video gear, that made me wish I had both feet firmly planted on my native American soil. At the same time, there was something about this country, these people, and those fish we were after that made me wish it would never end.

New Zealand Map

The first Europeans known to have reached New Zealand were Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and his crew in 1642. Europeans did not revisit New Zealand until 1769, when British explorer James Cook mapped almost the entire coastline.

New Zealand is, to say the least, a long ways from anywhere – 1,200 miles from Australia, 5,000 miles from Asia, and 6,000 miles from the Americas. Its two large islands have a land mass nearly equal to that of Japan, but its population is a sparse three million in comparison to Japan’s 118 million. These people are isolated, surrounded by thousands of miles of open sea, and it shows in their self-sufficient, independent attitude; in their culture’s blend of Twentieth Century convenience with centuries-old tradition; in the pride they take in their beautiful country, and in their unpretentious welcome to visitors like the four of us.

Besides myself - a videographer with few national, let alone international credits – there were our international tour guide, Mac Beatty, and my two clients, world-class fly-fishing experts and expedition leaders, Randall Kaufmann and Jack Moore. All of us had journeyed more than 10,000 miles, from the chilly winter rains of Portland, Oregon, to the warm spring breezes of New Zealand, to go fishing. We had come to stalk the great brown and rainbow trout that anglers around the world know and covet. (In fact, we learned the Jack Nicklaus had just spent two weeks at one of the fishing camps on our itinerary.) I had come to shoot a video documentary of our experiences for the enjoyment and edification of fishing-club members and anglers who might want Kaufmann and Moore to take them on similar jaunts.

In fact, the video program I was to make provides the only evidence that Kaufmann and Moore are world-class, world-traveled fly fisherman – except for a sizable and dog-eared collection of photographs. On their walls, there are no trophies that some taxidermist has artfully posed, and there’s not a stringer or creel between them, because they are avowed and very vocal “catch-and-release” enthusiasts.

Kaufmann explains, “To any ardent fisherman, the ultimate experience comes in battling wild game fish, as opposed to those that have been bred and raised in hatcheries. The underlying philosophy of catch-and-release is to conserve the population of wild fish for other sportsmen and future generations to enjoy. Releasing your catch doesn’t detract from the sport at all – if anything, it heightens the experience to know you’re leaving everything exactly as you found it, without damaging or destroying anything.”

The local Kiwi anglers thought us Yankee fisherman were crazy, as they had never heard of the concept of catch-and-release. At the time, New Zealand had no fishing seasons; it was open all year, and there were no bag limits: you took what you wanted. These types of fishing rules were long gone, back in America, and Kaufmann did his best to educate the local anglers.

To call the salmon-sized browns and rainbows “wild” is to understate the case – these fish are legend. Both species were introduced to the waters of New Zealand late in the last century, and they have survived and thrived. It is reported that, in 1904, a Maori (one of the native Polynesian people of the country) speared a brown trout that weighed 51½ pounds. The ones caught during our 14-day trek were smaller – between four and ten pounds, definitely big enough to be “keepers” – but all were returned to the waters from which they had been taken.

Those waters included some of the clearest, quietest, most awe-inspiring lakes, rivers and streams I have ever seen. We reached these fishing grounds by car, on foot, and by helicopter, but I’d had to do some pre-planning before we began our adventure.

First, I researched the power, and discovered New Zealand runs on 220V, 50 cycles. As a result, my American equipment would have to be 100% battery powered. Besides the camera, I took a Sony 4800 video recorder, a fluid-head tripod, shotgun and wireless microphones, a mixer, a color monitor, a battery charger, and a large supply of batteries and blank video tapes. In all, my video equipment weighed over one hundred and fifty pounds. But I soon discovered that the 50-cycle power did not operate the battery charger properly – the batteries could not be fully charged overnight. It is surprising how selective you can become about your shots when you know you have only 90 minutes of power. Next time, I’ll take along a transformer or a small generator.

I also consulted with my clients, who were experts on the terrain and weather we were likely to meet, and discovered that we would be going into sections that were rain forests. So I included a couple of items to protect the equipment from moisture – a golfing umbrella and a heavy tarp to use as ground cover. But I forgot the headphones for the audio system – and thus I learned one basic lesson of location production: Always make an equipment checklist and check it before you leave and after you arrive, both going and returning.

Another lesson learned: I had cleared all the equipment with United States customs but, when we arrived down under (on a Sunday), New Zealand customs promptly impounded my equipment. Home-produced commodities are fairly cheap on these islands, but anything imported is extremely expensive. A mid-1970-model used American car, for example, might sell for as much as $20,000. I am sure the customs officers thought I had brought that color TV set so I could sell it and turn a quick profit. They had no understanding of TV standards, and did not realize that the set would not operate on New Zealand power.

Finally, our sponsoring airline, Air New Zealand, had to post a bond of $25,000 before we were allowed to bring our video equipment into the country. By Monday morning, however, everything was cleared, so we could start for the interior (and the airline would get their bond money back when we left two weeks later). Still, the next time I go out of the country for a production, I'll be sure to get in touch with a local import/export broker and fill out the proper forms for international customs clearance.

Chopper

When we left in quest of the fish, our journey took us across pastures, into glacier-carved canyons, and over snow-capped mountains. We stayed in small towns or at local fishing camps, and relied on the expert local guides to pinpoint waters which would lend themselves equally well to landing a good catch and getting a good camera angle.

The two are not necessarily synonymous. As I soon discovered, fly fishermen do not carry video gear, and fish do not jump on cue. Thus, without an assistant along (a lack I will remedy next time), it was entirely up to me to be unpacked, set up, and rolling by the time their lines hit the water. That is no small task when the helicopter puts you down on a sandbar in the middle of a river.

Likewise, when somebody cried, "Fish on!" I had only seconds to figure out - from my vantage point behind a 2" viewfinder - where it was, which way it was likely to run, and when it might break water for that classic shot which every fisherman cherishes. My in-focus average on the “jump” shots was about one in four. Shooting an NBA playoff game would have been easier, but not nearly as exciting as watching the fierce yet friendly duel between fish and fisherman.

The fish usually lost, but rarely have the captured been treated so kindly. These men really cared, which became obvious as I watched them gently cradle each catch just under the surface of the water while it rested and regained its strength. According to Kaufmann, "The whole ritual of selecting the proper fly, stalking the fish, feeling it strike, then playing it and landing it is extremely exciting. But to me, it is even more exhilarating to release the fish from the line, carefully revive it, and then let it go."

The "ritual of selecting the proper fly" can be deceptively simple, especially to those who, like me, have trouble deciding between a worm and a salmon egg. What Kaufmann and Moore do is kneel at the edge of the water and turn over rocks to see what kinds of insects are indigenous to that particular stream. Then they merely pick one of their hand-tied creations that matches what they find. It seems hardly fair to the fish, but it works.

What they call “stalking the fish,” I call “double-teaming.” In places where the angler does not have a clear view, his teammate finds a better vantage point and tells him exactly where to cast. Again, hardly fair to the fish, especially in New Zealand's crystalline waters where you can spot the quarry in pools that are up to 15 or 20 feet deep. There is just no place to hide.

Wild Brown

Introduced into New Zealand waters by Europeans, these wild Brown and Rainbow trout can grow into salmon-sized fish.

Trout

During our two weeks, I shot and they fished dozens of locations, from Lake Taupo and its many tributaries on the North Island to the Karamea River and the mountain streams on the South Island. The weather was beautiful the entire time, and when a sudden spring rainstorm hit on the afternoon of our last day out, it didn't really bother anyone.

By that time, I had six hours of tape safely packed away in my case. Not all of it was about fish; some of it showed the local people as they gathered at all kinds of accommodations, from luxury resorts to family run boarding houses, to talk about fish, beer (a point of local pride), and the New Zealand way of life. Other footage was of the magnificent scenery - aerial shots from the helicopter, sunsets over the Tasman Sea off South Island, the Rangitaiki River on North Island, or the icy streams from the Southern Alps that feed Lake Tekapo that brim with trout. My next task was to edit all of this down to a mere 26 minutes, and the choices were going to be tough.

After returning to the States, the post production of that 26-minute video took well over two weeks of working in a dark room with sound and video editing equipment. The final program, ‘Fly Fishing New Zealand,’ was mostly about the country and its people, intercut with the record of our fishing trip.

For the audio track, I purchased a record of native Maori music before we returned, and used it under the opening titles and as background for some of the scenic sections. The narration was professional, but the voices of Kaufmann and Moore talking about the fishing were from the location tapes. I had used the shotgun mic to pick up ambient sounds, like the splash of the fish as they jumped, and those were also edited in as natural background audio. (Incidentally, the recording of the splashes did not work too well. We re-created those during post production by sloshing a hand in water, which gave a more satisfactory sound.)

We sold ‘Fly Fishing New Zealand’ into the ‘home video’ markets for a number of years. Had the program been produced thirty years later, we would still be seeing it on ‘reality’ cable television shows. This was a dream assignment for me, but I soon returned to my love of salmon fishing, because I like to eat my catch!

Postscript: Not long after returning to America, we learned that the helicopter we flew with during our adventure had crashed killing our pilot. The reason for the accident was listed as the helicopter being ‘overloaded.’ This was a sad footnote to our journey down-under.