A River Sometime

A River Somewhere, once described by Rob Sloane as ‘a landmark in the fly-fishing lives of many FlyLife readers,’ first went to air on the ABC in 1997 and 1998, in two series comprising 13 half-hour episodes. To mark this 20-year anniversary, back in August 2016 Bill Bachman planned to spend a day with Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch where it all started, on the Howqua River in northeast Victoria, catching trout and telling campfire tales. This turned out to be more difficult than anyone imagined, and it took until March 2018 for the three to get together… around a conference table in the Melbourne offices of Working Dog Productions. So, how has it taken us this long to get together, and why is it so hard to find the time to go fishing? Rob Sitch — I have a theory that when you’re 30 and single you can get together in an hour, but when kids are involved and you’re trying to coordinate multiple diaries, the success rate is inverse-exponential. Tom Gleisner — Then throw in the vagaries of weather and so on, and it’s pretty easy for everything to go out the window. Looking back to when you obviously did have more time for fishing, how did A River Somewhere originate? RS — I guess as TV people, we often think about what would make a great series. And that’s often because what’s currently out there doesn’t service the ideas in your head. We probably thought the anticipation and experience of heading up into isolated places — combined with fly fishing, which is a very evocative pastime — might be a good basis for a show. I recently went back and watched the first series again, and it occurred to me that you really anticipated several TV genres that have become much, much bigger since then – one being travel and another being cooking. TG – That’s true. I seem to recall clearly that the series was motivated because Rob and I had taken up fly fishing and were really enjoying it, even though we were very much in the rudimentary phase. But we were baffled as to why the fishing shows on TV at the time didn’t interest us. We loved this pursuit but were curiously disengaged by the offerings that were out there, so we began almost with a list of things we didn’t like and from there did a test. Pretty much every program we’ve ever done started that way, from A River Somewhere all the way to Utopia. A lot of the things you’ve done have broken the mould or created a new mould, and this is a good example, because out of this has grown a whole range of catch-and-cook type shows and mild-mannered off-the-beaten-track adventure shows. RS — I definitely think there’s a human instinct, especially if you’re male, to have some outdoor or camping or survival skills. Having been devoid of them probably until I turned 30, I suddenly realised the fun of learning those skills. To us anyway, it seemed almost primeval to walk up a river and catch a fish to eat. I also think the feeling of being in a vast place, with no modern amenities, is quite addictive. Would it be fair to say you did a lot of that learning on camera? After all, your DIY approach was pretty low-tech and much of the humour was self-deprecating. TG — There were probably two reasons for that. One, we would have been frauds if we’d carried on like veterans with forty years’ experience, but also we felt we didn’t want this to be a series where we were telling people what to do and what not to do. We thought people would be far more interested in coming along on the journey if we didn’t adopt that sort of tone. RS — Tom had a saying that learning to fly fish is not like learning to play the piano. The point at which you enjoy it is not after seven years of practising scales. We didn’t want to be dishonest about the fact that even at a rudimentary level, fly fishing is bloody brilliant. I reckon a big change came along when Rex Hunt started making fishing silly and fun and open to everybody to be enjoyed in whatever way they wanted. It felt like fly fishing was ready for that too. Does fly fishing still play a part in your lives? TG — Very much. We still fish, we just don’t take a film crew with us anymore. Yes, life gets in the way, but Rob and I usually get away for a trip sometime in December when things start to wind down at the office. The South Island of New Zealand is a happy hunting ground for us… and we still return to northeast Victoria when we can. RS – We went into the upper reaches of the King, just before Christmas. We were amazed to find a little tiny stream off the side that was just full of trout… I love the way fly fishing makes a fool of you, in a great way. You think that catching bigger and bigger fish is going to scratch an itch, but once you’ve climbed that mountain and come down the other side you find — or at least I have — that no fly rod is light enough or small enough. It’s curious that so many people think the greatest joy they will ever have is catching a 10-pounder on the west coast of New Zealand, yet strangely, getting a 150 gram, beautifully coloured mountain brown trout… on a 0-weight rod in a little tunnel of blackberries, is often more fun. When you’re out fishing, does anyone ever recognise you and want to talk about the series? Have you ever been followed by paparazzi in waders? RS — We had a great experience when we walked out of a stream in the Otways before Christmas last year. We saw a guy getting into his waders — he must have been 20 years younger than us — and he said, “What a coincidence — I got into fly fishing because of you guys, 20 years ago.” That’s happened to us a lot. I’d say we’ve probably done about ten different TV shows, but A River Somewhere is unique in the way people speak to us about it. Would it be safe to say that your rather homespun approach allowed many ordinary people, many of them non-anglers, to relate to your adventures? And in some cases, to take up fly fishing themselves? RS — Yeah, I think so. When you watch pro golf you are reminded immediately of the distance between your game and theirs. When you watch us, you think, surely if those guys can do it, I can do it, I can have that enjoyment too. Here’s a quote from the Italian episode: “This is why fly fishing is so special: it takes all the frustrations experienced in our busy city lives and recreates them in a beautiful setting.” RS — (laughing) I’d forgotten that — it was one of Tom’s lines. TG — One of our greatest pleasures when we’re out fishing and not being successful, as often can happen for long stretches, is the speculation. You come up with all these great theories. They generally involve a barometer, or the water being a little bit off clear from rain that fell in the headwaters two days ago. You can spend an hour following these theories and still not catch any fish, but it’s entertaining. RS — I’m sure fly fishing has more theories than any other sport. We joke about it — we were up the King the other day and said, “OK, how long till the first theory?” and it was only 15 minutes. It’s funny how science allows us ever-greater insights into our rivers and how and why they change, but apart from maybe the barometer, it has remained curiously useless for our sport. What about equipment? RS – Tom has a theory that there are equipment sports and non-equipment sports. Having a love for an equipment sport is the gift that keeps on giving, or more correctly the cost that keeps on costing. Yet one of the things that comes across very strongly in the series is your low-tech approach to the whole thing. When did you see another fishing series that featured worn-out Blundstones, Dunlop Volleys or Snowbee neoprene hip waders? RS — (laughs) Well, yes. I changed my fly vest the other day for the first time in about a quarter of a century and found sandwich wrappers in the old one that must have been left over from our filming days. Have you upgraded some of your gear since those days? Have you kept up with the changes in fly fishing technology? TG — I’m not really aware of too much change. I still use the same reel my wife gave me 30 years ago. Wading boots maybe — Rob got a slightly lighter pair some years back that I’m increasingly envious of, but really… So do you reckon people overdo the gear? RS – The entire golf industry is based on the misconception that slightly better technology is going to improve your golf swing. And it’s not. Still to this day, it’s the deception and the quality of the cast and being in the right place that gets the fish. But I still think there’s something delicious about modern kit. And I’ll even add bamboo rods into that. Again, once you’ve conquered the [hi-tech] mountain, you can start stripping away the modernity, and that’s fun too. Slowly over the years I have accumulated a rod in every weight class, and yet one of my original fibreglass rods from 30 years ago is still great to fish with. Rob Sloane tells me there are still FlyLife readers who are working their way through your list of fishing destinations, rather like twitchers with their life list of bird species. When you got to the end of Series 2 did you still have a few places you wanted to go? RS — Yeah, we did. Sadly we couldn’t go to a few of them because of civil wars breaking out and stuff like that. We were going to go up into the upper reaches of Kashmir and then two nuclear armed states decided to dispute that territory, so it all became too hard. That was one. TG — Sorry to quote the series punchline, “there’s always a river somewhere” but there’s another ten series of rivers somewhere. We simply ran out of time and got caught up in other projects. There seems to be a lot more pressure on the rivers I fish in northeast Victoria than there used to be. Do you think the series had anything to do with that? TG — I think that was just inevitable as a result of population increase and people taking up more outdoor sports in general. RS — Yet, in 25 years of fishing the Howqua we’ve never run into another fly fisherman. Extraordinary, I know, but maybe we’ve just been really good at picking the right time to go. Part of the charm of the series is the fact that you didn’t use guides [TG – not on camera anyway] — a DIY approach that made the experience more relatable. How do you rate guided fishing? RS — I’d rather the solitude of fishing alone but every now and then you need some local knowledge. Also, your skills decay over time [and a guide can help with that]. TG — If you’re time-poor, say with three days in New Zealand, for goodness sake, don’t be proud, get a guide, because you’ll have a fantastic couple of days — even if for the last one you’re on your own, trying to apply some of the skills you’ve picked up. If you’ve got three weeks, well then maybe take your time and poke around and enjoy it that way. When you set out to make A River Somewhere did you see it more as a fishing show or a travel show? RS – I think it was as sort of a guys’ trip show. TG – I don’t think we set out with any predetermined idea, but we realised pretty early in the editing process that we didn’t want to get to the river too quickly, that perhaps the journey was every bit as interesting as the fishing. People often have the idea that shows like this are done by magic, but of course you were not alone. How big was the crew? RS – The rule we tried to stick to was that everyone had to fit into one van. The minute you let it get bigger than that you need people to coordinate the people. We would do most of the direction and planning, in concert with the cinematographer [Joanne], which meant that the intensity was pretty ridiculous a lot of the time. But it would still be a far cry from all the productions you’ve done since. You must look back on this nostalgically in terms of its commando-style filming. RS – The series was shot on old-fashioned film – Super 16, so very high quality, but heavy cameras, heavy film. Logistics were often a pain in the arse, which I guess just proved the old saying “You want to spoil a holiday? Film it.” But the benefits were high. TG — Today it seems inconceivable that you couldn’t instantly look at what you had shot, but back then we would come home from, say, a two-week trip to Europe and have to wait a couple of days for the film to be processed with that slightly sick feeling in our stomachs, hoping not to have the lab ring up and say “There was a bit of a technical problem…” These days everyone seems to be making fly fishing films. The equipment is so light and high-tech. You must look back now and think, wow, if only we’d had a drone, a 4K camera that fits into a backpack, and all of that sort of gear. RS – Sure, but after five minutes it still comes back to story-telling. I mean, I’ll watch someone’s Super 8 film if it’s got a good story. Were any of the trips nightmares, or did they all go pretty smoothly? RS – I reckon there were a few where we got a bit sleep-deprived. I remember once, it might have been between Belize and Wyoming, we did 118 hours straight [without sleep]. TG – Yeah, it could be gruelling. Part of the trick of TV, though, is that everything always looks effortless and is constantly fun. But of course you compress and excise large chunks of the day [in the edit]. RS — It’s funny, probably the biggest fishing disaster we’ve had was just last year, or maybe the year before. We were on a little stream up in the northeast [of Victoria] and almost about to pull out for the day when a submarine took Tom’s fly. If it wasn’t five pounds it was a four-pound brown, the biggest I’ve ever seen up there. “Give me your camera,” I said, and I stood in the middle of the river and I clicked and I went “Oh you’re gonna love that,” and I clicked again, and on the third it fell out of my fingers. It was THE most perfect afternoon, sunny, we were just about to go back to the car and have a meal, and I reckon God looked down and said, “You know what I could do here…?” So we’ve never had any proof… TG — Rob ‘commissioned’ a friend of ours to do a sketch of it, though I’m not sure it’s entirely to scale… Speaking of sleep deprivation, here’s a quote from the Howqua episode: “For the fly fisherman there’s only one thing better than getting on the river before dawn, and that’s sleeping in.” RS — Funnily enough, one way fishing has changed for us is that we get on the river later and leave earlier. We’ve realised on the trips we do now, when life is busy, that the package of a shower and a meal is the combo. The days of us casting in the dark and using torchlight to come home are… well, I wouldn’t rule them out, but… TG – I would. Here’s another quote: “A lot of people subscribe to the theory that if it’s comfortable it’s not camping. It’s not a theory we subscribe to.” RS – No, no, no, and we’ve doubled down on that since. If it doesn’t involve getting a key to a room it’s not camping for us. TG – We don’t feel like we have to prove anything, and as Rob says, a good meal and a bottle of wine at the end of a great day on the river is as much a part of the experience for us as the fishing. Given that you both started from a relatively low base of knowledge and skill — which as we’ve discussed proved to be a virtue in the series — have you learned anything in the last twenty years about casting flies, streamcraft, entomology and so on? Do you feel that you’ve become better fishermen? RS – Yeah. And we’ve developed a better instinct for it. Though I think we still false-cast too much and probably spook a lot of fish. We’re starting to look into other forms of fishing, like spey casting and Czech-nymphing and so on. We’ve just dipped our fingers into tenkara, the Japanese form of fly fishing with a long extendable pole. Where does A River Somewhere sit on your personal scale of accomplishments? Are you sentimental about it, or was it just another Working Dog project? RS – Let’s say we’re always intrigued by the reaction we get to the show. TG – And the depth of affection for it and, even after 20 years, Liam Bradley’s soundtrack. It was a package that has lived on in a way that has delighted us. Do you have a favourite destination, or episode? TG – Maybe the Howqua, because it’s our home river and was our first episode. RS – I probably love New Zealand as a country as much as Australia… Add to that, honestly, the taste we had of bonefishing in Los Roques. You can see why people get hooked on that. It’s got a lot of fly fishing in the mountains about it – it’s sight fishing, it’s a beautiful temperature. If you asked me what I wish I’d done more of, that would be it. Most of the episodes appear as if all the action has happened in the course of one day. Was that indeed the truth or did you have to shoot over a few days? RS – Oh, you have to shoot over multiple days. Early on we thought it would be great to do it in real time, but we soon learned that was not going to work. When you’re only using one camera, you have to go back again and again [to get what you need]. TG – We might fish in the morning and then do an afternoon of landscape and general cutaways. Time on the water was not the issue, it was more all the stuff around that, the travel elements. Each episode took about a week, with five days of intensive shooting and a travel day either end. Any advice for today’s young fly fishers? TG – Don’t be intimidated. Fly fishing still has this reputation for being slightly elite and technically difficult, but it’s just not true. Find someone who knows what they’re doing to teach you. I think it’s well worth taking a casting lesson or two. There are now legions of talented young fly fishing film makers out there producing some great stuff. Do you ever see yourselves returning to the genre? RS — I’d like to say yes. About two years after finishing [the second series] we started saying “we should, we should, we should…” And now twenty years have gone by. In our heads we always meant to go back [and do more episodes] but we haven’t. We’d never rule it out, though. What’s funny is that the form of our fishing hasn’t changed in the intervening 20 years (laughs). We still go away on trips, exactly like in the show, so in a way we’ve never stopped preparing for another series. Read the full interview at flylife.com.au and revisit A River Somewhere, Seasons 1 and 2, on iTunes, $2.99 an episode.

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