By Richard Phelps
I can’t tell you what I really think, after all these are my friends. If I write all the good things about their movie, it will go straight to their heads. If I write anything else, it will go even deeper, straighter into their heads.
The movie “Land of Little Rivers” was made with great passion by two friends -- Bruce Concors, Executive Producer and narrator, and Aaron Weisblatt, director, whose NYU student film, SAM, a film about my father, was nominated for an Academy Award back in the ’80’s. “Land of Little Rivers” is an engaging chronicle of the characters, water features, and the fly fishing history and techniques, of the Catskill Mountains. Filmed over 28 days by helicopter, drone, land cameras, and drift boats, the movie takes the viewer inside a special region of North America where unique conditions make for some of the best cold water trout fishing in the world.
What are “flies”? Who invented “fly fishing”? What’s a dry fly, a wet fly? What’s important about a Blue Gordon? A Red Gordon? What’s a hackle? How to make a split bamboo fly rod. It’s all there. The story is told by the practitioners themselves, in their own words, in their own time, on their own sets.
The intersecting narration by Bruce channels some of the best writing style of Antony Bourdain. The text is informed by a lifetime on the rivers. His voice and diction are professional and controlled – attributes attributable to so many years singing dead-throat Dylan in dive bars. He is the glue, the angler with all the angles, the connections, the knowledge of, it seems, everyone in the sport, in the game. Late last summer I spent an afternoon on the river in his drift boat with Aaron on the camera. Bruce could recognize and name the fisherman in waders three quarters of a mile away just by his silhouette and casting style. This movie is his baby and fishing these cold waters is his life.
Yet, everyone featured in the film has a similar unique focus on the fly fishing world, or the areas of New York through which the waters run. There’s Rob, the self-proclaimed alcoholic hippie river guide, whose greatest joy is having his client case the river so well, observe the insect hatch so closely, and watch the action of the feeding fish so patiently, that the day’s fishing is a single cast for a single fish, BANG! -- 17 inch brown. Case closed.
It was mesmerizing to watch the expert Dave Brandt tie one of his signature flies at his work desk, at the fly-tying table clamp, under the bright lights of the camera lamp.
Equally fun to watch, the one and only cigar-chomping Rachel Finn guide her female client to a big fish on the Ausable River and then come down south and explain the difference in Catskill stream fishing to Adirondack water.
I wish we could have seen more of the bamboo rod production guy. His craft is fascinating and the work intense, right down to turning out of his own metal-ware for the rod. There’s just too much here for one film.
These little rivers depend on their water from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP oversees the city-owned reservoirs from which the waters of the rivers are released. There is a constant struggle between fish and human. Too little water from the reservoir releases and the river dries up, and with it, the economy of the sport fishing region. As long as there is plenty of rain, the dance between fisherman and city dweller is light and carefree. During droughts, tensions arise. In the end, we all know where the water will go. Water is life. Mni wiconi? Biblical dominion.
These cold waters are high in oxygen, a fact necessary for the successful reproduction of trout, and the chemistry of the soils, coupled with this oxygen, allows for extraordinary insect life in the stream beds and in the air over the running currents. These insects live in the water most of their lives, then come to the surface and hatch into the various flies they are, and, live a day or so, and die and return to the water, and are eaten by the trout by the millions and millions. Knowing these insects, learning their life-cycles, observing their place in the ecosystem, is the heart of fly fishing and the core knowledge associated with a successful attachment to the Land of Little Rivers’ universe.
Go see it. As I told Aaron during a moment of weakness, “A hundred years from now this is going to be an extremely popular film! A cult classic.”