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Time in the field working with crews and hosts in such conditions is the best way to understand the dynamics of television production, and I made a practice of traveling to as many regional shoots as my workload and budget would allow. That’s how I ended up staring at an angry woman’s breasts bobbing down the Thompson River.
The plan was to begin filming Athena as she guided clients for two days on her familiar home waters. Then we’d head up the Thompson River for a few days of steelheading, her favorite recreational pursuit. It was the first week of November and all but one of our staff cameramen were scattered on other shoots. I flew in an out-of-state freelance shooter we used on such occasions, and the three of us headed west.
A massive storm system was bearing down on the Pacific Northwest as we left Missoula. By the time we hit Snoqualmie Pass, all liquid hell—buckets of rain, sleet and snow—had broken loose. After a white-knuckle drive we arrived at Athena’s house in the late afternoon, shot a few short segments of Athena cooking dinner for her husband and kids (Hot Steelhead Guide Does Domestic!) and then drove through steady rain to the small town where we’d base our operation for the next few days.
The rain continued through the night, and when we woke up the next morning we had a decision to make. Every river in the area was bank-full and muddy, but Athena said she knew a river or two that would fish even in these conditions. We grabbed a quick breakfast at the motel café and game-planned an effort to find fish in the flood. It was then we got word that both roads leading out of town had been nearly overrun by the advancing flows, and that we risked an extended lockdown if we didn’t make tracks in a hurry. We heard relatively good news about the weather up in British Columbia, and decided to switch up our locations; maybe we could get some good footage on B.C.’s Thompson River and then shoot on the dropping Washington rivers on our way back. Improvisation is chronic on outdoor shoots, and I felt good about the change of plan. Little did I know that the literal storm we were enduring in Washington was just a gentle spring shower compared to the figurative storm we were chasing to B.C.
Steelhead fly fishermen operate on the lunatic fringe of angling. They routinely drive hundreds of miles to camp in crappy weather, eat crappy food and drink crappy beer in the name of a pursuit that can reward all that effort with days or even weeks without a single instance of steelheading’s treasured tug.
British Columbia’s Fraser River is one of the most revered watersheds in all of steelhead fishing, and its largest tributary, the Thompson River, is held in particular esteem by hardcore steelheaders. The fish of the Thompson are known for their massive size and immense power. They’re also scarce enough—in down years, the run is measured in the hundreds of fish on a river that averages over 20,000 cfs—that the Thompson suffers occasional season-long closures. That Athena had picked one of the toughest fields in fishing on which to show her stuff gave me enormous optimism about her skills.
That optimism proved mostly unfounded. Because we began fishing a day earlier than planned, Athena’s fishing buddy from Vancouver had not yet arrived, so we shot an entire day of footage with Athena and the “client” she had arranged for the first leg of the shoot—a guy we’ll call Steve, who had made the trip from Washington with us to help out. Steve seemed uncomfortable with a fly rod, which didn’t strike me as overly alarming because, hey, that’s why the guy needs a guide, right? But Athena wasn’t much better. Spey rods (long, stout rods designed for big fish in big water, operated with two hands) are graceful tools when properly handled, but there wasn’t much grace showing up in our camera’s lens.
Then there was the odd and apparently growing tension between Athena and Steve, on-camera and off. My headphones were tapped into the wireless mics they were both wearing, and one thing most inexperienced “talent” forgets is that the audio remains live even when the cameras are off. By late afternoon I had heard enough “stupid fucker” and “idiot” outbursts from Athena to make me think that a) there was something more to her relationship with Steve than a simple guide-client dynamic, and b) whatever it was, it wasn’t a good thing. After we wrapped for the day I pulled Athena aside and told her that the portrait we ended up with was entirely up to her, but so far it was not a pretty one.
Still, despite a tug-less first day, I held out hope that Athena’s actual steelheader buddy would help right the ship on day two. “Mike”—all names have been changed to protect the guilty—was heavily involved in a major B.C. steelhead organization, and from what I could gather online, he seemed like the real deal.
Indeed he was. Mike handled the long rod like it was an extension of his arms, sending fly and line arcing through the air like gossamer silk. He spoke of the Thompson River as if it were a life partner, and he knew its runs and flows intimately.