When the seminal fly fishing adventure film Trout Bums Volume 1: Patagonia was released in 2007, Thad Robison was working at a software development company creating travel applications for the airline industry. Like other fishing addicts who marveled at the fly fishing exploits of the merry band of vagabond anglers, Robison felt a pull. Unlike other anglers, though, Robison answered the call by contacting the original members of the Angling Exploration Group (AEG) that produced the film. What began as an agreement to screen the film in trout-hungry Salt Lake City quickly turned into a career.
Within a matter of months, Robison quit his corporate job and effectively joined AEG. He sold stock in a Brazilian airline to help finance the inaugural Fly Fishing Film Tour, which was anchored by AEG's Trout Bum Diaries film and covered half a dozen cities, including Bend.
Next week, the tour returns to Bend for the sixth year with a festival that's grown from a grassroots celebration of a largely underground fishing culture to a critical and commercial juggernaut that will include more than 40 "hosted" tour stops - such as the one in Bend that includes filmmaker appearances, merchandise and gear giveaways - and roughly 100 total screenings across the United States.
It's been a journey with as many peaks and valleys as the Patagonian landscape from which the film tour was born. For Robison, it's always been a balance between chasing his dreams of fly fishing and filmmaking and the business of getting those films out in front of the public, which can be a time-and-energy-consuming proposition. This past year, Robison and his filmmaking partners - which include three former AEG group members, Chris Owens and Brian Jill and Jay Johnson - were in Mexico for three months filming the group's next installment of its fly fishing epic, Geofish, which is in many ways a continuation of the storyline that started in Patagonia. The group, which was traveling across the drug war-torn interior of Mexico didn't return to the States until November and not before a few close calls. Among other things, the group, which travels in a modified bio-diesel pickup truck carrying 350 gallons of spare bio-diesel in oil drums, was robbed at knifepoint.
The group's most recent adventures and misadventures will be chronicled in the second installment of the Geofish expedition in this year's festival. When the festival wraps in the spring, they'll pick up where they left off. The foursome plans to fly down to Mexico where their truck is theoretically waiting and will continue the journey through Nicaragua and Belize, finishing in Panama. Along the way they'll chase fish of a lifetime, like Belize tarpon, Pacific sailfish and jungle bass using hand-tied flies and the same tactics that many of them honed on their home lakes and rivers.
While it's the pursuit of rare fish that inspires Robison and his mates, it's the experience that binds them together.
"The fly fishing is the main goal, but the adventure part and traveling to different countries and meeting different people, experiencing different cultures is what blows my mind," Robison said.
It's those adventures that now fuel the imaginations of legions of anglers, old and young, who have added places like Chile, Argentina, and even Mongolia, to their bucket list of fishing destinations.
In the once esoteric world of fly-fishing, the tour represents a sort of sea change. No longer is the sport solely associated with 19th Century English aristocrats. To use a literary touchstone that has Oregon roots, the Henning Orvistons of the world have given way to the Guses. The result is a film tour that owes more to the culture of Warren Miller ski films than it does to the Scientific Angler instructional videos that for years occupied my father's library.
"I correlate it a lot to the Powderhound and the other ski movies that get everybody amped up for the season. In this case, it's about fishing. The great thing is it doesn't matter if you're into fishing or not, the cinematography is pretty cool," said Kevney Dugan, a former fishing manager at Orvis and the current director of sales at Visit Bend.
While the epic fly fishing footage, which spans winter steelhead fishing in Oregon to trout fishing in Transylvania and everything in between, is the main drawn, there's also a social aspect of the fly-fishing film tour. It's a chance to drink beer, swap war stories and generally obsess over fishing with good friends in a community of anglers who are bound together by the places that we love and the memories that we forged within them.
"It is just a fun and social evening, and it's become an annual thing. All year long we get people who come in the door and ask, 'Is it coming back?'" said Scott Cook, owner of Fly and Field in Bend.
And if Bend loves the fly fishing film tour, the feeling is mutual, said Robison. The town has been on the list of tour stops since the tour's inception and will remain on it thanks to the community's strong support and few geographic advantages, namely the proximity of the Metolius river and its prodigious bull trout population. The spring-fed river outside of Sisters affords tour organizers like Robison a chance to hook a trophy fish in between tour stops.
Remember, we're dealing with anglers here - people for whom work is just a way to finance the next big trip.
"It's a lifestyle choice - it's not a financial choice," said Robison about his career..
It's a choice that wannabe trout bums who are living vicariously through his adventures are grateful he made.