Tarpon. A word and fish that evokes feelings of excitement and disappointment in saltwater anglers around the globe. It’s one of the most challenging species to pursue on the fly and learning how to do it successfully is no easy task. Having a guide or mentor to lean on is often the difference between let down and glory. Mac Hammond was just that mentor for Tommy Cooper, an avid tarpon angler based in Florida.
“Just Like Mac”, a feature film in this year’s Fly Fishing Film Tour focuses on the story of a mentor and the lasting effects one can have on others through fly fishing. We recently had the opportunity to catch up with producer Ben Meadows and the star of the film, Tommy Cooper, to learn a little about tarpon fishing, discuss the importance of community in fly fishing, and the impact “Uncle” Mac Hammond left on Tommy.
Flylords: Can you tell us a little about yourselves, how you guys met, and the role fly fishing plays in your lives?
Ben: About four years ago when I was in grad school, I met Tommy probably in the weirdest possible way, his mother was my landlord. One day she asked me what I do for fun and I said I really love to fly fish and it really makes me sad being in Knoxville, TN because I really love taking a fly rod to saltwater. Being in Knoxville, you have to hedge that people won’t always associate fly fishing with saltwater but Tommy’s mom absolutely lost it. She said “No way! My son is obsessed with saltwater fly fishing and you’ll have to meet him.” And that’s where it started. Within one day of meeting Tommy, you could tell how obsessed he was with tarpon.
I’ve gotten to fish for tarpon but not in the very formal way that Tommy fishes for the really big tarpon. And so the first summer that we were in Knoxville together, he threw me and my buddy George in a car and we drove to the Florida panhandle. He was just really excited to share the fishery with us. And we were humbled by it. I mean, we had never seen fish that big.
You could always tell that Tommy had this really high level of technical knowledge of tarpon, how they behave, where to position a boat, how to make the cast. All that kind of stuff. As he began to talk, it became really clear that he learned everything he knew about fly fishing from his Uncle Mac. It was almost to the point where you were ready for Tommy to introduce Uncle Mac who was about to walk around the corner or come in on another boat or something. That’s just how deep their personal relationship was.
Flylords: Having met Tommy 4 years ago, what was the spark to go forward with making the film now?
Ben: It’s important to note Uncle Mac’s impact on Tommy, you almost can’t tell them apart. I’d always thought that there was something special about their story but didn’t have the talent or know-how. Through a mutual connection with Tommy, I met a videographer named Ben Fields who is based out of Knoxville and likes to fly fish as well. We started drumming up ideas on how to visually show fly anglers on limited budgets traveling internationally and doing really cool trips, so that was the main gig. I was just so humbled that Ben Fields took me under his wing and taught me. Tommy’s story about Uncle Mac has always been there, I just didn’t have the medium to tell it.
This past summer, Tommy and George were fishing and I got one of the worst phone calls of my life. They were screaming and hollering and all that stuff after having one of the best tarpon days of their lives. And they were like “dude, we were running the camera the entire time”. I was like “I gotta see it to believe it”, and bless my wife, we had just had our first baby 3 months before, let me go down to fish with them for one night. I left at 1 am, my son had woken up so I put him down, drove until sunrise, and got on the boat. The fishing of course wasn’t nearly as good the day before but I caught one of the largest tarpon of my life. I can’t claim to be a tarpon guy because there’s a whole culture around that, one that Monte Burke captures well in his new book, but it was a big fish. But anyway, we walked away from that trip, and then we realized that we could tell the story of Uncle Mac through this one tarpon session.
So we came home and I asked Tommy to take voice recordings and trimmed the recordings until it was a storyline. Honestly, the main storyline was like catching lightning in a bottle. There’s a part in the film where Tommy talks about missing his first tarpon with Mac and we have a video of him trout-setting a tarpon, like how perfect is that? And I mean Tommy’s talented and that’s not in his character to trout set a tarpon but there it is on film. It was just a short little cut of their story through tarpon and seemed like an important story to tell and focus on the fish that shaped Tommy and Mac’s relationship. So we ended up just settling on brim and tarpon, that’s where this story evolved.
When you have a powerful storyteller like Tommy, I feel like your job as a filmmaker is to just get the hell out of the way. The fact that he can still put so much emphasis on the first tarpon he missed with Mac shows you how scared that fish got him and the wealth of stories that he and Mac share. You could do a 4 hour documentary on them.
Flylords: Were there any challenges that you encountered throughout the process?
Ben: Sure, filming tarpon is a beast all on its own. I think that’s where having skilled guys that have fished for tarpon comes in. You’re not aiming the lens at the line, you’re aiming at where you think the fish is going. Usually, the angler who’s fighting it know’s when they’re coming up. These big panhandle tarpon do a lot of rolling so you know when they’re going to come up. It’s a good opportunity to get some face time with the fish. It’s actually really hard to get the jumps with these big fish because they typically happen at the start of the fight and that’s when all hell is breaking loose on the boat. You’ve got fly line flying everywhere, people screaming at each other, you may need to re-position the boat and you’re supposed to sit there and be still with a camera. That’s really challenging.
Tommy: Well, really capturing the film is pretty difficult. I don’t know how much tarpon fishing you’ve done but anyways, I love film but I love tarpon fishing more. Two things I struggle with are picking a camera up instead of another fly rod or helping another angler. A lot of the guys I fish with are still learning so I’m coaching them through what’s going on. There’s the chaos of not only trying to see fish, get in front of fish, but also coaching people to get the fly in the right place. To add a camera in there is difficult.
Luckily over the last year, we hit the weather and timing right and had some really banner days fishing so getting a lot of eats and jumps helped making the film. The storyline came after the fact. Obviously, it’s a story that’s near and dear to my heart, we just got lucky with the footage we had tying into how the story laid out.
Ben: This project really got the green-light because we had so much footage of fish from that blockbuster day. It gave us the confidence that the story could finally be told. This is obviously a story that Tommy has been passionate about for years, we just never had the right medium to tell it. Then this legendary day drops out of the sky.
Hilariously, the weather was cooling down when we were trying to film the brim segment. So you’d think the easiest part would be brim but we kept getting hit with cold fronts while we were trying to film top-water eats and you need it to be warm outside. So believe it or not, that was pretty challenging.
Flylords: Throughout the film it’s clear that Mac has left a significant impact on you. In what ways has he inspired you to teach others rather than going out and getting eats for yourself?
Tommy: Aside from Mac, I didn’t have anyone that I fished for tarpon with. Getting to share that bond with him and then losing him was tough. I didn’t have anyone to share the experience with and that’s really when I started going out with Ben and George and some other guys. It was cool to watch them, Mac was always the teacher and I was the student. Getting to fish with these guys reminded me where I started fishing for tarpon. It’s so difficult- you can be a good caster, a good fly tyer, you can practice as much as you want but there’s something so different about fly fishing for tarpon that you can’t prepare for aside from experience.
Watching them start out and not present the fly correctly or not even be able to see the fish allowed me to share my knowledge. That’s a hilarious part- when you have a 100-pound fish swimming in 5 feet of water right on the grass line and they can’t see it, like how can you not see the fish. I began to notice where I was compared to them but also looking at them and remembering where I started made me feel like I became the mentor that Mac was for me. Seeing Mac’s success in me and now being able to coach these guys how to catch a tarpon on the fly really brought it to another level for me.
Flylords: Are the others that Tommy is spreading his passion for tarpon with? Has the story of Tommy and Mac inspired you to share the sport with anyone else?
Ben: Yeah, so Tommy fishes on Mac’s boat. The boat you see in the film, that’s the boat he grew up fishing on. We’re part of that legacy of Tommy passing the sport on or passing the torch from Mac. Everybody who steps foot on that boat gets a little bit of that. Think about all the feet that have stood where he and Mac stood.
I think a lot about passing on fly fishing to my son, he’s 9 months old so it’s not going to happen anytime soon, but I always love telling people about fly fishing. I always have. When I was in high school my pitch to people would always be you know, even if the fishing sucks you can always work on casting.
Flylords: Are there any tips or tricks that you would provide to someone looking to get into tarpon fishing?
Ben: It’s all emotional training. It’s patience. The ability to deal with really high levels of frustration. Tommy talks about it in the film. You don’t get a ton of shots. You get one string of fish and if you blow the cast that could be it for the day. Preparation is an obvious one. I’ve never been embarrassed to practice casting in my front yard. There’s all the technical stuff, that’s what books and guides are for. As someone who just enjoys it, I’d say you gotta be tough, prepared, and ready to shake off mistakes. I set the bar pretty low for myself.
Tommy: Definitely literature. I’m not much of a reader but especially A Passion for Tarpon by Andy Mill and all different stories of those guys that pioneered the sport. He goes over a lot of the tactics and techniques that are hard to teach. If you’re going with a guide they’ll teach you a lot of those things but understanding how to feed fish, put the fly in the right place, knowing how to strip is important. If you’ve never done anything but streamer fish, you’re gonna rip the fly right past the tarpons face. It’s very slow, 2 inch, ticks.
The other thing I’ve learned is that everything you know about fly fishing goes out the door when you see this 100lb fish coming at you, it seems like no matter how much you practice it all goes away. Literature and watching some of the tarpon shows to know what’s going to happen would be my recommendations.
Flylords: Do you have any tips for aspiring filmmakers or personal learnings from this project?
Ben: It’s easier to cut a moving story that matters to you rather than make a story for someone else. Tommy’s relationship and passion for Mac was unmissable. Like I was saying earlier, I was a facilitator. Get out of the way and let the story teller tell it.
Flylords: Anything else that you’d like our readers to know about the story or anything about the project in general?
Ben: What I’ve learned from Mac’s story and Tommy and even my experience from learning to fly fish is that fly fishing is worth sharing. I see the fly fishing community get wrapped up in techniques and levels of purity on what constitutes what. I think that it’s worth sharing. The people we appreciate most in the sport are often the ones who make the most sacrifices. It’s one thing that I’ve learned from Tommy and Mac. Mac sacrificed shots at tarpon for Tommy and now Tommy does that for us. If we have that mentality of sacrificing for others and getting others into the sport, that’s what’s important.
Thank you to Ben Meadows (@_benmeadows) and Tommy Cooper (@tcoop92) for graciously taking the time to talk through their film, “Just Like Mac” with us. If you haven’t already, be sure to pick up your tickets to this year’s Fly Fishing Film Tour while you can.