On the surface, spey fishing for steelhead is a sporting pursuit steeped in tradition. Every year, these anglers and the wild fish they pursue both similarly migrate to the same rivers at the same time. Now, from issues like global pandemics to global warming, there are countless ways in which this tradition can be broken. In swinging flies for wild steelhead in British Columbia’s famed Bulkley-Skeena Valley, Leap Year explores the river and the colorful characters of this culture as it begs the question: who will carry on these traditions if the migrations come screeching to a halt?
For this installment of F3T Behind The Lens, we caught up with filmmakers Chase White & Jordie Lepage to discuss their film Leap Year. Check out the interview below and be sure to get your F3T Tickets here.
Flylords: So, where did the initial inspiration for the film Leap Year come from?
Jordie: At the inception, Chase came to us the previous summer with an opportunity to head up to Smithers, British Columbia to help with a film project loosely based on how COVID had affected the guiding industry in the Skeena region. As a spey angler myself, I’d spent the last couple of Fall seasons up there and thought it would be an interesting opportunity to see what would happen to these tourism destinations if the fishing were to collapse entirely.
Chase: Yeah, I think the inspiration comes back to our personal connections with these fish and the communities they foster. We love fly fishing for wild steelhead. To add on to that, Northern BC is just an incredibly special place. It’s hard to get to, it’s absolutely stunning, and it’s one of the last strongholds of wild fish. When you contextualize all of that with a global pandemic that seemingly spares no one (tight-knit fishing communities included), well I think the story kind of wrote itself. Ultimately, this is what drove us to ask the question: What’s at stake here?
Flylords: How did the story of the film develop from the initial inspiration?
Chase: Working alongside Jordie and Pat from TOPO Films, we really knew the outline of what we wanted to make here. But when you’re making a film like Leap Year, I think you also have to let the story write itself. And to do that, you really have to leave some room for the story to develop with its own special moments—things you just cannot write. So I think that’s where you get into a half-luck-half-skill thing. That said, we were pretty lucky to have some of these happenstance moments unfold while we were rolling cameras, and also to just find time with some of these incredible characters.
Flylords: Would you mind giving our readers some steelhead info or tips about traveling to fly fish in British Columbia?”
Chase: While I would love to tell you that BC sucks, there are only small fish here and you shouldn’t visit, some of that might be a bit far from the truth. As far as steelhead go, there are generally two main runs of fish: a winter run from January to April and a summer run from August to November. That said, neither of those runs are “easy” fishing (even outside of steelhead, most BC fishing isn’t easy). If I were traveling to BC to fish, I would 100% hire a guide service or get guided through a lodge. I have countless stories from close friends who come here from pretty far away and repeatedly get skunked. Find a good guide who can safely show you around and you’ll get ’em.
Flylords: Were the guides and lodges in support of the film? How did they react when you approached them?
Chase: Going into this project, I had close relationships with the people in this film. They are important people to me personally, so I really wanted to do right by them. And I think they know that. Having worked with them previously outside of this film, I’ve learned a bit about how to best support them while also earning their trust. But ultimately, with a project like this, it has to be a collaborative process with an immense amount of trust. I think in short, they also wanted to share the story of how both the pandemic and the resource affects them and their business.
Flylords: You highlighted a couple of guides in the film, one character who stood out to me was Ray, he seemed like quite the legend. Can you talk about Ray Makowichuk and his impact on the fishery in British Columbia?
Chase: Ray Makowichuk is truly a pioneer of some of the most prolific steelhead rivers in Northern BC. He’s more than just a gentle soul—he is truly an innovator who somehow manages to open up this pursuit of wild fish to many, while also preserving it’s soul and tradition. Legend is an understatement… He pretty much fishes bamboo rods and dry lines exclusively. Fun fact: Ray is the man who is tasked with tying the fly for the world’s largest fly rod, located in Steelhead Park of his hometown of Houston, BC. If I recall correctly, I think the fly is a goat hair Skykomish Sunrise that measures almost two feet.
Flylords: Were there any unforeseen issues/difficulties when filming and producing Leap Year?
Jordie: This year the number of steelhead in the systems were down quite a bit. Even with very few anglers on the water it was tough to get into a fish. We spent so much time fishing that it left very little to build the story off the water and while shooting fishing is great for a fishing film, it’s the other elements that create something unique. That was the hardest part by far. And in the edit, we used every last piece we had captured to bring the story to life. There was nothing left on the table.
Chase: Yeah, I fully agree with what Jordie said. While this is technically a fishing film, we didn’t want it to be about fishing. We really wanted it to be more about people. With that caveat out of the way, filming steelhead fishing is just not for the faint of heart. For starters, these are steelhead… One could definitely call them “camera shy”, to put it gently. They’re like a bad friend: they never show up when you need them to.
Flylords: For our cinematography-minded readers, can you tell us about some of the equipment you used for your film and photography?
Chase: I’ll let Jordie spill as much of the movie magic as he wants on this one.
Jordie: The film was shot primarily on a RED Gemini and a Black Magic Pocket 4K with Canon Zoom lenses. Canon zooms aren’t the sexiest, but they can handle getting beat up, soaked with river water and are pretty versatile, which is the most important thing in documentary shooting. Most days, we also lugged around a DJI inspire 2 and DJI Phantom 4 for aerial shots. We also had a pretty extensive lighting kit for the interviews.
Flylords: What were some of the conservation goals of the film?
Chase: Working alongside our conservation partner for the film, Native Fish Society, we ultimately wanted to raise awareness about how we balance our own impact on the resource with our responsibility as anglers. Stevie Morrow says it perfectly in the film, “If you want to be a steelhead angler and you want to come out here and enjoy the resource, you have to find ways to limit your impact.” I’m personally very proud of this component of the film because, if we’ve learned anything over the course of major events in the past few years, it’s that we have to talk about these difficult things in order to gain consensus that drives action. And that discussion starts with acknowledgment, which is not easy for a lot of people to do. The reality is, as recreational anglers, we can find ways to enjoy the resource while mitigating our own impact and ultimately protecting these wild fish that we love to connect with.
I have an immense amount of respect for anyone who is picking up their trash, keeping fish wet, and practicing self control in how many fish they feel they need to catch.
Jordie: Personally, I think our main goal was to just highlight this fragile resource and how restoring our focus to the health of the fish benefits all of us. We simply need to care more about the fish than our right to catch them.
Flylords: What are some of the current threats to the steelhead in British Columbia? What is the biggest threat?
Chase: In no way is this all-inclusive and I’m sure I’ll miss something here, but I think the shortlist includes global warming (ocean warming), deforestation, gill nets, hatcheries, open-ocean fish farms, and even poor governmental regulation/management of the fisheries. On top of that, you have people doing things like leaving trash on the river and handling fish poorly when they do catch them. Unfortunately, I think for some people these discussions have become very polarizing, and what we need to do is talk about these things openly and productively in order to foster course corrections. What can we do? Let’s chew gum and walk at the same time: mitigate your own personal impact while we collectively work on these bigger issues.
Jordie: Yeah, I think you’ll find many different opinions on this, from clearcut logging to climate change, but personally I think the biggest threat is the lack of information collected in regards to steelhead. We need to allocate more resources to learning about steelhead so that we can protect them on all fronts; logging, habitat degradation, bycatch, rising ocean temps, etc.
Flylords: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the steelhead fishing this season?
Jordie: For the fish numbers it would be 1, but I’ve never judged a fishing trip based on numbers. This generation of steelheader simply can’t do that because the numbers just aren’t there anymore. I was in the Skeena area for nearly a month and it was one of the best trips of my life. I saw so much new water and learned a ton, and spent time with good friends, that made the trip for me. We need to shift focus from the numbers game.
Chase: I couldn’t agree more with what Jordie said. The focus has to shift. I think if you want to catch a lot of these fish, it’s probably not the right species for you to be targeting. Are there as many fish this year as there were in past years? No, there weren’t. But it’s also worth noting that there have been blockbuster runs of fish in the past five years for some systems… As in, some of the most prolific return numbers on record. And I think the takeaway there is that these fish will recover if we let them. Until then, there’s an ebb and flow. But to answer your question, I’d rate it a 10, because regardless of the difficulty, it’s just one of the most fun things in the world to stand in one of these infamous rivers and swing flies for unicorns.
Flylords: What is the fate of the lodges and fly fishing guides in British Columbia? Will it ever be the same? Will some of the lodges and guides stop guiding due to a limited demand?
Chase: That’s tough. I think the amount of people looking to connect with these fish will only continue to grow. And considering that, I think these lodges and guides will be just fine, as people are generally good natured and will hopefully turn the ship around to find balance with their impact. I think humans as a species will also become more conscious of how we can protect ourselves from things like this modern pandemic, which will decrease the likelihood of something like this happening again. Keep in mind, many lodges and guides did have to stop guiding due to a limited demand this year, which travel limitations obviously played a huge part of. Call me an optimist, but my fingers are crossed that this is mostly a one-year event.
Flylords: Will the Canadian borders open up in 2021?
Jordie: I think it’s unlikely but stranger things have happened. It sure would be a good thing if they did for anyone in tourism. As long as it can happen safely.
Chase: I actually think they might open. We still have a lot of 2021 left. If we can all be diligent about limiting our non-essential travel, wear our masks in public, and get vaccinated where possible, we’ll look back on this as just a short blip in the history books. But if people stay on this me-first disregard for common sense, the border will probably stay closed this year.
Flylords: How can someone support the Canadian guides and lodges who have been negatively impacted by the border closure?
Chase: Book a trip when the borders do open. Most guides and lodges are super flexible with bookings and payments right now. They totally get it and will structure arrangements that work for your availability. Or you can become a member and drop a small donation to the conservation organization of your choice, such as the Native Fish Society.
Jordie: I would be curious to hear from the guides on this question… they would know much better than me. I would hope, however, that they are seeing support from their local tourism boards. That said, anglers shouldn’t hold back on researching future trips. Guides and lodges are so helpful, and planning trips always gets me stoked. They may be able to connect with you remotely and work with you to develop your skills. Some guides have also taken to offering classes online or posting valuable info via Instagram or YouTube.
Flylords: What do you hope the viewers got out of the film?
Jordie: All I can hope for is that viewers will come away with a sense of respect for these fish and their rivers. It’s not our right to be able to fish for steelhead, so we should do everything we can to help protect them and honour them. If we do, then they will continue to offer the opportunity for us to cross paths with them and build good memories and livelihoods out of pursuing them.
Chase: Ditto. Ultimately, I guess my hope is that this film inspires people to appreciate these traditions, the natural resources they depend on, and also to just get outside and swing flies for wild steelhead. In the film, Derek says it best: “Similar to good health—we tend to take it for granted until it’s gone.”
Flylords: Anything else you want to add that we didn’t cover?
Jordie: I can’t say enough about the team we had to put this together. Between Patrick and Chase and the guides, staff and everyone who gave us their time, we really got lucky on this project.
Chase: Pinch your barbs and have fun out there.
Also, follow along with the film tour @flyfishingfilmtour on Instagram.
More about Chase:
Chase White is a commercial and editorial outdoor photographer based in Squamish, British Columbia. Often documenting the places and experiences that define The British Columbia experience, he draws his creative inspiration from nature and the outdoor pursuits that make people feel thrilled to be alive. His work has been featured in publications, films, and with brands around the world. As an avid fly angler, when Chase is not working, you can likely find him on his home river with his wife Lindsay and their pup Ted on the hunt for an encounter with a wild fish. You can follow Chase on Instagram at @anadromous and see more of his work at chasewhite.com
More about Jordie:
Jordie Lepage is the director and co-founder of TOPO Films, based in Vancouver’s backyard, Squamish, British Columbia. With extensive experience working behind the lens on small and large teams alike, Jordie is an adventurer with the technical skills to bring hard-to-reach visions to life. When Jordie isn’t working, you can often find him cruising the river with his dog, mountain biking or tying flies for his next steelhead outing. You can follow Jordie on Instagram at @jordielepage and see more about his film production company, TOPO Films at topofilms.com