Until I met a fisherman whose hobby it is, I was unaware that there was an art to tying flies. When I was younger, I had occasionally accompanied my father on short afternoon fishing trips, but these were simple affairs and worms were the bait: we didn’t use the sometimes garish and shiny plastic lures that are so prevalent in shops today.
So it came as quite a surprise to discover that flies can be made by hand, in a delicate, intricate process, and that they can be colourful – even beautiful – when created from actual patterns painstakingly developed over time. If you’ve never seen a fly tying desk, replete with bobbins of brightly-hued yarn and strewn with pieces of deer hair and other natural materials, it’s quite the sight to behold. It is a world of creativity that might not spring to mind when you think of crafting, but one which is a passion for those who tie flies, and a world about which they are both protective and possessive.
In the Scottish Highlands there is a beautiful, but bleak, town called Brora, where the weather can change in the blink of an eye. In 1918, a little girl called Megan Boyd was brought by her father from England, with the rest of the family, to live in Brora because he had been appointed as a river keeper to a private estate.
Growing up in such a small and remote place may not be for everyone, but Megan seemed to like the peace and solitude it afforded her over the more than 53 years she actually lived in the area. By choice, her adult home was a small, rustic cottage, with no running water or electricity. Megan was considered an eccentric, who dressed and looked like a man and never married, but she did have an active social life which included Scottish country dancing and games of bridge, both of which she enjoyed with a passion.
That might have been the end of what was an ordinary personal life story but for one remarkable skill that Megan developed as a young girl: her ability to tie flies, for salmon fishing, of such exquisite composition and beauty that they called to fishermen everywhere, like a siren song, to visit Megan, beguiled by her ability.
Taught the art of fly tying by Bob Trussler, a river keeper friend of her father’s, Megan spent over 14 hours a day, almost every day of the week, spinning and weaving her magic at a kidney-shaped dressing table. By the time of her death in 2001, at the age of 86, she had created thousands of flies – many now kept in museums and private collections – and had been awarded the British Empire Medal by Queen Elizabeth II, whose son, Prince Charles, had eventually become one of Megan’s customers and, eventually, a friend.
Megan’s story is one that captivated American film director, Eric Steel, who – like many of us – scans newspaper obituaries out of curiosity. He discovered Megan’s life story in The New York Times in 2001, clipped the piece from the paper, and held onto it for over 10 years. During the intervening decade, Steel went on to make the acclaimed documentary ‘The Bridge’ (2006) and produced other films such as ‘Angela’s Ashes’, ‘Shaft’ and ‘Julie and Julia’. Eventually Megan’s siren song called to him, and he made a trip to Scotland where he interviewed Megan’s friends, assembling her life into a series of anecdotes that has become his latest documentary, ‘Kiss The Water‘.
Released to rave reviews in 2013 and chosen as an official presentation at venues like the Tribeca Film Festival, Edinburgh International Film Festival and more, ‘Kiss The Water’ is a combination of storytelling, fly tying, and animation. The documentary’s subject matter seemed a great fit for the fly fishers and supporters of Project Healing Waters, and having been offered the opportunity to see a preview of the film, I jumped at the chance. An invitation to speak to Steel presented itself so he recently spoke to me by ‘phone from New York.
Our conversation began with my comment that the film struck me as having the suggestion of fluidity, similar to the flow of water, and that the animation added to that feeling – no doubt aided by Paul Cantelon’s musical score, reminiscent of Saint-Saëns.
I also remarked on the bleakness of the Scottish landscape that Megan knew, and its grey weather, suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t surprising that she might have found fly tying brought colour into her life.
Steel explained that he thought the film had a “tenuous, shoreline feeling” like “one big wave”, that reflected the idea of fishing and water. He hadn’t been to Scotland prior to making the documentary, but he found that many fisherman there still use old rods and reels, with flies made in the old style using cat gut. As a non-fisherman himself, he learned that a fisherman finds magic in the idea of catching the salmon, and that it is a primal activity, one that allows you to think and gain peace of mind.
In Steel’s view, Megan had a bit of a “hard scrabble” life so he agreed that tying flies, especially her use of exotic bird feathers, would indeed have brought real colour to her life, a bit of ‘pretty’ which she herself certainly wasn’t. We touched briefly on what her inner life might have been, given how remote her cottage was and how she was alone with her thoughts. Steel thought she probably kept things close to her chest and while we can speculate on her sexuality, this aspect of Megan wasn’t something he wanted to delve into too deeply because it would spoil the enigma of who exactly Megan Boyd was.
I next asked Steel what his expectations had been going into the making of the film. Apparently he didn’t have a plan, but he did fear travelling to Scotland in case too much time had passed and people wouldn’t be able to remember Megan. In fact, he was surprised by how willing people were to tell tales about her and that, for him, it was really about learning how to be a storyteller.
The film makes striking use of artist Em Cooper‘s animation. Her artwork adds punch to the scenes of those sharing their stories, and the live action shots of fishing. When asked why he chose to include animation, Steel replied that he wanted to create the idea of what it’s like to be under the water. “Any sport involves a marriage of what you can do technically, and what you can control – in this case, choosing the fly and the rod. Under the water, it’s a different world where the salmon live and spawn. I noticed in Scotland that the water had a different colour”. Steel went on to say that Cooper’s artistry enabled him to create a more a dimensional view of Megan and her world -”I was really looking underneath the surface of Megan’s life”.
As Steel had already acknowledged that he wasn’t a fisherman, I wondered if that had actually helped the way in which he had approached the film. “In some ways, yes it did” he replied. “I’ve always had a romanticized idea of fishing. It was a bit like learning a new language, rich in metaphors. I wanted to listen to the tone and the imagery, compose a frame that invited you into it. It’s a bit like listening to a poem in Portuguese, where you hear it and think how beautiful it is, something you hadn’t noticed before”.
Given that Steel’s documentary ‘The Bridge’ featured the controversial subject of suicide and that he reads obituaries, I asked him if the subject of death was a pattern in his work or, if indeed, he saw it more as a reaffirmation of life. “It’s a bit like a spot on the horizon where the water meets the air” he said, acknowledging the idea and relating it to his current work. “A fleeting moment for a salmon (is) where it’s in the air and it can’t breathe. I’ve always had a melancholy wonder about death. In ‘The Bridge’, the most profound aspect was actually those people who walked past the ones about to commit suicide, as if they didn’t see them or that part of the world. It is about what people’s lives are worth. It’s painful to lose someone. The spectre of death makes life more vivid”.
Our conversation turned to Project Healing Waters and the veterans that are supported through the programs provided. Aware of the project, Steel talked about his profound respect for the work being done by leaders and volunteers, and the effects of post traumatic stress syndrome, understanding from his own experience of others in stressful situations that rebuilding trust is part of healing. To this day, he maintains a friendship with one subject of ‘The Bridge’ who survived a fall.
Naturally I wanted to know what kind of response he’d received from fly fishers and he responded that anglers really loved it, seeing it as a poetic tribute to fishing. “It is an escape from the world and the peace of it is larger than the activity itself” he added.
My last question was probably inevitable. I asked Steel what he thought Megan Boyd would make of his film. Thinking that she left us with more questions than answers, Steel said “I think she would try to pretend that she wasn’t flattered, but actually she would be. That’s the conundrum of life. Everyone enjoys validation, friendships and camaraderie”.
‘Kiss the Water’ has been chosen as the closing night film at the Water Film Festival in Toronto. The documentary will be shown on March 29 at 7 pm, at the Jackman Hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and will be followed by a Q & A session with Eric Steel.
‘Kiss The Water’ trailer.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of the film, veterans, friends and supporters of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Canada are being offered a $1.00discount. Please go to http://kissthewater.vhx.tv – where there are a couple of different purchase options for download – and enter the code ‘healing’.
A percentage of revenue generated by purchases will be donated to Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Canada to help support the Program’s work.
The Project Healing Waters involvement in Petawawa was initially planned at the end of 2012 with the help of Bruce Philips, then Petawawa OSISS coordinator, who subsequently moved to Ottawa. Unfortunately, the project was not launched until Fall 2013 for various administrative reasons.
Bruce and I launched the Ottawa project in Fall 2013 by providing fly casting and fly tying clinics to forty veterans. If it is true that fly fishing is very relaxing, the pleasure is double when we are tying flies. By doing so, not only are we concentrating on the skills necessary to attach various materials on what seems to the neophyte as very small hooks, but also we are dreaming of being with nature and of preparing the next trip. We are also imagining the many fishes we are going to catch, and with something we have created on our own. This is the beauty of fly tying.
Following the success of the Ottawa project, we quickly heard that the veterans of the Petawawa base were very eager to embark on this new journey and, thanks to the support of Captain John Harju, newly-based Petawawa OSISS coordinator, we were able to put something together to start early in the new year 2014: the plan was to reverse the Ottawa process and learn the tying first and the casting after.
We then put together a calendar of five distinct sessions, looked for volunteers to assist as mentors, and we succeeded with the help of the Algonkin Fly Fishers’ Club and Sgt Chris from Petawawa.
The winter tying at Petawawa started on January 14 and ended on February 18. We were surprised by the numbers who showed up the first day and the majority stayed until the end. Given the numbers, we divided in two groups and each group learned the basic skills and tied two different flies at each of the sessions.
The mentoring staff agreed that those 19 veterans not only showed up to the clinics, but also demonstrated throughout a keen interest in the skills, and a very high motivation to learn and practice on their own.
The project was designed to show as many fly tying techniques as possible to cover almost all species that can be fished from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with an escapade in the North. Numerous fly patterns were tied by the Petawawa veterans throughout the clinics.
Again, a big thank you to Wounded Warriors for providing the necessary funds for the fly tying project, to the OSISS personnel for coordinating with the veterans, and for all volunteers who did an excellent job.