How Robert Redford Made Me a Fisher of Men
BY JOHN DIETSCH
WANTED: Men in their seventies, must be excellent fly casters, meet at Sacajawea Park, Sunday, 10 a.m. bring fly fishing equipment.
This was how the advertisement read that I had placed in the local Livingston newspaper. I figure it was the first casting casting call in the history of film and television, but I could be wrong…
On Sunday morning about thirty Montana locals showed up—weathered faces, ribbed hands, wool shirts, hats from the attic, and fly lines cutting through the air. Robert Redford, the director of A River Runs Through It, was looking for the “Old Man” character who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film. He was to play Norman Maclean in his seventies. One by one, I had the men sign in and walk toward the end of the dock by the pond in Sacajawea Park, near the Yellowstone River. Within just a few short seconds, I could tell whether or not the gentleman was a good caster or not.
Surprisingly, only six of the men had decent casts, and really only two of them had the “right look”—one of the men was quite a bit older than the other one and had deeply etched wrinkles, cool blue eyes, and thick tufts of white hair. However, he somehow looked too fragile to me. The younger man, in his late sixties, seemed to personify the Norman Maclean I had heard about—strong, opinionated, handsome, and direct. Having chosen these two men among the thirty, I dismissed everyone else and began casting with them, talking to them, and tying knots. The latter task would be asked of the character on camera in the film’s final scene, so it was important to see how each of them carried it out.
The younger gentleman showed me how he tied his flies to the tippet with a clinch knot. He slid the tip of the monofilament into the eye of the hook with finesse, and smoothly wrapped the tag end around the line, just above the hook like a spiral. Then he adeptly brought the tag end through the opening in the line, just above the eye. He wet the line with his mouth and pulled tight. The whole process took under thirty seconds.
“There,” the younger man said with a smile, “a clinch knot.”
“Impressive,” I replied.
The older man stood to my left, and although I was half expecting him to be watching the younger man—his competition—tie the clinch knot, I realized that he was concentrating on tying his own knot. I excused myself from the younger man, and walked over to the older gentleman.
“What are you tying?” I asked him.
He looked at me, with a sheepish grin, and said simply “My eyes aren’t so good anymore.”
His hands shook with the ferocity that only old age could induce. Between his poor eyesight and his trembling fingers, he had yet to simply thread the tippet through the eye of the hook, let alone tie the knot.
“Do you know how to tie a clinch knot?” I asked patiently. Again, the painful smile crept up on his mouth, and he shook his head slightly.
“No,” he replied, pausing for a long moment.
A red light went off in my head. I thought, ‘This guy can’t even thread the line through the eye and he doesn’t know what a clinch knot is.’ Suddenly, I thought that the older man could never work as Norman on camera, but I kept the thought to myself.
“I tie a turle knot,” he continued. “Do you know what a turle knot is?” he asked.
“I’ve heard of it,” I replied, “but I don’t know how to tie one.” Then I thought ‘perhaps you could show me how to tie it if you could just thread the damn line through the eye of the fly!’
It had been a good minute-plus, and still the old man had yet to thread the line through.
“There we go,” he said with finality. “Takes me a bit longer than it used to. I’m sorry,” he said, sensing my youthful impatience.
“No, that’s quite alright,” I said, not letting my true feelings show.
He proceeded to tie his turle knot, twisting the line so that it formed a loop that would slide back against the eye of the hook. I felt the clock ticking in my head, and imagined a camera rolling thousands of dollars worth of film while this man’s trembling hands attempted to tie this ancient knot.
“You know this is an old knot,” he said to me, his hands shaking like the San Andreas fault. “Most everybody used this knot in the old days here in Montana…it takes a bit more time to tie than a clinch knot, but I think it’s a better knot—worth the extra time.”
I felt like saying, “Do you really know what time is worth here?” I could hardly contain the voices in my head—an impatience had developed in me from being around a film crew twenty-four hours a day, similar to someone who spends most of his day in traffic on the freeway. I don’t recall ever letting the old man finish his turle knot. As I remember, I told him that there was no need for him to finish the knot (since it had been about five minutes!). So I never did learn how to tie it, but I did end up learning something about myself.
That afternoon, I presented Redford with the photographs of both men and explained that each of them had a beautiful cast. I then gave him my opinion that I felt the younger man might be a better choice since the older man would probably have a terrible time tying a knot on camera.
“Why’s that?” the director asked astutely.
“Because his hands shake violently. He can hardly even thread the line through a hook!” I replied with exasperation.
Redford paused for a moment and looked at the picture of the older man again.
“Excellent,” he answered. “I’d like to meet him tomorrow.”
The older man had lived in Montana most of his life, and to play the part of Norman Maclean was both an honor and the memory of a lifetime. The shaking hands struggling to tie a knot at the end of the film are a trademark of the movie, and tell a story in themselves. Looking back at it, in my haste to “succeed,” I had lost my sense of compassion while working on the film, and in so doing I had missed the magic that unfolded right in front of my eyes. I missed the message on the backs of the old man’s veined, transparent, and leathered hands—the yearning that any man his age, feeling this passage of time, would have for younger days—the gentle acceptance that indeed those days were gone forever.
From Shadow Casting: An Introduction to the Art of Fly Fishing, by John Dietsch and Gary Hubbell, winner of the Colorado Book Award in 2000, available through local bookstores and Amazon.com.
John Dietsch (see Hook.tv) produces and hosts The Outdoor Channel’s Adventure Guides: Fishing Edition. He lives with his wife, Mollie, and newborn son in Pacific Palisades, California.