Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Ones We Lose
Shane Anderson uses documentary filmmaking to share what’s on the line.
By Erin Spaulding

Shane Anderson behind the lens.

It’s an hour till dark on the Olympic Peninsula’s lower Hoh River. The aquamarine water and neon greens of this temperate rainforest are currently bathed in a muted blue as Shane Anderson takes in the Pacific Ocean. It’s the end of the river and an end to the last steelhead fishing trip for the year.

He takes what’s left and stays anchored near the takeout, a hopeful fool like every other angler, but fortune grabs his line and runs it out the reel. The steelhead is unquestionably large. It’s a fight nearly an hour long, or feels that way at least, before Shane brings the fish to the boat. Shane’s entire body shakes with exhaustion and adrenaline, as he observes the size of this fish (maybe 30 pounds or more) and its brilliant colors hiding within the patina of chrome: pink, blue, purple and gold. Healthy and strong. Too strong. The line breaks before Shane can reach below the surface.

Found fly. Here’s the fly Shane recovered after losing a steelhead a couple weeks prior.

“It’s the ones we lose we remember most,” he said reflectively, years later, from his home in Olympia, Washington. Shane—who is as much conservationist as he is a documentary filmmaker—lives and breathes the river. His thoughts by day, his dreams at night, his day-to-day work are all occupied by the salmon and steelhead of his childhood. They drift further away as their numbers decline. Their habitat is threatened, their current presence more like a memory as old men recall better returns with now a thousand casts unanswered. Like chasing ghosts, as they say.

Anderson—owner of Swiftwater Films, North Fork Studios and Director of Storytelling at Pacific Rivers—began his journey in film when his professional downhill ski career ended. Physical injuries shifted the pro athlete’s focus from the mountains to Southern California’s film industry. While his on-camera work and connections to the area expanded, Shane couldn’t help but feel a pull back to the river.

He settled a little closer to home by enrolling at Humboldt State with the intention of studying fisheries biology; but film was still as much a part of him as water, so Shane dove in head-first, ditching everything to begin work on his first documentary, Wild Reverence: The Wild Steelhead’s Last Chance.

Shane’s films—which also include A River’s Last Chance and Behind the Emerald Curtain—are centered on loss and/or the imminent threat of it. With a blend of cultural perspectives, historical information and scientific data, his pieces are educational in nature. However, through Shane’s storytelling, cinematography and editing they also serve as works of art. Like a composer or songwriter, Shane creates a cadence that’s easy to follow, guiding viewers through a digestible narrative that’s moved by the scenery—from sweeping aerials with big-picture angles to ethereal-like zoom shots that tune into the small nuances all around: back-lit cedars, slo-mo water slinging from a spey line, gliding salmon on an underwater current.

They complete a picture of what we have to lose in this world. And not just in the literal sense. With Shane’s films, there’s a deep sense of losing something poetic. With nature, we would be losing our souls.

Asked about new regulations on the Olympic Peninsula, which restrict fishing from a boat among other things, Shane thinks they are a great start. “It’s stuff that I’ve been trying to advocate for the past nine years. For many others it’s been over 20. But it took a crisis to get implemented.”

Looking off into the distance for a moment, he continues, “What I think we really need is more adaptive management in being able to call things as they are. If it looks like the season is not even going to support that, then we need to shut it down,” adding it’s going to happen inevitably. “I’m very confident there will be an endangered species listing in the near future, meaning we have just a few years till steelhead get listed and we shut down, something we should have done 15 years ago. We’re just constantly playing catchup because nobody wants to change, everyone wants to bitch and moan about their rights and lost opportunities. But it’s all heading in the same direction. Either we address it now or it just gets shut down and everybody loses.”

Anderson with a trusted companion, trying to keep one on the line.

Still, Shane is hopeful. He believes the act of fly fishing is conservational by nature. Not just through catch-and-release or the inefficiency in contrast to spin-fishing, but the act of being part of a process that emulates nature. And he wonders if the creativity that anglers have brought to the sport by way of tying and presenting convincing imitations can be extended to the conservational arena.

“Maybe there’s a way we can get more creative in limiting the number of people, like we do hunting seasons,” he says. “I’m willing to sacrifice my favorite time of the year.” He also thinks about how anglers can self-limit their access according to different techniques. “Comparing to indicator fishing, swinging flies is a good way of limiting access.”

Just as Shane becomes a part of every river he fishes, so too does he become part of his films where the stories seem to naturally find him, sent on a downstream of interviews and collected information as one project flows to another.

This happened recently while filming “Chehalis: A Watershed Moment,” where Shane learned scientists uncovered a 15-million-year-old gene in spring chinook (or “springers”) that can’t re-evolve once lost. While their fall counterparts enter the rivers with mature eggs and on the verge of release, spring chinook are genetically disposed to enter freshwater while their eggs are in a very early stage of development. Their longer and more consequential stay in freshwater prior to the spawn means they enter rivers with considerably more fat, making them some of the tastiest salmon. But all that extra time in the river means other dangers as well: pollution, extreme water temperatures and increased angling pressure all play a role.

The stakes are high, Shane said. Losing the “springer gene” would mean losing spring salmon forever, a species currently lumped into a category with its fall cousins; however, this new discovery offers a pass: an independent evolutionary classification for the Endangered Species Act.

If it’s not too late for springers, it is getting close. “We don’t have the time to waste (on preserving spring chinook species) because we’re going to lose those remaining salmon populations that are just hanging on. What makes steelhead different is that genetic diversity is preserved in rainbow trout across the whole West Coast. That’s not the case for chinook, which makes them a more critical situation.

With the pandemic putting many of his projects on hold, Shane has more time to get out on the Peninsula to look for steelhead. A venture to a secret stretch of water finds him hooking into one. The event turns the tranquility into chaos as the steelhead runs Shane through every pocket and seem, breaking off the line with a snap, like every other heartbreak.
Shane relents, returning weeks later to look for his lost fish. It’s a difficult task these days but there’s optimism in his efforts as Shane looks down and sees—nestled in the riverbed rock—his returned fly.

Among his many film projects, Shane is currently working on the official film for the Klamath Dam removal, the largest dam removal project in the world. For updates on this and other film projects, visit swiftwaterfilms.com

Erin Spaulding
Erin Spaulding is a freelance writer who lives in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The FlyFish Journal, The Drake, sageflyfish.com and several Midwest publications. Born and raised in northern Michigan, Erin is a still water bass fisher at heart but has been wooed by the hiking and dry fly action of high alpine lake trout.