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Click through all the images above to see photos from trip.
_I’ve always felt that the best adventures in life are those that simply cannot be described by words. Perhaps that’s why Motiv Fishing’s Brian Jill, Chris Owens, Thad Robison and Jay Johnson opted to film the fly-fishing odyssey of their lives. The expedition known as GeoFish will take them to all seven continents in search of some of the world’s finest fisheries that have remained untouched by the hand of man. As of now, the team has completed the first leg of the journey and has released the first of seven volumes, GeoFish: Mexico. I sat down with the four obsessed explorers to chat about their thoughts on risk versus reward and also dug deep to find out exactly what it is they hope to achieve through this project. Following our conversation and after watching the film twice, I think it’s safe to say that, compared with these guys, few anglers truly know what an honest-to-God fly-fishing adventure really is. _
FFSW» In 2010 Ed Stafford completed walking the length of the Amazon River as a feat of self-endurance and also to raise awareness about the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest. In many ways, his project reminded me of GeoFish. What is the purpose of this film project?
Thad: I think that, collectively, we want to show everybody, not just fly-fishermen, that there are still places out there worth protecting.
Chris: Our thing is to get out and try to find new water and new fisheries that haven’t been documented yet. We are trying to get beyond what is known to the fishing community. That’s definitely one of our motivations. But also, we are always trying to explain the value of protecting the resource to the locals.
Brian: Getting out there and getting a chance to fish some of the last great fisheries that haven’t been destroyed by human contact and having the opportunity to document it.
Jay: Personally, I’m afraid of dying — when I’m about to die, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to say “I wish that I’d played more video games” or “I wish I would have watched more TV.” To me, it’s kind of my way of doing my best to do my best while I’m here.
FFSW» So far, you’ve made it about 6,000 miles — can you name one thing that you didn’t have that you wish you’d had up until this point?
Chris: A winch and a big bumper to put the winch on should have been factored into the budget.
Thad: Basically, we suffer everywhere we go because we didn’t have a winch on the truck.
FFSW» Can you go into a little more detail about going on the hunt for vegetable oil, which your truck was powered by? Just how disgusting was it?
Brian: It’s definitely not for the weak of stomach. Basically, we’d pull out the laptop and look for hotels and restaurants, and then we’d kind of case the joint out before actually going in to see if they were willing to give it to us. You have to make sure that it’s not too disgusting because there are limitations to what the truck can burn through. If it smells that horrid, you probably don’t want to use it.
Chris: It’s a dirty mess, let me tell you. All of our clothes — they were greasy, then the dirt settles in. Getting the oil is one thing but trying to explain to people in a foreign country that your vehicle runs on vegetable oil — whole different animal.
FFSW» I remember a point where it shows Jay actually tasting the oil. Was that real?
All: Laughter, yes — absolutely real.
Thad: Yeah, it has to pass the Jay inspection test; if he doesn’t puke, it’s good to go.
Jay: It’s not that bad — c’mon, you can cook with it — really, it’s clean (laughs).
FFSW» How did you hook up with Joel Woolf of Veg Powered Systems? Why was he so willing to help convert your truck?
Chris: We sent out media packages to all the vegetable oil guys and Joel was the only guy who came back and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” The other guys were, like, who are you guys, you guys want me to do what? Joel was down from day one. He liked the adventure, he liked the project, he liked it all.
Brian: I honestly think that he wanted to help us out because he thought we’d die without him. And, that very well could have been the case.
FFSW» Where is the truck now?
Chris: We are hoping that it is where we left it in Panama. If it’s not, it will just add to the story.
Thad: The first place we had lined up fell through, so at the last minute, we actually had to scramble and find another place [where someone] is supposedly watching it, but honestly, we are all kinds of sweating whether or not it will be there when we get back down there. We are crossing our fingers big-time right now.
FFSW» What were the sleeping arrangements?
Brian: Basically, whoever had dibs on the primo spot, and got there first, got it.
FFSW» What was the primo spot? I can’t imagine that with your setup there was a primo sleeping spot.
Thad: Surprisingly enough, the Gheenoes on top were the way to go. You’re off the ground, which means you don’t have to worry about spiders crawling on you. You just throw your sleeping bag in the boat and throw a tarp over you, and you’re sleeping in the most awesome bunk bed ever.
Chris: It took Thad and Jay a little bit to figure that out, so they’d lock themselves in the canopy, which is sealed — no ventilation, no oxygen, no nothing. You’d open it in the morning and it was the worst thing ever. Once we all figured it out, it kind of turned into a roshambo thing where whoever gets there gets it.
FFSW» From start to finish, was there any point when any one of you guys was thinking that you should throw in the towel and abandon the project?
Thad: Not a chance. We all went into this with the mind-set that there’s no turning back. Everybody is totally committed to seeing the project through to the end.
Chris: Before we left, we had family members and sponsors that were genuinely worried calling us asking, “Are you really sure you want to do this?” It was really scary taking off to do this, but now we are in and we have to finish it out.
FFSW» I watched the film twice and it actually inspired me to go back and watch your earlier film, The Trout Bum Diaries (which I was a big fan of, by the way). In both efforts, it seems as though the group is as much into the adventure as they are the fish — do you enjoy just going fishing, or has it become something where you need a certain risk/adventure level to enjoy?
Chris: At home, of course, we are on the water whenever we can be, but the adventure thing is something that is deep within is. There’s so much more you get out of a fishing experience by going out there and, I hate to say it, going through hell to get there. But, when all the stars align and you have that awesome day, there’s nothing more fulfilling than that.
Jay: Fishing is fishing and we all love it no matter what, but it’s really nice to find spots where fish haven’t been bothered.
FFSW» There are many parts of the film that completely capture the essence of fly-fishing travel. To me, the part that captured this best was when the Mexican family not only invited you to camp on their property but practically demanded that you all stay and eat their crabs. Can you talk a little bit more about that experience?
Brian: It seems like whenever we travel to these really remote places, we meet people like this. These people in particular pretty much offered us everything they had — food, a place to stay, etc. They had a lot to share and offered it all to us. It was amazing because they weren’t expecting anything in return, nor did we feel like we had to give something back.
Thad: We were there for a few days, and by the time we left, they were literally crying. That to me was one of the coolest experiences we had on the trip. Experiences like that are every bit as gratifying as catching awesome fish. They also wanted Owens to marry their daughter, so that may have had something to do with it.
FFSW» Jay, I’m pretty sure that you were the first to hook up to the first significant fish of the trip, which was a striped marlin — the reel fell off the rod. Was that pretty much par for the course based on what you all had experienced up to that point?
Jay: I was just stoked not to be sick! It could have been a broomstick and I still would have been happy. But yeah, definitely par for the course up to that point.
Thad, Chris and Brian: Par for the course, no doubt.
FFSW» To say that you all had to jump through hoops to get to the striped marlin spot is an understatement. That being said, once you got there and had a couple of goose egg days, exactly how did it feel to hit the marlin mother lode?
Chris: We had spent at least four or five days looking for these marlin. We spent so much time and effort to get this project under way, and we got to this place and we didn’t even know how we were getting offshore. We finally found the boat and got offshore — perfect conditions and we can’t buy a marlin. None of us really had any experience marlin fishing. On the fourth or fifth day, we are all looking at each other with looks of despair — it was really frightening and then it just happened.
Thad: We spent so many days, Jay got so sick, and the swells made it almost impossible to stand up. We were just getting beaten down, and then it was like the finger of God came down and touched the ocean where this massive baitball of sardina showed up. It literally looked like a scene from the Planet Earth series. All of a sudden dolphin, sea lions, whales and then hundreds and hundreds of marlin arrived. To this day, that was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Brian: I’m right there with you, Thad. Our panga captain was a fourth-generation lobster fisherman, and he said he’d never seen anything like that in his entire life.
FFSW» Speaking of the panga captain, his disposition was something that really stuck out to me. His facial expression hid nothing, and worst of all, he didn’t even speak your language. What’s amazing to me is that, once you got into the wads of striped marlin, his demeanor did a 180 — he’s laughing, fist-bumping and high-fiving. It’s funny how fly-fishing can bridge language and cultural barriers. Can you elaborate on that experience?
Brian: Yeah, for sure, he definitely loosened up when we got in the fish. He’d probably never seen a fly rod before in his life, and we were catching these monster fish on them, and that definitely got him pretty stoked.
Chris: He’s just looking at four goofballs in a boat with these fishing poles he’s never seen before and is probably thinking, “OK, so these guys are going to throw at these fish with those things — whatever.” But then, when we started catching them, yeah, then the smiles started coming out because he was in disbelief.
FFSW» Did you think getting robbed was a given? I mean, let’s face it, you guys were traveling through a notoriously shady part of Mexico.
Brian: Yeah, I was just trying to imagine when it was going to happen. The Baja was easy but the mainland was no joke.
Thad: Yeah, that was right after I had to leave — if I’d been there, it wouldn’t have happened (laughs).
FFSW» Speaking of the departure, how did you guys feel when Thad found out he was going to be a daddy again and understandably had to leave the expedition? What was the general consensus of the remaining crew? There is strength in numbers, after all.
Brian: We knew we had a long, rough road ahead of us. We were just leaving Baja and heading into the mainland, and we were completely supportive of him going back home to do what he had to do. And yeah, we were down a man but it was most important for him to go back home.
Thad: On the flip side, it was also really difficult to leave. Obviously, I had to but I was legitimately worried about them. I wanted them to keep me up to date so I could support them as much as possible.
FFSW» Was there a sigh of relief once you were out of the cartel zone and made it to the laid-back atmosphere of the Yucatán?
Chris: Oh, yeah. And just to let you know, we had that truck armed. We had five cans of wasp spray stashed throughout the vehicle. Man, that stuff has a 27-foot reach on it — you get hit by that stuff, you are going down. Brian drove the majority of that stretch, and he was white-knuckled the whole time.
FFSW» You all went through absolute hell many times on this trip, true? Is going through hell worth it for just one banner day of fishing or an epic adventure?
Brian: Yes and hell yes!
Jay: No question.
Chris: Oh, yeah. We don’t actually plan for it to be just that one day (laughs).
FFSW» Clearly, you guys are all buds, but at certain points, the film depicted you more as a crew. Is any one of you considered to be the ringleader or “slave driver”?
Brian: We kind of just filled our roles. We have to do what we have to do in order to move forward and operate as a team. If any tough calls come up, everybody gets a vote, but if there’s one thing we are good at, it’s figuring our way out of compromising situations.
Thad: Brian is definitely the MacGyver; Jay is the kind of the sensei religious leader; I tend to be the rational thinker, and Chris is the guy who is always scouring over the maps trying to get us into these super secluded and remote places. Every one of these roles is important, and it puts everything into cohesion. That’s how the team functions.
FFSW» At any point, did any of you completely lose it for a particular reason?
Jay: Yeah, there was one instance when I got a little grumpy with the fellows — I almost flew out. Tequila was involved, and we began discussing filmmaking and the direction of what we were doing. But in the end, these guys are like brothers.
Thad: It’s nearly impossible not to bump heads in a situation like this. However, I can honestly say that, given the circumstances, I’m proud of how well we got along.
Chris: Of course we rub shoulders, but we forgive and forget and move on.
FFSW» Ideally, what do you want viewers to take away from the film?
Brian: We want to try to inspire people as much as we can. We want people to just go outside and experience something different and step outside of their cubicle and do something they’ve never done before.
Chris: We aren’t really inventing the wheel here. People have done things like this before. But just like any other sport, the goal is to let people know that they can go out there and make it happen.
FFSW» OK, the snook spot — completely blew my mind. It looked as though it was one spot that you saw on a satellite image that must have spoken to one of you very strongly, because what you went through to get there looked insanely awful. Was any one of you pushing extra hard to get there? Luckily, you were rewarded handsomely for your efforts, but damn — what if you went through all that and didn’t find a single fish?
Chris: The intel started back home when we were planning the logistics. It was really just a shot in the dark — none of us had been there or explored any of that stuff. We knew there were big snook in the Yucatán and also knew that we had to get really deep in there because of the problems with netting. If we wanted to get beyond what the netters have access to, we had to keep pushing. We had to go deep — it was a crapshoot but it was a jackpot.
Jay: It had been raining for weeks. Water clarity was horrible because of the weather, and I was almost over it. But then the weather broke and there’s no question whether or not it was worth it.
Brian: I’d go through it all again in a second.
FFSW» Speaking of being rewarded for your efforts, in my mind, this film strongly parallels Homer’s The Odyssey. The epic poem’s hero, Odysseus, is also on a journey of a lifetime and takes on many mental and physical beat-downs. But Odysseus’ tortures were always followed by major rewards — just like yours. What was the most rewarding aspect of the trip?
Chris: When you look at a spot on a satellite and you have no idea logistically how exactly you are going to get there, and three months later you’re there and all the pieces of the puzzle come together — that was it for all of us.
Thad: We really had no choice but to move forward. So really, the big reward is that all the hard work and all of the lumps we took (and believe me, we took many lumps) paid off in the end. Rewards like we came out with don’t come without getting your ass kicked here and there.
FFSW» Why do you think fly-fishing is such a great vehicle for an adventure like this? I mean, sure, any group of buddies could certainly take the same route in a truck powered by vegetable oil, and chances are they’d return home with awesome stories. But to me, there’s something about fly-fishing and adventure travel that’s a perfect marriage, which is what makes the film what it is, in my opinion. Do you think I’m just biased because I’m a fly-fisherman?
Brian: There may be a small bias there, but I also agree that they go hand in hand, and it’s appealing to audiences that have any interest in international travel and adventure.
Jay: It’s in your soul so you are going to automatically be attracted to it. We do it because we love it, and only people who have that passion for fly-fishing can fully understand why it works.
FFSW» At the 2012 International Fly Tackle Dealer Show, I sat in on a round-table discussion, moderated by Costa’s Al Perkinson, with all of you guys about how to grow the sport of fly-fishing. Do you think this project has the potential to grow the sport?
Thad: For sure. And really, that’s the goal. We want to draw non-fly-fishermen in and have hopes that the project will inspire them.
Chris: A lot of the earlier films we did were confined to the industry, but the reach-out wasn’t that big. But what we wanted to do with Motiv and GeoFish was to really step outside of the industry and create a product that was completely inspiring to anybody.
Jay: Absolutely — it already has been. In the early days, we’d have maybe 30 people show up for the film tour, and last year, we had a thousand people show up. They screamed and had fun. It’s not a question of will it help — it already has and it will continue to help.
FFSW» What is this entire project about for all of you? There’s got to be more than the fish-catching aspect that drives you all to pursue an adventure like this.
Brian: Getting a chance to explore the wildest places out there, meeting some of the coolest people ever and just the overall experience — that’s what does it for me. Actually, the fish are kind of secondary, but they do make it worthwhile as well.
Thad: Yeah, the fly rod is the excuse to see the world.
Chris: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. Some people do it with a surfboard, some people do it with a mountain bike, and some people just do it — we do it with a fly rod.
FFSW» You guys are filmmakers, and therefore you are storytellers. I’m sure it’s not a good feeling to be shot at, be threatened with big rusty knives by Mexican thieves, be without passports in what many consider to be a sketchy part of the world — the list of trials and tribulations from the film goes on and on — however, is there any part of you that is happy that all these things happened? There’s no denying the fact that instances like these definitely make killer stories when it’s all said and done.
Brian: You are absolutely right. I don’t know if I’d say that I was happy that they happened, but without a doubt it adds to the overall story. After the fact, we look back on it and are, like, “Yeah, probably a good thing that happened — this is going to be a hell of a story to tell our friends and put in the film.”
Jay: In my opinion, it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong. There’s nothing in the world wrong with five-star hotels, but let’s be honest: They are designed to run seamlessly. I’m glad these things happen because, you’re right — it does come out better. Personally, I love it when things go bad; that’s when I feel most alive.
FFSW» Having completed the Mexico leg, what was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
Chris: Getting the equipment and knowing how to use it. We are driving across some gnarly terrain, and having the right equipment to get us out could literally save our lives.
Jay: If you believe in and work hard toward something, you can accomplish some pretty crazy things in life. We started with nothing. I mean, when this began, I was literally in bankruptcy and living in my basement. I think now is an appropriate time to thank Costa. Please, make no mistake, I don’t say this because Costa is a sponsor. … I say this because [its people] believed in the project from day one. So much so, they encouraged us to extend the project to all seven continents.
Thad: For me, the most valuable lesson we learned was that the difference between an obstacle and an adventure is your attitude. That’s kind of how we have to roll with everything that hits us.
Birth of GeoFish
While plenty of companies have successfully branded their products using traditional strategies, marketing guru Al Perkinson goes against the grain when it comes to letting consumers know what Costa sunglasses are all about. About six years ago, Perkinson came in contact with a group of young filmmakers at the Fly Tackle Dealer Show. In a conversation, Perkinson revealed that he felt the Trout Bum Diaries really captured where fly-fishing is heading. Little did he know, he was actually speaking to the Trout Bums themselves.
Perkinson and the boys stayed in touch, and a couple of years ago, Brian Jill, Chris Owens, Thad Robison and Jay Johnson formed Motiv Fishing and approached Costa with a project that would take the crew from Oregon down to the bottom of South America. Both parties were in a position to partner up, which led to a similar concept but on a much larger scale.
“Adventure and exploration are two concepts that pretty much anyone can appreciate on one level or another. We believe that positioning fly-fishing as a gateway to adventure and exploration will have a much broader reach, which is what the sport needs to bring more people in,” Perkinson says.
The GeoFish project had to have looked intimidating and aggressive on paper, but now that the first leg is complete, the show must go on, and there’s no telling what will happen next. Learn more about the GeoFish project and the Trout Bums at: www.costadelmar.com/explore. To purchase, go to: www.motivfishing.com.