Fishing St. Brandon’s Atoll With Confluence
Three hundred miles northeast of Mauritius, the Indian Ocean gives way to pristine flats skirting the uninhabited St. Brandon’s Atoll. While other transit points between Africa and Asia have provided the backdrop for pirates and cross-continental exchange, the pages of St. Brandon’s history book are relatively empty, offering a few scattered notes on Arabian sailors stopping in through the 7th century. This subtle human footprint remains remarkably similar today and has proved to be the next frontier for intrepid flats anglers. A few lines from Confluence Films’ latest production, Waypoints, summarize the setting: “It’s so remote here. Once you’ve seen something like this, your frame of reference changes.”
Changing the angler’s perspective — and breaking the fly-fishing film production mold — is exactly what Confluence Films seeks to accomplish. Director and cinematographer Chris Patterson of Warren Miller Entertainment and producer/writer Jim Klug, owner of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures, debuted their first documentary, Drift, in 2008. Following on the heels of Drift, the team produced Rise (2009) and Connect (2011). In the fall of 2013, the filmmakers will debut Waypoints, another multisegmented documentary exploring fishing destinations in Chile, Venezuela, India, Alaska and the Indian Ocean.
Beyond expected fishing fare, the plot lines of these projects are woven with rich character profiles, a diverse number of fish species and incredible footage. The Confluence production model represents an artistic effort to keep pace with the evolution of the fly-fishing industry, which during the last two decades has shifted from a purely recreational focus to a dynamic model, tying together outdoor recreation, eco-tourism and conservation.
“This industry is so rich with fascinating people. These film projects enable us to create and plan segments with not only an interesting location, but interesting characters as well,” Klug said. “The film can’t just be about the fish, because you obviously can’t control fish behavior, weather, conditions, etc. There has to be a great story at the core. If you can find that, the fishing action then becomes a bonus.”
While past Confluence projects have featured numerous saltwater fly-fishing destinations such as Belize, the Bahamas, Los Roques and several others, the St. Brandon’s segment represents a new extension for every angler’s imagination. In fall 2012, Klug and Patterson flew from Bozeman, Montana, to Paris to Mauritius over the course of two days. Meeting with guides Gerhard Laubscher and Tim Babich of FlyCastaway (South Africa), the crew then embarked on a two-day boat ride across the Indian Ocean to the atoll. For the next week, they lived on a boat anchored offshore, working 20-hour days to produce what will ultimately become a 12- to 15-minute segment in the new film.
While the crew has shot in saltwater environments in the past, the filming conditions at St. Brandon’s presented new obstacles to capturing stunning underwater shots. Patterson described the underwater filming conditions as some of the toughest he’s encountered: “The challenges were mostly due to the relentless tides. The water was constantly pulling or pushing with a lot of power. When I’m shooting underwater, that tide makes it so much harder to keep up with the fish, especially the big fish like GTs.”
Trying to land a fish for the camera presented its own unique pressure. Laubscher pointed out that angling for a “money shot” meant applying all of his knowledge and skill as a guide while factoring the needs of the cameramen: “Things happen so fast in a saltwater environment. No matter how well we know and understand the fishery, we can set up a shot expecting the fish to come from a certain direction, but when the tide arrives, the fish are suddenly 60 or 70 feet to the left or right of where you were hoping to see them. This means that as anglers we have to adjust to cast to the fish. The biggest problem was that the cameraman had to immediately change everything he had previously set up to get the new shot.”
Because the atoll is devoid of human life and therefore development, the plot centers upon the anglers of FlyCastaway. “The story really is about the pioneering ambitions of the South African guides. These guys look at the planet and at all types of water with no boundaries or fear. Their upbringing in and around Africa allows them to see the world and really remote places like St. Brandon’s with such a different set of eyes,” Patterson remarked.
Klug agreed. “No doubt they’re the craziest, most fish-hungry guys in the world. They’re consumed by fly-fishing and everything else takes a back seat,” he said, further noting that, when uncomfortably large sharks would circle the anglers on the flats, Laubscher told Klug to simply “thump them on the head” and not blow his shot. “I think I spent half the time filming and the other half running security detail for Chris.”
While all saltwater environs hold certain dangers, the crew had to be particularly careful at this location, where access to timely medical attention was impossible. But that remoteness was accompanied by the payoff of a pristine, totally intact fishery, rich with bonefish, various species of trevally, Indo-Pacific permit and numerous other sport fish.
“It’s not just low pressure, it’s no pressure,” Klug emphasized. “St. Brandon’s is remote, probably the most remote place I’ve ever set foot. You know when you’re walking some of these flats that you’re without a doubt the first person to ever step foot there. These days, that’s getting harder and harder to find.”
One thing that the crew learned is that, in spite of St. Brandon’s epic angling opportunities and remote location, the nearly untouched flats are still at risk of overfishing like other locations throughout the Indian Ocean. Numerous regional fisheries that were once productive and healthy have suffered ill effects of intensive commercial fishing and unchecked tourism development. Currently, a responsible commercial outfit holds the lone permit for accessing the waters of St. Brandon’s. If this company were to lose the concession, it could very well fall into the wrong hands.
Laubscher’s parting message emphasized the opportunity to showcase the fishery in its present state to set a global paradigm: “We are sitting on arguably the finest bonefish destination on the planet and want to share this quality resource with anglers from all over the world. We want to show everyone how good a resource can be when humans haven’t affected it, and we need to do everything we can to protect this for future generations.”
Klug stressed the aim to speak to a broad audience and to highlight the universal appeal of the sport: “In the end, we want all types of anglers and outdoor enthusiasts to relate to the elements of these films. A young college kid from the Northwest might save up for a year to fish abroad. An investment banker with a private jet can go whenever he wants at the drop of a hat. But once they arrive at their destination and step onto the flats, it becomes a level playing field. They are both merely anglers.”
Waypoints is scheduled for release in November 2013. First preference for screenings will be given to relevant conservation groups. Sponsored by Simms Fishing Products, Costa Sunglasses, Hatch Outdoors, Yeti Coolers and Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures. For more information, visit confluencefilms.com.