'Maclean' Runs through It

By Steve Wagner, special to ESPN

Twenty years after the death of author Norman Maclean, the family name continues to influence all things fly fishing.


Final scene: A River Runs through It

First we see young Norman Maclean and his brother Paul fishing, then older Norman remembering as he fishes alone. Older Norman (narrating):

“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand in my youth are dead. But I still reach out to them. Of course, now I’m too old to be much of a fisherman. And now I usually fish the big waters alone, even though some friends think I shouldn’t. But when I am alone in the half-light of the canyon, all existence seems to fade to a being of my soul and memories, and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood, and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

“I am haunted by waters.”


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That scene, beautiful and poignant, kept resurfacing in my mind last week. Each time it did, I glanced at my fishing partner, John Maclean -- surviving son of legendary author Norman Maclean, grandson of a storied Presbyterian reverend, a fly fishing progeny now an older gentleman himself at 67 -- and wondered if he was thinking of that scene, too.

Boy Scouts on the MadisonMaclean and I spent Tuesday together in a dory, catching rainbows and browns on the Madison River near Ennis, Montana. A resident of Washington D.C., Maclean says he hasn’t fished much recently, but his skills and passion for the sport remain finely honed.

In spite of a warming Indian summer sun and a remnant crop of grasshoppers along the banks, the fish were reluctant to rise. We drifted most of the day with our default offering, nymph combos, catching just enough to keep it interesting, including a memorable double -- Maclean with a 15-inch rainbow and me with a 14-inch brown -- midway through the morning. In the afternoon, a storm built high atop the Gravelly Range to our west and then rolled angrily across the Madison Valley. Big wind and bolts of lightning sent us to shore for cover in the willows, where we turned our backs against stinging rain and pea-size hail. After the storm, the sky sulked low and dark, and we caught no more trout, although I did bring to the net my third big whitefish of the day.

Between fish and weather and wisecracks from our affable guide, Chris Eaton, we talked about the best-selling book and Academy Award-winning motion picture that both immortalized the Maclean family and completely changed the culture of fly fishing.

I learned that Norman Maclean was an obstinate negotiator. He flatly rejected several producers who approached him about making his 1976 book into a motion picture. Maclean was irritated by non-anglers who knew nothing of fly fishing, yet blathered incessantly about their artistic vision for the movie. Then Robert Redford, an avid fly fisherman, called. Things seemed promising until Redford showed up late for an initial meeting, and Maclean slammed a door in Redford’s face. Eventually, the two struck a deal. But then the project stalled. John Maclean says he suspects Redford didn’t want to begin filming as long as the ornery old man was around to critique every scene. Years went by. Norman Maclean died in 1990 (at age 88) and, not coincidentally, perhaps, the movie was filmed less than a year later, and released in 1992.

I learned that Redford auditioned dozens of voices to narrate the movie, but all struggled with the delicate lines. Finally, producer and director Redford handled that job, too.

I learned that none of the river scenes were actually filmed on the Blackfoot River or even near Missoula, Montana, where the story is set. This was a decision based simply on cost. Shooting locations on the Gallatin, Upper Yellowstone, Boulder and other rivers near Bozeman, Montana, and Great Falls, Montana, were nearer to caterers and other services needed by the film crews. The scene where the two brothers go over the falls in a wooden boat was actually shot in Wyoming.

I learned that Brad Pitt, who played the part of Paul Maclean, worked daily with local instructors hired to teach fly casting skills, but Pitt never got the hang of it. A stand-in did many of the scenes where casting was required. I also discovered the real Paul, troubled with drinking and gambling, was beaten to death in an alley in a bad neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois -- not behind a bar in Lolo, Montana.

I learned that angling industry executives reported gross sales in fly fishing grew an incredible 60 percent in the year following the motion picture -- and another 60 percent in the year after that. But while commerce more than doubled in those two short years, traffic and fishing pressure grew exponentially more along Montana’s newly famous Blackfoot. The river once held sacred in part for its secluded fishing is no place to find solitude today, particularly in July and August when crowds of vacationing anglers, still drawn by the residual power of the book and movie, vie for the best holes. Local bathers discovered the river, too. Hot days bring steady strings of raucous beer drinkers riding the currents atop all manner of inflatable flotsam. All of which, Maclean says, would have left his father horrified.

On a happier topic, Maclean and I also spent part of our fishing time talking about our days as Boy Scouts and the special event that served as the backdrop for our meeting on the Madison. Well publicized is the fact that 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Scouting. But few people know that in 1916, when early Scouting organizers came to Montana to establish the state’s first chapter, they called upon respected community leader and Presbyterian reverend John N. Maclean to make it happen in Missoula. Archival photos from The Missoulian newspaper show the reverend with young members of the new troop, including a stoic 12-year-old Norman Maclean. My fishing partner today, who was named after his grandfather and later became a Boy Scout and then troop leader himself, was invited here by the Montana Council Boy Scouts of America as a celebrity guest for a special fundraiser.

Billed as The Montana Experience, it’s an annual fly fishing adventure hosted by the Madison Valley Ranch (madisonvalleyranch.com) in Ennis, Montana. The Orvis-endorsed lodge is one of Montana’s best, with a variety of blue-ribbon trout fishing opportunities, exquisite food and comfortable quarters. About a dozen donors per year are treated to a day’s float on the Upper Madison River plus another day on the Lower Madison’s scenic but limited-access Bear Trap area. Here the river slices through a deep canyon. Water ranges from slow pools to a wild Class V rapid named Kitchen Sink, with fishing along the entire length typically good to phenomenal. Browns exceeding 20 inches are not uncommon.

On the first evening, Maclean did a presentation for the group, showing family photos, telling stories and offering behind-the-scenes trivia about the celebrated book and movie. Maclean is an accomplished book author in his own right, as well as a career reporter for a major newspaper -- he traveled the world in the 1970s and ‘80s covering Henry Kissinger and the U.S. Department of State. But he is clearly at ease with the family notoriety that he inherited, and he delighted in sharing that legacy with us.

Maclean also remains true to a classic line from the book: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fishing.” Like his father, he relies on the sport to connect him with nature, if not a higher power, and he has tales from trout waters across America.

When the presentations had ended and rods were put away, The Montana Experience participants returned home with the satisfaction of knowing they helped make a difference for one of the most successful youth development programs the world has ever known. Boy Scouts today boasts 8,000 youths in Montana alone and more than 2 million nationwide. One survey suggests almost half of adult males in the U.S. have a personal connection to Scouting.

For 40 years or so, Boy Scouts has offered a merit badge for fishing. But within the past five years, another merit badge was introduced especially for fly fishing. To earn one, a participant must learn basic knowledge of equipment, techniques and entomology, and demonstrate ability to catch a variety of species. The fly fishing merit badge was made official, I’m told, because of significant youth interest in the sport -- and it’s not a far leap to think part of that demand could trace back to A River Runs through It.

Back on the Madison River, as our guide beached the dory at the take-out spot, I glanced again at my fishing partner, but this time with a sudden understanding that he doesn’t view his world as scenes from a movie, nor chapters in a book. For him, the people and places, the experiences and emotions, are real. Life, unscripted. It is only the rest of us, from Boy Scouts to businessmen aspiring to the spiritual, aesthetic, cadenced lifestyle of a devout fly fisherman, for whom those immortal words and images braid into a vivid, recurring dream.

And for years now, if not generations, the name Maclean has run through it.