Interview by Aleksandar Vrtaric
Jason Borger – A LEGEND IN HIS OWN TIME
When it comes to modern fly fishing, there are some people we can only admire and learn from. Jason became involved in fly fishing the second he was able to walk. Literally, that is. He got so keen on fly fishing, he had his first fly fishing article published at the age of 13, his first video at the age of 16. Jason Borger is a living legend whose life is completely dedicated to fly fishing. A writer, contributor to numerous magazines and publications, co-founder of the Fly Casting Institute, educator and fly fishing consultant, easily one of the best fly casters on the planet and (for many of you this might be the most interesting part) a double for quite a few commercials and films, including THE film. The one! Yes, the one most of you fishing crazed people must have seen. Take a wild guess! It’s the one with those beautiful fly casting scenes, including the timeless “shadowcast”. By now you know it’s Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It” and yes, Jason was the guy who doubled for both Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer.
In addition to his writing, Jason is also a superbly talented illustrator and painter of fly-fishing-themed artworks with a professional history in illustration and graphic design production, as well as a degree in film and television production and theory. It would take a couple of pages to introduce him properly, to have some space left for him to introduce himself I’ll make it abundantly clear: if Apollo is the god of music and if there is such thing as god of fly fishing, Jason Borger is the perfect candidate. By now you will have realized how a successful person he is, and yet Jason is a humble man and was kind enough to answer some questions for SCALE Magazine.
So, here we go!
Among fly anglers, there is this legend that once you get hooked to it, you are hooked for life. Do you remember your first fly fishing experience? The day or moment when you got hooked?
My first fly-fishing experience (cast, hook, land) was well before my memory allows. I must have liked it a lot though! I have the photos, and I‘ve gone back to the spot more than a few times, so I‘d say it hooked me right then and there.
My earliest memories of fly fishing are from the small streams of Wisconsin, USA, where I grew up. Lots of sun-dappled water, springtime hatches, and jewel-like browns and brookies.
The angling memory that perhaps most defines my youth, though, would be my first two-foot brown, caught on Wyoming‘s upper Green River. For those that know the place, it feels wild and free and the mountains are as rugged as they come. A perfect backdrop for a big-fish memory that lives with me always.
For some, it is passion, some call it a lifestyle, some say it is an addiction, some say they can‘t even imagine their life without it. What is fly fishing to you?
It’s part of who I am.
Obviously, fly fishing to you is also a source of artistic inspiration. Is there a piece of work, a drawing or a painting you are especially proud of?
I’m not generally a big fan of my own work. I don’t have any of it hanging anywhere. I guess if I had to call out one piece that I revisit, though, it would be a little watercolor sketch I did for someone as a commission years ago. Just a quickie of a rainbow trout head on paper. Came together nicely one night and I still give it a visual once-over now and again. That said, I really like to look at the work of others. For those who have fly-fishing subject matter in their portfolios, a few faves would include Jack Cowin, Eldridge Hardie, Galen Mercer, Ogden Pleissner, Chet Reneson, and with a camera, Julien Pouille. There really are a bunch more that I love, just quickly named a few there.
Please introduce your latest book ‘Single-Handed Fly Casting’ to us. Can you explain what a ‘modular approach’ to fly casting is? Are the illustrations your creation? Can the book be bought in some European stores?
SHFC is a lifetime of casting instruction study and practice condensed into 300 or so pages. In other words, boring – unless you‘re a fly-casting geek!
At its core, the modular approach is just an alternate way of viewing fly-casting skills. It’s about reducing the physical bits and pieces of into manageable chunks. Those bits and pieces can then be assemebled to make whatever you want or need. Looked at another way, it’s about turning fly casting skills into individual building blocks, versus starting with the mental and physical burden of whole skills.
I did all the illustrations, yes, as well as the layout. The pics are all based on slow-motion HD video, so they’re not only accurate in terms of body/arm positions, but are also real-world accurate in terms of rod and line.
I prefer illustrations because they eliminate all the visual “noise” that accompanies photos/video stills, and because I can focus on certain areas more easily and cleanly. It’s a crazy amount of work to go that route, though.
A few copies may still be floating around Europe. Springforelle.de had a special run made just for them.
When it comes to fly casting, are there basic guidelines that work for everyone? Based on your experience, can anyone (with proper education) become a great caster?
Perhaps the most basic guideline: Accelerate the rod smoothly. All of the other adjustments can be framed around that.
In my lifetime of teaching fly casting, I’ve come to use terms like “great” with care! I’d say that almost anyone can, with solid foundation instruction and practice, become a competent fly caster. That is, someone who can get things done in a range of angling situations. I’ll also mention that I have never said to myself: “Self, you are just too good at casting.” There is always room to hone and improve, especially when trying to fish under the most challenging conditions.
“A River Runs Through It” is something that became not only an experience, but a part of your life, even today after 26 years. What can you tell me about the experience? What would be your dearest, most special memory from that time and how do you feel about the story today? What was it like working with Robert Redford, Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer?
The film came to life just as I was finishing a communications degree with a film/TV focus. The timing was perfect. To be a part of telling Norman Maclean’s classic story, under a Montana big sky, with a cast and crew directed by Redford? That was good as it was going to get for a 21-year-old kid who mostly just liked to fly fish, drink beer, and ride bikes.
Of all the days I spent as part of the crew, perhaps my most intense moment was the shadow cast scene. I doubled for Brad in the long shot. It was filmed on the Gallatin River just a few miles from where I caught my first-ever trout on a fly rod. For me, pivoting there on a rock, in that river, under a big sky, it felt as if my angling journey had come full circle. The time and place left a deeply personal impression on me. I would never see fly fishing or the Gallatin in the same way again.
The story still resonates for me today, in some ways more so than ever. As I get older, the wistful sense of what was, or might have been, and the memories of those now gone, only grows.
Working with Robert Redford was a pleasure. I enjoyed him as a person, as much as a director, and he made sure that I felt at home on his set, despite the minor role that I played. I also enjoyed working with the actors, principle or bit. Brad took his angling work seriously (viewed, of course, within the larger context of the whole film), and Craig, I think, was a poet at heart, so the part of Norman suited him well.
I have to ask about the shadowcast-scene. What is the idea behind the cast and how hard was it for you to turn it into reality?
The cast has more than one meaning, which is especially apparent if one has read the novella. While the piscatorial goal is to tease trout into rising (a bit of a magic trick), the cast is really more about a brother ascending to grace via art. Paul’s perch above the river, as he casts momentarily untouched by the inexorable flow of life, and time, and loss, creates for his brother a bittersweet memory of perfection.
In more pragmatic terms, the cast was cobbled together from bits and pieces of other casts. It was crafted with input from various people, and ultimately ended up as you see it. The difficulty stemmed from the awkward backhanded move required and trying to hide a bit of a double haul to remain period correct (but who’s to say that Paul Maclean didn’t manage to think up hauling himself?).
What kind of gear was used in the movie?
A combination of traditional and modern gear. The new stuff (graphite and plastic) was built to look old to the camera and was typically used for longer-range shots (like the shadow cast scene). I did manage to break two of the vintage cane rods during filming, which either made me appear authentic or like an idiot. I’m still not sure which!
And your all time favorite books?
My pick for an all-time, angling-related favorite would be The River Why, by David James Duncan. Probably as a result of the combination of its publication date (I was entering my teenage years), its subject matter, Duncan’s literary approach, and the way things in my own life – real or imagined – intertwined with the characters, settings, and story. I still read it yearly.