May 04, 2023
By Ross Purnell
There will be a special advance screening of Mending the Line presented by Fly Fisherman magazine June 3, 2023 at the Allenberry in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. Tickets are $25 at ticketleap.com. 100% of ticket proceeds go to Warriors and Quiet Waters, and there will be raffles and silents auctions for tackle, outerwear, flies, artwork, and much more. After the show there will be a panel discussion with WQW alumni, director Joshua Caldwell and others about the film and the healing power of fly fishing. Be there to support our vets!
My first short social media introduction to Mending the Line informed me that the film—in production at the time—was a drama about a veteran with PTSD and the healing power of fly fishing. But a summary like that is about as trite as saying Catcher in the Rye is a “coming-of-age story” or that All Quiet on the Western Front is “about the horrors of war.” Both are true but also unfair treatments of great works of art that are complex, nuanced, and reveal much deeper things to us both as individuals and as a collective whole.
The therapeutic value of fly fishing is something readers of this magazine are well aware of. Fly Fisherman first wrote about Project Healing Waters in 2005 when U.S. casualties from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at all-time highs. Since then we’ve also written about other groups such as Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation, Discover Courage, Casting for Recovery, Reeling in Serenity (this issue, page 12), Reel Recovery, The Mayfly Project, and many other nonprofit organizations using fly fishing as a remedy for psychological and physical ailments. To the thousands who have participated in these programs, fly fishing has provided solace and healing, friendships and peace. It has real value.
In Mending the Line, director Joshua Caldwell and writer Stephen Camelio tackle this extremely sensitive subject matter with authenticity and grace. The story they tell isn’t about specific people or events, but it’s a compilation of real events and experiences gathered by Stephen Camelio, whose own father served in Vietnam, was exposed to Agent Orange, and passed away in 2013 after a long battle with cancer.
It represents the reality of thousands of people who have suffered in their lives, and found that fly fishing gave them something to live for—a chance to heal and move forward. As Ike says to Colter in the film, “In the book of every soldier’s life, the military is a chapter. That’s it. Some people think it’s the whole book. No, it’s part of you. It never . . . never leaves you. But, it’s not . . . not the whole story.”
We first meet Colter (Sinqua Walls) in a forward operating base in Afghanistan where he orders his Marines to take one last patrol with him “outside the wire.” Colter’s lead HMMWV (Humvee) is disabled by an IED, and an ambush on their column of vehicles leaves Colter badly injured—and his closest friends dead.
Colter’s journey takes him to a VA hospital in Montana, where he is recovering from PTSD as well as physical wounds. He wants to go back into combat, but his doctor (Patricia Heaton) requires him to attend group therapy. When that doesn’t work out, she suggests he learns to fly fish from another one of her patients, grouchy Ike Fletcher (Brian Cox), also a Marine suffering from survivor’s guilt from his experience with war.
Ike is a cranky loner who works at a fly shop and is estranged from his family. Due to chronic fainting and other health problems, his doctor wants him to fish with a partner. Ike doesn’t want a fishing partner, and as a result, gives Colter the “Mr. Miyagi treatment” by forcing him to stock inventory in the fly shop, and sending him to the library to do “recon.”
“More great literature has been written about fly fishing than any other sport. Start there,” says Ike.
Colter meets a librarian named Lucy, and after an awkward start with the only fishing book she could think of—The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway—she finds the right book for Colter and returns to the hospital with the book Casting Forward, by Steve Ramirez.
She reads aloud to him:
“I guess sometimes surviving is your punishment. So, you stand in the river, facing upstream with the water rushing down upon you as if it could somehow fill the hollow emptiness—and somehow, it always does. So, it was one morning. I stood there, without even casting and with no trout rising, and as the water rushed past me, I knew it was washing my burdens behind me, swirling them downstream like the autumn leaves.
“There is a great deal about living that trout can teach us. They teach us how to keep swimming even in a steady current. Trout know that if they stop swimming, they cease to be trout and begin to become debris, floating without purpose wherever the current may take them. Trout know that if they keep swimming, facing into the current, perhaps in the eddy of a rock, all that they need to truly live will eventually come to them. I learn a great deal from trout.
“Fly fishing connects you to the trout’s world and in doing so, your own.”
This literary connection pays homage to the fact that great books have not only been written about fly fishing, but that they are actually part of our fly-fishing experience. They are part of our own introspection and healing. This literary device inevitably requires comparisons with A River Runs Through It, which was first a novella, then a film, and also draws heavily on the metaphor that rivers and fishing can provide a roadmap for life.
But while the historical A River Runs Through It weaves a story of family, religion, and life in 1920s Montana, Mending the Line deals with our modern realities, where transitory “families” can be created through friendships on the water. Lucy, Colter, and Ike are not relatives, but these unlikeliest of fishing partners—who suffered in solitude—found solace together on the water, and finally found a place where they can laugh and feel inspired by nature.
While veterans are at the heart of this tale, the themes enveloping this film involve all of us. We see parts of ourselves in Lucy, Ike, and Colter. If not ourselves, we see people we love or people we’ve lost. Everyone has had some degree of trauma; dealt with alcoholism or drug addiction; buried a friend, family member, or spouse; considered, attempted, or grieved suicide; or been estranged from family members by divorce, mental anguish, or other circumstances; and the list goes on.
Colter learns to live again, and he does so not just by fly fishing but by teaching others as well, by helping Lucy close a chapter in her life, and by giving Ike something he couldn’t give himself. Their story ends as it began, with Lucy reading out loud from Casting Forward, this time to Ike:
“And so I stand in the river casting back and forth, trying to lose that feeling of being alone. It is then that the rainbow rises and takes my offering. I raise my rod, and all at once, I am no longer alone. I am connected to his powerful runs, facing into the current.
“I have come to see that there is nothing that ends our spirit except for our own failure to keep it alive. Life happens, like a river’s flow. Sometimes, the river flows softly, the sound of riffles and falls and birdsong bringing calm to the morning sunrise. Sometimes the river floods, ripping trees from their anchors and washing jeweled fish from pool to pool, it matters not, they make a new home wherever the river takes them.”
Behind The Scenes
It took 19 days in August 2021 to film Mending the Line. The film premiered on opening night of the 2022 Woodstock Film Festival in September. It will have a widespread theatrical release the summer of 2023. For specific show times, visit bluefoxentertainment.com/films/mending-the-line.
It stars a powerful cast including Golden Globe winner Brian Cox (Succession, Troy); Sinqua Walls (Nanny, White Men Can’t Jump); Perry Mattfeld (In the Dark, Shameless); Emmy winner Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond, The Middle); and Academy Award winner Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, A Love Song).
The Afghanistan battle scenes were filmed at Camp Pendleton, California, with assistance from technical advisors from the U.S. Marine Corps Entertainment Media Liaison Office and the U.S Department of Defense. Walls is the only actor in the opening scenes. Everyone else is a Marine with real vehicles, weapons, training, and experience.
Mending The Line was made with the support of a Big Sky Film Grant from the Montana Film Office. The fishing scenes were shot in many recognizable locations including the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, DePuy Spring Creek, and in a nod to A River Runs Through It, in Gallatin Canyon near the home of writer Stephen Camelio. Fisheries biologist Joe Urbani safely handled all the fish for Mending the Line, a job he also did on the set of A River Runs Through It. Simon Gawesworth, the longtime face of RIO fly lines, was also a consultant and taught Brian Cox, Sinqua Walls, Perry Mattfeld, and Wes Studi how to cast and how to actively and authentically fly fish in the movie. Mattfeld is the only cast member with previous fly-fishing experience, and was often seen fishing off camera before and after filming.
Gawesworth is Far Bank’s education and engagement manager, and he provided all the Sage rods and reels, and RIO fly lines for the film. The bamboo rod that plays a central role was built by Tom Morgan Rodsmiths in Bozeman. Mike Craig of No Leaf Clover Nets personally built all the nets used in the movie. All the actors wore Simms waders. The fly shop in the film is Angler’s West Fly Fishing Outfitters in Emigrant, Montana, on the Yellowstone River. Owner Matson Rogers closed the store and gave the cast and crew complete access during filming.
The detailed footage of rising trout came from Gilbert Rowley (@gilbertrowley) of Capture Adventure Media, based in Ephraim, Utah, and from Ryan Kelly (@greenriverflyfisher) in Dutch John, Utah.
Screenwriter Stephen Camelio grew up in New England, and grew up spin fishing for bluefish off Ispwich, Massachusetts, and for bass and trout in local ponds. When he was in middle school he got a fly rod mostly because “I wanted to be like Ted Williams, and coming from a family of Red Sox fans, that was reason enough for my parents.” He didn’t actually become a successful fly fisher until his parents bought him admission to an Orvis school for a college graduation present. Soon after, he was an editor at InStyle magazine in New York City and regularly fished the Farmington, Housatonic, and Croton rivers, and in salt water for striped bass. He moved with his wife to Yellowstone National Park, where he worked at the bookstore at Norris Geyser Basin, and started writing the script when no one was in the store. At the time, he was also a freelance writer, and was published in The Drake, Fly Rod & Reel, Field & Stream, and Publishers Weekly.
He now lives with his family near Bozeman, Montana. He calls Mending the Line a “passion project” and the idea for the film first came from his own father’s battles with cancer, caused from Agent Orange exposure during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
Joshua Caldwell was born and raised in Seattle, Washington and in addition to fishing off the docks around Lake Washington, joined his grandfather on several trips to Alaska for salmon. But it wasn’t until 2017 that he took up fly fishing. After moving from Los Angeles to New York State, he was gifted a two-day Orvis fly-fishing class at Sandanona. After floundering fishless on a local river for a season, he eventually befriended Catskills guide Landon Brasseur, who introduced him to Euro nymphing, and his passion for the entire sport grew from there.
Caldwell now lives with his wife and children in the Hudson Valley area of New York and frequently fishes the Farmington, Esopus, Delaware, and Neversink rivers, as well as rivers in Montana and across the West. In addition to Mending the Line, he has directed several feature films, including his debut Layover, which was nominated for the prestigious New American Cinema Award at the Seattle International Film Festival, Be Somebody for Paramount Pictures, and most recently the crime thriller Infamous starring Bella Thorne.
Steve Ramirez does not appear in the film, nor is he mentioned. But Caldwell and Camelio both credit his book Casting Forward as being inspirational in developing the screenplay, and Lucy’s readings from the book act as narration for critical parts of the film. Ramirez went through boot camp at Parris Island and served five years as a member of MSG Battalion and the Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa. His focus was counterterrorism and protecting Americans and dignitaries abroad. He was meritoriously promoted four times and honorably discharged afterward, serving 30 years in law enforcement, homeland security, and as a counterterrorism and emergency management instructor. Casting Forward was part of his own therapy in dealing with PTSD. His third book, Casting Seaward, was published in April, 2023. He writes the Seasonable Angler column on the last two pages of every issue of Fly Fisherman.
Mending the Line Details
- Written by Stephen Camelio and directed by Joshua Caldwell.
- Starring Brian Cox, Sinqua Walls, Perry Mattfeld, Patricia Heaton, and Wes Studi. Produced by Kelly McKendry, Carl Effenson, Scott MacLeod, Stephen Camelio, Joshua Caldwell.
- Runtime: 2 hours, 2 minutes, Sony Entertainment.
- U.S. theatrical release summer 2023.
Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.