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Thursday, July 23, 2009
Updated: July 24, 2:40 PM ET
Perfect rhythm

By Kyle Carter
ESPNOutdoors.com

MANCHESTER, Vt. — The rushing water around the legs is nice. There's definitely something to rays of light pushing through the trees and to watching current break around a rock, but technically those can be consistent in any type of fishing.

It's that moment of pause at the back of the cast that sets fly-fishing apart. It forces you to wait, if even for just a split second, and admire. It's almost as if nature is watching, waiting to see if you'll have the patience to get in rhythm.

Something about that process lends itself to life lessons or proverbs or fortune cookies. (Sometimes you have to go back and straighten things out before you can move forward.) The most recognized line of the movie "A River Runs Through It" is its first: "In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing."

Whether the 1992 film made you think you could find religion in a stream or not, it probably left you, and everyone else, expecting a certain experience from fly-fishing.

It was the lure of that experience that took fly-fishing from a niche sport to an ideal. Everyone wanted to be Brad Pitt holding up a monster trout with the sound of rushing water and the green Montana mountains as the backdrop. Suddenly 10 o'clock, 2 o'clock was more than where to put your hands on the steering wheel; it was the essence of perfect rhythm.

It was the celebration of the rerelease of the movie on Blu-ray that put me -- and some the of movie's cast -- in Vermont on the Battenkill River. It wasn't Montana, but Vermont can be pretty remote. And there was no three-mile hike out of civilization, but at least we turned down a dirt road.

Battenkill River
The Battenkill River in Vermont hosted a reunion with the cast of "A River Runs Through It."

Both God and man could plainly see there was no religion in my cast. The line was pretty clear.

A more accurate portrayal of my first hour on the water comes from the book that inspired the movie: "All good things -- trout as well as eternal salvation -- come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

But even with my cast throwing nature out of whack and giving the trout no shot at my fly, the essence of "A River Runs Through It" was happening as I slowly made my way downriver.

A River Runs Through It
Fly-fishing requires patience and rhythm.
A guide for the Orvis Fly-Fishing School, based out of Manchester, Vt., stood up at a gathering the night before just to say thank you to Tom Skerritt (who played the father, Rev. Maclean) and Craig Sheffer (who played the older brother, Norman Maclean).

"Some of my older fishing buddies cursed the film because all the rivers they used to have to themselves were all the sudden crowded," said David Moryc, a senior executive with American Rivers, a conservation organization.

As for 10 o' clock, 2 o' clock, that wasn't really happening. It was more like keep your wrist straight and wait for the pause at the back. It was the waiting that seemed to cause most of the problem.

"You're moving too fast," said Joe Healy, who works for the magazine Fly Rod and Reel. He was my music teacher for the day. "It's Zen, man, this is very Zen."

Another hour of coaching from Healy and I started to hear the soft beats of rhythm, occasionally interrupted to the whipping sound my line made when I moved forward too quickly. Things started to slow down, to become a little more Zen.

Roughly 30 yards downriver, Sheffer was shaking off 17 years of fly-fishing rust and reliving a moment that he considers the pinnacle of his career. In front of me, the Battenkill was choosing sides of a small rock near the middle of the river, and shadows from the trees lining the bank provided a target for my fly.

I was starting to buy into a theory Skerritt had mentioned a few hours earlier while trying to explain what fly-fishing means to the guy holding the rod.

"You reach the point where you don't want to catch a fish," he said, "because it disrupts the flow."

Then my line tightened and I felt pressure on the end of my rod. The flow was interrupted and I became very interested in catching a fish.

Less than 15 seconds later I was holding a trout that barely reached from the top of my middle finger to the base of my palm. I didn't have to ride the current half a mile and I didn't lose my hat, but I found the rhythm and the trout found me.

It was my moment: Grace turned to art.

A River Runs Through It
Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It" changed the sport of fly-fishing across the world.

It's a few seconds in the movie that goes mostly unnoticed.

Skerritt sits on a rock in front of his son, Sheffer, as they both watch the youngest of the family, Brad Pitt, fish the river. It's actually the movie's signature scene (watch it), but there's a moment at the beginning that subtly sets it.

"It's not easy to talk about this film," Skerritt said. "I see a lot of my father and my brothers in this film."

A River Runs Through It
Actor Tom Skerritt, right, teaches his two sons how to cast a fly rod in "A River Runs Through It."
Skerritt reaches back to grab Sheffer's knee and misses. He glances back, finds the knee and squeezes. It looked like it could have been a mistake. It wasn't. Skerritt said he learned the move from his father.

"It was the only way he'd ever show love; a squeeze of the knee," he said. "Those were the kinds of moments this film was about. Bring the audience to the point where they expect you to cry and they'll cry for you. It really respected your feelings."

It also respected the fly-fishing, which was the driving force behind Norman Maclean's book. Sheffer and Pitt spent six hours a day for two weeks working on their motion.

"We did most of the casting ourselves," Sheffer said. "But it wasn't like we learned to catch the fish. We just had to learn how to cast and look good doing it."

Director Robert Redford spent hours with Maclean to get a better feel for the man, his family and his passion. Maclean, who passed away before the film was finished, signed off on the screenplay but wanted to insure the integrity of the fishing. Maclean's daughter approved the final product.

In the end, it exposed both sides of a sport and idealized a process that would affect anglers and movie watchers years later. It is possible fly-fishing and its undertones did as much for the movie as the movie did for the sport.

"Fly-fishing has a rhythm to it. It's not just a rod and a reel; it's the water and the stream," Skerritt said. "They are all part of a symphony. Eventually, everything has to work together, and they did in this film."

"A River Runs Through It" debuts on Blu-ray July 28.