2024 F3T Behind the Lens: Visibility

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To kick off the 2024 F3T Behind the Lens interview series we head out to the Pacific Northwest to the remote Olympic Penisula. Steelhead guide Lael Paul Johnson takes us on an emotional journey through the Pacific Rainforest where he and his new friend Westley find similarities in life through a winter steelheading trip. Flylords was lucky enough to catch up with filmmaker Tyler Soares and star of the film Lael Paul Johnson, to learn more about what went into the making of this film. Check out the full interview below.

Westley, Lael, and Tyler (left to right).

Flylords: Tell us about yourselves.

Lael: I am Captain Lael Paul Johnson, owner and guide for Fly Gyde, founder of the F•Y•S•H Foundation, photographer, fly tyer, writer, ambassador, and above all, an obsessed steelhead fisherman. I’m originally from Topeka, Kansas, where, after training in the ARMY, I left in my early twenties to travel the US as a surgical technologist and ended up in Seattle. I never left, and now I’m in my 10th year of living out a childhood dream of being a fishing guide in the Pacific Northwest.

Tyler: I’m originally from New Milford, Connecticut, a small town. The first time I picked up a camera was pike fishing with a buddy of mine after school. I was addicted to documenting all of the debauchery that happened in between our glory moments. Those seemed to stick with me the most over time. Fast-forward 10 years, I moved to Los Angeles, and I’ve been working as a creative producer in tech. And since this film, I’ve made the decision to produce full time on my own, combining my love for travel and storytelling. The younger me would be proud.

Flylords: How did this film come to life? Where did the idea come from?

Lael: What would you do if you had 15 minutes to show the world who you are? I’d asked myself that for a LONG time. What do you want to represent your legacy if you get your chance? Are you waiting for a chance, or will you make an opportunity? After sorting through those questions over the years, my goal was to help people catch fish, but more importantly, to open doors for other anglers who looked like me, or make it easier for them than it was for me. Getting my story out and spreading the mission of the F•Y•S•H Foundation was best done by showcasing what has helped me in a short film, ultimately hoping to help others. Here’s how it all went down:

The name came easily, but developing a story around it was harder. The title “Visibility” is a perfect example of a double entendre – from a steelheaders perspective, water “visibility” is the only thing that can stop us. The second definition of “visibility” for me, on top of being a steelheader, was asking: How do I become noticed and successful in a profession that typically has not been filled by anglers of color? How do I change that narrative so that I become THE example? Those are two things I have been faced with my entire career, but I knew The only thing that could stop me is me, and not being able to show my gift to the world. Since we live in a digital age, that “vis” is good – everyone has a better chance now.

Tyler was originally one of my clients who booked a steelhead trip in February of 2022 for him and his now fiancé, Lex. On the trip, we hooked one good one, it came off, Tyler filmed a little and we had fun. After we pulled out the boat, I grabbed my rod and went back to the river for an after-work sesh. Tyler asked if he could go with me, and that moment meant a lot to me. He showed me he was really into this and wanted more, even after a challenging day. In my eyes, a steelheader baby was born!

As I was swinging, I told him more about myself and my plans for the year, and how I wanted to do this film project called “Visibility.” He then told me how he wanted to get into the outdoor industry as a filmmaker. Then, it was just two people opening up about future goals while standing in the water.

I chose Tyler to be the one who would eventually direct this project because he was so passionate and excited about steelheading when I first met him. Tyler has the drive to do whatever he sets his mind to, and that’s who I needed.

I can’t leave out the story’s connection to the F•Y•S•H Foundation. The F•Y•S•H Foundation is a non-profit I created with support from Ford’s Bronco Wild Fund to help others find better mental health through the transformative power of fishing and the outdoors. Without it, I don’t believe this project would resonate with so many people as it has. Understanding how fishing and the outdoors has helped me, it made me want to present that opportunity to others to help them too – regardless of their income, ability, or background. There was a need for this film. Partnering with an organization that aims to help people find that too just made sense.

Flylords: What was your most memorable moment in the production of the film?

Lael: On the second day of shooting, I was inches away from hooking into possibly the biggest steelhead I may have seen. It will have to be a creature of legend that I’ll chase for the rest of my life.

We’re on schedule, launching the boat in the dark, and I decided to take the boat across the river and swing a run I know holds fish that will play ball. All is going well, but it’s a pretty deep, challenging spot, so IM LOCKED IN DREDGING, big shit! 14′ foot rod, Intermediate head, T-17, a fat Night Crawler, and a hook worthy of getting into “Walter.” I’m 3/4 of the way down, and I see a splash next to the fallen tree I’m swinging next to, and my heart beats fast! The cameras are on, so I just have to hook ’em. I got closer to the tree, and there was no more movement for about six or seven casts, but then something the size of a 25+ pound chinook broke the surface with a big splash, chasing my fly. It was a real HOLY #@!% type of moment that would have gone down as one of my greatest. That feeling epitomizes the excitement that steelheading can bring, with or without hooking a fish. When you are in that moment, the world disappears, and it’s just you, the forest, and the fish.

Tyler: Aside from Jimmy taking stand-up comedy breaks or eating his ramen noodles with pliers, I’ll never forget the morning of our final day. At 4:30am the guys were dumping boiling hot water to get ice off the boat. We pulled up to the river as the sun peeked over the mountains. We were awarded the most breathtaking panoramic view of snow covered trees and mountain tops. We just knew this was the day Lael would find what he was searching for. There was this silence in the air for the first hour, it was pure magic.

Flylords: What was the biggest challenge in the production of this film?

Lael: All the aspects of Steelheading itself: Run timing, weather, water levels, and, of course, water visibility.

Tyler and I set our sights on bringing the film to F3T, but we had to shoot first and then get support. It’s not ideal, but it let us dive into our vision of the film without any outside direction. Shooting this film with Tyler is the most unscripted, magical project I’ll ever be a part of, and I’m proud of that. That rawness in storytelling is what this film deserved.

Tyler: Given the delicacy and personal nature of this story for Lael and Wesley, it was my turn to take a back seat. The strong mutual trust we shared made this a highly collaborative experience, and I’m grateful for the opportunity they gave me. I had numerous checkpoints during post-production to ensure the message came through clearly. 

From a technical standpoint, working on this solo production, both pre and post, presented its challenges. I was non-stop from the moment we landed. Initially, Simms had no knowledge of me, which understandably led to no immediate investment from them. However, I was determined to bring this beautiful story to life and prove myself. Over time, I’ve built a strong relationship with them. Once they saw the finished product, they enthusiastically joined the project and provided a ton of feedback/support. Rex and Paul, if you know them, are truly exceptional.

Flylords: Were there any difficulties around filming, was there bad lighting, weather, fishing conditions, etc.?

Lael: This story evolved over countless texts, phone calls, car rides, editing sessions, the launch of the F•Y•S•H Foundation, reviews, and feelings about what we had done after it was all filmed. I could not be happier with the final product and its message, but a great deal of it was just saying, “F it, let’s go.”

Tyler: The weather was challenging. There were periods I’d be draped in a glad trash bag getting absolutely poured on. It was wild but I loved every second of it. The entire crew was going through it together, it was very motivating being around those guys. Now when I look back, I’m super thankful for how it all unraveled. I honestly don’t know how I didn’t ruin any of my gear. The PNW is wet, man.

Flylords: Tell us about the production, camera gear, and the production crew.

Tyler: The entire film was shot handheld on the Sony FX3 with a 24-70 lens and a ton of batteries. I had to be nimble. The guys were mic’d up for a few scenes, but for the most part, the audio was from a Sennheiser MKE-600 shotgun mic via XLR, so I could have some audio control. I did everyone’s interview 1:1 apart from one another, so no one had a clue what the other had spoken about. I wanted it to be as organic as possible. Not an ounce of this film was fabricated. The only thing we had planned was a 4:30 AM wake-up call every day and flights back home.

Flylords: If you wanted to give another BIPOC angler, one piece of advice what would it be?

Lael: It’s just you against the fish, not you against the world, even though some of us have had our like that outside of a natural setting. We are all equal in nature, which is one primary reason I’ve always been drawn to being outside. Animals and nature don’t judge you, and you have all the time to learn at your own pace to create your own reality as you grow in your outdoor independence. Even with all that I have accomplished in this sport, plenty of people are still looking to discredit me or move me away from a path I know is still going forward. That struggle will always be there. You and I must work hard to reach our goals so those other voices become silent. More people want you to WIN than they want you to fail. You must be your biggest cheerleader to make you and those who support you proud!

Flylords: Winter steelheading is no joke, what are some tips to get into winter steelheading?

Lael: #1. Enjoy where you are above all else! You are in one of the world’s most incredible locations; don’t let not getting into a fish be the reason the trip wasn’t successful. You are in a one-of-a-kind rainforest; you already won!

#2. Try to catch one the easiest way possible. Gear, fly, whatever. It’s already challenging enough; you don’t need to be a master in the hardest technique (spey fishing) to catch a steelhead in one season. Enjoy the process and give yourself room to grow.

#3. It can be really cold out there, and if you stay warm, you’ll be more focused on trying to catch a fish. If you see a jacket that costs $200 and might keep you warm and dry, and there is another one for $300 that WILL keep you warm and dry, invest. My number one tip for when you are thinking about spending money on gear is: “If it takes $100 to catch a fish, don’t just spend $99.”

Flylords: Describe winter steelhead in one word?

Lael: Mesmerizing!

Flylords: What message are you hoping viewers walk away with?

Lael: My hope for Visibility is to help the audience understand that everyone has a personal struggle; and that struggle is where you find a story, and everyone’s story is unique to them. If you get a chance to be a character in someone’s story, be a hero, not a villain. Don’t judge a book by its cover. The outdoors is our great connector, and out in the wild, we are all equal, and at no point will the color of your skin define you or what you want for yourself in life.

Flylords: Anything else you guys want to add or anyone you want to thank for helping this film come to life?

Lael: Jim Casey, Westley Allen, Arian Stevens & Paul Nicoletti. Jim, is a great friend to have speak about you and be the voice of what steelheaders are up against in the elements. I’ve met many people in my journey searching for steel, and Jim has more knowledge about things on and off the water than most. He’s a special dude who I’ll be fishing with even when I need a walking stick to get from run to run.

Wes, whew! This story only has the meaning it does because of Wes. His openness to telling his story was so important to the film’s overall message. He is a fun, engaging, crazy-skilled angler who has dealt with some of the same struggles I have in my career. When we met over the phone, we connected about our stories in so many ways, so it was like I already knew him. It’s a pleasure to call that man a friend!

People who believe you and the things you want to do are everything. When I told Arian about this project, he was all in. I’ve done quite a few shoots involving brand work with Arian where we knew what would happen, but this wasn’t one of them. Arian took a leap of faith and was incremental in rounding out our crew. He nailed some incredible shots, and as he did in his former life of being a hip-hop artist-photographer, he grabbed some album cover shots of me, Wes, and Jimmy.

Paul was a big inspiration in beginning this project and came from Paul Nicoletti, a good friend, killer angler, and former social media manager at Simms. Paul and I have had many conversations over his time working at Simms, and one day, he gave me the best motivational speech that boiled down to “You need to get your story out there!” He is absolutely responsible for the spark I needed to put the project together.

Tyler: My wife 1000% earned that credit at the end. I’d have her watch parts of the film after a lengthy editing session, and she’d provide me with great clarity. I also want to thank my friend Colin. We watched the first cut while having some takeout and absolutely shredded it to pieces. He took me through his process of long-form story-building, which helped tremendously. And of course, a massive thank you to Lael and Westley. I’m grateful they were willing to share their stories and some vulnerable and honest moments.

Special thanks to Lael Paul Johnson and Tyler Soares for taking the time for an interview. Stay tuned for more iterations of the Fly Fishing Film Tour, F3T Behind the Lens series by clicking here. All photos in the article are provided by Arian Stevens. 

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