Casting his spell, R.A. Beattie '05

by Jon Maletz

It’s been nearly two years since fishing guide R.A. Beattie first waded in Slovenia’s Soca River, where pristine turquoise currents flow through the rugged Julian Alps.

In the summer of 2005, R.A., along with girlfriend Kelly Wade and UPS Associate Professor of Religion Stuart Smithers, first laid eyes—and reel—on the Soca’s translucent waters as he fished for the elusive marble trout, the world’s largest stream-dwelling trout.

It was here that R.A. witnessed the country’s grand landscape and learned about its tumultuous past. And it was here that Beattie Outdoor Productions unofficially launched with the 38-minute film Marbles of the Soca. He had just one regret.

“I went there and it was incredible,” the 24-year-old remembered. “But it was an experience I didn’t get to share with my closest friends.”

He recently had another chance. R.A. and five others explored the Soca Valley during a 10-day trip in mid-May 2007. The mission: Document their pursuit of the marble and other species in Slovenia’s rivers and capture the adventure in high definition.

R.A. and cameraman Mike Cuseo ’05 met as freshmen. By his own admission, Mike, who runs aspenfreeride.com, said he and R.A. mostly “did their own thing” in college, although they occasionally joined forces for a ski or fishing excursion. Both saw the Slovenia trip as the perfect opportunity to collaborate once more, this time on a much larger scale.

The task was daunting, both said during an interview in R.A.’s downtown Aspen, Colo., office. The logistical challenges of maneuvering through a foreign country were difficult enough. But the true test was trying to master making a movie in high definition, a relatively new format with which they had little experience.

“You have to have a more thought-out approach to what you’re shooting when the cameras are rolling,” Mike said. “You can’t just press the red button and go for it.”

The high definition camera’s disks are capable of holding only 15–20 minutes of footage and must be backed up on a hard drive—a tall task when filming in remote locales. The technology has obvious payoffs but adds an extra degree of difficulty when filming an unpredictable sport like fly-fishing, Mike said.

“This was a massive project, and I was always a little nervous because it was our first time working with this medium,” said R.A. who, along with Mike, tested out the equipment in the weeks leading up to their departure. “But I feel like it was a major success from what I’ve seen so far.”

It wasn’t a success at the onset. One of the group’s gear bags never made it to Slovenia. (The next time R.A. saw the bag was in Aspen, three days after he returned.) That necessitated some improvisation—on at least one occasion, Mike used a bridge post as a tripod.

Any angst over missing supplies dissipated when the group caught a glimpse of the Soca Valley, as they navigated the steep grades and switchbacks of western Slovenia’s mountain passes in their rented nine-passenger van: “It put Independence Pass to shame,” Mike joked.

Dense forests cover the remote area, and vegetation clings to the steep mountainsides. Small villages dot the valley floor. Scarring on cliffs still remains in areas where huge chunks of limestone calved from solid earth, a reminder of the devastating earthquakes that altered the landscape in years past.

The blemishes of war—the valley was witness to many bloody battles during World War I—also remain. Bullet holes still pock facades and concrete structures. Bunkers with angled gun turrets still line the sides of mountain roads.

“You can’t escape the history there, no matter where you go,” R.A. said. “That history is relevant to the story of fishing. With everything the area went through, the fact that everything survived is amazing.”

The fishing and the surrounding ecosystems, like the Slovenians who have overcome natural disasters and war, are intact, R.A. said. From their jumping-off point in the town of Bovec, with Mika Ivanc of the country’s Fisheries Research Institute serving as guide, the group explored the waters of the Soca and Unica rivers and nearby tributaries that flow into the Adriatic Sea.

What they discovered—and captured in multiple formats and periodically posted on the Web—exceeded expectations.

“It was real high-quality, challenging fishing,” R.A. said. “Every day we felt like we were being pushed to the end of our abilities. It was probably the hardest we’ve ever worked but also the most rewarding.”

R.A. and the other fishermen had their tussles with the marble, as well as a host of other species, from rainbow and brown trout to grayling. Jesse Eckley, who now works for outdoor outfitter Cabela’s, had a once-in-a-lifetime experience when he successfully hooked a huco, a rare fish in the taimen family.

“He’s one of the few people in the world to have tangled with them,” R.A. said.

Mike was there to capture the fleeting moment—if their nets hadn’t been lost in transit, they would’ve had more time to document it.

Such was reality for Mike.

“Every time they put their waders on, I put mine on, too,” he said. “My real challenge was trying to keep up. I tried to understand the guys’ language and what their goals were. In fishing you never know what is going to happen.”

He constantly searched for the perfect shot—from zooming in on a fish thrashing at the surface to zooming out on a fisherman struggling across the rocky shore while trying to keep his line taut. Then there was the challenge of capturing the surrounding audio, from the clicking of the reel, to the rustling of a jacket and the hushed mutterings of a fisherman who just watched an opportunity go awry.

“My job was stressful but rewarding,” said Mike, who often spent so much time cataloging footage that he forgot to stop and eat lunch. “When there was a catch, I was just as excited as the fisherman.”

Mike and others captured an abundance of footage, some 20 hours in all. The next task ahead of them was whittling 20 hours of footage down to a 38-minute documentary. The film premiered Sept. 18 at a fly-fishing retail show in Denver.

“This whole experience was refreshing for me, coming from the ski movie genre, which is saturated and formulaic,” Mike said. “Fly-fishing is rediscovering itself. This whole adventure fly-fishing idea is new, and it was great to work with R.A. to create a unique product to present to a fresh audience and a fresh fan base.”

More on R.A. at www.fishwithra.com. This article originally appeared in The Aspen Times and is reprinted with permission.