What are the best fishing and hunting movies of all time? These six make the list of our resident film buff and California Sportsman editor Chris Cocoles.
By Chris Cocoles
My executive editor has painfully accepted that I’ll sometimes – actually, lots of times – sneak a movie-inspired headline into California Sportsman stories.
I admit it – I’m a movie geek of the utmost proportions and extremes. Christmas Day may mean family time and reflection, but I still managed to sneak in a matinee first showing of The Imitation Game. As much as I get stoked about filling out a March Madness bracket, so do I when checking off my picks for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor every Academy Awards night.
This is just a nonscientific and highly biased list of my favorites. I know I missed some that probably belong (The Old Man and the Sea’s original version with Spencer Tracy likely deserves to be here), but I managed to rewatch some old classics. Here they are, in no particular order (though I think I subconsciously listed The Deer Hunter first since it’s so awesome):
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Robert De Niro’s Michael, traumatized by the atrocities he saw in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, which paralyzed his friend Steven and caused his best pal Nick to lose his mind, returns to his Russian-American Pennsylvania roots a changed man. He stalks a giant buck, and utilizes his creed that, “A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.” Only Michael can no longer take that one shot, even with a trophy right within his sights. “OK?” he shouts as the animal is spared. It’s just one of dozens of powerful moments director Michael Cimino crafted, including terrifying games of Russian roulette and a beautifully haunting score.
The deer hunts, filmed around Washington’s Mount Baker, captured the essence of the movie’s theme. And I would argue the cast gathering around a table singing God Bless America is one of the most underrated scenes to end a film.
Awards buzz: The Deer Hunter was the biggest winner of its year’s Academy Awards with five Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken).
Notable line: “I’ll tell you, Nick. You’re the only guy I go hunting with, you know. I like a guy with quick moves and speed. I ain’t gonna hunt with no ass*****.”
On Golden Pond (1981)
Much of the buzz of this classic is generated in the tension between off-screen and onscreen father and daughter Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda in their only film together (and the elder Fonda’s final film appearance before he passed). Their estranged relationship in the movie was not unlike what it was for many years in real life, perhaps without such animosity.
But some of the best scene-stealing moments turned out to be Henry Fonda’s Norman Thayer Jr. – a gruff, stubborn and crotchety old man – bonding through fishing with his daughter’s soon-to-be stepson, bratty, arrogant and defiant Billy. They form quite the odd couple: bickering at each other, blaming each other for nearly setting fire to the house, clinging to a rock together for survival after their boat wrecks.
And their fishing scenes were priceless, including Billy landing Norman’s nemesis trophy trout, Walter (a monster rainbow that was set free to swim another day). The father and daughter ultimately followed suit in the bonding process, and the great Katharine Hepburn (“The loons! The loons!”) quietly was brilliant.
Awards buzz: Henry Fonda and Hepburn both won Best Actor Oscars among three wins and 10 nominations. Jane Fonda accepted the award for her ill father. The young breakout star, Billy, has barely been heard from again.
Notable lines: “Well, it’s doing a pretty good trout imitation – get the net!”
“Good God! It’s Walter! What the hell are you doing in here?”
A River Runs Through It (1992)
Before Brad Pitt was Brad Pitt, he was Paul Maclean, a troubled but likeable young man in Montana during the 1920s in director Robert Redford’s adaptation of Norman Maclean’s novel. Gorgeous sets define this movie of fly fishing rivers as a metaphor for life’s ups and downs.
Pitt’s Paul and Craig Sheffer’s Norman are complete opposites – Norman is a Dartmouth grad and responsible, in love with a local girl; Paul’s a hard-drinking and hard-gambling newspaper reporter getting deep in debt with some rough Montanans.
What they have in common is fishing, and they cast flies in the Big Blackfoot River. Norman sees how at peace Paul is filling his creel box with trout. When Paul gets caught in the rapids trying to land a trophy fish, it’s his time, Norman knowing he won’t be able to save his brother. The fishing scenes and Redford’s narration from the real Maclean’s book are haunting.
Awards buzz: Academy Award win for Best Cinematography; two other nominations.
Notable line: “Neal, in Montana there’s three things we’re never late for: church, work and fishing.”
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)
Admittedly, when I first saw this I was skeptical about the title, but having a big crush on Emily Blunt and loving fishing so much made it a no-brainer to check out. And it actually was a pretty good, if unnecessarily sappy, story. The debonair publicist, Harriet (Blunt), conflicted with the fate of her missing-in-action new boyfriend in Afghanistan, just as quickly it seems falls for the nerdy but handsome fish biologist, Fred (Ewan McGregor). The hook – pun intended – is what seems like an absurd idea of a rich Yemeni sheik’s idea to import Atlantic salmon to the waters of his desert Middle East location.
The fishing scenes meant to portray Yemen – but actually filmed in Morocco – were rather inspiring, as was the system of makeshift fish ladders put in place to coax the salmon to head upstream. Just don’t expect much of an unpredictable conclusion and you’ll be fine.
Awards buzz: Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture Comedy or Musical (despite a few laughs, I’m still not sure why it wasn’t deemed a drama), Blunt for Best Actress and McGregor for Best Actor. Nobody won anything.
Notable lines: “But fishermen, I have noticed, they don’t care if I’m brown or white, rich or poor, wearing robes or waders. All they care about is the fish, the river and the game we play. For fishermen, the only virtues are patience, tolerance and humility.”
Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Grumpier Old Men (1995)
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had some of the best chemistry among buddy movie duos, so combine these two geniuses with fellow legends like Ann-Margaret and Sophia Loren (in the sequel), and you have comedic gold. Set in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota, all things fishing serve as a backdrop to finding love again in your golden years.
Fishing-related gags are gloriously done throughout the flicks: Dead, rotting fish thrown in the backseat of cars; fish planted in a tuxedo pocket at a wedding; frozen fish used as weapons during a fight; fish that fall through a cut net; the quest to catch a whiskered monster known as Catfish Hunter. (Like Walter in On Golden Pond, the catfish was spared being mounted on Matthau’s wall.)
These movies are cute and worth your time just watching co-star Burgess Meredith’s hilarious (and dirty) outtakes during the closing credits.
Awards buzz: None of note, though Meredith got totally snubbed as Best Supporting Actor. Either that or give him a special award for funniest old guy in movie history.
Notable lines : “Max, let’s let him go.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Dad tried to catch that fish for 20 years. Catfish Hunter deserves to be in the lake with Pop.”
“Gustafson, you are one sick bastard.” CS
Editor’s note: Have a favorite fishing or hunting movie moment? Comment about it on our Facebook page (facebook.com/pages/California-Sportsman-Magazine/568564509850112)