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Field Journal

Up River

Up River

In Conversation with Patrick Tillard
Written by Harriet Osborne // Photography by Patrick Tillard
In partnership with Columbia

An interview with photographer, filmmaker, and fly fisher Patrick Tillard, about escapism on the riverbank, fly-on-the-wall documentaries, and stories about the people who live close to the land.

Patrick Tillard describes his introduction to fishing as about as wild as it gets. He was brought up on the west coast of Scotland, and his parents would often take him fishing strapped to their backs while they tussled with 13ft split-cane rods – the same rods they use today. His father would fish from dawn until dusk, keeping the fly in the water as long as possible to maximise his chances of a take. His mother would spend most of the day reading a book and smoking Silk Cut cigarettes on the bank, and would wade into the water when the time was right, or a chapter finished, whichever came first.

When he got a little older, Patrick spent hours watching golden eagles riding thermals over the mountains near the Pass of Brander, listening to the immense stories told by local fishermen and women with weathered faces. ‘The escapism is the greatest appeal of fishing. Nothing comes close to a river’s ability to soothe and calm in a time of need,’ he says. ‘But at the same time, the moment a fish takes – and the five minutes that unravel after – is the most exciting of any sport.’ Patrick has come to terms with the fact that catching a fish is not always guaranteed. ‘Of course, I love catching salmon. But I conceded long ago that I would have more blank days than not. That revelation is fundamental to the enjoyment I take from time on a river with a rod – I never expect to catch and therefore am not frustrated when I don’t.’ Instead, enjoyment comes from time spent outdoors and the simplicity of the sport. ‘I’ve never been surrounded by a mountain of paraphernalia, I can’t tie flies, I don’t own a pouch with different tippets, and I can’t fathom fancy knots, let alone know any of their names. I don’t own scissors – instead, I use my teeth to cut the leader.’

Up River Up River Up River

During his gap year in 2008, Patrick worked as a ghillie on the upper beats of the River Shin, teaching people how to fish salmon. ‘I now had a reason to be talking and thinking about salmon 24 hours a day – and someone was going to pay me to do it.’ He quickly learned that having the suitable kit, conditions, and technical know-how had no impact on his chances. ‘I netted fish in howling gales, blazing sunshine, in the morning, in the evening, in fast pools on a small fly, in sluggish pools on huge brass tubes.’ He also discovered during this time that he had a natural talent for talking to people, developing characters, and telling stories through photography and creative writing.

Patrick studied journalism and worked for magazines before taking a right turn into luxury lifestyle – reviewing fast cars and expensive hotels. ‘In hindsight, it was a bit mad. But it enabled me to explore travel journalism, which I loved.’ His approach to storytelling is as authentic as possible. ‘I like to let stories unfold and capture them naturally, rather than dictate how the story should work. Whether it’s a crofter in the Outer Hebrides or someone who weaves tartan in the Scottish Borders, the best way to document it is as a fly on the wall.’ He doesn’t describe his work as cinematic or polished. ‘It’s more slightly shaky, genuine, and gritty.’ Patrick now spends his time in search of people around the country who dedicate their lives to a craft they are deeply passionate about. ‘Details can tell as much of a story as an entire landscape,’ he says, ‘like a tight macro shot of sheep’s wool or wrinkles in someone’s hand.’

In April this year, Patrick teamed up with Sidetracked and Columbia’s Hike Society that would see five friends venture to the wildest parts of Scotland to learn how to fish. ‘Fishing is a relatively accessible way to get totally absorbed outdoors,’ he says. ‘More young people are coming into it because it’s something meaningful you can do with your friends. It’s a passport to some of the most beautiful places in the UK.’

They brought on local guides: Wes, who has been fishing and guiding for 28 years, and Kevin. ‘Fishing requires a lot of luck, skill, patience, and time, and we wanted to give them the right guidance to get to a level where they could enjoy it.’ Wes and Kevin taught the group how to fly fish – an angling method that uses a lightweight lure (an artificial fly) to catch fish. The flies are made of dyed wool, rabbit hair, deer hair, pheasant feathers, and red squirrel tails. ‘They are all-natural wool and furs to imitate real-life insects,’ he says. ‘Doing it [fishing] on the fly is the most natural and traditional and the trickiest way to fish.’

Up River Up River Up River

After a short hike across the heather moorland, the team set up at their first loch. You always need a permit to fish for salmon in Scotland, but you don’t need one to fish for wild brown trout in and around most of the Highlands. Rules differ slightly throughout the region, so it’s worth checking estate websites before venturing out, but fly fishing for wild brown trout is incredibly accessible throughout Scotland. The loch was around 20 acres in size and so remote only a handful of people would ever fish there. ‘We were fishing for trout that would have been living and surviving there for centuries because they are incredibly adept. They understand the geography of that reedbed in high and low water levels; they adapt to all weathers, and only feed at certain times to avoid danger,’ he says.

It can be so quiet at remote lochs that just one voice can boom around the valley. So Patrick split the group, with one person going ahead quietly to give the rest of the group a better chance of a catch. ‘These lochs have hundreds of fish in them. When they’re feeding, you can see them popping everywhere. But it takes just one sound to put them off.’ After a day of perseverance, they caught a wild trout with colours of a beautiful bar of gold. ‘We brought it in and then released it so it could carry on breeding and living where it had lived before we were there.’

Patrick uses his photography and film to share stories about the people he meets, hoping that he will inspire a new generation of anglers. ‘If they left thinking fishing was fun, to share what has moulded and shaped so much of my life is the biggest success to me. Fishing usually comes with classical music, head-to-toe tweed, and champagne suppers – and that’s good for some. But there is another side to it that’s emerging: escapism, immersion in nature, and pure adventure. I think that’s what fishing is all about.’

Read the full story via
Written by Harriet Osborne
Photography by Patrick Tillard //@patrick_tillard
Produced in partnership with Columbia // @columbia_eu
With thanks to Wes and Kevin from You Fish Scotland // @you_fish_scotland_



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