Tom Skerritt

Tom Skerritt

When I go fishing I'd just as soon find the kind of quiet river where you're alone and then spend a lot of time reflecting and listening to the river.

  • By: Don Roberts
Emmy-award-winning actor Tom Skerritt is one of the most versatile and acclaimed American actors of both the big and small screen. From the early classic, M*A*S*H, to a roster of such hits as Alien, Steel Magnolias, Top Gun, Tears of the Sun and Picket Fences, Skerritt's work in television and film continues to be a study in strength and subtlety of performance. Of course, his portrayal of the stern pastor and casting taskmaster in A River Runs Through It had an undeniable, if not profound, impact on the angling world.But perhaps Skerritt's most vital and enduring role is the one he currently plays as a visible and active member of the board of directors at American Rivers. FR&R's interviewer met up with Skerritt on the banks of the Ruby River in southwest Montana, where he was shooting an episode for Waterborne--a TV series profiling notable personalities whose lives are somehow intertwined with rivers, lakes or seas. When did you first get involved in fly-fishing? I would have to say it really began with A River Runs Through It. My dad was a fly fisherman up in northern Michigan. It was so beautiful up there; I remember wading in the river, listening to the sounds of it and just watching the water flow by. I was pretty young then. At that point in my life I was more interested in observing the whole thing than in actually doing it. As far as actually picking up a fly rod, that came about with the fact of having to do it for the movie. That whole casting thing, you know. I didn't care about catching fish, necessarily. Basically, I just wanted to be able to cast convincingly and stand in the river. How did your role in the movie affect your perception of fly-fishing? It sparked my interest way beyond the idea of fly-fishing as a way merely to catch fish. It was the prose, the language, the spirituality that Norman Maclean talked about; that's what I found moving. Those last three paragraphs in the book, and in the film, are as fine a piece of American prose as I can ever imagine. Clearly A River Runs Through It had a substantial impact on the angling community and on the resource--an obvious spike in the number of fly fishermen plying the big-name rivers. What's your take on the film's effect on the sport? I don't have that kind of relationship with the sport. It's more of a spiritual thing. When I go fishing I'd just as soon find the kind of quiet river where you're alone and then spend a lot of time reflecting and listening to the river. Because I'm a writer, I reflect quite a bit on everything I see… Rivers are very visceral. I wasn't aware that you're also a writer. What have you written? Nothing you would have seen. I'm a screenplay writer and I tend to write screenplays that aren't very commercial, stuff that's not genre. It's not mystery, it's not suspense, it's certainly not special effects, and it doesn't lend itself to the kind of films Hollywood makes. OK, back to what our readers hold dear: Where do you like to fish and what species do you usually pursue? I used to do a lot of fishing in Puget Sound, mostly bottom fishing and mooching for salmon. I have memories of catching some pretty big fish. One time I was fishing for lingcod, right along the edge where there's a steep drop off. And I got a hold of something really fierce down there. I fought it on a stout rod with 30-pound line for about 45 minutes but never did get it up close enough to identify. So, if you're going fly-fishing nowadays where do you like to go? Usually one of the streams in Washington. I think the Yakima is the last river I fished. I've also fished a few times in Alaska, for kings at Good News Bay on the Bering Strait. Those kings just don't want to eat; so, you have to hit them on the head. Then if one bites, it's just to get rid of you. If you hook a king chances are it's going to head back out to sea and you have to let it run. And that's what happened. I never did land one. [Skerritt laughs] I've always been better at catching mosquitoes up there. What is your role at American Rivers and how did you originally get involved? Well, a lot of interesting things came up as a result of A River Runs Through It and American Rivers was one of those things. I met Rebecca Wodder [president of American Rivers] who at the time wanted to proceed with preserving 50 miles, I believe, of the Hanford Reach on the Columbia River, a place which is pretty much as Lewis and Clark found it. She asked me to participate in producing a video. I was drawn to her persuasion and realized that rivers have always been the main subject. Whether it's trout fishing or conservation, or any other usage, the real subject here is rivers. Prior to American Rivers I had been asked by many different organizations to get involved. There's always "Friends of This River" and "Friends of That River." Not to demean any of them, because their intentions are pure and necessary, but they're very localized. American Rivers is national, pervasive in scope, and [therefore] able to help all the smaller, local organizations. They work out of Washington, DC and do a lot of lobbying and dealing with thorny laws and regulations pertaining to watershed issues. Of course, as we all know, this particular administration is not as friendly as other administrations have been… not nearly as cooperative as we might like. On the other hand, American Rivers is a very steadfast, patient, apolitical organization, which it has to be in order to be effective. It's prudent to remember that a number of very conservative politicians love to fly-fish. Often, it seems to me, in the political climate we're currently living in, that preserving the environment is perceived as a liberal way of thinking. Which I find very odd--that it has to be a political thing, and divisive, rather than a humane thing--something we should all be united behind. The way that American Rivers operates is to touch on those things that are common to all of us: the need for rivers to be healthy. For us and for the fish. In the last few years, American Rivers has been actively pursuing dam removal, taking down dams that are no longer being used for their original intention, old mill dams and defunct power generating dams and the like. Dam removal is expensive and American Rivers works with the original owners and with governmental agencies and the community to get the money to make it happen. What's interesting and pleasing is to watch rivers replenish themselves once the dams are gone. Rivers reshape themselves and the fish start coming back in a matter of months. So nature really does take care of itself much better then we take care of nature. That's what American Rivers is all about: giving nature back to nature. What message would you like to convey to American anglers? There's not much you can say to the American angler that he doesn't already know. They understand that rivers must be healthy in order to support fish. The main thing to keep in mind is that it's not just you and your favorite river. Every river has to be your favorite river. They're all connected. We're all connected. I'd like to end this interview on a personal note by returning to a Norman Maclean line, "A river…has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us." What does a river say to you? Life is a river. It starts out small, a pure, gurgling stream. Then it grows bigger, raucous and unruly--the typical teenager. Eventually it matures into a full, steady flow. And at the end it widens and slows--old age--finally merging with waters more vast.