August 28, 2023
Some people have a passion for something that becomes so deeply ingrained in them that it becomes part of who they are. That’s the story of Tom Derry, the engaging personality at the center of the new film presented by Patagonia titled simply TOM.
The portrait by filmmakers Asher Koles and Chase White shares the lifetime journey of an Oregon-born adventurer who discovered fishing at a young age and dedicated a great portion of his life to chasing steelhead, and more importantly, working to preserve them.
Asher Koles is a filmmaker and photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has directed films with brands like Patagonia, YETI, Specialized, Garmin, The North Face, and Winston. His most recent work is Range Finder, a documentary about professional snowboarders Mark Carter and Bryan Iguchi. Chase White is based out of Squamish, British Columbia, and is known by fly fishers for his short films Leap Year and Common Ground, which are both about steelhead and steelheaders and were (respectively) in the 2021 and 2022 Fly Fishing Film Tours.
Tom Derry grew up in Portland where he had a “Huck Finn upbringing” of fishing, picking berries, and playing sandlot baseball. In 1955 he was with his father and grandfather fishing the Molalla River, when his grandpa landed a huge winter steelhead. “That fish left a lasting impression on me to this day and helped to root a deep love and respect for nature and all its beauty,” says Derry.
Derry and his wife Connie worked in the hospitality business much of their lives, and the last restaurant they owned was on the Metolius River in central Oregon. Many of their customers were fishermen, and they’d often talk fishing with the restaurant owners before or during their meals. The Derrys’ restaurant was one of many businesses that pushed the state to stop stocking the Metolius, and today the river is a world-class fishery for native rainbows and for bull trout.
That was one of the great lessons of Derry’s life: As long as you don’t interfere, nature will take care of itself. Rivers don’t need “help” like stocked fish.
TOM was filmed in the Skeena River watershed in 2022 at Babine Steelhead Lodge, at Bob Clay’s bamboo rod shop on the Kispiox River, and at Frontier Steelhead Lodge on the Bulkley River. The Skeena is the greatest steelhead river on Earth and has never been dammed or stocked—a perfect place to make a film about wild fish.
“I guess I come here to see this as a template,” Derry says in the film. “I think we can have some of this abundance in Oregon as well if we just have more faith in nature. I think we always have a feeling we can make something better, but there’s nothing better than wild.”
Tom Derry is the director of steelhead funding for the Native Fish Society (NFS), a 501(c)(3) organization based in Oregon City, Oregon. The NFS is a grassroots movement to create the public support needed to revive abundant wild, native fish throughout the Pacific Northwest. They support a river stewards program with more than 75 stewards on specific rivers, and they use the best available science to advocate solutions to the problems that impact rivers and native fish throughout the PNW.
“At the NFS I think some of our biggest successes have been in stopping habitat degradation before it happens,” Derry says in the movie. “We’ve stopped gravel mines, dealt with wastewater issues, mineral withdrawals . . . We’re really selling hope. We’re telling people if you support us we’re going to do the best we can to protect wild fish.”
Derry and Connie now live on the Molalla River an hour from Portland. It’s undammed and has amazing wild winter steelhead. Now that state agencies have not been “managing” the river with hatchery programs, NFS, Derry, and many others have helped create wild steelhead sanctuary water, eliminated the use of bait, stopped gravel mines in the river’s floodplain, and have secured State and Federal Wild and Scenic status for the Molalla River, among many other accomplishments.
His messages for anglers are that it can be done anywhere, and to be an angler requires doing more than just catching fish.
“I think it’s important for all anglers to get involved in conservation. In reality we all want the same thing. We want more fish,” says Derry.
He also believes that the fish need more anglers, saying “The rivers and fish need friends, and I think you have to connect with the rivers and the fish to be a friend.”
But the film TOM is more than just about fish and being a fisherman, it’s about being an activist. Not just to save the rivers or whatever you love, but to save yourself.
“Everyone should care about something,” says Derry. “It doesn’t matter if it’s fish, if it’s wilderness, if it’s anything. People should get involved. They will feel a lot better about themselves rather than just sitting on the sidelines reading about it in a newspaper. Once you get involved at least you’re making an effort, it clears your head, and you decide how far you want to go with it.
“My late friend Bruce Hill always said activism is the rent you pay for living on the planet. I just have to think that if everyone paid a little bit of rent, the world would be a better place.”
Ross Purnell is editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman magazine.