For the last six years, Eddie Olwell has been on a mission to help die-hard fly fishermen fight the cabin fever blues.
The longtime Bitterroot fishing outfitter has traditionally hosted the annual International Fly Fishing Film Festival at a theater in Hamilton during a time when the Bitterroot River is clogged with ice and folks are anxiously awaiting the first skwala hatch in March.
While COVID-19 has put a damper on the annual gathering of fisherfolk in Hamilton, anglers will still be offered the opportunity to be transported to Seychelles in search of giant trevally, tangle with Baltic salmon or escape to an unspoiled natural sanctuary in the heart of the Rocky Mountain West in the comfort of their own homes.
This year’s festival is going virtual to folks in Montana and Idaho starting Wednesday, Feb. 24.
Like every other year, the proceeds go to help the Bitter Root Water Forum’s mission of enhancing and restoring the waters of the Bitterroot River.
“Unfortunately, we all can’t get together this year,” Olwell said. “This virtual event will keep everyone safe while still allowing people the chance to watch all of these wonderful films.”
“We had a mild January, which offered the opportunity for a lot of people to get out there and fish, but the river has been pretty much frozen over in February,” he said. “We’ve always done this as a cabin fever event. I think it’s probably even more so this year since it’s not only been winter that's kept us isolated.”
This year’s festival features 11 films that are six to 16 minutes long. The filmmakers traveled to all corners of the globe to showcase the passion, lifestyle and culture of fly fishing.
Admission to the festival is $15. Viewers can log on to the site within 48 hours of the showing that starts Feb. 24. Once logged in, people have access to the films for seven days.
Bitter Root Water Forum’s communications director Katie Vennie said the format gives people more flexibility to be able to watch the films on their own schedule.
The platform allows viewers to view the films on their televisions in a variety of different ways. Vennie plans to host a Facebook Live event on the Bitter Root Water Forum’s page Monday afternoon that will provide instruction on how to make that happen.
Like previous years, the event also includes a raffle for a chance to float the Bitterroot River with Olwell. To increase a person’s chance to win, only 100 $20 tickets are being offered.
There will also be door prizes that will be distributed by the film festival folks.
“People have to buy their tickets online,” Vennie said. “The producers of the film festival will use that information to distribute the door prizes. In the past, we’ve seen the major fly gear companies that sponsor the festival provide some nice door prizes.”
The money raised by the festival goes right into operations of the Bitter Root Water Forum, including funding watershed education events and on-the-ground restoration work.
The largest restoration project on the Bitter Root Water Forum’s calendar this spring will occur in Hamilton’s new Skalkaho Bend Park. There are also plans this summer to expand a project in the Burnt Fork east of Stevensville and a joint effort with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the Threemile Wildlife Management Area that will focus on mitigating erosion from roads and a fish passage project.
Hamilton’s Bitter Root Brewing will chip in $1 for every glass of beer sold Saturday, Feb. 20 to the Water Forum.
“They are kind of helping us to spread the word about the film festival,” Vennie said. “It’s been a little more difficult to reach folks this year. We’ve been trying out a lot of different options.”
Among the films to be screened are:
• "Turbo Giants," by InTents Media: An action-packed adventure to the Seychelles in search of gargantuan giant trevally.
• "The Art of Fly Fishing," by Bluff Line Media: Winner of the inaugural Stimmie Award, this film profiles artist Brooke Belohlavek’s passion for fly fishing and painting.
• "The Wanderer," 2021 IF4 Original: Where do we go to escape? Journey to an unspoiled, natural sanctuary in the heart of the Rocky Mountain West.
• "Tuna Fuerte," by PopFizz Productions: A group of fly-fishing friends embark on a trip to Colombia in search of the tuna that call those waters home.
Others include "Raising Ghosts," a steelhead odyssey; "Baltics," tangling with Baltic salmon; and "Raised on Rainbows," the story of a fly-fishing family navigating early parenthood. For more information and film trailers, visit flyfilmfest.com.
Tickets can be purchased at brwaterforum.org/if4-2021.
“We hope that people will enjoy the films with the knowledge that they’re helping the Bitterroot River by taking part in the festival,” Olwell said.