Common Thread: A Texas Family Held Together by Fly Fishing

A Film by Thrive Visuals
By Will Ruzzo | Photos by Thrive Visuals

There was a moment while on location for “Common Thread” when videographer Jay Siemens knew the project would make a great film.

Barry Austin, a member of the Texas family at the center of the movie, was standing next to his granddaughter, Ella, coaching the 13-year-old as she tried to land her first pike on a fly. After a quick strike and brief struggle, Austin, Ella, and their guide are smiling into the camera as they hold up a beautiful fish.

Mary Pettigew catching a fish

Mary Pettigrew with guide Andrew Marr and a 44-inch northern pike. 

“Anytime you’re able to catch a fish over 40 inches, it’s pretty special,” said Siemens. “But to be on the water with Barry and his granddaughter when she catches a 46-inch pike by herself, was incredible. You can see her grandfather trying to hold back tears. It was so cool to be a part of the experience.”

Wollaston Lake Lodge
Wollaston Lake

The movie was filmed at Wollaston Lake Lodge in northern Saskatchewan and follows siblings Mary Pettigrew and Barry Austin as the family comes to terms with the death of Mary’s husband Hal. Their family are regular guests at the fly-in lodge and have spent weeks fishing the 100-mile long and 400-foot deep lake. The remote fishery is roughly the same meridian as Kodiak, Alaska and offers a rare chance for a fly angler to land a 50-inch northern pike.

The project came out of the long relationship the filmmaker has with the lodge, its owner, and the extended Austin and Pettigrew families.

“I started in high school and guided for seven years for various lodges, with four of them at Wollaston Lake,” said Siemens. “It was while guiding I got the photo and video bug, and eventually switched into that full-time.”

A de Havilland Turbo Otter float plane beneath the northern lights. 

During his time at Wollaston Lake Lodge, Siemens had guided members of the family and stayed in contact, eventually filming promotional videos for the lodge featuring its custom Lund boats and the nine-passenger de Havilland Turbo Otter float planes used for fly-out trips. He now lives in southwest Ontario, near the Lake of the Woods, where he runs a production company, Thrive Visuals, which works with outdoors brands and Canadian tourist boards, and develops content for his YouTube channel.

Seasoned Guests: Pettigrew & Austin Family

“While I was guiding at Wollaston, Mary’s husband Hal passed away,” said Siemens. “Even after losing her husband, she kept coming to the lodge because she loves fly fishing and felt close to him there. Mary is really unique, she’s this fun and bubbly grandmother in her 70s, but she fishes harder and better than almost anyone.”

Since meeting the family, Siemens made several trips to their family ranch southeast of Dallas, a 24-hour drive from his home in Canada. At the ranch, there were fly rods everywhere and kids and grandkids arriving each weekend to fish their private pond and cast to 9- and 10-pound largemouth bass.

“What makes Barry and Mary unique is that they come to the lodge for 12 days straight, out of the 600 guests in a season they’re the only ones who stay that long,” said Siemens. “Most clients stay for three or four days and are on to the next place. But this is such an important part of their lives. I visited their ranch in Texas, and they have pictures of their trips and the pike they’ve caught on the walls of their homes.”

Creating Common Thread

After speaking with Mike Lembke, owner of Wollaston Lake Lodge, they knew that this would be a great story to tell on film. As they filmed, the movie came to include more than the siblings, featuring Mary’s son Charley Pettigrew, along with guides Andrew Marr, Clayton Schick, and Phil Wiebe, longtime lodge staff who got to know the family as clients and friends.

“Fly fishing has been a catalyst to bond us together,” said Austin in the film. “It means they come down [to the ranch] on weekends. Everybody fly-fishes in the family, it’s the glue that holds us together.”

The final moments of film cuts between family photographs from previous trips, Mary on the water with Ella, and Austin on the lodge’s dock with his arm around his granddaughter.

“Fly fishing has been such a big part of their family for 15 years,” he added. “It’s why the film is called ‘Common Thread.” (Watch the trailer here)

 

This content was sponsored by Orvis, Costa, Wollaston Lake Lodge, and Tourism Saskatchewan Canada.

This article originally appeared in the 2020 edition of the Stonefly Magazine.