“I’m not afraid of the drug runners, you know. I’m afraid of the pirates,” says Honduran Rankin Jackson in the opening frames of the new short film Beyond the Horizon, by director Jon “JK” Klaczkiewicz and producer Shannon Vandivier from Cold Collaborative. This is the reality of daily life around Rankin’s home town of Mangrove Bight on Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands north of the mainland that was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. It may look like an island paradise, but locals face poverty, political instability, drug wars, lack of healthcare, and corruption.
When his son was born with sickle cell disease, Rankin started drug running to provide for his family. That dark time had an upside—learning of the hidden keys to the east, Cayos Cajones. With the help of Fly Fish Guanaja founder Steve Brown, Rankin was able to find a new future through fly-fishing in theses uncharted islands, a haven for bonefish and permit—if you can get there. “Lobster fisherman and drug runners are the only ones who frequent this area. Maybe the occasional sailboat, but it’s a pretty hot zone,” says JK. “But fly-fishing can do a lot to transform both people and a places. “Fly Fish Guanaja provides jobs for people, supports families, educates, and gives opportunity beyond being a lobster fisherman or running drugs.”
Here JK shares some insights into finding this incredible story and making the film.
Where are these islands and why are they off the map?
JK: The “Keys to the East” are 160 miles east of Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and about 30 miles off the Mosquito Coast. On a map a lot of them look to be reef and no land. Some of these keys only exist as spit of sand that was pushed up for the lobster fishermen to store their lobster traps on.
Does anyone go there?
JK: Lobster fisherman and drug runners are the only ones who frequent this area, maybe the occasional sailboat, but it’s a pretty hot zone.
And its a haven for bonefish and permit. What’s so special about these fish?
JK: The bonefish is one of the most incredible fish to catch on light tackle. It accelerates and fights harder than fish twice its size. What blew us away was the sheer number of them at the Keys to the East. The permit is perhaps the most elusive saltwater fly-fishing prize. From the moment you see a tailing permit there is no room for error and you need to stalk it in hopes everything comes together to get a chance to land one. They are like phantoms, and avid saltwater fly-fisherman can go years without hooking up.
Is it catch-and-release fishing?
JK: It is all catch-and-release fishing. After Hurricane Mitch in October 1998, the bonefish and permit populations were devastated. Steve Brown of Fly Fish Guanaja has created a program to educate the locals to let these fish go. He and his guides do restoration work to conserve and rehabilitate these fisheries.
Are there more great fishing spots to be found?
JK: There is always something to be found beyond the horizon.
Does fly-fishing tourism help protect a place?
JK: It does so much more than just protect a place. Fly Fish Guanaja provides jobs for people, supports families, educates, and gives opportunity beyond being a lobster fisherman or running drugs. Patrons have built schools and medical clinics on Guanaja for those who cannot afford to travel to the mainland. It has been truly inspiring to see what Steve Brown and Rankin are doing for the community.
Have you done fly-fishing stories before? Why now?
JK: I am personally passionate about fly-fishing, but my filmmaking has been primarily focused in action and adventure sports for the last 20 years. I have always been drawn to great stories so this was a no brainer. Fishing and hunting were the original adventures before all of these present day iterations of adventure and the process of discovery remains the same. You can’t make up a story like Rankin’s and the human element was the ultimate draw.
Where you afraid the tales of these off-the-map bay islands would be just tall tales? And it would be a bust?
JK: I honestly had no idea what I was getting into when we flew down there, but from the moment I met Steve and Rankin I knew something special was happening. The first night we got to visit with Rankin’s uncle, who had been out to the Keys to the East before and lost his arm to a shark while he was hand lining a wahoo. After hearing his stories and the “legend” of the Keys to the East from Rankin, I knew we were dealing with an incredible place, but the hurdles to get there were still an issue. When we showed up Steve was stressed and working on overdrive to pull all the logistical pieces together to go out there. It was pretty touch-and-go there for a bit, and we didn’t know if it was going to happen until the moment we got on the heli.
How did it exceed your expectations?
JK: The raw beauty of Guanaja was immediately captivating, but getting to capture the portraits of the people who live there was priceless. The adventure out the the Keys to the East was on a whole different level.
When did you know Rankin was the story?
JK: When the producer of the project Shannon Vandivier first approached me with the story it sounded too incredible to be true. He had been down to Guanaja to film Fly Fish Guanaja’s student program and met Rankin and learned of his story. He called me up a few months before Steve Brown and Rankin were planning on doing the first exploratory fly-fishing mission out to the Keys to the East. We both knew it was a long shot to get the resources together in time for a film shoot but Steve reached out to everyone he knew to help find funding and somehow the stars aligned for us to initiate production.
What is Rankin up to now?
JK: Rankin is the head guide at Fly Fish Guanaja and gets to lead clients on trips of a lifetime. He gets to wake up and kiss his boys good-bye every morning and play a little soccer with them every evening when he’s home from work. The need to be able to pay for medication for his son who was diagnosed with sickle cell is how he fell into drug running in the first place. Seeing how he was able to pull himself out of that life and provide for his family through fly-fishing has been truly inspirational.
What gear do you need for this type of mission?
JK: The Keys to the East are better referred to as Mad Max of the sea.The elements are harsh. You have zero natural protection from the sun or the wide open sea. Simms gear proved to be hands down the best technical fishing apparel for protection from the sun or rain. As for fishing gear, Rankin and Steve were very fond of the Helios rod and Hydros reel setup from Orvis. It seemed like the greatest challenge was all of our ability to see. Whether we were staring at a seven-inch monitor or trying to actually see the fish, fighting the glare was a constant challenge and Smith Optics’ ChromaPop line worked the best in the turquoise waters of Guanaja and the Keys to the East. The right shrimp and crab patterns? Do what the guide tells you to do.
Did you need any specialized camera equipment?
JK: Our weight in the helicopter was a major issue flying over the 160 miles of open ocean. Shannon was hyper critical of the bare minimum we would need. We brought two Red Dragons, a full set of Canon Cine Primes, the Sigma Cine Zooms, specialized Tiffin IRND filters, DJI Inspire, Feather lite Jib, Aquatech Delphin D5, Sachtler tripods, and a basic DIT station. The pilot still had issues with the weight of the equipment, and at one point we had to decide to send our camera op Oliver Rogers across on the boat that was transporting fuel. With ten-plus-foot seas, he got very sea sick that night.
How do you deal with the sun, saltwater, and sand while filming in that environment?
JK: It’s nearly impossible to fully mitigate the sand. It was a constant struggle for the camera crew. Saltwater and sand are major kryptonites for any camera equipment. At all times we each carried fresh water to help dampen rags and clean the gear. Shannon was religiously cleaning the lenses with alcohol swabs. Gaff tape was used to seal any small, yet vital holes. The truth is we all lived covered in sand and salt from the start of the project until the very end. The only real solution for dealing with the sun was an ancient local remedy, a steady influx of beer.