Notes from a 1997 World Fly Fishing Championship: Part 2

By Guy Turck •  Updated: 11/09/22 •  7 min read

I don’t know about you, but if I hear one more reporter, political analyst or media pundit use the catch phrase “rush to judgment,” I’m going to scream. But was I guilty of just that when it came to the World Fly Fishing Championships? Some of my fellow guides may well have thought so at a guides meeting several days before the competition was to begin. At issue were a number of rules which some of us considered beneficial to the competition at the expense of the fishery. The entire justification for hosting the championships in Jackson Hole was to show the rest of the world the advantages of progressive fishery management such as slot limits, catch and release, and habitat restoration. That and the funds it would raise on behalf of our native cutthroat trout. But in the end, taking into account what follows, is it worth it?

Part 1 of this story discussed some of the positive aspects of competitive fly fishing. Here I’ll illuminate the darker side of such competitions.

So why would we compromise the well-being of a fishery for the sake of a competition, even the World Championships? For the money? Weren’t we supposed to be setting an example for the rest of the world? That’s what I had been led to believe. And yet, among other silly dictates, we were told we had to land each and every trout with a net, no matter the size. This, in spite of the well known fact that any handling, including netting, of small trout decreases their chances for survival. Furthermore, the standard issue net, which was to be used by all competitors, was an abrasive synthetic fabric which everyone this side of the Atlantic knows should be made of soft fabrics such as cotton so as to minimize the removal of a trout’s protective mucous.

And why, pray tell, should we have to net all trout no matter the size? As explained by Jack Simpson, outgoing president of F.I.P.S. (F.I.P.S. is the governing body for the World Fly Fishing Championships, much like the International Olympic Committee is to the Olympics), many world competitors did not share our values regarding the preservation of trout and would, when hooking up with a six inch fish, simply recast to rid themselves of the pesky little creature in order that they may return to competitive fishing ASAP. How netting a fish was going to prevent this sort of behavior was never explained, but I shuddered to think that I was going to have to deal with such stunts.

What they seemed to be saying by insisting on the netting of all fish, was that F.I.P.S. would rather knowingly mishandle all small trout rather than educate the competitors on proper handling techniques while immediately disqualifying any competitor who intentionally harmed a trout. Apparently, educating and disqualifying competitors is a big hassle while killing a few small trout is no big deal.

I can tell you definitively, had any competitor in my boat intentionally sacrificed a trout for the betterment of his or her score, they would have been skunked the rest of the way. Sixty-five foot casts can be problematic. Fortunately I never saw or heard of any such behavior on the part of any competitor. In fact, most competitors rather enjoyed taking care of the trout and did their utmost to insure their continued survival, routinely breaking the rules if necessary. But in my mind, that does not excuse the netting rule or the fabric used on those nets.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to fly fish from a driftboat on some of the big brawling western rivers in the Jackson Hole region you know that it takes an experienced oarsman (or woman) to negotiate the sometimes tricky currents and obstacles such as log jams – which can flip a boat faster than a dog accepts a bone. So get this, in addition to our primary duty of safely navigating the river, F.I.P.S. required that the guide not only row the boat, but also net, measure, release and record all fish. But it’s dangerous to take your hands off the oars and eyes off the river in order to do all that. Then pull over to a bank and drop anchor was the response. But by the time we drag our boats out of the powerful currents and find a suitable place to pull over, the trout will have been played for far too long. Can’t the competitor net the fish, place it in the measuring trough, show it to the guide, and then release the fish themselves? No, these are the rules and we’re not going to change them was the response.

At this point I’m beginning to think that F.I.P.S. is not only totally clueless with regard to driftboat fishing and the safety issues involved, but trout conservation techniques as well. It began to dawn on me that despite the well-meaningness of scores of volunteers on the US organizing committee, F.I.P.S. was in charge and this competition was going to be run the F.I.P.S. way because that was the best and easiest way to run a fair competition. But while we’re being as fair as possible to human competitors, are we showing the trout the same courtesy?

A perfect example of this arrogance on the part of F.I.P.S., and perhaps the most hideous rule of all, was their determination of the minimum size trout needed to score points, and therefore decide championships. Incredibly, a trout need only have been twenty centimeters to garner points for the competing angler. While we were continually reminded that twenty centimeters was about eight inches I can tell you that it is less than eight inches. The scoring system did award more points for larger fish, but was nonetheless heavily skewed towards sheer numbers. For example, two ten inch trout scored more points than one twenty inch trout. To belabor the obvious, it’s a hell of a lot harder to land a twenty inch cutthroat than to land a pair of ten inchers. Large trout are a far better test of angling skill than small trout, but somehow this didn’t seem to matter. Jay Buchner, who headed the US organizing committee, wanted the minimum scoring size to be in the neighborhood of ten inches, a reasonable threshold. But, need I say it again, F.I.P.S. would have none of that.

Why is the scoring system so important? Because it encouraged world class anglers who wanted to score well to target the most vulnerable residents of the river. Once hooked, the survival rate of larger trout is significantly greater than that of small trout. So what ensued was an all out assault of our juvenile trout population by some of the best anglers in the world. It all seemed so totally unnecessary and patently indicative of man’s arrogance towards nature.

Some members of the French team, which ultimately prevailed, resorted to stringing up three small dry flies (such as a #16 Royal Wulff) and twitching them on the surface to get the attention of uneducated fingerlings. I don’t want to pick on the French. They simply played within the rules and fished a little smarter than the rest of the field. But is this really the ultimate test of angling skill one would expect from a world championship? Not a chance.

Speaking for myself, it’s hard not to have mixed feelings regarding competitive fly fishing. The end goal of any fishing competition should be to provide the given venue and it’s finned inhabitants with a brighter future in an age when we see much more environmental degradation than improvement. And despite F.I.P.S. priority on competition, this has probably occurred. The world has been informed about what threatens and what has preserved our beloved cutthroat and hopefully trout around the globe, as well as in Wyoming, will be the beneficiaries. But in the future I would hope that all fishing competitions make the welfare of the fish the top priority and place egocentric human needs a distant second.

Guy Turck
Jackson Hole
January 1998