As many of you know, last September Jackson Hole was host to the 1997 World Fly Fishing Championships. Billed as the “Olympics of fly fishing,” the competition strives for the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship and fair play. Does it succeed? That’s what this and Notes From a World Championship: Part 2 are all about. It’ll be for you to decide. Personally, while initially skeptical of the notion of turning fly fishing into a competitive event, I must admit that participation in the event allayed at least some of my pre-event fears. But not all.
My involvement began with a call from friend and Team England coach Gary “The Wedge” Wilmot. Would I be willing to spend seven days before the championships rowing Team England members down our area rivers and training them in the art of fly fishing from a drift boat? To my surprise, no one from Team England, and precious few of the other World Championship competitors, had ever fished from a drift boat on a river. If you’ve ever had the opportunity, you know that drift boat fishing is different from wade fishing. While not necessarily harder or easier, it is decidedly different. How could I say no?
All told, I spent the better part of two weeks rowing, coaching, exchanging ideas, tying flies, drinking beer, smoking cigars, laughing with, laughing at, listening to, and yes, even fishing with the members of this most interesting team. The following are some notes and observations from a World Championship.
Tales of European fly fishing made me thankful for the multitude and variety of opportunities those of us in the American West routinely enjoy. If a European river actually supports a trout population, it’s probably private. The vast majority of the angling takes place on lakes, where the Europeans, and English in particular, excel.
An initial discussion with English team member and 1995 Individual World Champion, Jeraemy Herrmann, on lake fishing tactics prompted this comment to team captain Chris Ogborne. “Hey Oggie, these guys are still using unweighted flies on full sinking lines!” They both got a good laugh at my expense and promised to show me some of their stuff when the championships were over. On a historical timeline, they consider our lake fishing methods as coming from sometime around the Dark Ages. As Jeraemy put it, in America, with it’s abundance of free flowing rivers and general preference for rivers over lakes (at least for trout fishing), the best and brightest fly fishing minds devote their energies to developing techniques and tactics which work on their preferred waters. In Europe the best and the brightest channel their efforts towards the only water most are allowed to fish, the lakes. In Europe, the most educated trout are in the lakes, in America, they’re in the rivers.
Jeraemy and Chris kept their promise and the day before they returned home we headed for a local lake with Wedge. This was another first for the Englishmen as they had never had the opportunity to fish for cutthroat trout in a lake. Also along for the ride were two Italian competitors, including 1996 Individual World Champion Pierluigi Cocita. The English were very confident that their sophisticated techniques, tactics and fly selection would enable them to “crack the code” so to speak and allow them to rack up large numbers of trout, or at least outfish the Yanks (Wedge and I) who held the “home field” advantage. It was already a foregone conclusion that the English would outfish the Italians on a lake. Or so the English thought…and later proved.
If you know Jeraemy Herrmann, it won’t surprise you that he was the first into his waders and belly boat and first on the water. One of the most aggressive fly fisherman you’ll ever see, Jeraemy also has the uncanny ability to think like a fish better than anyone I’ve ever known. It shouldn’t therefore surprise you that it didn’t take very long for him to dial in and start hooking and landing one cutthroat after another.
After a few hours, we broke for lunch. To this point we had each gone about fishing however we thought best. Lunch gave us the opportunity to compare notes and discuss the much heralded English lake fishing techniques. Jeraemy and I stepped away from the others that he might give me some pointers. My favorite had to be what Jeraemy referred to as the “rolly-poly.” Tuck the cork grip under your right armpit resting the rod itself on your forearm. Now, as rapidly as possible, strip in the fly line using both hands in a circular hand-over-hand fashion. The whole idea is to keep the fly moving, no pauses allowed. This is not as easy as it might sound as the tendency to stop, even if for only an instant, is overwhelming. As Jeraemy explained, European rainbows and browns like to track a fly before eating it. “You’ve got to make them think the fly is going to get away.” If at any time during the tracking of the fly it should come to rest, even momentarily, the trout will reject the fly and turn away, never to return.
What did our rising native cutthroat think of the rolly-poly? Well, not much. Same for the ultra realistic chironomid (midge) patterns favored by the English, which by and large were fished motionless. The first trout to swim by and ignore his midge pattern put Jeraemy into a state of virtual shock. Jeraemy is not used to this sort of thing and he couldn’t believe the trout hadn’t eaten his fly. While the vast majority of anglers would continue fishing the same fly, at least a little while longer, Jeraemy was already experimenting. Ultimately, it took different fly patterns and different techniques than what the English had expected to prevail with. How long did it take for them to figure this out? Oh, about fifteen minutes.
Which brings to mind a common trait shared by all world class competitors – the ability to evaluate and assess a given situation and then adapt to it. There was no whining because the trout wouldn’t rise on a given day… or because they were so small they could be used for bait…or because they didn’t fight hard enough. There was no insistence on fishing a certain fly or a certain style. Each river and each trout was wholeheartedly accepted for what it was and not viewed with disdain because it didn’t measure up to unrealistic expectations. What a breath of fresh air. Guides really love that sort of attitude.
While becoming fast friends with the entire English team was an experience never to be forgotten, not everything about the World Championships was so rosy. In Notes From a World Championship: Part 2 I’ll discuss some of the negative side of competitive fly fishing.