Its taken me about a month to finally write up a summary of the US Nationals in which I competed last June.
The fly fishing tournament scene is fairly new or even unknown to most of you reading this report so I will cover the outline and structure off the bat.
US Nationals happen on a 2 year cycle with around 8 regional qualifiers in which competitors accumulate points from their best 3 tournament performances in order to pre qualify for the nationals. In addition to crowning a national champion, points from the national tournament along with the regional qualifiers are accumulated to crown a 15 man Team USA and 6 are named to the World Championship team to compete for Team USA in the World Fly Fishing Championships. As you can see its a pretty involved process and for some has a great amount of meaning. Additionally, there is a team component.
As for the tournament structure itself, there were 55 anglers fishing 5 sessions on either a river a lake. This year it was the West Branch of the Ausable, Saranac, Little Salmon Rivers, Mirror Lake and Lake Colby. The 55 competitors are broken into 5 groups of 11. The separate groups travel to each venue together and basically compete against each other on each river or lake and earn placement points as well as fish points and are then weighted against the rest of the competitors. It boils down to doing well in your group is important.
If it sounds a bit complicated it kind of is, and it is all new to me as well. See I did not pre qualify, nor was I familiar with the specific rules or structure of the tournaments. I had simply signed up on the waiting list a few weeks ahead of the event and a few days later someone dropped out and boom, suddenly I was in and very nervous. Thanks to my friend Jesse Haller, who had been competing for a couple of years, for encouraging me to sign up, and then adding me to his team, Colorado 2. I had a lot to learn and quick, and was worried I would finish dead last.
I soon found how serious most of the competitors take the tournament when I was asked to head over and meet my team and get some practice in leading unto the event. I headed over a few days before the event and as a team we fished all three rivers, though we could not fish in the actual competition water. It was good to get a feel for each river and have an idea what to expect leading into the tournament. For me it was huge as there were rigging rules that I needed to get figured out.
The night prior to the event is the draw where everyone finds when they fish each venue, what beat of the river, and who is in your group. I drew group E and my draw was exactly opposite of what I had hoped. I was hoping for rivers to start and in the morning so the water would not have been fished in the morning by another competitor. Of course that did not happen, and to top that off I had three members of team USA including the world bronze medalist, and the current world youth champion, so I knew placement points would be hard to come by.
My first venue was Lake Colby where we fish from a boat with another competitor. There are a few rules, but basically you have to remain seated, and fish downwind. My boat mate was Inout Contigni, from Canada. He is a seasoned competitor and fished in the World Championships as well. We decided to drift across a point on the far side of the lake. I was using a fairly quick sinking line and threw a horn berg and very small streamer. Things started out great as I landed a brown about 10 minutes into the tournament. What a relief, and way to break the ice. I followed that up with a 15" brown around 15 minutes later. Things were slow for a while and toward the end of the three hour session Inout landed and rainbow and a few minutes later I landed my third and final fish. When we hit the beach I ended up with 5th out of 11 and lost fourth on length of fish. I was pretty pleased and confident headed to my second session in the afternoon on the Ausable.
During practice on the Ausable, we had crushed fish. 6 of us landed over 120 fish in a couple hours on maybe 1/3 to 1/2 miles of river, but that was not on comp water. I called my teammate who fished in the am and things sounded a bit slower. The top half of the river had fished decent, but the bottom slower. I was on the bottom half. Either way I felt great, I was going to kill it. Arriving at my beat, it looked ok, with my beat ending at the beginning of a deep pool and then some pocket water above. There was a fish rising in the pool in the beat below me and a small fish rose a couple times right at the end of my beat prior to the session starting. I learned a couple valuable lessons on this session. Don't be too confident and fish to any fish you can. See I decided that little trout I saw rise was not a huge deal, because I was going to catch 10 bigger on nymphs below him. I started with a dry dropper and didn't touch anything. In hind sight I should have fished only dries to try to get that fish before anything else, because for the next three hours I didn't catch a fish or even have one on. I tried every piece of water with every tactic and couldn't touch anything and was so frustrated. I would have bet money I would never get skunked on the Ausable, But i did. And so did three others on the lower half of the river. Even the first angler of the tournament to fish that beat in the morning only caught one fish on his first cast. A tough beat for sure. As the tournament went on lots and lots of great anglers blanked as well. I can't say why it fished so difficult but it did. As you can see trying to catch that one small fish would have been a big deal.
The only thing to do was to get up the next morning and fish Mirror Lake as best I could. My boat mate was Glade Gunther, a member of team USA. We bucked the trend and headed south on the lake where Glade had cought some fish in a previous tournament. I threw the same line and same hornberg, but switched to a small dark fly called a blank killer that my teammate did well on the day before. Right off the bat I hooked up and a minute later so did glade. 20 minutes later I boated a nice rainbow and had two in the boat. Things were slow for a bit and then glade caught a small bow and we were tied. I needed to get another fish and time was running low so I switched my retrieve and stripped fast with my rod tip out of the water to keep my fly near the surface. Immediately I was hooked up and got my third fish before time was up. I ended up with 2nd place which was huge for my overall score.
Next was the Saranac in the afternoon. I knew this would be tough. It was tough in practice, terrible to wade, and everyone was dreading it. I had caught only 4 or 5 fish in each of my two practice sessions. There just were not a lot of fish in this river. In previous sessions there were a lot of blanks. I had a good beat but it was in a canyon where you could not wade and could only fish a nice deep run at the top and bottom of the beat. The previous competitors had done well in these two runs. Un luckily for me the fish in these runs seemed to have all been caught over the last three sessions. I was forced to work, hard and try to extend my drifts, and wade right to the edge of being swept away to get to fresh water. I hooked two in the first hour in difficult places tight line nymphing. Once I was backed against a ledge with a tree about 3 feet over me. I could only set upstream and that always ends up in a lower hook up rate as you are pulling the hook out of the fishes mouth. It was on and off in a few seconds. The second fish I hooked was deep and way toward the end of the drift below me and again it was on and off. I headed down to the bottom of my beat and fished with a dry dropper and swung my flies through a tail out below me where a fish bit on the swing below me and was gone. I began to get a bit frustrated but kept at it. I had one other take and it was not there when I set. I moved back up to the top for the last half hour and fished where I hooked to two fish earlier and nothing. I began to get desperate and began tuck casting about 40 feet into some slack water opposite the tail out of a water fall that was moving very fast. Immediately I bumped a fish and made the same cast again. Boom fish on and it was big. It rolled and dove and broke my line. I couldn't believe it. I tied on the same stonefly and looked at my watch, 5 minutes left, but that was it. No more for me. I went 0-6. It hurt, a lot because I had fished the water well and come up empty. 4 others blanked and there were some others who got 1 fish. Had I even landed one I would have been likely in or near the top 20 finishers because of placement points in my group.
I had one more session the next morning and it was my chance to improve my placement and save my ego from another river blank. I think I was around 40th place going into the last day. It was a long drive to the Little Salmon River in Malone, but my wife and daughter had come over the night before and were going cheer me on. It felt good to have them there. I always fish well with my wife and that gave me confidence. So much of fishing is confidence. I had fished well on the Little Salmon in practice, though the water was high and off color then. I had caught fish on big stonefly nymphs, that had carried over to the tournament for my teammates. I also knew it would be a tough beat to do well in. Two full days of results told me that I would not catch many fish on this beat. To top that off, there were two beats on the river on either side of a bridge that had deep pools and had recently been stocked. Since these were the only two big pools in the comp water, the fish had not spread out. Who ever had these beats had finished 1 and 2 catching between 80 and 30 fish each, and the beat below them finishing third. Everyone else battled for 4-11. So while the first place finishers had it made the rest of the field had to work and put their skills to the test.
My beat was shallow and wide with some bed rock shelves that formed short small pools of only around 2-4 feet deep and some faster pockets on the outside bend. It was certainly not great water and there were no pools that could hold a lot of fish. It was the type of water you would walk through and take a few casts on your way up stream to a better pool if you are fishing for fun. I looked it over and began down the bottom with a tight line rig. Due to the fishing pressure and lack of cover I fished most of the time on my knees hiding behind rocks and such to avoid spooking fish. It took me about 30 minutes to get my first fish which ate a #16 dark nymph. Finally a fish on the board. The next 2.5 hours had me covering every bit of water to find fish. I slowly and methodically picked apart each feature, and took my next three fish on stonefly nymphs behind bedrock ledges. I then landed a nice rainbow near the end of the session in front of a large boulder in some fast water. I ended up landing 5 fish total and losing two more. Never did I get more than one fish in a pocket or feature. At the end of the three hours I felt really good about how I fished. 5 was not a big number but was a good number for that beat. The person to fish it first in the tournament had caught 4 and the beat had been hammered by the best fly fishermen in the country for two days prior. I ended up with a 6 overall and was pleased with that.
When the tourney was all over I finished 34 out of 55 competitors. My goal was to finish out of the bottom 10 and I beat that. I feel like I did well considering I was totally new to the tournament structure, and had to learn new rigging methods to meet the tournament rules. At the same time I am pretty bummed about my Saranac River result as had I been able to convert my opportunities, I would have had a much better overall result. Overall it was a great experience and I learned a lot about fly fishing from some great anglers. My teammates were great and supportive and we finished 6th overall as a team. I seriously would have been lost without those guys both from a rules standpoint, intel and confidence standpoint. It was great as we shared info and flies and tied together at night to be ready for the next day of fishing I also met some great people and had an awesome time staying at the Olympic Training Center. I hope to compete again in a few regional tournaments over the next couple of years. Ill keep you all posted.
Ben Wilcox Owner/Guide Maple Country Anglers