The Case for Competitive Fly Fishing in Colorado
By Paul Prentiss

The National Fly Fishing Championship & Conservation Symposium, to be held in Boulder, Colorado during June of 2006, constitutes the final round of the regional competitions held across the United States. Fifteen of the competitors will be chosen by the coaching staff of Team USA to represent the United States in an Olympic style event in Portugal.

This event is sponsored by Colorado Trout Unlimited and the associated Trout Unlimited Chapters in the State of Colorado.

The Colorado event will host 9 US teams including existing Team USA members and 1 to 3 international teams, which translates into 45 to 60 contestants. They will compete over a three day period in 5 different fishing locations (accessible to the public). There will be a number of special events & programs culminated by a medal awards ceremony.

The Colorado program is designed to:

  1. Create major funding opportunities for Colorado Trout Unlimited and Fly Fishing Team USA.
  2. Produce a spectator-oriented activity that will generate interest and enthusiasm for fly fishing with a strong emphasis on youth participation.
  3. Provide a forum to discuss and distribute information on the protection and enhancement of cold water resources.
  4. Promote a catch & release mentality and conservation ethics.
  5. Create a learning and training opportunity for individuals that currently participate or would like to participate in fly fishing.

Despite these worthwhile goals there are a few fly fishermen who find any contest inappropriate. Therefore, I thought it would be of interest to give you my perspective on why this contest and its associated activities have great value to CTU and the fly fishing community as a whole.

Let's start by listing every negative comment I've heard about competitive fly fishing.

  1. Competitive fly fishing can result in damage to a stream and its fish.
  2. Ultimately, fishing of this type will lead us to the bass tournament syndrome which translates into unbridled commercialism. Next we'll be seeing uniforms and cheerleaders.
  3. The nature of competition is contrary to the beauty and spirit embodied in fly fishing. Fishing is about relaxation, not stress.
  4. Sponsors who are interested in selling product are the only real beneficiary of competitive fly fishing.
  5. Such events may attract sponsors that will poison the well - divert the mission of the conservation groups that generally support fly fishing.
  6. Competition by its very nature does not encourage a free exchange of information. On the contrary, it reduces the flow and generates conflict.
  7. Competition is a European thing. They have a completely different fishing ethic which is due in part to the lack of public water and no catch and release tradition.
  8. The people competing in these contests are not necessarily the best fishermen, they're the best connected.

Before addressing these concerns let's make a distinction between amateur, not for profit contests and commercial tournaments with paid endorsements and cash prizes. The following comments are directed towards amateur events conducted under strict guidelines, not made for TV programs.

The regional and National Fly Fishing Championships are designed to select members of the US Fly Fishing Team to represent this country in the World Championships and Conservation Symposium. The contestants, coaches and support staff pay their own way. Contributions to Team USA or the championship events held in this country go directly to the non-profit organizations sponsoring the event and/or to the cost of sending individual team members to an international location (transportation, room, and board). What's in it for the contestants? It's about the experience of meeting and exchanging ideas with people from all over the world and possibly hearing the national anthem and receiving a medal. There aren't any contracts, free automobiles, or parades.

How do the young men and women who become a part of Fly Fishing Team USA feel about the World Championship? In 2005 Loren Williams from New York was chosen as the first fly tier on Team USA. He traveled to Sweden to participate. Prior to leaving he tied over 1,000 flies based on intensive research on what his team members would need. Weather conditions just prior to contest demanded all new patterns which had to be identified, designed and tied. In an interview published in the latest issue of Fly Tyer Magazine he was asked about his experience. "I think competitive fly fishing, at the international level, is largely misunderstood by the American public. This opportunity opened my eyes to the hidden athletic and strategic facets of the competition. The physical and mental exhaustion I witnessed from our anglers in Sweden solidified the importance of my being there. I was not nearly as surprised at the demands placed on me as I was at the demands placed on the anglers. Those guys left it all on the water at the end of every session. They have my utmost respect." Loren has subsequently decided to try out for the team as an angler for the 2006 Championship in Portugal.

Among the many issues that should be concerning TU and FFF members are conservation and youth involvement in the sport. The conservation motive is central to our mission and every aspect of how these events are conducted mirrors this concern. The Symposium highlights issues in the host country and what they are doing to solve habitat problems, protect fisheries/wildlife from pollution and encroachment, and limit their harvest. You might be surprised to learn that many countries are doing far more than we are in this area - we have much to learn. For example Spain is rightfully proud of their three unique strains of Brown Trout and is more aggressive in their protection and enhancement procedures than we are. They have established 'No Fishing' nursery areas, 'No Kill' areas, 'Limited Harvest' areas and 'Open Harvest' areas depending on the stream.

According to various AFFTA, studies I have seen, the fastest growing segment of fly fishing is in the 16 to 24 year old group. How does this category match up to the membership profiles in our organizations? I don't have any statistics but my guess is that it doesn't. In a 2004 study about involvement in all forms of outdoor competitive sports almost 40% of surveyed enthusiasts 16 and older had participated in an outdoor adventure competition within the past 12 months. It's pretty clear that the younger crowd is very attracted to these activities. Ask the young guys that frequent fly shops or the high school kids that participate in fly fishing programs about competitive fishing events.

If you were to talk to any world class competitors you would find a few common traits. Words that come to mind include - focused, observant, creative, aggressive, and methodical. The fly fishermen invited to the trials are on the cutting edge of the sport. As such, they have much to offer fishermen anxious to improve their skill. They assimilate the latest international techniques like Polish, Czech, and Spanish nymphing, create or enhance fly designs incorporating new materials, and have an innate ability to evaluate difficult conditions and adapt accordingly. This brings to mind a comment by one of Colorado's top fisherman, Barry Reynolds. During a clinic on tying Pike flies he mentioned to his audience:"If you're tying the same patterns and fishing like you did 10 years ago your productivity has taken a big hit." Where do you suppose many of latest innovations like the use of bead head flies came from? These innovations have a direct impact on the flies we are fishing and the techniques we are using.

To be sure there are sponsoring companies and individuals that contribute money or product with no recognition while others get an opportunity to associate their name with these events. This process is called charity and capitalism. It's how non-profit organizations raise the funds to pursue their objectives.

It's difficult to imagine how Colorado resources will be damaged when all fish are caught on barbless hooks and immediately released by a competent judge (the contestant is not allowed to handle fish), and no lead weights are used. Anglers are spread across an area so that conditions are less crowded than what you may encounter on a normal day. Fish not fairly hooked are released immediately and not counted in the score.

Like it or not we are competitive by nature. If this was not the case, you wouldn't be fishing. Would you be fishing if you could catch a fish on any fly every time you made a cast? How would you feel if you were the only person on a fishing trip that failed to catch a fish or your fish were half the size of those caught by your friends? What if you had the chance to land an IGFA record? Would you walk away from the opportunity or catch the fish and apply for the record? The point is that from our earliest days we are all trying to gain recognition, influence and status.

I'm not suggesting that competitive Fly Fishing as described above is something that everyone should embrace. These contests may be out of synch with your personal views on fly fishing, but that doesn't mean they're inappropriate. On the contrary, they offer a series of explicit benefits to our sport and to conservation groups like Colorado Trout Unlimited. Of equal importance is the fact that these events put fishing on the minds and lips of people who might know little or nothing about fly fishing or fisheries. It gives them a chance to learn and become more educated in their decisions on resources and water-quality issues.

If you want to get involved in this event click here

If you want to know more about Team USA click here