Competition Fly Fishing in New Zealand - Fishing for Gold
First published in Fish and Game Magazine
By Rene Vaz
It felt a bit like a back to school trip as I scrambled my way down the aisle to the back of the bus. Since school days though, instead of my school bag I had a tackle bag over one shoulder, a wader bag over the other and a stack of rod tubes under each arm. Luckily the other passengers understood my situation as they were similarly equipped; we were group B in the first session of the 1999 World Fly Fishing Championships in Australia’s snowy mountains. Part of a team of five representing New Zealand we were well prepared, having spent ten days in the same location a year prior where we had beaten the Australian teams in the Oceania fly fishing championships. On the back of this win we were certainly confident and here to win and although in hind sight naive at that time my personal goal was to win the individual championship.
I’ve managed to achieve a number of personal goals in my life but this wasn’t to be one of them, neither for the team or myself. A strong consolation was as a team we did manage to come in a respectable 3rd place out of the 23 teams, behind the Australian and French teams. Although this seemed at the time far from what I had been aiming for, it was in hind sight the best a New Zealand team had done away from home, of equal significance was team member Pat O’Keefe’s individual placement of 3rd in the overall competition.
For me this trip seemed far away from the salubrious goals that I had set for myself, yet in hind sight the lessons I learnt over those three days of competitions would have taken me years to have learnt through normal angling experiences; and even now eight years later I can remember every minute of every session. As the bus arrived to our first venue on day one of the competition my nerves started to sink in, I’ve always been the relaxed type but I remember having a lump in my throat and being in a constant tizz as I checked through my gear time and time again. As I stepped out of the bus I was greeted by my controller who guided me down to my beat, an allotted stretch of private water on the Murrimbidgee River. We had half an hour to start time, so I used the time to walk the beat to familiarize myself with the water. At the head of the top pool two large browns sat sipping tiny mayflies under an overhanging tree. After locating these fish, I set a plan to start from the bottom of the beat with a dry fly and dropper nymph rig and work my way up to this top pool which I would fish in the second hour of my three hour session. The first hour raced by without a fish, however I knew I had the top pool with the two sitters I could rely on. As I reached the pool I crossed the lower section to ensure to put myself into position to pick off the first fish. But as you may have imagined by now, the fish were no longer up on top sipping mayflies. I carefully fished blind through the pool with no results and then spent my last hour combing back and fourth through the beat but had no success. After the session I wondered my way back to the bus and heard the results come in. As it turned out most of the anglers experienced the same scenario. The fish were up and feeding for the first hour and then it was all over. The anglers who worked their whole beat hard over the first hour came up with the most fish. I on the other hand learnt a significant lesson. Never, whatever the weather, turn down a rising fish.
This was the first of the two World Championships that I fished in. During my six years as a competition angler I experienced a number of successes and a number of failures although I could focus this article on my some of my successes it was my mistakes like that morning on the Murrimbidgee that my biggest lessons were learnt. As fly fishermen we fit into four primary categories, there’s the beginner, the traditionalist, the adventurer and the conqueror. Over my time as a fly fisherman I’ve had brief moments in each of these phases, and it’s been the importance of each of these that have helped me to develop my skills and enjoyment of this sport. Although I gained my appreciation of this sport to my time as a traditionalist, without question I would have to dedicate the biggest increases in my skill level to my time as a conqueror, which for me was reflected through my competition fishing stage. It was during this time that I endeavored to rip the lips of every trout that swam within a fly cast of me and reduce trophy specimens to no more than ‘number seven’ and constantly change my approach with a belief that this sport was in fact perfectible. Interestingly as I bring up the topic of competitive fly fishing there is guaranteed to be four standard responses from the readers based on their current fishing phase. For the beginner, it will be a standard line of questions, i.e. how does competition fly fishing work? How can I learn more? Could I do that? For the traditionalist, the response would be more like, “I don’t believe in that, that’s not really fishing!” Similarly disgusted the adventurer would respond with something like, “I hope those bastards don’t come and fish my back country rivers, it couldn’t handle the pressure”. But finally for the conqueror the response would be more like, “I’ll show that lot I could out fish them all”. It’s not that we’re not all competitive in our own way, even the traditionalist likes to recall the time when he caught twenty fish out of that pool in order to enforce a superior statement over his fishing partner. And even the adventurer withholds his secret spots from his closest buddies for one reason, competition. As it is every stage has its competitive stage, although at some stages it’s easier to hide than others. Although for me I’ve finished my competition fishing stage I do tend to fish with my brother a lot these days and it would be impossible for us to have a day on the river without some competition. We’ve spent our life competing for food, toys and attention; it’s more or less a genetic response for us to compete at fly fishing.
New Zealand’s competitive scene is based around the FIPS Mouche rules managed here by Sport Fly Fishing New Zealand. The New Zealand competition scene involves a series of regional competitions around the country. Competitors are able to fish as many of these as they choose to. Place getters of these regional competitions then go onto compete in the national championships, from which teams are selected for World, Commonwealth and Oceania championships. As you would imagine luck does come into play however the best anglers are able to consistently rank in a similar way to a professional poker players are able to succeed despite the ever present luck factor. From my experience when I failed to do well in a session or an entire competition it was rarely due to bad luck but normally inexperience or poor performance.
Scoring for the competitions is done by awarding points per fish that is caught and per centimeter of fish. Consequently the more fish you catch and the bigger they are the better you will do. In some fisheries you are able to target large numbers of small fish or fewer big fish, in a tactful decision to enhance ones score. At the end of each three hour session each anglers points are totaled, the one with the most points will be first and so on. If a number of anglers fail to catch fish they will all be given last place in that session i.e. if there are 20 anglers in the session then all the anglers that fail to catch will be given 20 points. Each competition lasts for five 3 hour sessions, and the angler with the least number of placing point’s wins. For example a perfect run would be to win each session (1 placing point) and to finish with a total of 5 points.
As I had mentioned earlier I have attributed a lot of my learning in this sport to my time as a competition angler. Firstly competition fishing made me stop and analyze what I was doing as an angler and truly think about optimizing my efficiency and effectiveness in ever fishing situation. Secondly and more importantly competition fishing enabled me to rub shoulders and fish with some of the best anglers in the world. Few were the complete package but over time I learnt to cast, mend, and fish, rivers, still waters, wet flies, dries and nymphs like the best of them. One of my greatest tutors was Auckland’s Dave McLellan who was an expert at fishing small flies and light leaders and would always tell me off for casting too far and spooking the fish. Rotorua’s Pat O’Keefe had taught me to mechanically fish still waters to maximize my catch rated. In addition to learning these functional skills of fly fishing I remember my toughest skill to learn was reading water and finding fish. Mike Stent from Taupo was the best in this area; it wasn’t long before I realized that I would always catch more fish whilst fishing with Mike than with any other angler. I still have a lot to learn in this area and whenever I think I’ve made it, I spend a day on the water with Mike who quickly reminds me how much I have yet to learn.
Although at this stage in my “fishing life” I have moved away from competition angling in a quest for other adventures I still look back on those days with fond memories and recommend it to all anglers what ever phase you are now in. For the beginner there would be no greater lesson than to attend a regional competition and learn from the other competitors. For the traditionalist competition fishing has put me on private stretches of the River Test arguably the home of fly fishing and in the company of some of the world’s finest anglers. For the adventurer there is no better discovery as an angler than ones own abilities and your abilities in a foreign environment and finally for the conqueror’s our country needs our best anglers to draw together in a sport that we could lead the world in, not just for selfish glory but to better highlight to the public the value of the fisheries that we have.
Whether you are a beginner, traditionalist, adventurer or conqueror, fly fishing mean’s something different to every person. I have been through most of these stages to some degree although I know that I am far from experiencing all that this sport has to offer. I have had years that I have fished every moment that I wasn’t eating sleeping or working and other years that I have fished very little. Either way there has been no other endeavor that has taken up so much of my thoughts and idea’s as the sport of fly fishing.
2008 will see the World Fly Fishing Championships back here in New Zealand, the team as always have big shoes to fill following on from NZ’s last winning performance on home ground in 1991. As a country of anglers this is something we should endorse, as one thing is for sure, some of the worlds best anglers will be here and we will all have plenty to learn. I won’t be competing but I’ll certainly be helping out trying to learn as much as possible from those that are.