In this week’s blog entries, I’m going to discuss the controversial topic, competitive angling. This is a hot topic these days. You can read a small sliver of the debate about competitions in the comments section to Lance Egan’s blog “2011 World Fly Fishing Championships, Italy.” The comments about Lance’s blog are not unique. In fly fishing chat rooms, bulletin boards, web sites, and blogs across the Internet, it seems like everyone has an opinion. Fly anglers either love it or hate it, but few ride the fence. Those who love competitive angling usually compete or have friends who compete. Those who hate it think it may ruin our sport and treat it as an immoral blight.
I really don’t fall into either of these camps. I see the good and the bad, the worthwhile and the truly ugly side. Yes, competitive angling, adult and youth, has both. But since I don’t really have a horse in the race, I think I can report fairly on this topic. I have opinions, of course (don’t we all), and I will share them for what they’re worth. But I’m going to discuss a few things that never seem to get mentioned in the debate: The history of the teams, how they work, and their true impacts on the competitors and on our sport. It will be difficult to do this without offending someone, but I’m giving it a shot nonetheless.
I’m not a competitive angler, at least not in the sense that most people use the term these days. I did compete in the first two Fly Fishing Masters tournaments and my team actually did pretty well. I attend FUDR’s (Friends of the Upper Delaware River) Upper Delaware “One Bug” fundraising competition every year, but I don’t usually compete in it. My team actually won it in 2009, the only year I did compete. I never took these competitions too seriously. I was drinking a beer with a friend when I almost missed my casting slot at the Masters. And I took a brief nap in my controllers boat during the “One Bug.” Fly fishing for me has never been about competing with others. The fish give me enough of a tussle to keep me occupied. But fly fishing, first and foremost, should make you happy. And I don’t begrudge those who find their own satisfaction or happiness through competitions.
I have never tried to make Team U.S.A., or participated in any way. But my friend and colleague, George Daniel, is probably the most decorated adult competitor in U.S. history and currently the adult team’s head coach. He is also the former coach of the youth team. At one time, I was listed as an instructor for the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team, but, for my own reasons and by my own choice, I’m no longer involved with the team. Much of the information you will read in the following blogs comes from discussion I’ve had with George, and many other competitors, and from my own observations while living near the edge of the competition circuit. I’ve asked questions, formed my own opinions, and shared my thoughts with many of them.
So why am I writing this? Five years ago, I didn’t know that Team U.S.A., or national and world competitions, even existed. I was sequestered in my Catskill fly shop, worried only about matching hatches on the river and trying to pay my bills. Competitive angling was never mentioned in my corner of the Catskills. It wasn’t until I moved to State College, PA that I became aware of its growing reach. I couldn’t avoid the competitive angling debate in State College unless I left the fly fishing industry and hid under a rock. Perhaps its because the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team is headquartered in State College. Maybe it’s because several competitions, including the men’s national championship and the youth world championship have taken place in and around State College. Or maybe it’s just because George works with me in the shop. But many times throughout the year, whether I want it to be or not, competitive angling is discussed and debated in the shop.
To begin, you need to know what these teams really are. Most casual observers think that because the moniker “U.S.A.” appears before these teams’ names that the competitions are like the Olympics. But they really aren’t. Our country doesn’t own the U.S. adult team, Walter Ungerman does. Mr. Ungerman has the sole rights to the one, and only, U.S. team allowed to participate in the world competitions. His ownership of the team is more likened to the way the Rooney family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers than to any American Olympic committee. If you decided that you could run a better U.S. team than Mr. Ungerman, you can’t. Each country gets one owner. This isn’t unique to the U.S. Team. In fact, it’s pretty standard for all the teams in the world. Mr. Ungerman also owned the youth team, but he chose to relinquish those rights to a board of directors to allow the team to receive 501 C3 status (tax exempt).
Surprised? Most people are. I know I was when I first learned about the way it works. I know Mr. Ungerman, and I’m friendly with him. I’m not making the case that his ownership of the team is good or bad. It’s just the way it is.
That’s all for now, but my next two blog entries this week will remain focused on this topic. After this introduction, I’m going to discuss the adult team and how it works, then the youth team. These two teams, though often lumped together, are very different. And I think each of them deserve their own time.
Much more to come. Stay tuned.