Make sure you have read my previous blog–COMPETITIVE ANGLING PART 1–Before you read this blog.
For many years, there was no way for someone who wasn’t known by the U.S. team owner, Walter Ungerman, to become a member of the adult team. Mr. Ungerman picked the team. There were some very good anglers on the team in those days, even some great ones. Angling legend Joe Humpheries was a member of one of these teams. But the U.S. team wasn’t very competitive on the world circuit. Perhaps their lowest point came when the adult team finished near the bottom of the field on our home waters in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
About seven years ago, the team began to change. Qualifiers were now held throughout the country, and they were used to determine some of the team members. But the process to make the team was murky at best. Every year the process changed, and no one outside of the inner competition circle really knew the rules. More recently, making the team involved a confusing point system where anglers who competed the most, acquired the most points. So even if you won a qualifier, you weren’t assured of anything. Anglers who competed in a bunch of qualifiers could acquire more points simply by competing more, regardless of where they finished. And points were carried over from year to year. So, if you were new to the competition scene, no matter how good you were, you weren’t going to make the team right away. It remained a good old boy network.
This is an important point. There are no monetary awards for these competitions. Lodging, fishing licenses, food, air fare and many other expenses are paid by each contestant at the qualifier level. A competitor could easily spend thousands of dollars a year to compete, and to make the team you needed to compete as often as possible to acquire points. Though once you make the official traveling team, expenses for the world championships are paid for by Team U.S.A. Head coach George Daniel is trying to change that today. He has created a concrete, highly visible format for making the team. You can compete as much as you want, but only your top two finishes in sanctioned qualifiers will count towards making the team. This new approach should remove much of the shadiness that has plagued the team’s membership processes in the past. And George’s approach seems to be working. The adult team finished fifth at the Italian worlds. Their highest finish in the team’s history.
One of the oddities of competitive angling is that you don’t simply compete as an individual. Most competitions require anglers to be part of a team. The teams are awarded placing positions collectively and competitors are also ranked individually. This has instigated the formation of club teams around the country. Basically, you get some friends together and form a team. If your club team pays the entrance fees, you can enter a competition. Some of the club teams appear almost tribal in nature. They frequent the same fly fishing forums and occasionally quarrel with each other or with members of other teams. But some of them also have local events where the team gets together and the members compete against each other just for fun. These teams are sort of like local 4×4 clubs that get together on weekends to drive trails. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. The numbers of competitors and clubs in the U.S. is very small. George estimates the number of competitive anglers in the U.S. at only a few hundred.
And that’s one of the troubles I see with competitive angling. When you are in the competitive bubble, you tend to think that it’s much bigger and much more important than it really is. Most fly anglers in the U.S. still don’t even realize that it exists. I’ve heard competitors scoff in amazement that fly fishing manufacturers won’t give them free equipment or even money for their teams. But companies want a big bang for their advertising buck. And the truth is that their dollars will be barely noticed in the United States’ extremely small competitive fly angling world.
The small number of competing anglers begs the question: Are these people really the best fly fishers in the U.S.? The answer is complex; yes, and of course they aren’t. How could you quantify that anyway? The members of the U.S. team are probably the best competitors in the U.S. I fish with George fairly often and I can tell you that he is good. Very good. But George wouldn’t claim to be the best angler in the U.S., even with his competitive credentials. What kind of egomaniac would? And I think this brings up another important point that is often missed in the competitive angling discussion.
Anglers like George, Lance Egan, and others who come to the competitive world from a diverse fly fishing background can do it all. But many of the other competitors are not that grounded. Some of the fishing guides who work for me, and a few of my customers, were beat controllers for the U.S. nationals when it was held in State College. Most were stunned by the lack of ability of many of the competitors. Many couldn’t cast, couldn’t fish anything other than Czech style nymphs. I believe that competitive angling can actually slow skill development for fly anglers who decide to compete too early in their angling journey. There’s much more to fly fishing than just nymphing, but George estimates that competitive anglers are nymphing 90% of the time. Again, fly fishing should be fun. And if fly fishing exclusively with nymphs is what makes you happy, then that’s how you should fish. But how can anyone call themselves the best angler in the U.S. without knowing how to double hall or fish a dry fly, wet fly, or streamer?
So why do competitive anglers do it? I’ve asked many of them this question and most can fit into a few categories. Some of them do it for no other reason than ego. They want to be called the best by someone. Others do it to achieve fly fishing name recognition. They want to be fly fishing “famous” and maybe to use that angle to make a little money or to open other opportunities. Some do it just because they’re hard-wired to compete. Many are former athletes, and they enjoy the adrenaline rush they get from putting their skills on the line in front of others. Some do it as a hobby. They enjoy meeting new people when they compete. They learn new tactics and stretch themselves as anglers.
I’ve heard anglers complain about competitive angling, saying that it somehow diminishes fly fishing, reducing the sport to little more than the B.A.S.S. circuit. But that’s crazy. Bass fishing hasn’t been ruined by the B.A.S.S. tournaments. I fish for bass often, and I still enjoy it. Competition breeds new ideas, methods, and products. And if you don’t like it, don’t do it. Even if a competition is held on your home water, the competitors are there for a couple of days, and then you can have it all to yourself again. Just relax. Breathe deeply. The only time I would fight against angling competitions would be during stress periods where a fishery could be harmed. Competitions should not be allowed during periods of thermal stress in the summer months or during the fall spawning season. Never, for any reason.
Our sport is changing. There is a youth movement that brings an edge to fly fishing that never existed before. Some of it comes from competitive angling. But in a time where our rivers and streams are threatened from all sides we cannot afford to alienate anglers who define fly fishing differently then we do. Fly fishing is not growing as fast as it used to. I think the famous revolutionary war quote, “We must hang together or we will surely all hang separately,” is very appropriate for the modern fly fisher.
For more information about Fly Fishing Team USA, here is the link to their Facebook page:
My next blog will discuss the Youth Fly fishing team. Back with more soon.