The last time the World Fly Fishing Championships visited the U.S., our home team took dead last, and vowed to never let that happen again.
The year was 1997, the venue was Jackson Hole. According to the lore that come out of the event, a French angler told an American angler that the U.S. would never be a top team, because a U.S. angler would never spend three hours trying to catch a 10-inch fish, while a French angler must in order to enjoy the sport.
Jay Buchner was on the team at the time, and remembers it well.
“He was probably right,” Buchner said. “Our fishing is too good. So we took to heart the idea that our fishing was too easy and we worked on making it more difficult, and learning all the European techniques.”
Buchner and the U.S. team enlisted in the help of champion angler Vladi Trzebunia, who had helped propel Poland’s team to the best in the world using a new method of fishing and tying flies in the 1980s.
“He had taught me the Polish nymphing system, and we taught it to all the team members,” Buchner said. “It was a very big part of learning to become better anglers.”
Buchner and the U.S. team got away from the invitational system they were using to select the team, and converted to a competition-based approach with regional and national championships serving as qualifiers for the team.
“It took years to develop to where it is today — I think the first time I attended a regionals was 2005 or 2006,” said Bret Bishop, current team captain. “And I think the fruits of that labor are starting to bear, finally, in 2015.”
LANDING THE BIG ONE
Anglers can relate to the feeling the U.S. team has been experiencing during the past few years — there have been a few bites, but up until last season, they had yet to set anything on the hook.
Then they shocked the world, taking second at the World Fly Fishing Championships in Bosnia one year ago. It was the U.S. team’s first podium in history.
“We felt that we were always right there with a few fifth place finishes over the last few years, but we put it together in Bosnia and made it work,” said Bishop. “Now we’re hoping to repeat.”
This year’s World Fly Fishing Championships begin Sept. 11, returning to the U.S. after nearly two decades. The venue is “Vail,” which really means Eagle County, with the anglers fishing different “beats,” or randomly drawn sections of the Eagle River, the Colorado River, Sylvan Lake and the Blue River.
Bishop says drawing a beat is a little like being dealt a poker hand.
“You have to play your hand better than the other guy does, even if it’s not a winning hand,” he said. “Sometimes you get a beat that isn’t as good as the beat next to it — there aren’t as many fish there — and you really have to catch every one. Then when we get a good beat, we have to capitalize.”
With Sylvan Lake in the mix, Buchner says one of the historically weaker elements of U.S. fishing will be in play.
“Lake fishing in this country can be excellent, but most of our anglers that were looking to get on the team were not lake anglers, they were river anglers,” Buchner said. “So we had to proceed to become better lake anglers. It’s not a simple thing, where you learn one technique. You learn everything you possibly can, so hopefully you have enough arrows in your quiver to be able to solve the problems in different situations.”
A RIVER OF EXPECTATIONS
After shocking the world and taking second to the Spanish team at the last World Fly Fishing Championships, the U.S. team is expected to perform well on their home waters next month.
“I think the second-place finish elevated the expectations a bit,” Bishop said. “The expectation from the Europeans is that we’re going to be one of the teams to beat, if not the top team to beat, but we know that these guys are very good fishermen, and they’re coming to some very good waters, so it’s going to be a pretty equitable distribution of fishing opportunities.”
The true winner will be the American fans of the sport, who will get to see 400 of the best fly-fishermen in the world ply their craft on the local waters.
“If I were a guy or a girl who loves to fish, I would want to go just to see the French, the Italians, Spanish, the Czech, see how they do it,” Bishop said. “They’re amazing anglers, and this is an opportunity to see them which might not come along again for a while.”