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On Competitive Fishing...

By The Fly Fish Ohio Curmudgeon-in-Residence

The opinions of the Fly Fish Ohio Curmudgeon do not reflect the position of the Fly Fish Ohio web site or team.  These are the ramblings of a so-far unidentified feather flinger who occasionally slips an article under the door jam when we're not looking.

"I have opinions of my own -- strong opinions -- but I don't always agree with them."
George Bush (1924 - )


As I recall, it was in the early 1970’s when I took my wife and my canoe and headed to lake Cumberland, Kentucky for a long weekend of camping and fishing. We made camp by the mouth of a creek on the lake (for the unfamiliar, the mouth of a creek on lake Cumberland can be as much as ½ mile across). Early the next morning there was a slight fog on the lake, but the water was as smooth as glass. We quickly ate, launched the canoe, and started paddling across the creek. About half way across, I suddenly heard a low buzzing sound coming from the State Park Dock, about a mile up the creek. I don’t know why, but I looked at my watch and it was exactly 8 o’clock. As we paddled the buzzing got louder, and before long, the buzzing became a low roar and I could make out something churning up the water on the horizon. We stopped paddling and just watched until I realized we were looking at a herd of wild bass boats hurtling at us at some incredible speed. I turned the canoe around and yelled PADDLE! This so impressed my wife that she has retold this story numerous times at various dinner parties in the 35 or so years since. Anyway, we scrambled like hell and barely made it back to shore before a line of bass boats reaching from shore to shore came roaring by producing a wake that would have sent our canoe airborne. 

I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that was the day I decided to hang up my spinning and casting gear and switch to my fly tackle full time. To be honest, I was leaning in that direction anyway as my 10 tray tackle box was becoming a real chore to lug around, and the thought of replacing all that hardware with an ounce or two of flies that you carried in your vest was a no brainer. I had actually heard of bass tournaments with cash prizes a year or two earlier, and the whole idea seemed pretty foreign and bizarre to me. To quote James R. Babb, “let’s not forget that unintentionally hilarious cross between stock-car racing and professional wrestling, the televised bass-fishing tournament”. I myself had a friend in my fly fishing club who also belonged to a bass fishing club and who occasionally entered their tournaments with a fly rod for the hell of it. I often joked that his bass club was like a motorcycle club on the water. In those early days, who had the fastest bass boat seemed to matter more than who caught the most fish, so the comparison was not that far off. 

 In my view of the way things are (should be), fishing and competition don’t go together. Probably 98% of all sports that provide recreation for the masses involve hitting a ball of some sort, and competition is necessary to give these activities some sense of purpose. When fishing, the competition should be between you and the fish, with the possible exception of the guy in the other end of the bass boat. 

All this would be hilarious except for the fact that this competition thing is creeping in to fly fishing, and trout fishing at that! This makes even less sense than it does for tournament bass fishing, as the thing that every fly fisherman prays for as he approaches the water is that he will find it deserted and have the place to him self. He doesn’t look for other fly fishermen to compete with; he avoids them like the plague! Since fly fishing is basically a solitary sport (“you go upstream and I’ll go down”), there are not even any witnesses to judge who wins and who loses. Even if there were judges around to verify your catch, they would only be able to tally the size and numbers of fish caught. In the sport of fly fishing as I practice it, a 10” wild trout caught in a difficult lie when multiple hatches of flies are coming off making it difficult to determine what the trout are feeding on, is worth a dozen 16” hatchery fish caught fishing blind with a nymph. 

The thing that really makes my brain boil is the fact that there are fishing guides, outfitters, fly shop owners, tackle manufacturers, etc. who are actually promoting fly fishing tournaments. I know they are trying to increase their income, and I suppose there are those who believe that the way to save and protect our sport is to advertise so as to get more people involved. The assumption then must be that the masses whom we are trying to attract only understand competition when it comes to sports. I see it differently. Fly fishing is a short term escape from a modern lifestyle filled with competition. If you have to turn fly fishing into a competitive spectator sport to attract new blood, you are destroying what you sought to preserve in the first place. You end up with techniques like Czech nymphing designed to maximize your catch in the shortest time possible being used in rivers packed with hatchery trout for the purpose of getting good footage for the Outdoor channel while concealing from the public that this is a sport that can actually be a lot of fun. Let’s be honest, watching other people compete in a fly fishing tournament is about as exciting as watching shooters compete in a high power rifle match. For everyone other than the guy looking down the rifle barrel, it’s like watching paint dry! 

Another down side to competition is that it tends to bring out the dark side in some fly fishermen. I am talking about lying here, and not the type of lying that turns a 9 incher into a 10 incher, but the kind that turns a total catch of “zip” into a dozen or so good ones! I don’t know why some guys feel the need to lie about fishing (you’d have to ask Sigmund Freud about that), but I do know that to most of us they are a total pain in the ass to be around! I most often fish for trout and like to compare notes with other guys at the end of the day to see what hatches came off, and when, where, and in what types of cover the fish were holding. You might then adjust your technique the next day based on the experience of others. Imagine how tiresome it is to waste precious time on the water fishing in the wrong place with the wrong fly because of someone’s imaginary experience from the previous day. The good news is that after fishing with someone a few times you can quickly learn who has an ego that is bigger than his “you-know-what”.

I hope I haven’t given the reader the impression that I don’t like any competitive sports. To the contrary, I love football, baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis, golf, cricket, lawn bowling, speed eating, and any other sport that keeps sports fans glued to their television sets and off the trout streams! May I suggest that if you feel an overwhelming desire to prove you are better than everyone else in something, go out and beat the hell out of the ball of your choice. If unfortunately, you desire to combine your competitive urges with the sport of fishing, please just grab a few “crank baits”, hop in your bass boat, and go catch a bunch of nice feeesh!

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