Within a year, he was on the North Carolina Fly Fishing Team, one of the top state teams in the country, touring the TroutLegend circuit from Pennsylvania to New York to Colorado and plenty of other states too. The team routinely wins the national championship, keeping up the trend with a clean sweep of the medal stand at the 2014 competition.
On that top team, Bradley is a top contender. He should have “been a write-in” for Rookie of the Year in 2013, the TroutLegend website said, but had amassed just a little too much competition experience to qualify for the award. But in 2014, he went on the competitive circuit once again and took home the title of 2014 Trout Legend League Champion.
Bradley isn’t apt to tell you the tale in those terms, though. He’s a lot more humble about his success.
“It still surprises me,” he said. “I won the Casting For Hope [competition in April], and I didn’t expect to. A lot of times if you look at your draw sheet, who’s going to be fishing in your group, you can tell how well you’re going to do. I didn’t think I was going to win it.”
In that competition, Bradley caught a total of 146 fish, winning a $1,000 check that he donated back to the organization, which provides financial assistance to Western North Carolina women living with ovarian and gynecological cancers.
The whole process of competition was a challenge to figure out at first, a difficulty level perhaps on par with that of learning how to fish in the first place. In a fly fishing competition, anglers are divided into groups of six or so, with each group fishing about four sections of a river for 1.5 to three hours each. The competitors get fish points for each fish caught, with larger fish earning more points. Then, at the end of each section, each competitor gets placing points depending on their rank within the group. The highest score gets one point, the second-highest score gets two, and so on.
At the end of the competition, placing points are added and the lowest scorer wins. Ties are broken based on fish points.
“It took me about four tournaments to figure it out,” Bradley said of the scoring system.
Obviously, he has.
All the competition has proven tiring to Bradley, though. Now a full-time guide and salesman at Rivers Edge Outfitters in his native Cherokee, he’s hoping to stay around home a little more, keeping his competitions more clustered around the United States Fly Fishing League events — yes, he’s on the national team too — which are less frequent. Last year, Bradley attended more than 20 fly fishing competitions, but the USA events are held only six to eight times a year.
“We were in Pennsylvania last weekend and it was snowing and my fingers were frozen,” he said. “I like it here. Everybody here is walking around in T-shirts and shorts.”
One of the best things about Western North Carolina, Bradley said, is that it’s got plenty of rivers and the weather to keep them open to anglers year-round.
“We’ve got, I feel like, one of the best rivers in the Southeast and as far as nationwide, it’s up there. It’s got to be,” Bradley said. “And we get to fish here for free, being enrolled [in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians].”
The accessibility of quality water has played a strong role in his success, Bradley said. He can step out his back door and throw a line in the water, and it takes just half an hour to get to his favorite trophy section of the Nantahala. He’s quick to give praise to his competitors in other states, like Georgia, who have a harder time getting the practice in.
“For them to not have as much water as I’ve got, they do really good,” he said.
And of course, Bradley is in the water pretty much all the time. Every day he’s fishing or tying flies or “doing something to make myself better.” It’s all about having the experience at hand to read the water.
But even with that every-day-on schedule, he said, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like being outside in the mountains where he grew up, connecting with the water and the organisms that live in it. One of his great joys is helping others do the same. The tribe sponsors his competitions, so in return he’ll help out where needed, recently showing up in the schools to do casting demonstrations with kids. He likes that. He also likes taking customers out on his guide trips and helping them find success in the water for the first time.
“I get paid for it, but seeing someone catch a fish on a fly rod and showing them is pretty cool,” he said. “It’s a lot cooler than winning a tournament.”
Not that he plans on quitting with the tournaments. He’s looking to slow down the schedule, but competitive success is still a goal. The next dream? Making the world team.
“They’re great fishermen,” Bradley said. “They’ve just been in the game a lot longer than me.”
Cast a line
The Casting for Hope Cherokee Classic will offer competitors a chance to fish a newly stocked trophy section of water and vie for a $3,000 top prize in a one-day competition Sunday, June 7.
The competition, presented by Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, will consist of two-man teams fishing four sections of water. The event will come the day after the museum’s grand opening June 6.
Casting for Hope is an Asheville-based organization that provides financial assistance to Western North Carolina women living with ovarian and gynecological cancers.
$200 entry fee per team with online sign-ups at www.castingforhope.org/casting-for-hope-cherokee-edition.