By Julie Ball
As a teenager, Josh Stephens worked summers as a rafting guide on the Nantahala River. He’d watch as trout came up on the water to eat flies.
Then a friend, David Woody, introduced him to fly-fishing. That was it for Stephens. He was hooked. He began fishing practically every day, spending hours on local rivers.
He packed his bags and moved to Wyoming and Yellowstone to fish.
Stephens, who moved back to Western North Carolina in 2007, is now a member of Fly-Fishing Team USA and one of the country’s top competitive fly-fishermen.
He and Woody recently took the top spot and $5,000 in prize money at the Rumble in the Rhododendron fly-fishing tournament held in Cherokee.
Both Woody and Stephens also will travel to Pennsylvania for a national competition later this month.
“A good competition is when you get really, really good anglers. And you get a place that’s got a mix of venues. You’ve got venues that are going to produce major numbers, and you’ve got venues that humble people to no end,” Stephens said.
Learning to fish
Woody, 48, of Andrews, began fly-fishing long before it gained popularity.
“Back 24 or 25 years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of information on fly-fishing,” he said.
Woody taught himself to fly-fish, starting out with cheap rods and flies.
“It’s a real thinking man’s sport. You are always learning. It’s always challenging to figure the fish out,” Woody said.
Woody knew Stephens’ dad because they both worked for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
“He [Woody] would take me rabbit hunting on Saturday,” Stephens said. “He introduced me to the fly-fishing part when I was about 17.”
Stephens, who is now 32, took part in a distance casting competition while out west and won it. That began his involvement in competitive fly-fishing.
In 2005, Stephens made Fly-Fishing Team USA. He has competed in national and international events. His most recent international competition took place in Scotland.
Rumble in the Rhododendron
It took a wildcard to get Stephens and Woody into the final round of the recent Rumble in the Rhododendron fly-fishing the tournament. But they ended up beating out 21 other teams to take first place in tournament, which is in its second year.
The event, which was held in Cherokee late last month, consisted of two days of competition. It was organized by the North Carolina Fly-Fishing Team and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Fisheries and Wildlife Management.
The Sportsman’s Channel show, “Fly Rod Chronicles with Curtis Flemming” also filmed the event for one of its shows.
The first day of the competition, anglers competed in several casting events that measure accuracy and distance.
“They had to go through a casting course, and they were scored on their accuracy,” said Christopher Lee, member of the North Carolina Fly-Fishing Team.
The top 15 teams advanced to the second day of the competition when anglers actually hit the water.
Each team chose a section of water known as a “beat” to fish.
“Then they were allowed to go fish on their beat for two hours,” Lee said. “The rule was you could only score five fish.”
The fish were measured for length, and the six teams with the highest scores moved on to the final round.
Stephens and Woody drew the wilcard, which allowed them to advance.
An important part of competitive fly-fishing is picking the right stretch of river to fish.
“An experienced fly-fisherman is going to be able to read the water,” Lee said.
He or she might look for rocks in the water that would provide good hiding places for fish or a good cover of vegetation over the stream, which provides ample bug life for the fish.
These tournaments are getting more popular as interest in competitive fly-fishing grows.
It is extremely popular in Europe, and Europeans tend to dominate the international competition, according to Stephens.
In the U.S. the sport began in the west, but it has spread east and into Western North Carolina.
The North Carolina Fly-Fishing Team got its start several years ago.
“The N.C. Fly-Fishing Team is a group of anglers that came together about three years ago to develop our skills as competitive fly-fishermen,” Lee said. “I see a lot of interest in it, and I think we have some very talented anglers in this area. We’ve got so much trout water here. You’ve got a lot of opportunity to get out on the water to practice.”
Lee and Bryson City angler Paul Colcord will also be traveling to Pennsylvania for the national competition.
Stephens said he’s noticed the local competition is getting better.
“The competitive side of it is really just kind of hitting this part of the country a little harder,” he said.
But not everyone likes the idea of competitive fly-fishing.
Some more traditional fly-fishermen haven’t warmed to the competition.
“Fly-fishing has always been about getting rid of stress. Competitive fly-fishing seems to be about putting the stress back in it,” Lee said of one of the complaints about the competition.
But Stephens and Woody say it’s a great way to improve fly-fishing skills, and they predict it will continue to grow in popularity.