Watching the water: Top fly fisherman compete in Cherokee at U.S. Nationals
“The good ones always get wet.”
That, says Ben McFall, is how he tells a decent fly fisherman from a fantastic one.
McFall is a veteran fisherman and also a judge at the U.S. National Fly Fishing Championships, held this year from May 20-22 in Cherokee for the very first time.
Sitting on the bank, waiting for a competitor to haul in a trout, is where you can really tell the good from the great, he says — the great will swim, sprint or crawl through the rushing water, fish in hand, to reach the judge’s ruler before heading back out for another catch.
And milling around outside the Holiday Inn in Cherokee early on the morning of final competition, it’s easy to see what he means. The field for this competition is limited to 60, the top 10 from the country’s six regions. They’re a pretty athletic-looking crowd, but the more impressive display is the staggering array of gear. There are nets and rods and reels, of course, but also insanely complex carrying cases, neoprene suits, shirts with neck gaskets favored by elite whitewater kayakers, and are those knee pads? What does a fly fisherman do with knee pads?
Tucker Horne is one competitor who’s jumped on the gear bandwagon. When he qualified for the nationals, he was so thrilled he found it impossible not to gear up. He had to be ready for such a prestigious event.
Horne is a recent college graduate, picking up a bachelor’s in journalism from Western Carolina University just a few short days ago. He calls himself a retired college student. It sounds nicer than unemployed.
Horne is on what is officially known as Northeast Regional Team 2, a nod to the tournament he fished to qualify in State College, Pa., earlier this year. Having spent the last few years at WCU, he’s a regular in most of the waters being fished in the tournament, but none have been very kind to him this weekend.
The contest is split into five different sessions — two a day on Friday and Saturday and one on Sunday — and Horne has turned up little but what anglers call trash fish. In fly fishing, it’s only the trout that count for anything, and the scoring rewards quantity over inch count.
Each fish is worth 100 points, with 20 points tacked on for each centimeter.
Horne isn’t glum about his luck in the tourney, though. Perpetually jocular, he’s rosy-cheeked, bespectacled and what one tournament volunteer jokingly called ‘roomy.’ If the championships had a class clown, Tucker Horne would be it. And he’s thrilled to be competing in such a stacked field at all.
“I’m the worst of the best. It’s like, OK, I went to the Olympics. I’m not going to bitch about not getting a medal. And if Charlie Sheen is winning, then so am I,” he quips.
Competitors are broken into groups for the weekend, making the rounds to all five locations — the upper and lower sections of the Nantahala River, the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County, Cherokee Trophy Waters on the Raven’s Fork River and Calderwood Reservoir in east Tennessee.
This balmy Sunday, Horne and his 11 compatriots are on a bus, rumbling to the Upper Nantahala, to try their hand at the trout one last time.
Watching the water
Though on the surface it would seem otherwise, competitive fly-fishing can be an exhaustingly physical sport. Apart from the intensity of the catches and river fords that McFall mentioned, the format of the competition itself is fairly grueling.
Each session is three hours long, with a 45-minute window on the front end for competitors to scope out their section of lake or river. These sections are called beats, and they vary in size depending on the water. Here on the narrow, sinuous Upper Nantahala, they’re anywhere from 250 to 300 yards.
So hiking through 300 yards of rushing water, toting armloads of gear and trying to entice skittish trout can be a taxing experience.
That’s what Jenny Baldwin says is the most difficult thing about a high-level competition like this.
She, too, is angling the Upper Nantahala today, and she’s the only female competitor in the tournament.
“It’s exhausting,” says Baldwin. “The amount of focus it takes to try to fish every session excellently — well, by the end of three hours, you’re tired.”
Baldwin is Swedish, with the blond hair, blue eyes and tall frame to prove it. She moved stateside 14 years ago and now lives in Boulder, Co., where she’s a horse trainer.
And, she says, for purposes of full disclosure: this is her first fly-fishing tournament ever. Her boyfriend is a competitor, so when a member of their team dropped out and they couldn’t find a replacement, they called Baldwin into service instead of just taking zeros for every session with an open spot.
She’s no novice angler, though. She’s been fly fishing for 10 years, and fishing in some capacity for most of her life. She doesn’t know many other women in the sport, apart from her best friend. But she says they both love getting out on the river.
“It’s the only thing that makes time stand completely still,” says Baldwin.
But even if she didn’t qualify like the rest of the contenders, her presence is still notable. When the bus stops to pick up some competitors, a female judge — they’re called controllers — sticks her head on the bus to say she’d heard about Baldwin, and she’s so pleased there’s a woman in the ranks this year. She, herself, is a fly fisher.
And they’re becoming more common fixtures in the water, according to a survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation. It estimates that 35 percent of fly fishers are now women.
The competitive arena, though, is still dominated by men, and back on the river, the competition is pretty fierce. In fly-fishing, unlike other sports, there aren’t just the other players to beat, there’s the clock, the water, the fish and whoever else chooses to be in the water that day.
This particular morning is a sunny, warm May Sunday — in short, the perfect morning for anglers of all stripes to dust off their winterized rods and reels and head to the river. And while most will acquiesce and move to another slice of water when they hear a national competitor is wading in, some don’t. One local fisherman — improbably dressed in drenched cargo shorts, dress socks and loafers — spent most of the morning wandering the riverbank, apologizing to everyone he met for interrupting the competition. But another group of wizened elder Floridians met a controllers’ request that they move with a polite “good luck” and then kept on fishing.
Back at the second beat, Tucker Horne says it’s this uncertainty that he loves about fishing. And does he ever love fishing. Horne is from Davidson, and turned down lucrative scholarships elsewhere to come to WCU so he could fish in the plethora of renowned waters that dot the surrounding mountains.
“I mean, what makes it fun is that you’re also fishing against the fish. If the fish aren’t there, you’re not going to catch them,” says Horne. But what he and many others relish about being in such talented company is watching the real masters prove that adage wrong, pulling trout upon trout from seemingly fishless waters.
“It’s amazing to see a good fisherman,” says Horne. “Those people are just fishy. They just know where the fish are. They pay really explicit attention to detail — they can pick up on little stuff and then use it to their advantage.”
And in that way, fly-fishing for fun and fly-fishing to win are two quite disparate things, say most of the competitors and controllers. A real contender is there to read the water, to mentally navigate the current, watching the swirl of the surface, looking for pockets and deep holes and then working them methodically, pulling fish from each one. An amateur fisherman will chase a fish, says Ben McFall, while top-notch anglers pursue the water.
Devon Olson is one of those guys. He took home second place in the contest and has been on Team USA since before his 21st birthday. He’s a Utah native and in this trip on the Upper Nanty, he pulled a fish about every 7 minutes. So is Coloradan Chris Galvin, who finished the weekend in the top third. He says this level of love for fishing just isn’t teachable.
“Trying to explain why you like fishing is almost impossible,” says 41-year-old Galvin. “It’s like it’s genetic. I have the gene.”
But at the end of the day, all say it’s the camaraderie, not the accolades, that keep them coming back.
At the end of three hours, they strip off hip waders and slink from the mottled shadows and glittering surf of the river, sharing beers and swapping stories on the bus ride home.
Jenny Baldwin pulled in three fish. Devin Olsen caught about nine times more. And no one seems to care too much.
“We did a lot of tree rescues for my flies,” says Baldwin with an easy laugh. “I air launched a few, too.” Shouldn’t she get credit for those? she chuckles.
Of course there are fish stories — “man, he’s convincing sometimes when he’s lying,” said one angler, after another jokingly bragged of his 37-fish haul — but mostly there’s collegial friendship. And when they disembark and snap a final picture, the same sentiment is ubiquitous: we’ll have to do this again next year.