Mountain anglers gain toehold in national fly fishing scene
Like New York is known for its basketball legends, and Texas is known for its football stars, Western North Carolina has become one the big names in a slightly less conspicuous sport: competitive fly fishing.
Fly fishing was long dominated by the western territory of the Rockies and Sierras. But the sport has seen a shift in both interest and talent to the Southeast — and specifically the Smokies.
North Carolina’s competitive fly-fishing team has been the country’s top team for two years running. In individual competition, the Smokies can claim a share of high-ranking anglers.
“The North Carolina team works as feeder team for the national team,” said Paul Bourcq, a competitive fly fisherman who lives in Franklin.
Around here, fishermen never know who they might encounter on a stream — given that a handful of the top anglers in the country can call each other up and be on the same water in about an hour’s time.
“In the Southeast, it’s a close-knit group,” Bourcq said.
They certainly have an advantage when it comes to practicing and keeping their game up. While the fabled trout fishing rivers out West are covered in snow for months every winter, the Southeast is fishable year round.
Bourcq, 28, began fishing competitively several years ago. He worked his way up through the tournament standings to make the Team USA roster for the first time last year. But at 28 years old, his competitive fly fishing aspirations don’t stop there.
This year, he hopes to land a spot on the national team in the World Fly Fishing Competition — the sport’s equivalent of the Olympics or the World Cup. After finishing second in a regional qualifier in Brevard last month, a strong finish at nationals this fall will put him in the running.
Bourcq is one of many Smoky Mountain fly fishermen to land spots on the USA national fly-fishing team — Eddie Pinkston from Asheville, Josh Stephens from Robbinsville, Bourcq from Franklin and Chris Lee from Bryson City can claim the title as well.
Stephens, 35, has seen the most success on the competitive circuit — twice placing among the top three fly fishermen in the United States and landing a top 20 finish at one world championship. (He’s been to five worlds.)
From little fish to big fish
But anglers from the Southeast didn’t always have a chance.
When Stephens first entered the sport of competitive fly fishing, he said it was hard to find any clear path of ascension. Back in the mid-2000s, Team USA Fly Fishing was comprised of an inside group of acquaintances.
If you knew about the team and you had the resources to support your fishing habit, you had a chance of making the roster and traveling to international tournaments. If not, then you were probably out of luck.
“If you didn’t know somebody who was in it, you probably wouldn’t know about it,” Stephens said.
The fisherman in these competitive fly-fishing circles tended to be from out West. Stephens, one of the first to make it from WNC, stumbled on the opportunity by chance while competing in a casting competition in Salt Lake City. There he met the head coach of the national fly fishing team and was asked to try out for it.
He made the team in 2005, but nonetheless started to push for changes on how members were picked. He was convinced that without a systematic approach to drawing talent from across the country, the team’s chance of ever being a serious player on the world stage was compromised.
“Back in the day, it was comprised of a bunch of men who could afford to go to Slovakia for a few weeks,” Stephens said. “And we got our asses beat left and right.”
Over the next few years a series of regional tournaments were organized — in North Carolina, New York and other states throughout the nation — plus sundry local competitions. The local tournaments kept anglers in competitive form and built training partnerships while the open regional qualifiers provided a clear path to make the national team. The competitive N.C. Fly Fishing Team was born as well, serving as a spring board to bring together the top fly fishermen from the region.
More fishermen from the Southeast began to trickle onto the national scene, about 30 years after the national fly-fishing team had been conceived.
“Then you started seeing more guys from the East Coast,” Stephens said.
Although today’s Team USA is still largely comprised of western fisherman, it’s not uncommon to see anglers on the team from states such as North Carolina, which currently has two, and Pennsylvania, which has one.
There may be another shift on the competitive fly-fishing scene, except, this time, it’s not geographic, it’s generational. After years on the professional, competitive fly-fishing circuit, Stephens feels his own priorities changing. His motivation is dwindling a bit — particularly given the travel expense of competing in so many tournaments.
Furthermore, with his first baby on the way in May, Stephens expects things to change.
“That’s going to reprioritize things for a bit,” he said. “It will cut into the fishing time.”
In the near future, Stephens may find himself off the nation’s competitive team, for the first time since making Team USA in 2005.
It already happened to one top, local angler. Chris Lee, 38, made the U.S. team in 2011, but then lost his spot, following a difficult divorce and a poor season that chipped away at his qualifying chances. Despite competing in 14 tournaments in 2012, from Oregon to Georgia, Lee said he is not bent on reclaiming his spot on Team USA.
“If it happens, it happens,” Lee said. “I’m not really hung up on chasing it anymore.”
Casting a wide net
These days, Lee, Stephens and Bourcq are more interested in passing the pole to the next generation. All three are coaches of the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team.
“It’s a young man’s sport,” Lee said. “Most of the top rods in the world are younger.”
Team USA Fly Fishing has never medaled as a team at an international tournament. But the youth team, under the guidance of WNC anglers, won the youth world championships in Italy in 2011 and came in second in France last year.
Taking children at a young age and training them for competitive fly fishing is what many European national teams have done, so by the time they are in their 20s or 30s the young anglers have had years of competitive experience.
Stephens predicted that as this batch of youth fly fisherman reach maturity, the competitive fly fishing scene in the States is in for a rude awakening.
“In four to five years, the competition level for the U.S. team will be outrageous,”
The next crop of young competitors may secure the Southeast’s stake in the sport.
Three out of the five anglers on the youth team going to the world championship in Ireland are from Georgia and North Carolina.
As the head coach, Bourcq has gotten some flack for picking so many anglers from his neck of the woods. But the close proximity of the coaches and many of the youth anglers has given them the advantage of training together over the weekends — last week, the team gathered to practice lake fly fishing in Jackson County. Moreover, the temperate climate in the Southeast allows the team to train year-round.
“I don’t waver,” Bourcq said. “I pick who can win championships.”
Meet the Smokies’ current fly fishing greats
While competitive fly fishing essentially comes down to who catches the most, biggest fish, the ways to win and roads to success are very different for each angler. The Smoky Mountain News checked with some of the top fly fisherman and asked them how they got there and what their secrets are. You don’t have to go far either, these fisherman have all competed at the highest level of competition, on the country’s national team, and represented Western North Carolina while doing it.
Josh Stephens, 35
When not fishing: owns an erosion control and dumpster business. Used to be a fishing and rafting guide and once worked for the N.C. Wildlife Commission.
WNC connection: Born in Sylva, lives in Robbinsville. Also a graduate of Western Carolina University.
How he started fishing: While working as a rafting guide during the summers of his college years, Stephens was looking for ways to pass the time after the rafting runs in the Nantahala Gorge ended in the early afternoon. Watching fish surface to eat bugs on the river inspired him to try fly fishing. After that it was history.
“I realized I just couldn’t stop fishing,” Stephens said.
How he became competitive: While representing an outfitters lodge at an outdoor expo in California, Stephens entered a fly casting competition. His cast of more than 100 feet won him first place and qualified him for a casting tournament in Salt Lake City. There he met the coach of Team USA Fly Fishing and was asked to try out. He made the team in 2005.
Key to competition success: Stephens said the key to a good tournament finish is in the small details and preparation, making sure your hooks aren’t rusty, your knots are tied right and your waders don’t leak. He said so much as a crumpled sock in his boot can throw his game off.
“You have to make sure all your gear is in line,” Stephens said. “If I have a wrinkled sock or something feels weird in my boot I’ll take it all off. Over hours it will either wear a blister or start to hurt.”
Philosophy on eating fish: “I think fish tastes nasty,” he said. “I don’t like how it tastes. I just like to catch them. Just a big old game is what it is.”
Paul Bourcq, 28
When not fishing: Works as sales and marketing director for outdoor production company based out of Canada. Also guides fishing trips and previously was a town of Franklin police officer.
WNC connection: lives in Franklin. Attended Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University.
How he started fishing: Born in New Orleans, Bourcq has memories of fishing that go way back. He started out spin fishing on the southern rivers and bayous for catfish with chicken livers wrapped in pantyhose to keep the bait in a tight ball. However, he didn’t start trout fishing until he moved to the mountains at the age of seven and became a self-taught trout fisherman.
“I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t fish,” he said.
How he became competitive: After being given direction from a local Franklin fly fishing guide, Bourcq participated in his first competition at the age of 21 and took second place.
He first made the North Carolina fly fishing team when he was 23 and Team USA Fly Fishing in 2012.
Key to competition success: Bourcq said he learned how to win by approaching other successful fisherman at tournaments and asking them what their secrets were.
“I just kind of walked up to guys and asked them ‘how did you do that?’” Bourcq said. “Typically, in tournaments, most people shy away from that stuff. I didn’t shy away from it, I asked them. Sometimes they don’t tell me, but I always asked.”
Philosophy on eating fish: Bourcq said he likes to eat fish once a year or so, but not necessarily the type he’s known for catching.
“I love fish, obviously being from New Orleans,” Bourcq said. “But if I’m going to eat fish I’d rather eat fried catfish than gutted trout. I look at them more as business partners and don’t really want to eat them.”
Chris Lee, 38
When not fishing: works as a civil engineer specializing in bridges and tunnels for the N.C. Department of Transportation. Also guides fishing trips for a local outfitter.
WNC connection:Lives in Bryson City and is a graduate of Western Carolina University.
How he started fishing: Lee grew on Deep Creek road and was raised fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His stepfather first taught him to fly fish at 10 years old and the two still go fishing together.
How he became competitive: At the behest of a high school buddy, Lee participated in his first fly fishing competition at the age of 30 at an Outdoor Style Network hosted Southeast regional fly-fishing tournament in Georgia. He came in second place, but unfortunately didn’t win any money.
“I didn’t get a penny out of it,” Lee said of a lesson about competitive fly fishing that stuck with him the rest of his career. “That’s what I’ve learned since then, it’s not for the money.”
After the tournament, Lee joined the N.C. Fly Fishing Team and later made Team USA Fly Fishing in 2011.
Key to competition success: Lee said the secret to catching fish in a tournament is understanding them and then making adjusting to changes such as depth and food preference, on the fly.
“The biggest key is adapting to the conditions,” Lee said. “The conditions are changing constantly — the fish are always doing something different.”
Philosophy on eating fish: Although Lee said he thinks about fish everyday, he doesn’t necessarily want to eat it very often. In fact, he only eats trout twice a year when he goes on backpacking trips in the Smokies.
“I will catch a limit of trout and fry them,” Lee said. “That’s the only time I care to eat them — it’s one of those things.”