Competition fishing: a road to fishing better

Imagine arriving at the turnstile of a Kiewa River caravan park at dawn on a Saturday. At the carpark are 10 four-wheel drives with ‘Fly Fish Australia’ stickers on the windscreens. Flyfishers have rigged up and gone ahead of you on a stretch of water that can only be described as a raging torrent. There is thunder rolling into the valley. Rain is falling thickly. Yet you cannot drive on, you simply must fish this spot at this time. Welcome to the conditions that competition fishing can serve up.

It all started a fortnight before that. Over a dinner, Tom Jarman kindly alerted me that I had recently qualified to fish in Masters Competitions, having reached the ripe old age of 50 (thanks Tom!); and secondly, he told me about a State competition being held on the rivers around Bright. I had never thought to join a competition but as it happened, I had planned to be in Bright that weekend anyway, as a base from which to hike up and fish some remote streams. Being quite curious and eager to learn some new tricks from experienced anglers, I changed my plans and signed up for the competition the next day.

Looking through my washed-out windscreen at the Kiewa, I wondered if fishing a gently-flowing alpine stream all by myself might have been a much better option! Still, it was time to step up to the plate.

I rigged up three rods. The first was a bamboo with a large stonefly for fishing the slow pockets. Then a Czech nymph rod to do the bulk of the fishing; and lastly, a fast 6 weight with a short, fat line and a large streamer to swing the final minutes if needed. Was I overthinking this? I would normally never rig up three rods: mostly one, maybe with a spare in the pack. I got some comments too about being ‘courageous’ to fish bamboo in a competition. Apparently, when the last person did that, colour TV hadn’t been invented! Yet I wanted to fish what I would normally fish, and I’d made myself a commitment that I also wanted to have some fun.

In this competition, every angler was paired up with another angler for the day. We fished 2 sessions of 2 hours in the morning, and another 2 x 2 hours after lunch. We had to go to designated beats which were randomly assigned. One session you fish, one session you are the controller to measure the fish of your partner and keep a scoresheet. Trout had to be over 16cm to count, and there were some bonus points for each centimetre exceeding that length.

Being the controller is where the real learning happens. It offered me a great view of the styles of fellow anglers. Seeing their rod setups, the way they wade and the choice of water they fish – and to what depth. It was a really good way to expand my thinking on how to fish better. 

On my first-ever beat in a competition, I tried way too hard. My Czech system went into a spasm on the third cast, and I had to untangle and re-rig the outfit entirely. Arrgh! Feeling so time-pressured was a new thing for me on a river. The last occasion I had this feeling, I was sitting an exam and got this tinge in my lower back when I realised I was running out of time to answer all the questions in the booklet. Was I still having fun?!

I ended that first beat with only one fish. While I didn’t blank, having fished that exact beat before on past ‘recreational’ visits, with much better results, I felt a sense of disappointment.

Time to regroup! The other sessions on the Kiewa, and then the Ovens River the next day, went progressively (if marginally) better. So, here’s what I learnt after 2 days of ‘comp’ fishing.

 1:  In day-to-day fishing, choosing where to fish is very important to success.

What I mean by this is, if I compare the ‘comp’ day to a ‘normal’ day’s fishing in the north-east, I catch about 2 to 3 times the number of trout that I caught during the comp. It proves the fact that choosing where to fish wisely, can be a big factor in determining success. For example, had I not been fishing the competition, I would have been hiking up those headwaters somewhere. The river there would have been easier to fish, and being much less pressured, a higher catch rate would probably have followed (if my years of experience up there was anything to go by). Actually, comparing records, it would have been about 2.5 times better in terms of fish in the net. This proves the value of reading a map, and choosing where to go based on the conditions.

2: For me, flyfishing is more than catching fish.

Of course this is only true once you reach a level of competency where, according to David Scholes, “the fly fisher has at least a brace in the bag.” Once you are able to scratch up a few fish, it occurs to me that I enjoy catching the harder to reach (and often bigger) fish. Those 16cm fish counted in the comp, but they hardly count on your own day out, do they? After one particular session, I felt entirely satisfied with my fishing. I landed ‘only’ a few fish, but one was a 33cm brown caught flipping the Czech rig under a low overhanging branch. And another one, much larger, proved to be holding in an exceptionally difficult spot to cast to. When the tenth drift suddenly came up tight, I thought I was snagged. A big head suddenly appeared amongst the bubbles, and after a strong tussle in that raging water, the trout came off. This meant no ‘points’ for that fish, yet I had thoroughly enjoyed finding, technically presenting, hooking and playing it.

 3: Even heavily-fished water can yield good trout.

On the last beat on the last day, I knew three other highly-competent flyfishers had combed the water before me. During ‘regular’ fishing, this would have been the time to pack up and move to new and less-fished water. But as a comp fisher, all I could do was change my approach. For example, more time was spent on the deepest pools. Fish do migrate through a river system, so there was always the chance a fresh trout has moved into your run at the right time. Or, a fish might have been spooked when an earlier fisher hooked another one. It’s quite random, and persistence paid off, especially being creative with fly choices and choosing what water to fish. I was controller for Kieran O’Regan, who caught a couple of cracking trout on his last beat. This proved that whilst it’s challenge, even the hardest-fished water in the north-east can still yield good fish.

Kieran O’Regan with a 36cm rainbow.

 4: I did learn new techniques to improve my catch rate

Most of us look at the scoresheet and consider guys like Tom Jarman to be these flyfishing Übermensch. They can pull fish from beats where other mortals fail! Time to learn. Everyone will have a different thing to work on to make that next small improvement to their catch-rate. Do you know what yours is? If you don’t, you probably should. And everyone I spoke to (including even Tom, who won the comp) still miss fish. In my case, I learnt that I need to change my hook-set to a more vigorous ‘whack!’ on the Czech rod. I had lost too many fish after feeling a few gentle tugs on the nymph and being too soft in response. I knew that before the comp; yet, as a controller, I now saw with my own eyes how effective a vigorous and well-aimed hook-set can be. I can’t wait to build that improvement into my fishing style.

Competition fishing is a great way to meet some highly-experienced anglers and watch them hard at work. It is also a social event where you can meet some great people and see some young and rising talent in action. A big shout-out here to the O’Regan brothers. They were new to comp fishing like me, and both did very well.

For me, it was two days of quite intense fishing, plus learning the new language of beats, finding your beat markers and the importance of starting on time (or not, and suffering the consequences as I did on one session), and all the various rules and regulations that come with fishing in a comp. When my schedule next intersects with a comp, I’ll sign up to see who’s there, what I can share and what I can learn. Check out the Fly Fish Australia website for the competition event schedule (river or lake). I might see you there.