- A layman's view.
Competitive fly fishing has always been a bit of foreign concept for me. I’ve always thought the idea behind fly fishing was to relax; the idea of doing it competitively sort of negated that for me.
So imagine my surprise when I was asked to come do some competitive fly fishing. My first reaction was to kick my heels into the proverbial ground as it were, and resist vehemently, which I did for months. But then one day, I thought the whole idea of me comp fishing might make for a good story, a bit of fly fishing journalism if you will. A bit of ‘under cover' fly fishing with van der Spuy.
I had heard some horrible stories about comp fly fishing. Comp fisherman , I was led to believe, were ego tripping, number hungry, woolly bugger-stripping, non moralistic piscatorial thugs!
Why would one want to associate with these horrible people, other than for a good story of course.
So there I found myself fishing for team Limpopo. I had MC’d the junior nationals there the year before. Junior Comp fishing looked like fun, the kids were competitive' but the spirit behind the whole thing was one of fellowship , support and an intense love for matters piscatorial. The seniors, I was led to believe, were where things got heated up.
Click in images to enlarge
Master of Ceremonies - Junior Nationals
So a few months later, I found myself fishing in the 2015 Western Cape senior Nationals. I didn’t really care about winning or anything like that, I was out to fish and just enjoy it. I found the initial atmosphere at the Du Kloof lodge to be very social, not unlike a fly-fishing festival mind you. A sort of reunion atmosphere filled the room. This had me perplexed, where were the piscatorial Goons I’d been warned against?
Hell, these guys were very friendly. Sure ,they were there to compete, but I sensed a great love for fly fishing. What most surprised me was how diverse the spectrum of competitors was; you had youngsters still in school, you had pensioners, you had fathers, mothers, yip, lady competitors at the 2015 men's nationals! I don’t think things get more inclusive than that from a sporting perspective. Mind you, the president of SAFFA is a lovely, bubbly motherly woman named Cheryl Heyns. These guys were flipping progressive I thought to myself.
So just to fill you in. The competition was structured in the following way. 10 provincial teams of five anglers each. Anglers are divided into groups, so in a group you’ll have one angler per team. A group consists of 10 anglers. This group will then fish what they call a sector, a stretch of river typically divided into 10 mini beats. Beats are typically about 80 meters long. You have 3 hours on your beat. 5 sessions on various sectors are fished during the competition including two stillwater sectors.
I hope this makes sense!
Our rivers were low. Typical van der Spuy! Lives in the Cape but fishes for the most Northern province in the country. Go figure! The rains that were supposed to arrive never came, fish were nervous and highly unforgiving. If you weren’t a technically good fisherman you were gone!
Gordon creeping a Cape stream. (Tom Sutcliffe photo)
My first session was nerve wracking. my marshal ( the guy who makes sure we all stick to the rules and each angler has one) was a little guy who was afraid of water. I subsequently had rustling sounds coming from the bankside vegetation at regular intervals with this guy trying to navigate through dense riverine vegetation. Very off putting initially, but eventually I realised that this little guy was just afraid so I sat him down on a rock and told him that I’d never let him drown. I’d piggy back him through deep sections. All he had to do was chill on a rock until I caught a fish. I’d then bring the fish to him. This settled the little guy and after that I was fishing to the soundtrack of the Cape fynbos, just the way I dig it!
Gordon rewarded by a nice take!
That first session was touch and go stuff. The fish were extremely skittish and in the smooth, laminar stuff, you almost didn’t stand a chance. Fish can see you from miles away in that kind of water. One had to be creative and use any cover possible. Eventually I managed my first fish 2 hours into the session. I caught her in the tail of a small pool. I netted her , handed her to my rock bound marshal and I was off the mark. I hadn’t blanked. Blanking is what you don’t want in a session. Points are scored according to the number and size of fish you catch but more importantly consistency is the name of the game. You have to catch fish in each session to do well. Five minutes before the end of the session I took another fish. To my surprise that put me in 3rd place for the session. First place was taken by Jacque Marais who caught 3 fish. And this was on the Elandspad, the river known in the Cape for easy fish!! We were in deep trouble!
Well, as it turned out, everyone, barring the guys fishing the lake sectors had had a rough first session. Session two in the afternoon was no different, although truth be told I dropped 7 fish and managed to actually get one in the net 3 minutes before the end of my session. The fish on the lower Smalblaar sector were huge with 40 cm fish being common. Those guys on 8X were challenging. But, at least I didn’t blank.
I think I ended in 14th place overall for the end of day 1. I was surprised because I expected to choke. I’ve never rated myself as much of a fisherman. I simply don’t fish enough. Some of these guys fish weekly, and multiple times for some of them!
Photo per Dries de Bruyn
The next day our group was on the lake. Lakenvlei in Ceres is simply put, idyllic. I was sharing the boat with Richard Gorlei, a competitor from Natal, a lovely guy. Him and I fished like we were old fishing pals. I shook his hand before the session, “ Richard, howzit bru, listen, I don’t care much for winning this thing, but I would like our boat to win the session so bru, we really need to work like a team here, I believe in an open box policy. You can fish with any of my flies!”
I could see this shocked Richard slightly. After all this is a competition. I just figured if you can’t out fish a guy on your own flies then he deserves to win!
I net a fish alongside Jaques Marais (Photo per Dries de Bruyn)
I wasn’t precious about it. Richard and I had a great session, a hatch of mayflies graced us with their presence 10 minutes in and we were off to a flying start. We were taking fish on a small nymph fished with a moderate figure of 8 retrieve deep down. Surprisingly odd, considering all the action on top, but that is what worked initially. Later an ant hatch came off and fish started feeding on these aggressively. We changed to floating lines and dries but to no avail, we were getting refusals and plenty of them. Eventually I stuck on a massive white marabou streamer and pulled it through those fish like I was fishing for Leeries. You’d see the bow wave of the fish following the fly. The fish would explode onto the fly, mouth agape like a Great White. This method was effective but I lost plenty of fish doing this. I was stripping at warp speed, they were chowing like sharks. The inevitable happened and of the 10 I hooked doing this I only landed 3. A very bad hit rate. I have since learnt a rather cool trick to prevent snaps offs.
That’s the thing about comp angling, you learn a lot doing it. You are fishing with some really great fisherman and you get to actually see them in action when you share a boat with them.
And no, it's not all about French nymphing or stripping back blobs at warp speed. You actually need to be able to adapt. After 5 sessions the sectors have been fished by so many people, to get a fish at all takes a bit of doing ,especially on the rivers.
I had my chance in the last session, hooked a fish well, but it came undone somehow. That was the only fish I saw. I left her for a while and came back later, I rose her for the second time but this time I actually messed it up totally. The pressure had gotten to me. I knew I had blown it. In the end I had blanked. That fish would‘ve put me in the top 10 overall for the competition. In the end I ended 19th. I had learnt a lot, about a lot.
Evenings had been spent talking fishing and tying and having a few ales with fellow competitors. Truth be told, I reckon the quickest way to learn is to actually fish competitively. I walked in as a critic and walked out pleasantly surprised. The whole experience had been refreshingly unlike what I had expected it to be. The comp angling fraternity are a family. Sure there are some irritating members in the family, like in any family. Social fishing is no different, actually. You will always get that candidate who has an ego the size of a blimp! That’s just people for you. You can’t blame comp angling for one guy's bad attitude now , can you?
Similarly you can’t blame all fly fishermen for a single person's actions. Generalising is a very dangerous thing to be doing. I had been guilty of it, but realised the error of my ways. In the final analysis we all just dig fishing. Everyone I met at nationals were dyed in the wool feather addicts of the first order. Progressive ones at that. Most of what we do nowadays in social fishing is directly obtained from what competition anglers are doing. They are simply at the forefront of fly fishing development. Competition in anything does that. To grow something one does need some form of competition. It needn’t be a negative thing. I think we need to realise that comp angling is very necessary for the growth and development of our sport. I think of all the junior fisherman. It's really a great way to keep the children entertained and stimulated. Much better than having them rot their brains out on X BOX all day. Fishing gets them in nature and keep them fit and Fresh! Klaar.
So before you judge, give peace a chance! I think we need to embrace comp angling as opposed to kicking against it. This notion that comp anglers can’t relax is just rubbish. Fish with guys like Nick van Rensburg, Keith Falconer, Matty Rich, Craig Richardson and you’ll have firsthand experience in seeing relaxation personified.