Competitive Fly Fishing and the Notion of What’s “Proper”

Fly Fishing Team USA took bronze at the 2106 World Championships in Vail.
Photo via

Our colleague Jesse Haller–the guy in charge of flies and accessories–is a pretty active competition fly fisherman, and he’s good at it. When a group from Orvis goes out on the river and only one guy catches a trout, it’s usually Jesse. In fact, he’s been teaching some of the guys in the office about tightline nymphing, a technique developed by European competitive anglers, and I’ve asked him to do a Facebook Live about it in the near future.

This got me thinking about my own experiences with competitive angling, which calls into sharp relief different ideas of what constitutes “proper” fly fishing. I recall a couple of experiences that have shaped my thinking on the subject.

I met Jay Buchner for the first time during the 2000 World Fly Fishing Championships in southwestern England. I was there to cover the event for American Angler, and Jay was a longstanding member of Fly Fishing Team USA. Over the course of the next couple of years, I ran into Jay and his wife, Kathy—who is also an accomplished angler—at trade shows and the like, and when I visited his hometown of Jackson, Wyoming, Jay took me to the Gros Ventre River north of town.

The fishing was pretty lousy on the river that day, so I had the opportunity to watch Jay try several different tactics and techniques to draw a strike. By the end of the afternoon, he had tied on an extremely large, heavy stonefly nymph. Rather than cast normally, he stood on a rock and directed the fly nearly straight downward into the main current, so the weighted nymph smacked hard against the surface. The obvious goal was to get the fly through the surface tension as quickly as possible so it would sink faster. Sure enough, Jay caught a whitefish and a cutthroat in rapid succession.

Does this qualify as a fly?
Photo via

Jay’s technique was ungainly and featured none of the grace or elegance normally associated with fly fishing, but it worked when nothing else did. Although many American fly fishermen scoff at the idea of competitive angling, Jay’s training for the World Championships had obviously taught him how to do whatever was necessary to get the job done, regardless of how that fit into any one notion of “correct” fly fishing. When you’re trying to score points against the best anglers on the planet, you don’t want to worry about whether or not the Style Police are watching.

This issue of what constitutes “correct” fly fishing comes up fairly frequently in the fly-fishing press and online world. If I use a jig, am I fly fishing? If I use a pegged bead, am I fly fishing? Etc. etc. etc. Questions of orthodoxy and correctness often come into conflict with what many anglers see as the main goal: to catch fish.

Years ago, I met a man with a different approach when I guided at Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge in Paradise Valley, Montana. He was in his early 80s, and on our first day together, he explained that he’d been fly-fishing for his entire life and that in his declining years he had no intention of throwing anything but dry flies. “I realize that this means I might not catch any fish,” he said, “but it’s what I like to do.” If he wasn’t going to hold me liable for any lack of success, I was fine with that. He was an angler who knew what was important to him.

The world of fly fishing is vast enough to accommodate both these views—as well as all those in between. Although tempers can flare, debates about style, correctness, and ethics are good for the sport because they ask each one of us to examine our own opinions, biases, and prejudices. And that kind of examination leads us closer to an understanding of why we participate in this maddening pursuit.

Do you believe that there is a right way and wrong way to fly-fish? If so, where do you draw the lines?

43 thoughts on “Competitive Fly Fishing and the Notion of What’s “Proper””

  1. oh great… I can picture it now… guys pulling tournament permits on my favorite rivers with 20 – 30 guys lined up fly fishing competively… Crossing lines with kids who are trying to get a trout with their dads. Don’t believe me? Go to a sparkle boat competition. I’ve seen 200 hp boats cut off kids in canoes to get to “their” spot that they staked out 3 days before.

    I don’t like the idea of Competitive fly fishing one bit. Leave it to the cheat sticks and coffee grinders.

    1. If this was true of Competitive fly fishing then I would agree with you. This simply isn’t true when it comes to competitive fly fishing. The unfortunate association of comp FF with events like bassmaster tournaments is sad. Fortunately though comp FF is nothing like those events. Boats are not used in any river competition, and in lake comps they are all paddle or kick powered craft. (Float tube, single man pontoon, and in a few cases drift style boats).

      In a comp there is no such thing as “their” spot. The stretch of water is split out into beats, during a given session in one day comp you will have only comp fisherman on that stretch of water. Conduit like cutting into where others are fishing are not only discouraged but is grounds of being disqualified on the grounds of unsportsman like conduct. Most of the competitions that I have fished in consist of less then 20 anglers, who are spread out over several miles of river. From an environmental stand point the impact is less then a group of 3-4 anglers going to fish one pool. For the comps we practice catch and release with there being penalties for the mishandling of fish. Some people believe that it turns the sport into nothing but chasing after points. For some it might have, personally I have found my skill as an angler have grown since starting into competitive fly fishing. Most of the guys I fish with, we do it because enjoy fly fishing and this has helped us to grown in the sport.

      Shakeyfly, I would encourage you to come out to a competition and see what it is really all about. Depending on the rivers you fish there is a chance that you have seen one in action and didn’t know. It may not change your opinion of competition fly fishing, but it will be eye opening at the least.

  2. As a fly fisherman who regularly uses strike indicators (bobbers), split shot, tippet rings, and micro swivels, I have no problem with his approach. Thanks for sharing the tactic. I may give it a try! 🙂

    1. The tactic outlined above sounds like a tuck cast combined with the tighline nymphing. It is very effective when fishing a dry dropper type rig, particularly when using a lightly weighted fly. It works for just about any rig, when you make the cast stop it a little short of where you normally would end. If done correctly it will swing the rig around and cause the nymph to hit hard enough to break through the surface film.

  3. Like Shakey, I’m less concerned with technique, etc and more concerned that we’ll have the equivalent of bass boats roaring around our rivers – drift boats racing from select spot to select spot, pickets of wading competitors hoarding the sweet spots – competing for the finite space on our rivers and the precious fish within. That said, if this attracts more anglers and results in a healthier industry, can that be bad in the long run? I think not.

    1. It is obvious that neither Steve Z or Shakey have actually witnessed an organized international style FF Comp before. Anglers are limited to specific “beats” (assigned by random draw) and only have a finite amount of time to fish within that confined area…there are no “racing” boats or people casting across lines. I recently attended a comp in NY and the competitors were some of the nicest and most involved anglers I’ve met in the sport. They pick up trash on the beats they fish, help fish and game with fish surveys, and donate their time and money to fishing related causes. I would STRONGLY recommend people go see one of these tournaments so they can form an educated opinion as to what they really are like…you will most likely come away pleasantly surprised.

      1. So you’re on my river on a given day fishing a tournament. You pick a beat. I’m fishing there. How’s that work? In places where waters are privately owned this may work but most places, waters are public.

        1. Great question Steve! Part of the competition rules state that the general public has every right to be fishing anyplace they like. Beats are established in advance (usually weeks ahead of time) and organizers try to publicize them so people are aware that they will be used in the competition. If an angler shows up to a beat and there is somebody already there, then the angler must respectfully work around them (no different than another recreational angler showing up at a particular pool). Most competitions are held in the “off seasons” when there aren’t as many anglers on the water, and organizers intentionally stay away from popular or highly pressured sections of water…these guys would like to fish on their own too! Beats are actually very short, and don’t take up much space on the river…a charity One Fly Contest of about 10 people would probably have a much bigger impact on your fishing than a FIPS Comp with 30 anglers!

          1. The tournament participants announce they will be on any given stretch ahead of time? Can I put MY reservations in for a pool I want to fish during next years Hendrickson hatch?

    2. The precious fish you seek to stick sharp hooks into and drag out if their homes so you can get a rush of adrenaline for being a man and seeing a pretty fish? Those precious fish you seek to abuse for your pleasure? Puhleaz.

      At least competitive fishing is honest in its intentions. If you care so much for the fish why are you fishing? Honestly?

      1. I really do not like this argument

        Fly fishers and the industry as a whole probably do more in a year to aid conservation and protection of fisheries than the average arm chair animal rights activist ever does.

        Everglades in trouble? The Fly Fishing Community was leading the charge to make positive change
        Pebble Mine? Same thing
        The list goes on

        Ever heard of Trout Unlimited? They restore miles of habitat every year, and organize cleanups, where no rods are in hand, just trash bags.
        How about Bonefish Tarpon Trust? Fly Fishermen are actively assisting scientists in understanding these animals better and improving their habitat so it can be there for generations

        Not to mention that many of us participate in creel surveys to help our local DNRs manage waterways better, and are part of watershed conservation groups to help protect watersheds that may otherwise be neglected or exploited. Heck even a lot of the gear we buy (and we buy a lot) directly leads to funding conservation efforts.

  4. I’ve only ever met one member of the US Fly Fishing Team. He was a heck of a nice guy and one heck of a fly fisherman. Based on that, I won’t talk too much smack. I’m not a real big fan of competitive fishing, but if they stay on private water (i.e. water that I can’t fish anyway), I’m not bothered in the least.

  5. I’ve been fly fishing for over 20 years. I’ve fished in one manner or another since I was a old enough to walk. I am intrigued with Tenkara style of fishing but have not tried it yet. It seems like a fascinating way to fish. Love to try it some time.

  6. Objectively speaking fly fishing couldn’t be simpler (see reply by Al Alborn). However there is a variety of techniques and attitudes that exist but why loose your peace over them? (maybe easier said than done). And with regards to fly fishing without a reel – they’re made of lovely shiny metal, how could you resist?!

  7. Matt N has done a very good job explaining competitive fly fishing and the impact on local anglers
    I once had to fish a beat where gear guys had “staked a claim” (i find the majority of gear guys rarely move, if at all) along the main stem and I had to adapt and fish the slackwater, which is not my strong suite and I managed to get 3 fish.

    And if I am fly fishing and someone else comes in above, then I refer back to river etiquette of cast 2 step 2 downstream. If we are moving towards each other then I just go until I get somewhat close to him and then peel off to go below, allowing him to fish that water.

    Also competitive fly fishing helps expose new techniques that add to the arsenal should fish be lock jawed. One such style is European style Nymphing, with a further break down into French, Spanish, Czech, and Polish. The primary purpose is to break down a river into “microclimates” by systematically drifting a nymph through each area, working upstream.

  8. Difference in opinion is good. I personally don’t like the idea of competitive fly fishing, nothing against those that do, but I think it reduces fish to points on a scorecard and gives the impression that fly fishing is highly competitive and all about catching the most fish. Lets just leave competitive fishing to the bass crowd and keep things the way they are.

  9. Why? Why can’t people just go fishing to go fishing? Why does it have to be competitive? Keeping score has no place in fly fishing. If you want to compete and keep score, play tennis, or baseball, or golf, or soccer, or some score-keeping competive sport. Shoot clays. Leave fly fishing the “quiet sport” it should be. Hell, go get a spiral-wrapped bass rocket and compete away.

  10. Personally I feel the whole notion of a “right’ vs. “wrong” way of fly fishing is ultimately destructive to our sport. The number of fly fishers has declined over the years, and as we lose participants we also lose important voices who stick up for our resources and the sport itself. We see public access dwindling, rivers being abused by industrial and agricultural practices, and an aging demographic that leaves our political clout (and the future of our sport) in question. While I believe well thought out discussion is a good thing, I cringe at the knee jerk prejudices I’ve seen in the industry over the years (dry fly fishermen looking down on nymphers, trout anglers looking down on warmwater fly fishers, bamboo purists looking down on people who fish graphite, etc.). Orvis has recently been pushing fly fishing for carp in a number of ways, and while some people turn their noses up at the idea I have never been happier with Orvis. The sooner we stop focusing on our differences (and judging fly anglers based on the way they fish), and realize we are all in the same boat the better. Warmwater, saltwater, competitors, dry fly afficianados, nymphers…we all care about the same resource and should stick together. Like I’ve always told people; “fish how you want to fish” and don’t spend so much time worrying about “the other guy”.

    1. While I often hear about how fly fishing is in a big decline I just don’t see it that way, I could be wrong but the overall number of fly fishermen seems like it is fairly constant. As far as this effecting the future of our sport in a negative manner I’m just not seeing that either, as organizations like Trout Unlimited are as strong as ever and I can tell you from first hand experience that fly fishing is a very receptive activity to youth and if there is an interest in a young person they will get plenty of support. For the point of competitive fly fishing itself I think it can be done and not be an issue for anyone. I believe its already being done at the international level and I haven’t found many people that have an issue with it as it currently is being done. However I think what is causing the negative reaction to this new push for competition is the scale of it and people looking at the bass tournament circles and simply not wanting that type of thing in fly fishing. I personally believe that some things should just not be competitive and that fly fishing is one of those things. Good take on the issue though, I always enjoy a well thought out response from the other side of an issue.

      1. Great response Adam. Although we have differing opinions on the competition angle I can totally respect your position. Unfortunately recent trade information numbers say that fly fishing numbers are in a steady (not big) decline, and although TU and other admirable organizations have done a better job of being more visible they have had to work harder for their voices to be heard and to get people’s attention. Competition aside, my comment was primarily a call for fly fishermen of all kinds to set aside their differences and realize that despite minor differences of opinion we all want the same thing. You know the saying: “United we stand…”

  11. “…to do whatever was necessary to get the job done”; and therein lies the problem. This isn’t war it’s fishing.

    If you are not casting a fly line, you are not fly fishing. You are using a fly rod for something else. Fly fishing is about the process, not the product.

    I have no fundamental problem with properly run tournaments that take all precaution and care toward the resource. In the end it’s the fishermen who are hurt anyway, not the resource. Just don’t call it fly fishing when your leader never leaves your reel and the weight of heavy flies is needed to make a cast. Call it something else.

  12. From an aesthetic perspective, “competitive fly fishing” strikes me as a paradoxical concept. That’s my personal opinion and I understand that any individual take on fly fishing is not the same as everyone else’s, however, I do believe that most fly fishermen would agree with that aesthetic – that competing with other people while fly fishing removes the most enjoyable aspects of being out on the water for the day. I go out for the serenity, a sort of masculine meditation with nature, mixed with the occasional adrenaline and excitement of a tug and the sight of a beautiful wild creature. Some laughs and whiskey and friends make for a great day. I don’t believe competitive fly fishing will do much to help the sport. Most men who want to pursue competition in their free time would get far more satisfaction in other places. I just can’t see it becoming popular, and personally hope it doesn’t because if flyfishermen are declining in numbers, I would rather see the decline than have them replaced by a new generation fixated on numbers. Which speaks to the fact that I’d rather see wild fisheries restored and conserved in a sustainable way rather than see more stocking programs on put and take streams due to increased licensing revenues.
    It’s odd to say that one way is more “right”, that after having caught and released a few good fish on a given day I’m pretty satisfied to not fish too hard. Is catching 20 trout and releasing them really better for fish populations than catching 3 and keeping one?
    It’s a pretty complex issue here. Ultimately though, if enough people want to do it, I believe they have every right to. In this case, I think the free market will play itself out and competitive fly fishing will only ever have a tiny niche in the fishing industry.

  13. No matter what flies or techniques of presentation that they use in these competitions, it is still a competition for catching maximum numbers of fish. Groups of people, fishing with an unusual kind of intensity, with the aim of polishing their egos. What could go wrong? This means maximum pressure, impact and stress on the fish. And this also means a higher rate of mortality among these numbers of fish that are released. This is hardly an appropriate conservation minded fly fishing model for people to follow. At best it is the bland leading the bland.

  14. As a guy that has fished some comps Id like to offer “the other side of the coin” and paraphrase a fellow competitor and guide whom Ill leave un named. I have spent a large portion of my life guiding for trout. In hindsight, its much harder on fish populations then competing. When clients (especially novices) are late on hooksets or foul hook fish it is much harder on them. Further, when clients want pictures of the fish they paid >$350 a day to catch they want pictures….often squeezing fish and dropping them. I think we could all agree at the very least that it hurts fish. The utopian concept that non competitive anglers are out there for the respect, love, solitude is fine. We all are, but does each angler “compete” against one fish then go home?

    I am 100% ok with people not liking competition. A vast misunderstanding has created some very strong feelings against it. I too was leary of it when i first heard of it. But in hindsight my hesitation was founded in mis information and a general lack of understanding of what exactly went on. Many competitors I know started as judges at comps and once they tried it they enjoyed the learning and the platform to increase their skill with other fly fishing enthusiasts.

    When we get down to it, we as anglers should admit that we are exploiting other living beings for reasons that include ego, challenge, adrenaline, intellectual, spiritual, and most overlooked….. money. Especially fly shop owners, manufacturers and guides. Everything we buy, everything we do is to be bette more skilled anglers and to catch more fish. I dont know a fly fisherman in the world that wants to not catch fish. Every fisherman puts an animals well being on the line to pursue his passion for whatever reason.

    Agreeing to disagree is perfectly ok, but fishing in competition means short 3 hour sessions, with barbless hooks, and releasing all fish un harmed. I much better option then ripping lips with barbed hooks and laying fish all over the place for pictures. Will I stop competing one day…..absolutely….will I stop fishing…..absolutely not.

    This issue is terribly complex. Im certain that changing how somebody feels about something is the hardest thing to do in the world. But we owe it to the fish we pursue to see it from both sides of the fence.

  15. Competitive fly fishing is for some and not for others and I think all parties here agree with that but what baffles me is the techniques employed by these comp anglers are something that all anglers can benefit from as they are taking the norm and figuring out how to perfect them. I think we all want to be better anglers and taking the time to study these methods will drastically improve your fly fishing skills if you are willing to learn!! If not, then this will be a quiet sport!!!

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  17. Well, the “see how many fish I can catch, bobber folks,” almost screwed up the North Umpqua in Oregon (Fish and Game stepped in), and have screwed up the Grand Ronde in Washington, by standing in the middle of the best runs all day so all could admire their impressive catching skills. The “competitive” crowd might catch fish, but they completely miss 99% of what fly fishing is all about. Since 1948; please go away and leave my waters to those with a functioning brain.

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  19. I draw the line at peggin beads. I’ll even tolerate scent on nymphs if it puts a fish in the net, but beads? NEVER.

  20. “The world of fly fishing is vast enough to accommodate both these views”
    I’m 63 and have fly fished since 10. I’m also a bass fisherman, fly-spin-baitcast. I won’t use this limited space to expound on why I fish at all, here’s my point, relative to the quote above from the article: I don’t care about the “world” of fly fishing. I don’t care whether it is or is not “vast enough.” I don’t need someone else’s sanctimonious blessing on my equipment, techniques, or attitude. I do what I do and I figure the “world” of fly fishing will take care of itself – please consult me not on anything. When it becomes illegal I’ll do something else.
    I’m glad I have a local fly shop to go to. I enjoy fly tying. I’m blessed to be surrounded by an industry, and without it there wouldn’t be fly shops and cool toys and laws and game and fish depts. to manage and protect fisheries.
    My hot button with the “world” of fly fishing is hit when someone tries to tell me what’s proper. Proper … now there’s a concept and an interesting word. I’m on the stream, fella, to be left alone and I’ll insist that you respect that. I’ve been catching fish for decades on the nymphs and dries I tie and along comes some “pro” tyer to tell me my proportions are wrong, I’m using the wrong this or the wrong that? I am open to new methods and materials when I ask, to satisfy my own curiosity, and I am most intolerant of unsolicited intrusion in the name of some commonly accepted standard for fly fishing that is the result of mass worship of a few pioneers or the latest guru of the fly fishing art. As far as I allow others to intrude is that I abide by generally accepted stream etiquette since that prevents me from intruding on someone else. Even then, I don’t argue if another fisherman wants more than I think the etiquette allows, I just move farther away, more than happy to get as far away from the curmudgeon as possible.
    What does this have to do with comp fishing? I am hoping that the comp aspect of this sport (which is an art form to me, not sport) doesn’t create a genre, or breed of people that infects my experience/love of it – local Trout Unlimited chapter or fly tying swap club to the extent that I cannot suffer. It is a rare place that one can exercise creativity bounded only by one’s own imagination, then test that creativity personally, just me, my creations, and nature. If someone asks me if a fly tie is right, I just tell them go fish it and tell me what your experience of that was. This isn’t building a house to code, this is your personal domain. FFF does not own you.
    We have casting certifications, FFF even has certifications for levels of fly tying proficiency. I tied commercially for years and I’ll be dad-gummed if anyone is ever to ask me to “certify” before they accept my skill or that I might have something to say.
    I just hope the comp aspect doesn’t contribute to the pollution of a wonderful passion.

  21. Personally I think competitions are the antithesis of what fly fishing is about but to each his or her own so long as you are not negatively impacting others or more importantly the resource.

  22. Its amazing how far off some of you are about your image of competitive fly fishing.
    Its nothing like some of you think it is.
    Its just one guy per beat, and a controller, fly fishing. Thats it. No hustle and bustle of boats. No ignorant etiquette. Just a guy fishing for points instead of just for fun.
    No one is racing to any spots, it is literally just one guy per stretch with his controller fly fishing, and instead of releasing fish or taking a picture, his controller measures the fish then its released. Nothing fancy, nothing crazy, its just fly fishing with rules and bragging rights.

    Some of you need to know more about what your talking about before bad mouthing comp fishing or assuming things.
    Grown men shouldn’t assume with no facts, some of you should be ashamed of yourselves for being the stereotypical high and mighty fly fisherman with “impeccable” ideals and philosophies, bad mouthing anything other than fishing a dry fly. Its embarrassing.

  23. Reading through these comments has been really interesting, but as a fairly new Fly Fisher I find it disquieting how many people seem to vehemently disagree with each other. I’m going to try to address a few things I’ve read.
    First off, conservation wise, technically speaking, when you go out and catch fish, that’s bad for the trout population, but in reality, fly fishing isn’t about just catching fish, it’s about appreciating the natural resources we have, and that’s why we are one of the leading forces in the conservation movement. For me, it’s not the fight of the fish that’s the funnest part, it’s the satisfaction that my knowledge was enough to land that fish, and through that knowledge, I’ve learned more about the fish, their lives, and why we need to protect them.
    Second, what is “proper”. I say, whatever you like doing. As long as it’s ethical and legal, I see no reason to get angry about what other people are fishing with and how they’re doing it. Another thing fly fishing is NOT about is performing the purist methods of old. We’d still be fishing with plant fiber lines and bone hooks if that were the case. I fly fish because it’s fun for me, and whatever your idea of fun is, whether it’s fly fishing or spin fishing or something else crazy, go ahead! Have fun! I don’t think any of us are fishing solely because we want to conserve trout.
    Finally, competition fishing. Again, have fun! These competitions hurt no one, the fish least of all, and are just another way of experiencing the sport. I’ve never been in one, but I highly doubt that from what I’ve seen and heard the anglers feel the fish are “numbers on a chart”.
    As a final word, I really think that, as has been said, fly fishers need to stick together, not argue over these little things, to protect our natural resources. Even though we’re not exactly helping the fish every time we hook one, if we weren’t going out there and fishing, and having fun, we wouldn’t care about whether or not trout, or any species of fish for that matter, were being protected.

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