Matt Dickerson: Fishing competition spawns innovation

It was his first experience competing in the Pro Fly Angling Tour and Middlebury’s Jesse Haller was pumped up. Too pumped, in fact. He hooked and landed a fish on his very first cast. It was a 12-inch trout. Since the fish, even from a distance, was visibly within the 6-inch to 16-inch scoring range, Jesse was not required to have it measured. But in his excitement he ran up the bank to have his score verified anyway. When the scorer pointed out that a measurement was not required, Jesse was flustered that he’d wasted precious time. Anxious to get back to casting, he ran back down toward the river, tripped over his fly line, and broke it.
Fortunately, his rod caddy Dave Konopke (of Ripton) had another ready. After untangling himself, Jesse grabbed the new rod, and on his first cast with that the new one — his second overall cast of the tournament — he hooked a second fish! But his adrenaline was still pumping too hard and he failed to land the fish.
Started by the former team captain of the U.S fly-fishing team, the Pro Fly Angling Tour was in its inaugural season. Jesse, who had received the requisite nomination to be accepted on the tour, had gone to the Truckee River near Reno for the “rookie camp” where he would learn the unique format of this new competition. The rivers are divided into “beats” of 50 to 80 yards, with two competitors fishing the same beat at any given time from opposite sides. On alternating beats, competitors are given first choice of where to fish, and they must then keep a minimum of 40 feet away from other competitors and not cast their flies within 20 feet.
However if you leave your spot — even just to have a fish measured — the other angler can step in. They have only 20 minutes to fish each beat, then five minutes to move to the next beat, with half the competitors rotating upriver and the other half downriver so that those sharing the same beat continually change. Rod caddies are allowed (fortunately for Jesse, as it turned out), as are weights, strike indicators and the use of multiple flies. However all flies must be barbless and all fish fair hooked (not snagged). Fish under 6 inches are worth a half a point, fish in the 6-to-16-inch range are worth two, those in the 16-to-20-inch range are worth four, 20-to-24-inch trout earn six points, 24-to-30-inch monsters garner eight, and trophies over 30 inches earn 10.
Scorers watch from far enough off the river to avoid interference. When competitors land and hold up a fish, the scorers indicate the tally. However, if an angler believes his or her fish is large enough to qualify for the next point range, they can bring it up for a measurement, though it will cost valuable time. Thus good judgment is needed to avoid wasting fishing time. So is athleticism; the event is fast-paced with anglers at least once having to run three quarters of a mile from the top beat to the bottom in five minutes.
After his rookie camp, Jesse competed in two events. The first was the qualifying event on the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, Colo. — a state where Jesse had spent much of his life fishing and professionally guiding. And despite his blunder in the opening moments, he did quite well. Indeed, the fact that he hooked two fish on his first two casts was more indicative of how he would perform than the broken line or the loss of his second fish. He did well enough to be one of 24 qualifiers for the championship round on the Conejos River back in Colorado near the town of Antonito. There he would compete for a $20,000 prize in front of a crew of cameramen and video drones.
Prior to 2014, Haller had never competed in a professional fly-fishing tour. His competitive fly-fishing experience was limited to the annual Otter Creek Classic competition that he himself founded on the local rivers of Addison County. But for most anglers, getting the feet wet is just a precursor to plunging into the river. And the Pro Fly Angling Tour was not the only tour Jesse would enter in his first season as a professional. He also began competition to earn himself one of 15 two-year positions on Fly Fishing Team U.S.A. He has competed in two regional qualifying events already: a two-day event nearby at Lake Placid where he took 10th place overall, and another regional event at Evergreen, Colo. Since scores from three regional events are accepted, he expects to compete in at least one more qualifier. But based on his current standing, he has an excellent chance to make the team.
The investment in these two tours was not trivial. Over the past two months, he has spent 28 days on the road in Colorado.
“My wife, Kate, has been a champion,” he explains, “taking care of our two young daughters while I’ve been away.”
Also, the fly-fishing industry has not yet fully embraced competitive fly fishing, and so sponsorship opportunities are rare. He has had some sponsorship, but much has been funded from his own pocket.
So what motivated him to take up this competition? Several things.
“I’ve always enjoyed competition,” he explains. “It pushes me to be the best I can. I thrive under pressure. It’s why I played sports in high school.”
This year, for example, he was fishing against the Finnish national fly-fishing champion, a couple members of the U.S. team, and some very talented members of the youth team. He also likes that these events brings people together in a spirit of competition. Some of the competitors are tight-lipped, but others are happy to share their thoughts and ideas, and new friendships are often formed.
He also finds that the competition has made him a better guide, and also a better and more knowledgeable manager of the fly-fishing department at the Middlebury Mountaineer, where he works.
“I learned through these competitions how better to fish in tough places, persevere, stay focused, succeed in heavily fished waters,” he explains. As he learned from his mistake after that first fish, “focus is really, really important.” He also comments that competition breeds innovation, and helps him seek better solutions. Though it hasn’t changed his overall demeanor as a guide, or diminished his love of being on the water, he looks at local rivers of Vermont more carefully now because competition has trained him to do that.
Watching other competitors, and being forced to excel, has also enabled him to see new trends, new equipment and new approaches while at the same time simplifying his approach where possible. (He keeps only about eight to 10 patterns of flies now.)
“I was watching and fishing with — and against — some of the best fly-fishers in the world,” he explains.
You learn a lot watching experts like that. For example, he has learned how to be much more versatile with his tight-line nymphing, a general approach that includes the strategy known as Czech nymphing.
“There are certain water types where tight-line nymphing is 200 percent to 300 percent better,” he says.
Haller has even learned some new placements of indicator and sighters that allows more versatility with a certain rig. And he has learned about, and become enamored with, a new style of jig hook with a slotted tungsten bead that keeps a hook riding upward allowing more contact with the bottom. He ties nearly all his nymph patterns on these hooks now.
Though Haller entered both these tours as one of the least experienced competitive anglers, he has done quite well. He not only qualified for nationals at the Pro Fly Angling Tour, but he ended up placing 12th out of 24 at the event. And his dream of making the Fly Fishing Team U.S.A. is within reach. Given how modest his expectations were based on his lack of experience, and how well he actually did, Jesse Haller considers his first season a success. But he is definitely glad to be home for a while.

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