If you visited the Vail area during the week of Aug. 10, it might have appeared like any other day in the Colorado high-country. Driving west on I-70 along the Eagle River, anglers could be seen casting upstream, their silhouettes reflecting off the water. However, if you made it closer to the river, the usual hoots and hollers from fly fisherman sounded slightly different as they hooked up with fish; Spanish, French, Polish and Czech languages echoed downstream. More than 200 anglers ages 14 to 18 from 10 countries came to Colorado for the World Youth Fly Fishing Championship. Both Eagle and Summit counties served as venues, with competitors fishing the Colorado River, Blue River, Eagle River, Sylvan Lake State Park and Dillon Reservoir.
“It’s amazing,” said Joseph Speirs from Team Ireland of his first visit fishing the U.S. “The altitude gets to me a wee bit though.”
To get to the competition, the young anglers made their way up national rankings at local and regional events to earn a spot on their country’s team. Many of the national programs fund and sponsor the teens’ trips.
The first World Fly Fishing Championship was held in 1981 in Luxembourg. While competitive fly fishing has remained fairly obscure in the states, abroad it’s become quite popular. Ireland, for example, has close to 600 young adults in its program.
Europe’s infatuation with the sport has made its mark on the competition. Competitors on the river won’t be seen making giant false casts, as seen in many iconic shots on the cover of fly-fishing magazines. Instead, many use a European style called “Czech Nymphing;” a method developed by competitive anglers from the Czech Republic in the 1980s. Czech Nymphing is about short-distance fishing, keeping much of the line out of the water. Two or three flies of varying weights are used, presenting flies at different sections of the water column. Czech Nymphing equipment can vary, but many of the competitors use long, lighter-weight rods with small lines (almost invisible to spectators from afar). This lighter equipment gives angler’s increased control and feel; an advantage when every nibble counts.
Scoring a fly-fishing championship can be a fairly complicated process. However, the name of the game for competitors is to catch the most fish. All fish are measured for length and returned to the water unharmed. Competitors earn 100 points per fish and 20 points per centimeter for the length of each fish. Fish are required to be 20 centimeters in length (about 8 inches). Rules are organized by the international organization FIPS Mouche (an abbreviation of “Fédération Internationale de Peche Sportive Mouche,” in English, the “International fly-fishing Federation”). Fish are required to be caught cleanly, without snagging.
“In the U.S., we love competition,” explained event organizer John Knight. “Bringing competition into fly fishing helps promote it and brings camaraderie.”
Despite competitive fly fishing’s obscurity in the U.S., Team USA’s youth program was a heavy favorite as the defending two-time world champion; they’ve won three of the last four. Building on that legacy, Team USA caught a total of 285 fish, edging Poland and the Czech Republic for this year’s championship. Hunter Hoffler of Team USA received the gold medal, catching a total of 67 fish. Four of the 10 top individual spots were taken by Team USA.
“We follow the Olympic creed and ideals. It’s medals and trophies only. There’s no money here,” said Knight.
The World Youth Fly Fishing Championship is about medals, trophies — and fish. More than 1,800 fish were caught (and released) by the nine teams over the course of the tournament. The largest fish, caught by Kacper Rudzki of Poland, measured in at 61 cm (about 24 inches).
For many of these anglers, fishing in Colorado is a dream come true. Colorado’s stunning scenery, wildlife and trout habitat are second to none. The chance of catching wild trout, an opportunity not had in many of their home countries, made the championship particularly special.
If watching and learning from some of the best competitive fly fisherman in the world interests you, you’re in luck. Next year the men’s world championship will come to Vail Sept. 11-18, this time with 25 to 30 teams, with the possibility of more.
“We enjoy the camaraderie and the people we’ve met,” said Knight. “We’ve made friends in all these countries, and the common link is fly fishing.”
Story by Mike DelliVeneri. DelliVeneri is the digital marketing specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.