One of the reasons I love to fly-fish is the relaxing rhythm of the sport—the total removal, in place and purpose, from the stress and competition of work. So when I was invited to participate in the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) One-Fly contest last September, my first concern was that competing in the sport might nullify its healing powers. My second concern was that I wouldn't be as good as the other contestants. But the official literature for the contest insisted that this would be a different sort of competition: "While some fly fishermen may find the idea of competitive fly fishing repugnant and against what fly fishing is all about, let us point out that this is a friendly competition."
Friendly. I found that reassuring. And I admit I needed all the reassurance I could get; after agreeing to fish on one of the 36 teams in the One-Fly, all my insecurities about my fishing ability came roiling to the surface, like so many trout in a feeding frenzy. The so many trout that over the years had ignored my attempts to "match the hatch" of insects on the water with just the right artificial fly.
But in this event there would be no "matching the hatch." The great equalizer in the One-Fly is exactly that: one fly. Each angler is allowed one fly for each day of the two days of competition; the four anglers on each team do not have to use the same fly, but all 144 contestants face the same daunting problem. Once you have lost that fly, be it a Double Humpy, a Royal Wulff or a Madame X, to any obstacle, be it a tree, a rock or even a fish, you are out of the competition for the day. You may continue to fish, but the trout you catch won't count on your team's score, which is based on the number and size of the fish you hook.
There is not a fly-fisherman on earth who has not been humbled by a low-hanging branch or a submerged boulder. Depending on the difficulty of retrieval, an angler often chooses to snap off the fly and tie on a new one. In the One-Fly, however, contestants and their official guides will go to great lengths to retrieve that one precious fly. One of my guides, for example, brought along pruning shears and a saw, as well as a snorkel and mask. But more on that later.
The One-Fly is an invitational event put on annually by the One-Fly Foundation in Jackson, and it is designed to promote conservation projects, including catch-and-release fishing. The use of a barbless fly is encouraged, since it does less damage to the fish and speeds up the process of getting the fish back in the water. In the One-Fly any fish deemed mortally wounded by the judges results in penalty points for the contestant. I bring this up because it is crucial to the moral of our story.
I was invited to participate by the captain of our team, Silvio Calabi, the editor of Fly Rod and Reel magazine. He had put together a team of journalists (the Journos), but by the time contest day arrived, two members had dropped out. We filled in the blanks with two fishermen on the alternate list: David Kern, senior vice-president of Zebco Corp., which manufactures tackle in Tulsa; and John Garrison, a 36-year-old from Knoxville who introduced himself as a doctor and a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. At a Jackson Hole restaurant where the team gathered for a get-acquainted dinner, Garrison told me an intriguing story about working undercover for the Drug Enforcement Agency, work that had resulted, he said, in threats against his life. As we were leaving the restaurant, Calabi whispered to me, "I'll bet that there's more to this guy than meets the eye." Much more.
I had arrived in Jackson Hole two days before the competition. I first wanted to have a chance to fish for the native cutthroat trout without the pressure of cutthroat competition. And so I had a delightful day fishing on the meandering Snake River, learning the way the trout strike (fast, with no slack allowed in the line) and where they tend to feed (near the banks, naturally, under fly-eating trees). The weather was sunny and mild; the Grand Teton range, a dramatic backdrop. But the weather was about to change dramatically, dropping a curtain on those mountains and, for that matter, on the whole Jackson Hole valley.
At the cocktail party on the eve of the contest, weather was one of the main topics of conversation. If it rained, we wondered, would a wet fly, fished underneath the surface, work better than a dry fly fished on top? If it snowed, someone asked, as it had in 1988, would the fish be feeding at all? All around the room the fly question was being discussed in conspiratorial tones by the contestants, who included the governor of Wyoming, Mike Sullivan, and sportscaster Curt Gowdy. There was also some speculation about whether the rain would prevent actress Heather Thomas from fishing in a bathing suit this year (it would).
Scott Sanchez, a local flytier, was working the room, dispensing special-ordered flies from a small box. I was among those waiting to buy. I had ordered a couple of Royal Trudes, a fly that can be fished wet or dry. In a field of contestants that included expert guides from New Zealand and casting champion Joan Wulff, I figured I would need all the help I could get.
I awoke at six the next morning to the sound of rain. Groan. We all met at Nellie's, a local restaurant, for breakfast and pairing up with guides. Each guide was to act as judge (monitoring our flies and measuring our catch) and boatman for two contestants from different teams. We would fish from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a break for lunch, on various assigned stretches of the Snake. Before leaving for our assigned stretch, a local guide said to me, "Don't worry about which fly you choose. It's not the fly that counts; it's how it's fished." Little did he know he had sent my insecurities rocketing into the stratosphere.
My fishing partner that first day was Terry Collier, a professional fishing guide by trade, who hastened to assure me that he was "just here to have a good time." He did appear to be exceptionally relaxed about the whole thing. As we drove to our put-in point, Collier asked our guide, Bob Lowe, about a fly sitting on his dashboard, gathering dust. "Oh, that's a Letort Hopper with rubber legs," replied Lowe. Collier decided he liked the looks of it and would use it in the competition. After all my angst about which fly to use, this guy picks up an old fly off someone's dashboard! I concluded that there is probably a lot to this "it's not the fly but how you fish it" business.
As Lowe put the boat in the water, I tied on my trusty Trude with a knot of Gordian proportions. I used a 3X leader, one of the strongest available. No doubt the fish would see it attached to the fly and wouldn't be fooled for an instant, but I was taking no chances on losing my fly before noon. As luck would have it, I started out in the front of the boat (contest rules call for changing places at midday), where I would be the first to cast into good pools. As skill would have it, that didn't make much difference. About 20 feet from our put-in point, I made a cast to the left bank, let the fly float under an overhanging tree and congratulated myself on just the right mix of caution and daring. After picking up my fly to cast forward again, I glanced back to see Collier try the same place with his Hopper. Bam! He pulled out a 20-inch cutthroat. Lowe measured it, I took its picture, and Collier released it into the water. At that point I became acutely aware that my hip waders, when I was in a sitting position, did not meet my rain jacket and that my lap was soaking wet. It was 8:35 a.m. This could be a very long day.
But while it was a very wet and very cold day, it never dragged. Only my line did that. As the day wore on, however, my casting improved, and I managed to catch four fish by early afternoon. Because they were nowhere near as big as the four that Collier had caught, my score was nowhere near as high. But it didn't matter. I was pleased to be on the scoreboard at all, so sure had I been that I would lose my fly in the first half hour. Actually, I didn't lose it until 2:30 p.m., and then it was in the most honorable of ways, to a fat 15-inch cutthroat. The fly broke off in his mouth, and he was gone. And so was my anxiety. Free to fish without concern for the score, I began to catch more fish.
Collier's Hopper had by this time lost two of its four rubber legs. Even on its last legs, it was still doing the job for him. But he, too, finally lost his fly to a big fish, and we were both in the same boat, literally and figuratively, for the last couple of hours. It was nice to focus on something other than the relentless casting, for a change. We saw otters, eagles, a male elk bugling for its mate, and an osprey latching on to a trout with its talons and flying off. No catch-and-release fishing for him.
Back at the bar at Nellie's, folks were clearly glad to be out of the rain and wasted no time swapping stories. One poor fellow who kept his fly said he caught nothing but a cold, while another had lost his fly on the third cast of the day. Certain teams began to emerge as the ones to watch. Team Sage (of Sage rods company of Bainbridge Island, Wash.) was reported to have caught a fair number of big fish, as had the Hollywood All-Stars, a team that included the aforementioned actress and her significant other, attorney Skip Brittenham, a member of the U.S. team in the 1989 world fly-fishing championships. Our team had acquitted itself well, thanks to the efforts of team captain Calabi and Garrison.
That night at the banquet at Teton Pines, most conversations began with "How'd you do?" followed by "Where'd you go?" and "What'd you use?" Since anglers are allowed to change flies on the second day, there was a lot of curiosity about which flies had been most successful the first day. Apparently the Trude was one of them. I decided to stick with it.
Day 2 dawned cold and cloudy, but since it wasn't raining, the optimists at breakfast were saying, "Looks like it might clear up!" But the minute we hit the river, the rain came down in buckets. This time I was prepared. I had borrowed long, warm neoprene waders and was layered in a sweater and two jackets. I looked like a fat chocolate bunny. I didn't care. On this day I was teamed up with Mike Atwell of the Sage team. Our guide was Bob Barlow, a local lad who had come prepared with a backup rod, and a good thing too. I had been having trouble fitting my four-piece rod together properly, and sure enough, it cracked on a cast in the middle of the day.
Atwell used a fly called a Stimulator, which caught an obscene number of fish. About 10 fish to each one of mine, in fact. But I bettered my own score from the day before and even managed to catch a couple of small brown trout. Our assigned beat was the Canyon, a deep ravine with many stretches of raging white water. The fishing was difficult and required rapid, accurate casting to pockets along the bank. One group, deciding to fish from the bank for a while, watched in despair as their raft got loose and took off downstream. We captured the runaway craft and held on until the others could make their way downstream to us. But one of those anglers, Kim Vletas, was none too happy at the timing of the mishap. She had been trying to tempt up a cutthroat she estimated at 25 inches. Chasing after the raft cost her a chance at the fish and about a half hour of fishing time. Vletas, by the way, was fishing on an all-woman team that included Joan Wulff and Pat Opler, whose 24‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-inch trout caught in 1989 is the alltime One-Fly record. At this competition Vletas racked up an impressive 240 points, despite her disappointment about the one that got away.
I had kept my fly for the entire day and caught a respectable number of fish, including a fat 15-inch cutthroat. And I knew I had conquered the "competition thing" when I had to ask the guide how many fish I had caught. Nine, he said, for a total of 40 points (72 for the two days). Other members of my team covered the whole range of fortune. David Kern lost his fly early in the day but still contributed to the scoreboard for our two-day total. Calabi brought in 137 points, while Garrison wowed everyone with a total of 345 points. He also believed he might have landed what surely must be the big fish of the contest, a 23-inch cutthroat. He caught it on a fly he had tied himself, a version of a Double Humpy.
At the awards barbecue, tales of valiant fly retrievals abounded. Kathy Ruddick of the Fly Fishing Canada team reportedly swam under her boat, emerging on the other side with rod and fly intact. Another angler reported leaving footprints on the shoulders of his guide after using him as a ladder to reach the uppermost branches of a tree.
The winning team: the Hollywood All-Stars, with Skip Brittenham as "high hook," at 401 points. Heather Thomas racked up a very respectable 131 points. The other two team members, Art Annecharico and Ken August, weighed in with 193 and 285 points, respectively. We ranked ninth out of 36, mostly due to the efforts of Garrison. As for his big fish, it became something of a cause cèlèbre. At the awards banquet Jack Dennis, president of the One-Fly contest committee, announced there had been a bit of a glitch with Garrison's catch: It seems the fish was never measured by the guide. When Garrison hooked his 23-incher, he was on the bank far upstream from the guide, who was helping another contestant land a fish at the time. Fearing that his fish would die before the guide got to him, Garrison held up the fish for the guide to see, then marked the length of the trout on his fly rod and released his catch back into the water. Because "rules are rules," said Dennis, the official record would go to a 22-inch trout caught by someone else. But because catch-and-release and good sportsmanship are what the One-Fly is all about, added Dennis, Garrison would also receive a trophy.
A nice story, right? And that's where I would have ended it, had I not learned more about our mysterious teammate weeks later, after he was arrested on a drunken-driving charge by the Jackson Hole police. They discovered that Garrison was wanted in Knoxville on theft and forgery charges. He was returned to Tennessee, where he pleaded guilty to theft (the other charges were dropped). According to investigators, he was neither a doctor nor a member of the Tennessee legislature, though he had official-looking state plates on his car. Police suspect he was using the One-Fly contest as an entrèe to the Jackson Hole social scene and some really big fish. We may never know the truth about all the stories he told us. What's unusual about this fish story, in fact, is that the only thing we know for sure is the size of the fish he caught. Then again....
Judy Mullet, a TV correspondent for ABC News and a fly-fishing devotee, lives in Los Angeles.