How I Won the One Fly (Almost)
Story and Fly Photographs by Joseph Daniel. Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue (Number 12) of Wild On The Fly.
Okay, let’s be straight about this right from the get-go. I did NOT win the 2007 Jackson Hole One Fly. That well-deserved honor goes to Dennis Butcher who handily took the individual title with an awesome day of angling on the South Fork River which resulted not only in some very high scoring fish, but three in particular that would be the envy of any long-rodder.
But did I come close? Well, as suggested in the old adage about horseshoes and hand grenades; “close” really doesn’t count for much in most things. Still, I did come in sixth-place overall out of 160 anglers, and second place was really just one good fish away. And of the two rivers fished, the Snake and the South Fork, I had highest individual score of any angler on the Snake.
But first? Well first place was as distant as a dream, as improbable as that rare moment when man beats the best of nature, when a once in a lifetime fish not only takes the fly but is successfully fought and landed – and does it on demand, under imposing conditions.
Winning the One Fly has been compared by some to winning a major golf tournament. But beyond the oft-repeated analogy between a proper golf swing and a proper fly cast – let the club (rod) do the work, don’t overpower the stroke, feel the rod (club) load, follow through – a golf tournament is a walk in the park compared to the One Fly. That is unless the fairways undulate and flow like current and the cup on each green is alive and elusive, and eats golf balls… but only sometimes, if they look right and roll properly. And if you hit a ball out of bounds and can’t find it then you’re through, forget about taking a stroke, you’re finished.
Not to put too serious of a spin on it – this is, after all, a “fun” event – but “playing” in the One Fly to win can be as physically and mentally challenging as any game out there, and oh so different!
A BITTERSWEET BEGINNING
The One Fly began in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in1986 as a publicity stunt to promote the idea of catch-and-release fishing, and maybe sell some more guided trips. It was organized by then local guides and now fishing celebrities, Jack Dennis and Paul Bruun, and their friend Dan Abrams. But according to Dennis, the original idea had its genesis nearly a decade earlier when angling legend Lee Wulff published a story in Outdoor Life called “If You Only Had One Fly.” The article asked famous anglers what their choice would be if they could only fish with one fly. It also fired up the imagination of Jack, his announcer friend Curt Gowdy (who was already a big fan of the Florida saltwater fly fishing contests), and particularly Paul Brunn. For years Brunn schemed and lobbied on the idea of a fresh water fly fishing contest for trout where competitors could use only one fly. But he could never seem to find enough interested participants or guides.
But finally, leveraging the economic argument that the event just might help stimulate sorely needed autumn guiding business for the valley, the first One Fly eventually came about. Unfortunately it was an ill-fated beginning, marked by the tragic death of guide Peter Crosby. Coming out of retirement to fill in as a guide, Crosby lost his raft to the river’s strong current on the morning of the first day of the contest. He ran down the shore in hip boots chasing after it, his tracks ending at the edge of a high bank. Did the bank give way? Did he jump in after the raft? No one knows for sure, but his drowned body – neck broken – was recovered downstream later that day.
Jack Dennis was certain that this was the start and the end of the One Fly, but from day one the event seemed to be blessed with the support of personalities bigger than life. The first was Dick Carlsburg, an original contestant and a founding participant of other unusual sporting competitions like the 2 Shot Goose contest. Carlsburg’s huge enthusiasm embodied the fledgling spirit of the One Fly and would not let it die. He rallied the troops after Crosby’s death and formed the One Fly Foundation to raise funds to send Peter’s daughters to college.
The event now had a cause and that proved the catalyst to get it started. That first year there were 10 teams, the next year 20, the following 28. Carlsburg continued to wield his influence and Dennis his contacts, and soon they were attracting reel celebrities like Lee Wulff and George Anderson, and real celebrities like test pilot Chuck Yeager and television star Merlin Olsen. By the early ‘90s the event had grow large enough that it badly needed the control and direction of an experienced executive. Enter Denny Andersen, a tough-talking, tough-acting former CEO who truly made things happen. Under his control as Chairman of the One Fly Board the competition flourished, and after successfully graduating both of Crosby’s daughters it turned its fund-raising efforts towards fisheries conservation.
Anderson passed away from lung cancer in 2004 and in his indomitable style he choreographed the spreading of his own ashes on the South Fork during a fishing outing he arranged for a dozen of his best One Fly buddies. He even posthumously spoke to each of them in appreciative personal missives read during the “ceremony.” Anderson was succeeded by One Fly President Tom Smith and then by current Chairman (and original Board member) John Mortenson, each colorful characters and competent managers in their own right.
In 22 years the One Fly has grown from the improbable scheme of a couple of hungry fishing guides to an extremely popular event, and successful non-profit foundation, that has contributed literally millions of dollars towards “the betterment of trout and trout habitat,” as defined in their mission statement. Probably the single most important component to its long-term success is that it is held in one of the most beautiful natural environments on earth. In fact the scenic sensory overload is for me one of the real challenges of the event. Just try keeping your eye glued on your fly as you drift below the spectacular grandeur of the Tetons. It can’t be done.
So how does it all work? The One Fly is simple in concept and devilish in the details. It consists of 40 teams of four individuals per team. Only one team member can be a “professional” angler (i.e. guide). The event is conducted over two days using eight stretches of the Snake River in Wyoming and two stretches of the South Fork in Idaho. Each team can have only one member (determined by team decision) per day fish the South Fork, a river which has historically returned much higher daily scores due to its preponderance of larger fish. Which stretch of which river is fished by which team member on which day is determined randomly by a draw, therein establishing the serendipitous nature of the event. You could, by chance, draw two less-productive stretches of the Snake and have a pretty challenging time racking up a high score. Or you could be lucky and draw a South Fork stretch and a good Snake stretch and have at least a reasonable opportunity if being a top contender.
Once your stretches of river have been determined you are paired each day (again, randomly) with a member from another team, and both of you fish with the same guide from the same boat. The guides, who act as neutral judges for both anglers, usually know that particular section of river quite well and can be invaluable to your overall success. With 160 anglers in the event there may be as many as six competing boats on any one stretch of the river at the same time. So once again, the element of chance invades; draw the better guide for that stretch and your chances improve.
Each day’s competition begins exactly at 8:30 am. Prior to that you’ve had breakfast with all the guides and competitors at the famous Gunbarrel restaurant in Jackson Hole, you’ve met your boatmate and guide for the day, driven to your put-in, donned waders and boots, strung up your rod (floating lines only), and worked out your rotation. In order to insure equal time in the front of the boat, anglers rotate positions on whatever schedule they agree to (usually on the half-hour), with the person in front having the choice ofwhere to fish. This schedule and hierarchy stays in play whether floating or wading.
At that point it’s down to two final and critical decisions: what fly and what leader. As the name implies – and the whole premise of the event – you only get one fly. Lose it and you’re out of the competition for that day. Period. A different fly and a different pattern may be used on the second day of the event. Any conventional fly pattern (wet, dry, nymph, streamer, etc.) may be used on either day as long as it is no larger than size #6 and is 3X or shorter in length (which, incidentally, rules out most big streamers).Flies must be tied on a single barbless hook or on a hook with the barb pushed down. Lead or other metal-molded heads, cone heads and dumbbell lead eyes are prohibited, but a single metal or glass bead is allowed.
If you succeed in fishing all day and you also catch a lot of fish, your fly will undoubtedly take a serious beating, no matter how well it’s tied. Nonetheless, repair of flies during the day may only be done with the use of glue or adhesive, no thread or fly tying materials may be used. Flies, however, may be “morphed down” in any manner (i.e. trimming a dry fly or a streamer down into a nymph).
As you might imagine, there is a brisk “boutique” business of One Fly flies. For weeks before the event renowned fly tiers around the country are tweaking special patterns and devising ways to “bomb proof” the perfect fly for their clients. In fact many now internationally-popular flies found their fame as prototypes for the One Fly, like Guy Turck’s Tarantula, Scott Sanchez’s Convertible and his Double Bunny, Will Dornan’s Red Ant, andKen Burkholder’s Club Sandwich. During all of the pre-event festivities local tying celebrities show up carrying large fly boxes like they were the “nuclear football” briefcase that accompanies the U.S. President. Orders are delivered and major dollars change hands – all in the hopes of the perfect “one fly.”
Your terminal tackle is, of course, somewhat determined by your fly choice, but competitors constantly struggle with the quandary of strength vs. stealth. The bottom line here (pardon the pun) is that your leader is your weakest link. In other words, all your hopes and dreams, the entire cost of your trip, your reputation as an angler, your mental health, everything! rests on the tensile strength of a gossamer wisp of nylon. Don’t take this decision lightly.
If you’re fishing a streamer (like I did on day one) you need to be using something just shy of cable to ensure you don’t lose your fly. Figure you could be making two or three casts a minute all day long banging the banks for fish. If you keep up the competitive spirit, and your arm doesn’t give out first, that’s potentially a thousand casts or more over the course of a day. There is no leader or tippet material on earth that can take that abuse without weakening at the hinge formed at the knot, or abrading on the inevitable rocks and branches along the shore.
I finally resorted to a 5’ 0X leader with a short length of 1X Superflourocarbon tippet attached with a blood knot. The fluorocarbon was thinner (less visible) but more abrasion-resistant than the mono and the blood knot provided a perfect stop for the split shot I used all day trying to find the right depth for fish. I re-tied on my fly religiously every hour, and/or after every fish, and the whole rig at least three times during the day. Although this was time-consuming and I ran the risk of tying a bad knot I felt reasonably confident that at least my line wouldn’t break. On day two I used the same rig but scaled everything back a couple of weight classes as I chose to use a dry fly and needed tippet light enough to not sink my fly or spook fish too badly.
The One Fly really begins for most teams with a day or two of practice before the start of the event. Competitors roll into town in everything from beat-up fish cars to private jets, and it’s probably more of the latter. Forget that Czechoslovakian high-stick, multi-nymph, river-dredging contest for juvenile delinquent trout and grayling. This is a real angling competition, an American championship of traditional fly fishing on big rivers for big trout. Anyone can compete, but getting on a team may be the biggest challenge of all. And it’s not cheap. The standard team fee is $5,000, a sponsor team is $10,000. Make no bones about it, the One Fly exists to raise money for conservation and it’s not shy about that mission. That stance does create some grousing about it being a rich man’s event, and in some ways that is true, but only to the extent that you have to pay to play. This is a serious fundraiser and the event is in the enviable position of having a long waiting list of anglers willing to pony up the entry fee.
The One Fly Board, in association with the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and several other governmental agencies (who all share in funds generated from the event), has determined that the “carrying capacity” of the Snake and South Fork Rivers for the competition is a maximum of 40 teams (which is 80 boats}. Many of the teams have been around for years and although individual team members change with great frequency, team captains zealously guard who gets those positions. Some of the teams are clearly corporate entities which a company might sponsor to reward favored employees or treat important customers. Those teams seem to have different members every year and are rarely in the hunt for top honors. But a review of the past few years of team rosters reveals plenty of very serious anglers, including some big names in the fly fishing community, most of who return annually for the event. Only a few spots for new teams open up each year and those are awarded based on some very subjective criteria established by the One Fly Board, including past association with the event. So it’s a bit of a Catch 22 and not clearly defined as to how you can compete, but your best chance is probably snagging a spot on an already established regular team (sell hard on your superior fishing and/or fly tying skills, and agree to carry everyone’s stuff!), or forming your own team at the sponsor level (i.e. more money for the event). Either of those or find out which sponsor teams are in your industry and become a very good customer. For further reference, there is a page entitled “How to Get Involved” on the One Fly web site (www.jhonefly.com).
HOW I GOT HERE
I was lucky. A friend of mine was invited in 2002 as one of those “favored customers” of Merrill Lynch (which sponsored three teams that year). He in turn threw my name in the hat when they needed another angler. Clearly out of my league demographically, I went along anyway, posing as a high roller who knew how to fish. We all had a blast and I made several good friends I still connect with today (one of the truly wonderful perks of the One Fly), but we basically stunk as a team. I think we came in close to last and my personal score wasn’t much better. But the real bonus for me was that I met Captain Marvel (aka. Scott Ralston, former Vietnam jet fighter pilot, and at the time Western Managing Director for Merrill Lynch). Under Scott’s tutelage Merrill Lynch made a serious commitment to the One Fly from 1998 to 2002 and helped take the organization to a new level of professionalism and fund generation. Because of this contribution to the One Fly, and the fact that he had just been elected to the Board, Captain Marvel was allowed to resurrect one of the Merrill Lynch team positions in 2003 under the new name Marvel’s Muddlers. For some reason (Scott desperately needed new team members!) I got invited back that year and I brought along another friend as well. But we didn’t exactly blow ‘em away that year either. Despite bad weather Scott and my friend did pretty good, and I had an okay first day fishing a black wooly bugger. But on day two the river blew out and I didn’t catch a single fish. Not one. We ended up in 26th place out of 40 teams.
Scott was gracious enough to extend the invitation but business got in the way for me for the next two years and then Scott himself had to take a bye for a year due to family obligations. So it was with great enthusiasm that I answered in the affirmative when the call came from Captain Marvel early last spring that the Muddlers were back on the roster and did I want to get serious and really try and win. I figured I was damn lucky to get another chance to be in the One Fly and I would make it happen come hell or high water.
And that’s exactly what did happen, hell and high water. Extremely hot and dry conditions had forced Idaho potato farmers to make maximum water calls for irrigation. This depleted the surplus storage in Palisades Reservoir to an historic low resulting in its tailwater, the South Fork we fish in the One Fly, to be reduced to a mere trickle of warm, off-color, weedy water – hardly conducive to its famous trout population. The subsequent demands from Jackson Lake created exactly the opposite condition on the Snake and the river ran extremely high and cloudy as the Bureau of Reclamation attempted to replenish Palisades. This was all further exacerbated by several days of violent weather just before the event, including even a rare tornado warning just south of Jackson Hole. Those storms caused flash flooding in some of the Snake’s tributaries, and the collapse of an earthen bank at Hoback Junction which poured muddy sludge into the lower sections of the river. All-in-all it wasn’t looking good condition-wise for the 2007 One Fly.
My schedule was still demanding enough that all I could manage was a half-day practice session before the actual competition. As my plane lined up for a landing in Jackson Hole we flew over the swollen Snake just above the very section of river I would be fishing an hour later. The water looked like glacial melt and was spilling from the riverbank everywhere.
I went immediately from the airport to the Snake River Anglers fly shop at Dornan’s where I bought a fishing license and met Scott and my other two team members, Ken Burkholder and Lewis Crosley. They were all three dressed in worn jeans and fleece, wearing dark polarized sunglasses and the same gimme caps with some strange symbol, and frankly, looking like they’d been rode hard and put away wet. Truth be told there might have been a bit of a hangover effect contributing to their haggard appearance, but I was suddenly regretting my sport coat, pressed chinos and leather loafers. I approached my motley team with the wariness of a new dog in a strange neighborhood and got about the equivalent reaction. Everyone was polite but reserved, and although Scott managed the requisite “Haven’t seen you in awhile!” greeting, it was obvious that this was not a happy crew.
Ken tossed me a “team cap” with the funny looking, upside-down, one-eyed happy face symbol. “It’s a fermata, you know, the musical symbol for duration, for holding on,” he explained, as if I should know that or, even more puzzling, its relevance to fly fishing or the One Fly. Hmmm.
We threw my gear into Ken’s truck and headed to the boat launch for the Deadmans to Moose section of the river. On the drive I learned the reason for my teammates’ malaise. To put it bluntly (hey, they did), the fishing had sucked. Ken and Lewis had already fished two days, one on the South Fork and one on the Snake, and Scott had joined them on the Snake. Both days had been horrible with so few fish caught that basically no intelligence was gathered that might help in the actual competition. This was disconcerting to say the least, but like all fisherman – blinded by eternal optimism – I was sure that it would be different that day. Only it wasn’t. The day was bright and sunny (not good), the water was high and really off-colored (also not good), and three guys (Lewis took the afternoon off) who at least secretly pride themselves on being pretty good anglers couldn’t catch one fish between them out of a river chock full of dim-witted cutthroat, despite throwing just about everything they had in their combined fly boxes (definitely not good).
Then I learned that I had drawn the Snake for both of my days, Scott and Ken having grabbed the two spots on the South Fork. Fair enough, I was the new guy again, but if the fishing was going to be this tough I was in for a very long next two days.
We all went to the One Fly auction and pre-event dinner that night with no illusions. I was just hoping I wouldn’t embarrass myself or let my team down too badly. Scott, Ken and Lewis had fished together as a team two years before and had done well enough to take third place overall. Scott’s dream has always been to win this thing and he had recruited Ken, who is a guide in Idaho and a well-known and accomplished fly tier, as his professional. Lewis is a client of Ken’s from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and wields a pretty mean stick himself. So yeah, I was feeling a little intimidated, and after the practice session not at all confident.
The meals and activities surrounding the One Fly are all very well staged, with the dinner the night before the event a special highlight. It begins with a silent auction of sporting books, fishing gear, clothing, gifts and wine, and progresses into a live auction of even more premium gear, exotic fishing trips, artwork, dinners, cigars, wine and custom fishing furniture. There is a $25-a-ticket raffle for a tricked-out drift boat from Clackacraft, and even a Big Fish Pool to bet on yourself or your favorite angler for biggest fish caught during the competition. The evening raises about $130,000 for the One Fly Foundation, which when combined with entry fees, donations and matching grants from National Fish & Wildlife Foundation adds up on average to an astounding half-million dollars or more per year. This then goes to multiple recipients including non-profit conservation organizations, state agencies, and private individuals working on habitat restoration. Fish conservationists take note: there are some years the One Fly Foundation actually generates more money than requests for funding. Get your application in today!
I sat with Lewis at our team table watching the auction and sipping the One Fly Pinot Noir bottled especially for the event by Rex Hill Winery and bearing a custom label featuring a cutthroat painting by local artist Jeff Currier. Scott was working the crowd and Ken was being worked by the crowd, especially those wanting a peek into the half-dozen fly boxes of Burkholder magic he’d brought with him to sell that night. Lewis and I inspected Ken’s goods and talked about possible fly choices for the following day but after our miserable performance that afternoon I hadn’t a clue.
Before I had left for Jackson Hole I had contracted with Colorado fly tying phenom Charlie Craven to tie me up a half-dozen each of a durable, bead-headed, rubber-legged, black wooly bugger like I’d used in my second One Fly, and then something else in the foam hopper/ Chernobyl Ant genre, which is de rigueur as an attractor dry fly in the Jackson Hole region – and a variation of which has won the One Fly as many times as any other style of fly. Charlie delivered with some wild versions of his BC Hopper and an absolutely perfect bugger pattern tied to One Fly perfection. So at least I had those in my back pocket.
The next morning dawned crystal clear with the promise of yet another hot, sunny day. We ate breakfast at the Gunbarrel with all the other competitors and then hooked up with our guides and boatmates. Scott took off to the South Fork under our combined directives to “bring home the bacon.” Poor Lewis had drawn the same stretch we had fished the day before so he left a little dubious, and Ken and I had no idea what to expect from our assigned stretches. I was, of course, still completely in the dark about fly choice.
My fishing partner for the day was Douglas Daft, former CEO and Chairman of Coke and fishing, of course, on the Coca Cola team. He was an amiable Australian national now living as a resident in New York City.
Our guide was Chris Brylinski, who specialized on the lower river, particularly the Pritchard to West Table section, which was our assigned stretch for the day. Chris was pretty much a no-nonsense guy and was somewhat reserved at first as we went through the requisite client/guide repartee feeling each other out. As if it wasn’t enough that the river was high and fishing slow, we also discovered from Chris that we would be fishing below the major mudslide that had occurred a couple of days earlier, turning the Hoback River into a chocolate milkshake at its confluence with the Snake. As soon as we arrived at the put-in we all waded out into the river to try and gauge just how much visibility we (the fish) would have. We figured maybe 12 to 18 inches, but hopefully it would improve during the day.
With all the mud-stained water I was starting to lean towards a streamer, which I love to fish, but I could tell Chris was considering the bluebird day and thinking more attractor dry fly. This was agony, as now we had water clarity conditions to contend with that were even worse than the day before. Although certainly not required, it’s highly advantageous if both competitors in the same boat fish with the same style of fly (i.e. both on a dry fly or both on a streamer or both on a nymph). That way the guide can optimize where and how he positions the boat and selects the best water to stop and wade fish. I sort of sensed that Doug was agreeing with Chris on the choice of a dry fly and I could feel myself wavering. Then Chris made the first of many good suggestions. “Hey, we have 20 minutes or so before the competition starts and there’s a really good little backwater just around the corner that always has fish. Let’s float down there quickly, try out a couple of dry flies, and then make your decision.”
When Douglas and I both failed to get a single rise on either a Parachute Adams or a Chernobyl Ant, that sealed the deal for me. I quickly re-rigged with a heavier leader and tied on one of Charlie Craven’s black wooly buggers. I’d finally made my decision for good or for bad. If it was going to be a poor-visibility day I’d rather at least be prospecting every good lie I could with a streamer and actively fishing it rather than passively blind-casting a dry fly in water where I wasn’t even sure a fish could see. Doug agreed and switched also, tying on a black and yellow streamer Chris had. Game on!
Ten minutes later I hooked a cutthroat in a small eddy behind a sunken log and put the first fish in the boat. At 14 inches it wasn’t a particularly high-scoring fish but it did a world of good for my confidence.
To earn points in the One Fly you obviously have to catch fish. Every trout caught is worth two points, but to be counted in the score the release of each fish must be witnessed by the guide. A fish is considered caught if either the angler or the guide touches the leader while it is still hooked. A 50 point bonus can be earned for catching between 30 and 39 fish, 100 bonus points for 40 to 49 fish, and 150 bonus points for over 50 fish (these are usually dinks – fish under 12-inches – but hey, it’s happened!). The angler may select up to eight fish over 12 inches long to measure during the day. The largest six fish will each earn a bonus score (on top of their regular 2 points) based on length. This is where the real points can be scored as they increase exponentially the bigger the fish. A 12-inch fish earns 10 bonus points, a 16-incher 60 points, an 18-incher 100 points, and a 20-incher 150 points. Catch a 24-inch hog and you’ve just racked up 300 points! And finally, on each of the two days of competition, if you don’t lose your fly you’ll earn an additional 25 point bonus.
Doug and I settled into an almost aerobic level of fishing, casting to every little eddy, backwater and piece of structure we could find. This was going to be a game of finding fish, and with high, off-color water that meant non-stop casting. Frankly, to have any chance of winning the One Fly, this is the only way you can fish, regardless of conditions. You have to find and convert every opportunity because you can be assured that somebody else will be doing so on their stretch.
Chris was a fabulous boatman, keeping us the perfect distance offshore and endlessly holding us against the current in the better runs to thoroughly work the water. It seemed the harder we fished the harder he worked – I liked that. We all knew this was going to be a tough day but we were determined to make the best of it.
Doug scored next with a smaller fish from the rear of the boat and then Chris stopped at the bottom of a beautiful long glide with two pools formed by submerged rock bars in the middle of the river. Since it was time for a rotation he sent Doug to the honey hole at the top of the run and I fished up from the bottom. He told us this water held several big trout and we ought to be able to at least find one of them. Doug wasted little time and my attention was diverted by an excited yelp. I looked up to see him leaning backward against his rod, which was bent deep at the butt and pulsing with the throb of a larger fish. Chris was running towards him with his landing net and measuring tube. I shouted encouragement and kept on fishing, but inside I seethed. Why him and not me? It was the unspoken tension being played out in 80 boats that day. You wanted your boatmate to do well, just not better than you. There are only a few opportunities on any given stretch of water on any given day for a big fish. When one of them goes to your partner, and he converts, it’s one less for you. Ouch.
Doug’s fish measured out at 18 inches and suddenly he had well over 100 points. I upped my resolve and fished harder, covering literally every inch of the rest of the run and then back down through where Doug had struck gold. Nobody else home.
We climbed back into the boat and continued down river. I had noticed that Doug’s fish had hit in a deep trough well out in the river channel, so wherever I could discern similar holding water I covered it with a cast or two instead of just banging the banks. This worked pretty well from the stern as I could get big swings using the boat’s momentum. On one such cast in the middle of a wide slow flat pouring off a lateral rock ledge I had a smashing strike and was suddenly onto a good fish.
Alright, my turn!
Chris instantly began looking for a place to land the fish but first we had to navigate through some faster water, fish in tow, before he could get his anchor secure and the boat stopped. Even then we were on the edge of a strong, deep current and for a critical moment both of us froze trying to decide what to do. The fish sensed the pause and surged back up against the current creating dangerous slack in the line. And then suddenly it was gone.
Losing a big fish anytime is tough; losing a big fish in the One Fly is crushing. In my case I had been fishing so hard for so little return that coming unglued from this beastfelt like dropping the winning touchdown pass. Would it have been worth 80-points, 100-points, more? We’ll never know, and of course I imagined the worst. Chris immediately began admonishing himself for not moving faster with the net but the fault was all mine. I had lost contact for a moment, and in fast water with a strong fish on a barbless hook, hey, that’s what happens. It’s fishing dude, suck it up.
I marched back upstream along the shore to a point across from where I thought I had hooked up. Taking a single step between casts I worked back down the run steelhead-style, making long casts just slightly downstream and then, with a big upstream mend, swinging my streamer across the flat. The technique worked and I started getting grabs. I landed a 15-incher (42 points) and a smaller fish just under measurable length. It wasn’t exactly compensation for losing Mr. Big, but it took away a little of the sting.
I wish I could say the day improved but it really didn’t. This was journeyman fishing, blue collar labor for minimum wages, and Doug and I worked our butts off. He was a pretty good fisherman for a suit! By the 4:30 pm bell I had landed two more fish, one a measurable 14-incher (32 points) for a total of 135 points. Doug landed one more measurable fish and with his 18-incher from that morning ended up with 161 points. And amazingly, we both kept our flies despite some very liberal risk taking during the day.
Risk management is a huge part of One Fly strategy and can be the downfall of even the most skilled angler. Many a famous long-rodder has found himself sitting humbly in the back of the boat twiddling his thumbs and looking at a long day ahead after snapping off his fly an hour into the contest. Remember, you lose your fly you’re out. Losing it in the morning is catastrophic, losing it near the end of the day is less so, although at the very least it means 25 fewer points (that’s about the same as catching a 14-inch fish or a dozen dinks).
Some competitors will simply stop fishing when they feel there’s a greater chance of losing their fly than there is of catching another large-enough fish, or enough additional small fish, to be worth more than 25 points. But that’s usually the conservative tactic of the brokers and financial institution guys; they live in a world of calculated risk. Personally, I don’t buy that philosophy because I don’t think fishing is that calculated. – there’s always the chance for a trophy fish on the very next cast. And in the One Fly every additional point is precious. You need to keep trying to add to your total score until the very last minute of the last day, as you’ll understand better at the end of this story.
That said, you still have to weigh the value of trying to cast your fly onto a dinner plate-size piece of soft water just upstream of a partially submerged tree. You know there’s a big fish there because that’s the kind of structure lunker cutthroat love. I remember casting my fly once into just such a perilous environment and then chickening-out and yanking it off the water at exactly the same time the open maw of an absolute monster broke the surface right where it had been. Bottom line: if you want to win you have to take enough risks to catch a few big fish. That means you’re likely to get snagged several times during the day and how you react when that happens will either make you a hero or a zero.
Within moments of beginning our day’s float with Chris Brylinski he wanted to know if we were familiar with, and were willing to execute, the time-honored “tomahawk.” This radical course of action sometimes becomes necessary when an angler snags his fly on or near the shore in fast enough water that the guide can’t immediately slow down the boat. In that event the angler must hurl his rod towards the bank – as if throwing a tomahawk – in the hopes that it will remain there until the boat can be beached and he can walk back upstream to retrieve said rod, and more importantly, his fly.
Fortunately I never had to tomahawk my rod but I did personally go flying out the back of the boat once into waist deep water when I felt I was too far from shore for such a toss and I was already deep into my backing from snagging on a shoreline rock. Those kinds of moments give you the absolute willies, but they are the stuff of legend at the One Fly. Stories abound of guides climbing trees and anglers diving to the bottom to retrieve flies, even tales of fish breaking off and the fly popping back to the surface after dislodging from its piscine predator (another good argument for barbless hooks and foam-bodied flies!).
Doug and I had given it our best and both of us collapsed into Chris’s truck for the ride back to town. We would later learn that the highest score that day for that stretch of river was 197, so at least we knew that no one had done a whole lot better. This was little consolation however when I got back to the Gunbarrel and checked the leaders’ board to find that Lewis and Ken had scored 27 and 147 respectively. Ken had patched together a pretty decent day considering the conditions but poor Lewis had spent eight long, painful hours catching one small fish. Fortunately he kept his fly. It was all up to Scott now, and the three of us commiserated with cold beers waiting for his return.
The South Fork is a fat hour from Jackson Hole so competitors fishing that river are the last to get back. Most of the scores being posted on the board were comparable to ours, or worse, but as the first of the South Fork anglers began to arrive there were a handful of big numbers being chalked up, including two scores in the 500s and one in the 600s! Somebody was finding big fish.
Scott finally pulled up and we could tell by his hangdog face that it had not gone well. One-hundred-ninety-five points – certainly not a bad score for the day, but not a good one for the South Fork. Fishing a size 18 lightning bug dry fly, as suggested by his guide, Scott had caught an astounding 27 fish, which probably was more than anyone that day. But they were all small and he had only been able to measure a few. It was a strange performance on a river known more for its fish size than numbers.
Marvel’s Muddlers had earned a combined team score of 505 points on day one, which surprisingly was enough to put us in eighth place out of the 40 teams. We were still in the hunt, but the first place team already had twice as many points, and second place was over 300 points ahead. It was time to regroup.
Our team meeting was held over large tumblers of Smirnoff and Crown Royal back at the rental condo. It was, as always, a rhetorical discussion of fly choice. We had within our midst one of the more innovative fly tiers on the block in the apparition of Mr. Ken Burkholder. I for one was going to take advantage of the resource and grilled Burky on what he was seeing on the water and what he had in the form of imitation. A humble and unassuming man, Ken does not make proclamations unless it has to do with arcane music theory (remember the fermata?) or the Boise State Broncos football team, so getting him to make a definitive suggestion on one of his flies was not that easy. The best I could extract was a “yeah, that might be a good choice,” or “that one could work,” but reading between the lines and trusting my own instincts I soon settled on a big size 10 Hecuba Cripple he had dubbed the “Hangdy-Downdy.” It was a beautifully tied and reassuringly utilitarian-looking fly (see page 39) with a foam hunchback for added flotation and a parachute wing of white polar bear fur for visibility. Wrapped with pale peach and tangerine Japanese silk floss for the body and a post wing of dark dun hackle, it also featured abdominal wisps of Darice nylon-plus brown needlecraft fibers imitating a stuck shuck, and the same for the tail. Tied to ride high on the surface yet pierce the film at the same time (hence the name) like a mayfly trying to emerge, it was truly a piece of faux entomological art and I was smitten. Ken simply allowed as to how he’d “caught a few fish on it.”
But he also confirmed to seeing a few of the big Western mayflies (also known as Giant or Great Blue-Winged Red Quills, Timpanoga hecuba hecuba) hatching in some of the slower backwater glides over the last few days. Aha! That sorely-wrought piece of actual intelligence, plus the rumor that it might cloud up the next day, plus the fact that I really didn’t relish slinging a streamer again all day, made the decision easy. Unless my guide had some truly compelling reason why not, I was going with Burky’s Hangdy-Downdy Hecuba Cripple. I collapsed into bed that night bone-tired and whiskey-infused, but at least I’d made my decision, allowing me to sleep like the dead (well maybe the bone-tired part and the Crown had a little to do with it, but it was a peaceful sleep nonetheless).
Breakfast the next morning at the Gunbarrel was all business with most of the competitors steeled for the task at hand. The good news was that the rumored change in weather had occurred and the sky was overcast. Perfect conditions for a Hecuba hatch!
My fishing partner for the day was Geoffrey Fry, a Wyoming native now living and working in San Francisco. Geoff’s family had once owned the Crescent H Ranch just outside of Jackson Hole and he had guided on the private spring creeks there and on the Snake as a kid.
Our boatman was even more entrenched in the angling history of the valley. As a third-generation Snake River fly fishing guide with 17 years of experience, Boots Allen is already somewhat of a local legend. His grandfather, father and uncle were all guides and outfitters in the Jackson Hole area, as are several of his cousins today. It is an Allen family tradition. Boots had already won the One Fly twice in the guides division and was known as a take-no-prisoners kind of contestant. He was also very strategic in his approach and ushered us out of breakfast early, wanting to be the first boat on the water.
Our beat for the day was Moose to Wilson, historically one of the more productive sections of river, with lots of braids and side channels and several spring creek tributaries. So, we had one of the most renowned guides on the river, one of the best stretches of water, and a cool, cloudy day. No more time for excuses, it was now or never.
As we launched we had a quick discussion on fly choice and all three of us were immediately talking dry flies. I showed Boots the Burkholder Hecuba and he loved it. “Go for it,” was his immediate response. Alright! A man who can make a decision. Geoff tied on a similar parachute mayfly pattern Boots had in his box and that was that. We were committed.
Boots rowed hard for the first 20-minutes or so to get well out ahead of the rest of the boats on that stretch and then at 8:30 am on the dot he pulled us over to a little side channel flowing behind a narrow island. I was up first and wade-fished down the top of the glide while Boots and Geoff pulled the boat through a shallow riffle to the deeper water below. On my third cast a spectacular 17-inch cutty sucked down the Hecuba in classic form just inches off the bank and ripped downstream with me in hot pursuit. We both spilled over the riffle to where Boots was waiting net in hand. It took a solid ten minutes of careful battle to land this bad boy, and I was a nervous wreck the whole time, but Boots finally made the grab and I was on the board with 82 points in the first half-hour of the day!
After a couple more rotations where both Geoff and I caught several smaller fish from the bank, Boots rowed us through a beautiful, meandering braid with deep cuts and small pools that looked so fishy I was salivating. At we rounded a corner the braid split around a tiny hummock forming two deep eddies. Drifting quickly, I had only seconds to choose and cast to the left side. Geoff, in the back of the boat, cast to the right side and neatly picked my pocket as an 18-inch slab smashed his fly, now almost directly beside me.
Arrgh! This was a new torture. Being usurped by the guy in the back. We had to anchor the boat for a good 20-muinutes while Geoff kept his fish from bolting into the main river channel. He finally got it landed and it was high-fives all around, but I’m ashamed to admit that once again I was insanely jealous inside. What is it about the One Fly that brings out such ruthless competition in otherwise lovable people?
I got a chance to return the “injustice” on the next rotation when, fishing from the back, I admittedly poached some water downstream while the boat was turned around and Geoff was landing a fish. I discovered that day that the fishiest water on the river for my fly seemed to be where it flowed across a very shallow gravel bar into a deeper dark blue pool or cut. Probably perfect Hecuba hatching environment. This was exactly what presented itself as Geoff was preoccupied, and I proceeded to lure my own richly-colored 18-inch scorer from the depths followed by another 12-incher on the very next cast.
Oh baby! This was turning into a fine day. My new goal was to break 300 points. If I could come back with that score I could come back with my head held high. And the best news was the esteemed Mr. Burkholder himself was on the South Fork that day and sure to shatter the hopes and records of everyone else with the magic of one of his creations. Maybe Marvel’s Muddlers still had game.
We ate a quick lunch in the boat at the mouth of one of the spring creeks that had been a bonanza for Boots the day before, but all the fish there must have had sore mouths because we were only able to catch one. We continued on downriver banging the banks for the next hour or so and picking up quite a few smaller fish, although nothing measurable. Burky’s Hangdy-Downdy was an absolute hit and it was proving to be quite durable as well. At one point we stopped and waded around a small 100-foot long island and I caught seven dinks in a row. My overall fish count was now over 20 and I was drifting into one of those rare fishing rhythms where it seems you can do no wrong.
During my next stint in the front of the boat we stopped at a place where the river became very braided and flowed between islands of head-high willow. I chose to fish three small runs just off the main channel and Geoff waded a little higher up but still within eyesight so Boots could watch us both. The lowest braid had a wide, shallow gravel bar at the top that spilled over into a lateral pool maybe 30-feet wide. Although it looked perfect I carefully fished all the surrounding water first, catching one small fish in the process. As I waded into the mouth of the good braid I saw a big fish roll just below the gravel bar.
I started to cast when I saw another fish surface ten feet to the right, then one way up high at the head of the run. Whoa, slow down here buckwheat, sometuns goin’ on.
I decided to go for the big fish just in case I might otherwise spook him by hooking one of the others first. I threw a long cast high up onto the edge of the gravel and got a perfect drift back in return. As the fly passed over where I had seen the big fish roll the waters parted and a wide-shouldered, green and gold leviathan exploded on my offering… and missed. I let out an involuntary shriek but kept my cool enough not to strike, letting the fly drift harmlessly out of the pool. My scream had alerted Boots who was upstream with Geoff and he shrugged his shoulders in question. “I got Mr Big here,” I shouted back. “Be ready.” Three casts later I came tight with a heavy fish that stayed deep and then made a spirited run down the braid towards the main river.
“This might be him,” I yelled to Boots, who was already running my way with the net. I managed to keep the fish out of the main river and steered him into a pool lower down from where I hooked him. He turned out to be only 13-inches long but so fat I could hardly hold him in one hand. A nice fish indeed, but definitely not Mr Big.
I decided to rest the pool for a few minutes and Boots walked back up to join Geoff. When I couldn’t stand it any longer I started casting from right to left making sure to cover all of the water. As I neared the head of the run I saw the big fish roll again ten feet higher up along the left side. I carefully dropped my fly six inches above him and within seconds I was back on the bull.
“Okay, this is the real Mr Big,” I shouted at Boots who was once again sprinting my way. The fish made a spectacular leap and then booked it downstream towards the mouth of the braid with no intention of stopping. Boots and I followed, laughing and yelling like two kids and trying to keep from getting tangled in the fly line. I couldn’t believe my good fortune but I also couldn’t believe I was going to land this fish. If he made it to the main channel and out into the heavy current he would be gone.
I finally stopped him just feet before the braid ended and somehow coaxed him back into the lowest pool where we duked it out for awhile before Boots finally scooped him safely into the net on about the fifth try. Both of us were shaking with adrenalin and excitement, and it took a moment to settle down. The fish measured 19¼-inches and was thick and heavy like the last one. His multihued sides went from irredescent green-grey on his back blending to lemon yellow along his belly, and were peppered with thousands of tiny black spots. His fins were an angry orange. What a spectacular specimen of Snake River Finespot Cutthroat Trout!
Like a junkie I walked back to the pool. I knew there were still fish there and I couldn’t get enough. Geoff was hovering in the background and I imagined I could feel him oozing the same resentment I had held for him earlier in the day. A better man would have graciously offered up the pool to his boat partner, but this was war. I made three more casts and just when my latent Catholic-school guilt was about to get the better of me I hooked up again, and in an almost exact replay of my battle with Mr Big I went chasing after yet another hot fish headed for the river. I thought Boots might collapse this time after all the repeated running and hullabaloo but he dutifully and expertly netted this third cutty. It “only” scored 15-inches but it filled out my dance card with six measurable fish, and my point total was now somewhere north of 400. I was so in the zone it was unbelievable.
We had about a half-hour left and it was Geoff’s rotation, so I concentrated on catching the four trout I needed to earn the 50-point bonus for 30 caught fish. They came one at a time, plus an extra, from below a long wide gravel bar less than a half-mile from the take-out. Burky’s Hangdy-Downdy was like manna from heaven to these flood-starved cutthroat and if I could find the right water I could find the fish.
It should have been over at that point but unbelievably it wasn’t. We made one last stop at some thin braids within sight of the boat ramp. Boots escorted Geoff up into the one good pool while I stood there perplexed at how to fish a small, deep eddy with three different currents entering from dissimilar directions. It looked fishy enough but there was no way to get a decent drift. Finally, I just pulled off ten feet of extra line from my reel, made a short, sloppy cast to the head of the eddy and then mended the whole mess of line back onto itself. These gymnastics resulted in a drag-free drift of exactly one foot but it was enough to seduce one final suitor to the charms of Miss Hecuba. Trouble is these Snake River dandies get royally pissed off when they discover they’ve been duped, and for the fifth time that day I was forced to hightail it downstream at full speed, encumbered by wading boots, waders and the necessary accoutrements. It was not a pretty sight but the result certainly was – a final 17-inch finespot large enough to replace one of my smaller measurable catches and sweetening my total by 72 points. Boots stood there with a Cheshire grin from ear to ear and Geoff just shook his head, then proffered up genuine congratulations. It was my day and he had the character to handle it with class. Can’t say I would have been as good-natured!
So, I had caught a lot of big fish, I had earned a bonus for quantity, and I had kept my fly all day – but I had no idea what my score was. Boots did the math as we drifted to the take-out, announcing the results with great theatrics. My final tally was 586 points; Geoff had scored 222, for a boat total of 808. I had no idea yet what my score might mean but we all suddenly realized that Boots might be in the running again for top guide honors.
Back at the Gunbarrel it was pandemonium. There was a rumor circulating that Geoff’s team member Dennis Butcher, who had garnered only 47 points the day before on the Snake, had scored over 900 points today on the lower South Fork. The One Fly doesn’t exhibit the scoreboard at the end of the second day, waiting instead to present the final tallies at the Awards Banquet that evening, so everything was still hearsay. But it was evident that some big fish had been caught and some big scores attained.
I was the first to return and I greeted Lewis who had fought back that day with a respectable 109 points on another tough section of the Snake. Scott was next with 81 points from the equally difficult Canyon section of the Snake. He had been forced to endure some serious rapids and fish from a raft instead of a driftboat due to the high water, and he was not happy. We headed back to the condo to wait for Ken, who we were sure was the subject of one of the big score rumors.
We were well into the libations and fish stories when Ken finally walked quietly through the door. His look of abject misery was enough to quell any smartass remarks and we respectfully listened to his story in disbelief. He had started his day off thinking about fishing one of his famous Rainbow Warrior streamers but had been swayed by his guide (the same guide who had talked Scott into the lightning bug the day before) to try one of his new “convertible” style patterns that he guaranteed was the hottest thing on the river. The guide was so persuasive and insistent that Ken, ever the gentle soul, had relented and had gone with the guide’s suggestion. Usually that course of action is not a bad thing, given that most of the One Fly guides have fished a particular stretch of water hundreds of times and know it intimately. Two years before Scott had followed his guide’s suggestion and had scored 553 points on the upper South Fork.
Well, as it turned out Ken and Scott’s overly ambitious guide this year was really more of a Henry’s Fork expert and actually not that familiar with the South Fork. The result was that Ken soon found himself going gonzo over some very big fish that were attracted to the fly but simply wouldn’t commit and eat. He finally, out of frustration, converted his fly from a purple wooly bugger streamer to a purple, rubber-legged stonefly nymph per the guide’s directions, but to little avail. He eventually ended the day with 131 points on a section of the river that had produced a high score of 541 yesterday and one of 574 that day.
Well so much for the Muddlers chance at fame and fortune. I told Ken about how well his Hangdy-Downdy had performed and that lightened his mood considerably, because in the end Ken is all about the fly. Which only made me more incredulous why he hadn’t used one of his own on the South Fork? But therein may lie the true curse of the One Fly; it turns rational, talented anglers into quivering blobs of self doubt and indecision, or as fly tier Scot Sanchez once described it, “It's wild how people who make high-dollar corporate decisions every day can be brought to their knees by the momentary dilemma of which fly to tie on to fool a lowly trout.”
We headed off to the Awards Banquet bruised and beaten but happier to be there than any place on earth. For me it had been one of my most memorable days fishing and I had reached new levels of focus and what those who meditate would call “a higher sense of knowingness.” And I think I now understand what Ken meant with his fermata symbolism. It was for holding on, for holding on to your fish, holding on to your fly, and holding on to your team. That’s beautiful Burky!
We applauded enthusiastically as Dennis Butcher received first place honors for 953 total points and his incredible 906 points that day on the lower South Fork which included, among three other monsters, a 23-inch fish, a 22-inch fish, and a 20-inch fish! Dave Deardorff came in second with 855 points and was high rod on the upper South Fork on day one. Walter Ungerman came in third with 806 points and was second highest rod on the lower South Fork on day one. Jim Swafford took fourth with 794 points and high rod on the lower South Fork on day one. Simon Everett finished fifth with 757 points and high rod on the upper South Fork on day two. And me, in sixth place with 721 points and high rod overall for both days on the Snake.
That the five guys ahead of me each had a day on the South Fork is cheap solace to my fragile ego. They performed no less, and I’m sure in many cases quite a bit more, putting their games together, converting opportunities and managing risks, and most important just holding on. After my experience that second day I am in awe of their prowess.
Walter Ungerman’s Team USA (yeah, those high stickin’ Czech-style guys) won the overall team competition with 2,279 total points. Geoff’s (and Dennis Butcher’s) team the Fishscalers came in second with 1,613 points, Simon Everett’s Thomas & Thomas team came in third with 1,514 points, and Dave Deardorff’s L.A. Rods team came in fourth with 1,498 points. Marvel’s Muddlers somehow moved up to fifth place overall with 1,411 points, which isn’t half bad considering the drama!
And finally, on the South Fork Cole Sutheimer took first place in the Idaho guides division with 1,697 points. And my guide the second day, Boots Allen, missed winning the top Wyoming guide’s honor for the third time by a measly 12 points with a total two-day boat score of 1,142 to Dean Burton’s winning 1,154 points. Damn Geoff (and whoever the other two guys are who fished with Boots on day one), we left him shy by just one 13-inch fish!
So, to bring it all the way back to the original analogy; like a golf tournament the One Fly is rife with “coulda, woulda, shoulda” situations. You’re always just one shot or one fish away from glory, and the same thing can spell disaster. So did I “almost” win the One Fly? Sure, almost like I’ve almost hit a hole-in-one! So close, and yet,,,
AUTHOR’S NOTE: There are myriad stories surrounding the One Fly. I choose to tell mine because it is what I know, but to do justice to the men and women who have competed in the event, nurtured and supported its growth, and lent great personality and spirit to its continued existence, would take countless more words – and surely I have already written far too long. Suffice it to say that the One Fly is a rich weave of unique experiences and individual efforts, and mine is just one amongst thousands.