LESSONS FROM BOSNIA: SESSION 1

After returning home from Bosnia last year, my teammate Russell Miller asked me to write a piece for The Current (the blog for Sage Fly Fishing) about our Fly Fishing Team USA experience. You can find that post here, along with some great photos Russell took during the trip.I didn't want it to read like a journal entry of the day to day things we did while we were there or a play by play of my individual sessions, partly because I knew it would match the breadth of your average scriptural tome if it were to be printed. Instead I wanted it to provide some useful tips for your own days on the water. Tips which I've gleaned slowly over a decade of fly fishing competitions. I only wish I followed my own advice as consistently as I would like. Maybe I would be as successful as Martin Droz or Valerio Santi Amantini if I did. Even more important, maybe Fly Fishing Team USA would have a few more medals to our credit if I could have contributed more to our team's efforts in other World Championships. Thankfully, there's always hope of improvement and learning, which makes fly fishing the special sport that it is.

When I was writing the piece for The Current, I thought back on each session in Bosnia, and on many in prior tournaments. Nine tips came to mind that, if followed, will definitely improve your catch rate and your experiences on the water. I won't cover them all here, or in future posts about my sessions in Bosnia, so if you think they're worth exploring, refer back to what I wrote previously. They are in a completely random order, but the nine are as follows:

  1. You will catch more fish if you become familiar with different fly types and methods and learn how and where to use each within a reach of stream.
  2. Pay attention to how you are setting the hook (angle, power, speed, etc.).
  3. THINK......use your head when you're fishing!
  4. Rest water you have been successful in for 30 minutes to a couple of hours and then return with different flies or a different approach.
  5. Find a fishing partner who is better than you and fish WITH them.
  6. Observation in and around the water is key.
  7. Fish banks, under structure, and in shallow water.
  8. Tie flies!
  9. Be cognizant of the angle of your approach and your profile.

For those who would like a bit more of a play by play of my sessions, spread out among fly tying tutorials for the next month or two, I'll reminisce a bit and try and take you back through my journal entries and memories from Bosnia. Even though these posts are about six months late, I hope you will find them better late than never. I will also reference how I did or didn't apply the pertinent tips above and the successes and failures I experienced as a result. So, without further delay, here is my first session experience.

Session 1: Sana River

During practice our team walked a good number of beats on all the competition rivers to get an understanding of the water types we might be faced with on each venue in order to formulate a technical plan for each river. When we walked the beats on the Sana, there were three beats most of us looked at and immediately hoped we wouldn't get during the competition. We knew the Sana had fewer fish in it than the Pliva and the Sanica rivers but more than the Vrbas. With fewer fish, the margin for error gets narrower. When the first day of the tournament dawned and the early morning drive to the river ceased, I walked off the bus, looked at my beat, and my heart sank a bit when I realized I had drawn one of the three aforementioned feared beats, beat 16. Regardless, I pulled myself up by my wading boot straps and resolved to make the best of it. Thankfully, it ended up about as well as I could have hoped for. I also felt bad for the Czech competitor (David Chlumsky) above me. He had the top half of the pool and drew an even tougher lot than I did.

My first order of business when I'm at a beat is to look at the water quickly and decide which techniques I want to employ. I then set up the appropriate rods for each. In Bosnia, the fishing rules allowed only one fly, so my choices of techniques were narrowed but also simplified as a result. Beat 16 was characterized by the bottom end of a very deep and nearly stagnant pool at the top, which tailed out into a long shallow flat. The bottom of the beat had a short section of shallow pocketwater, which you can quickly see me fishing 37 seconds into this video. I wish I could provide us both a translator for it.

The top my of my Sana River Beat, #16.

The top my of my Sana River Beat, #16.

I set up my trusty 9' 3 wt Z-axis as a dry fly rod and my 10' 6" Cortland 3 wt with a thinner Tactical Fly Fisher European Nymphing leader for Euro-nymphing. I could see two browns and a grayling, from a gap through the brush where I was rigging my rods. They were rising very sporadically. I made a plan to fish dries to these fish and then hunt for other risers up into the pool. After that, I planned to let them rest while I nymphed the pocketwater at the bottom, hoping the fish in the pool and flat would be active by the time I returned (see tips 1 and 4 above). Unfortunately, the narrow gap in the brush on the bank I was rigging on provided a steep approach to the water, which I knew would heighten my profile and make approaching the nearest two fish difficult (see tip 9 above). Despite crawling on my knees to the river, I witnessed the behavior of the closest two fish change. While I was rigging they were occasionally darting from their lies to intercept drifting food. As I got into position to fish for them, just before the starting bell, they clearly noticed me and bellied up to the bottom. I tried a few casts at both and proceeded to send them both scurrying away. Tip 9 fail!

Knowing the first two fish would not be back for a while, I eased into the water on my knees and waited for a rise from the grayling I had seen earlier. It took a couple of minutes but the grayling slowly rose, sipped, and returned to the bottom. I prepared to make a cast but knew that setting the hook would be difficult. Experience has taught me that setting the hook to the downstream side of a fish results in the best hookup ratio. This can be difficult to do when a fish is directly upstream or downstream of you. Not only was this fish directly downstream, but thick riparian brush limited my ability to set to the downstream side. If the fish ate I would have to set the hook either upward or upstream and parallel to the water. Neither is a good option, in my opinion, but my position left me no other choice. I could have waded into a different position for a better angle, but I knew I would spook other fish during the process. Resigned, I laid a cast down and fed a shuttlecock emerger on 7x down to the fish. It ate. I set upward. I missed! How many tips did I fail on that one? I was 0 for 3 at this point and starting to sweat it. Sadly, it got worse before it got better. I covered the next fish that rose, but it didn't eat. I switched to a cdc ant, since there were no obvious insects emerging at the moment. I sacrificed a bit of water to wade into a better position for my presentation and hook set. I covered the fish again. It ate. I set. I broke it off!!! Luckily, I took a few seconds to breathe and didn't let it get the best of me. Afterward, the rest of the session took a better turn in my favor.

The top of the tailout of the pool in beat 16. I caught several fish in the shallows near the exposed rocks on the far bank.

The top of the tailout of the pool in beat 16. I caught several fish in the shallows near the exposed rocks on the far bank.

I decided to regroup. I exited the river and came got back in the water in between the tailout and the best of the pocketwater to avoid spooking fish. I started to slowly work up the flat, which was difficult because I still had to feed the fish across or downstream presentations to show them the fly first. I knew the fish were spooky and I did not want to line them, so I forced myself to wait up to several minutes until a fish rose; a difficult proposition when in the heat of a competition session, especially when you are 0 for 4. When I saw a rise I would slowly wade into a better position and make a deliberately thought out first presentation (remember tip 3). I caught a small grayling fairly quickly but then a few caddis started to emerge and the fish lost interest in the ant. I replaced it with a cdc caddis and caught a couple more. The next fish that I saw rise ate a smallish yellow mayfly dun. I covered it with the caddis, with no positive response, and ended up putting it down. Thankfully, like grayling often do, it recovered and began to rise within a few minutes. By then I had replaced the caddis with a pmd comparadun and the fish promptly ate my first drift. I set quickly but softly to my left side and parallel to the water's surface; the angle that was to the downstream side of the fish. I connected, and a lovely grayling quickly came to net. I was gaining momentum, but I was also halfway through my session with only four fish on the board. It was time to rest the pool and drop to the pocketwater.

I dropped to the bottom of my beat where the pocketwater converged into a run with a boulder in the middle to add some structure and current complexity. I started with a drab pheasant tail variation and caught a small brown a few casts in while fishing upstream in the soft water created by the turn of the run above me on my bank. I then moved out to the boulder, which had a nice soft spot behind it. With no response and no signals that my fly was drifting near the bottom, I switched to a drab perdigon style fly with an oversized bead (essentially a version of the Butano tied with less bling). Another brown quickly came to net. The next likely holding spot was a small friction induced, slow seam of water created by the far bank (tip 7). I made a couple of bow and arrow casts to ensure my fly accurately entered the slack water while simultaneously missing the overhanging branches, which sheltered the lie. Two casts, one fish, and seven were on the board.

There wasn't much pocketwater left and what was available was quite shallow and fast. However, I've been surprised many times at the shallow lies that brown trout will hold in when the substrate is large enough to provide a slight cushion or vortex. Thirty feet upstream, also against the far bank, there was a two foot long soft edge, about ten inches deep, which was created by a rock not much bigger than a softball. I switched back to the smaller and lighter pheasant tail, crawled into position, and made another bow and arrow cast under branches that were even more threatening than the previous bunch. Two casts, one fish, and then there were eight. Through the remaining pocketwater, that was marginal at best, I crawled on my knees to any micro-pocket I thought a small brown trout might hold in. I found one more fish in a spot I nearly passed. It was actually in a rolling wave, but upon close inspection I could see a small depression underneath where the expanding space might create just enough break in velocity for a trout to hide in. It was the kind of spot where a fish has to decide pretty quickly whether to eat a fly or not. My first cast wasn't perfectly on target but the next produced a pleasant surprise. Two casts, one fish, and then there were nine. Tip seven does it again.

I had covered the pocketwater fairly quickly, but I still only had 45 minutes left on the clock. I ditched my nymph rod and grabbed my dry fly rod and returned to the tailout and pool. I watched for several minutes before deciding how to make my approach (tip 6). A fish rose on the far bank at the transition between the pool and tailout, which you can see in the photo above. My only shot was to get into position across from the fish, with some deep non-wadeable water in between, and make a 45 to 50 foot steeple cast to avoid the tall trees behind me on my backcast. I saw the fish eat a dancing caddis so the cdc caddis dry went back on my tippet. It took a couple of casts to land in the right lane during the fish's rhythm, but it ate and I put it in the net. A few minutes later, a fish rose just upstream. I tried the caddis but it wanted no part of it. Then a very large yellowish mayfly (a danica) drifted by and it was greedily snatched by the fish. Ironically, the last thing on my tying list from the day before was a danica dun pattern (tip 8!). Of course, I didn't make it to the end of my tying list and I had nothing in my boxes that was the right size or color. I thought for a moment, (tip 3) rummaged through my main dry fly box, and found a cdc green drake comparadun that was my best option. Thankfully, on my first cast the fish ate confidently despite the imperfect imitation. I again set downstream and parallel to the water, this time to my right side, and the fish was securely hooked (trusty old tip 2). 

A danica posing on our team captain Bret Bishop's Smith Lowlight Ignitor lenses after my final session in Bosnia.

A danica posing on our team captain Bret Bishop's Smith Lowlight Ignitor lenses after my final session in Bosnia.

I caught one more fish in the session, in the same manner as the prior one, for a total of twelve. They were a mix of grayling and brown trout with seven on dries and five on nymphs. I certainly made some early mistakes, but I settled in and stuck to my game plan. My result was good enough for a second place in the session behind former world champ David Arcay of Spain. During the rest of the sessions on beat 16, the average number of fish caught was four and the average finish was 19th so I was pleased with how the first session turned out for me. Even better, my teammates had also excelled in the first session and we got off to a good start in 3rd place.

So there you have it, a quick recap of my first session in the 2015 World Fly Fishing Championship. While most who are reading this blog are not competitive anglers and don't have to make a specific plan to fish a 150 yard beat for a three hour session, I hope you found some utility in my thought process, approach, mistakes, and successes in my description above. If you want to hear more about the rest of the tournament, let me know and I'll be sure to mix the rest of my sessions in with future posts. If it's boring old news you can let me know that too.