Back in September, Fly Fishing Team USA traveled to northern Italy for the 38th World Fly Fishing Championships. This was my 10th consecutive world championship. It's hard to believe I've fished in over a quarter of the championships that have taken place. I'm almost starting to feel like an old timer. Our roster, including two new anglers, was compose of myself, Lance Egan (even more of an old timer), Pat Weiss, Russ Miller, Michael Bradley, Cody Burgdorff, our captain Bret Bishop, and manager Jerry Arnold. Glade Gunther from the team also came to be a controller and have a world championship experience.
Fly Fishing Team USA after scouting Lake Cornisello during practice. Our members from left to right: Russ Miller, Pat Weiss, Cody Burgdorff, Lance Egan, Jerry Arnold (manager), Bret Bishop (Captain), Michael Bradley, and myself.
We arrived several days later for practice than we often have so we had to get right to work. We stayed in the beautiful small town of Pinzolo near the uppermost sector on the Sarca River. The town was at the foot of the Brenta Dolomites. This mountain range had some very impressive peaks which were stunning on the few days when the misty haze would burn off. We fished multiple sections of the Sarca River, one section on the Noce River, and a day on the nearby Chiese River. Our guide was Stefano Sabatelli. For anyone traveling to Italy to fish, I would highly recommend him. You can find him at https://flyfishingguideitaly.com/. He also runs a lodge near the Arctic in Finland which we are discussing having me host a trip to. If you are interested in a trip to Finnish Lapland for some amazing grayling and brown trout fishing, let me know as I'm compiling a list of possible anglers as I receive more details.
Our practice sessions went better than they have in some world championships. We found more water to fish without five other teams crowding around us like they did last year in Slovakia. The rivers had a mixture of stocked and wild brown trout with the odd rainbow around. I caught the only grayling during our full team practice days for the venues though Stefano took Cody and Glade to a part of the Chiese River where they were able to find some grayling the day before the championship started. We found the fish favored small dark colored nymphs but also ate large pink beaded Walt's Worms, and Squirmies for good measure. In addition, we had some success with small black and olive streamers during practice and several of my teammates put them to good use during the championship.
The lone grayling I caught during practice.
Session 1 Lower Sarca River in Arco
I arrived at my first session with high hopes. This section of river flowed through apple orchards and a bustling town. Before the session started, the workers harvesting apples in the orchard offered me a giant golden delicious apple. I took it as a good omen and enjoyed the apple straight from the tree. That ended up being the highlight of my morning.
I drew beat 3 on the upper end of the venue. When I scouted it in the early morning glare filled light, I thought I'd drawn a decent beat with a good bit of holding water. There were two flat glides at the bottom of the beat with a fair bit of depth that I thought might hold a decent number of stocked fish. The near side of the river (river right) was mostly shallow other than the bottom glide. Islands and rock outcrops divided it from the river left side where most of the flow and depth occurred. Above the glide on the far side, there was a run that appeared to have a nice shelf followed by a short section of deeper pocket water above up to the end of the beat.
My not so lucky apple before the session started
I planned to target the near side glide and then all of the water on the far side up to the top of the beat. I anticipated I would be able to circle back at the end and catch fish that I had rested. I rigged four rods for all of my river sessions during the championship. The rigs included single dry fly, dry dropper on a Modular Euro-Nymphing Leader, a straight nymphing rig, and a streamer on a Modular Euro-Nymphing Leader
The glide at the bottom of my beat on the near side.
I waded in at the bottom of the beat and slowly crept into position kneeling on the weedy island to reduce my chances of spooking fish. I started with my dry dropper at the back of the glide and worked from back to front. With no success, I switched to my nymph rig and first fished near me and then circled back down and worked the far bank to see if there were any fish hugging it. What I noticed was that the bottom had very small gravel substrate that did not provide any friction to slow the flow. In fact, my flies near the bottom of the river zipped by noticeably faster than the surface currents.
During my initial scouting of the beat prior to the session, the sun was still behind the mountain and there was intense glare on the water which prevented me from seeing the characteristics of the bottom substrate. Looking around after my session started, I could see that all of the rock outcrops in the beat were made of conglomerate rock which broke down into the small substrate on the bottom of the river with erosion. The pattern of turbulence and atypical current speed strata continued as I fished the rest of my beat.
With no fish on the board, I turned around and began to fish the glide on the far side of the river. There was a weedy shelf which abruptly ended in a drop off as it crossed the river diagonally. I expected some fish in the water that looked to be thigh to waist deep below it. About mid-way through the glide I finally hooked my first fish on a pearl ribbed Walt's Worm below a dry fly. It ran around the glide with a lot more gusto than I expected and it took some quick reflex adjustments to keep it from breaking my 7x in the weeds despite it only being 33 cm.
The glide on the far side of the river is seen on the upper half of the photo. You can see the color change where the weed line dropped to deeper water below. I caught my first fish about midway up the glide on the far side of the weeds.
I thought I might get a couple more fish from the glide but none materialized. I moved to the run just above. From the high bank during my pre-session scouting time, this run looked like my best piece of water in the beat. I methodically worked back to front, shallow to deep, and near to far within the run fishing from my knees the whole time. I quickly realized that the substrate in the run was bare bedrock and it had the same lack of friction that plagued the first glide I fished. Not wanting to waste any water I dutifully fished it to its top hoping my doubt in its fishiness would be proven wrong. Unfortunately, my doubts were founded and I neither caught fish nor saw any when I waded through it's clear depths on my way upstream.
The run below the boulder island looked fishy from my scouting perch above the river but had little holding water once I fished it. The water on the near side of the river was all less than a foot deep.
By this point, I was an 1:15 into my session and I already knew my chances of a world championship medal were dashed. I've faced this situation in so many world championships before where the simple roll of the dice of my beat draw made success impossible. At this point I've almost come to expect it at some point during each championship but it doesn't get an easier to face.
Regardless of the situation, I had to move on and try and salvage what I could. I slowly waded upstream to the pocket water above. As I neared the bottom boulder I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. Sadly the morning glare prevented me from seeing the bottom contours near the back of the pocket water and I had gotten too close to a large fish that was sitting at the tailout. Rookie mistake! Not knowing if there would be any more fish in the remainder of my beat, I stepped back to assess the situation and let the fish rest. I watched it for several minutes but it was glued to the bottom showing no interest in feeding. I resolved to fish to it and hope I could target it later again if I spooked it.
I started with my nymph rig and two smallish nymphs that I can't recall which patterns they were. After 10 drifts with no response I switched a fly and then another until I had a mop and a squirmy worm on for shock factor. I watched both of the flies nearly touch the trout multiple times with no reaction at all. I made a last ditch effort with a streamer which didn't work either. Resigned, I moved upstream as the 50 cm+ trout headed for cover.
It's not clear from this photo but the pockets on the far side of the river beyond the islands were some of the only holding water in the beat.
There were several more pockets upstream. I kept the nymph rig the same since Stefano had suggested junk flies to target the stocked trout in this section of river. I worked each pocket thoroughly but neither saw nor connected with any trout by the time I reached the top of my beat. An hour to go with one fish on the board and no more fresh water to work in the beat. DIRE!
The top of my beat ended where the flat water began at the left side of the photo.
I circled to the bottom and repeated the same sequence of coverage in each of the glides. I made multiple rig changes to ensure my tippet lengths and weights were ideal for each piece of water I covered. It didn't matter. I kept going through the motions though not willing to give up.
As I neared the pocket water again I decided to change tactics. I re-rigged my nymph rig to have a single #16 perdigon with a double oversized 3.3 mm slotted tungsten bead. The turbulent currents around the conglomerate boulders provided challenging conditions to attain good drifts and detect strikes. This made a single fly the best choice as long as I could get the fly to depth.
The change proved to be a good one but I wasn't prepared for it. In the second pocket I fished my sighter jumped forward slightly but in my half asleep fishless daze I was a bit late on the hook set. I still hooked the fish but apparently not very well as it came unbuttoned just as I reached for it with the net. I was emotionally numb at this point and laughed while audibly saying "I think I'm going to cry" to no one in particular.
I moved on but only had about five minutes left in the session to cover the remaining 10 yards and several pockets. Two spots later I hooked another brown trout in a pocket on the bank and fought it ever so carefully until it was in the net. I ran it back down around the island to my controller and it measured 32 cm. I only had about two minutes left by the time I made it back to the same area but there were no other miracle trout that appeared.
The change in rig and tactics combined with the warming water temperature of the latter half of the session proved to be important to hook a couple more fish. The one I lost cost me a placing point or two but my fate was pretty much sealed from the beginning. In the top five beats there were only eight fish caught and I had caught two of them earning me 18 placing points for the session. However, the beats downriver near town produced into the double digits. The simple fact was that because this venue was entirely reliant upon stocking with virtually no wild trout available, the disparity in beats was made even greater by a distribution of the stocked fish that appeared equally disparate. To be honest, this type of venue is sad to see at a world championship and both the organizers and FIPS Mouche did a disservice to themselves and to the competitors by including it.
This venue was done for me but its uneven beats plagued Lance and Russ in the next two sessions as well before Pat and Michael finally drew some better beats there in the last two sessions. After my 18th place and only two fish I was sitting in 89th place overall following the first session. It was time to pull myself up by the bootstraps and get over it to help my team rise from the 12th place we started with after the first session.