In session two of the 2019 World Fly Fishing Championships I found myself on the Mersey River. The organizers tried hard to provide a lot of opportunity for anglers to catch fish in the river sessions. One strategy they used was having the longest beats I have ever seen at a world championship. Longer is certainly better in most cases except that by having long beats the river can change dramatically in terms of fish density and water type within the boundaries of the venue. Also, continuous beats of sufficient length may not be available and so the venue may end up consisting of multiple separated sections of beats. In some cases that may not matter much but in others it can matter a lot.
The Mersey River venue was split into two groups with beats one through nine being many kilometers upstream of beats 10-23. After the first session’s results, it became clear that there were a lot more fish available in the lower beats where seven anglers finished with more than ten fish and the session was won with 18 fish by Jean Benoit Angely of France. The upper beats produced mostly low single digits and one blank. The other difference was the composition of the fish. The upper beats had only brown trout while the lower beats had rainbows mixed in with the brown trout. The rainbows tended to hold in heavier water where they were easier to catch on a nymph rig while the brown trout held tight to structure or in deeper slow water.
By rule the beats aren’t told to competitors before they arrive at a venue in order to avoid any method of cheating, such as stocking a beat for a competitor before he gets there. Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous but things like this have happened in prior world championships, so the rule is a good one. In the case of the Mersey River, while we didn’t know our beat when we left the hotel, we did have to be put on separate buses since one bus went to the upper beats and another went to the lower beats.
I was told to get on the bus that went to beats one through nine. This meant I knew from the minute I got on the bus that my chances of a high finish in the session weren’t good. This is something you get used to at world championships or you give up after a couple of them if you can’t handle that reality. While we all wish we had similar opportunity, it’s simply impossible, especially when beats have to be supplied for all of the countries that end up at a world championship.
I ended up drawing beat eight which was the beat that blanked session one the day before. When I arrived, my controller told me my beat was 1.5 km long! Obviously, there is a host of pros and cons to having a beat of that length. The main issue is deciding where to focus your efforts. In most world championships we receive beats that are 80-200 meters long and I end up covering every inch of potential holding water I can find sometimes twice. That’s impossible to do with 1500 meters of water in a three-hour session.
Scouting my beat took a lot of time considering I walked from the bottom to the top and back again while trying to identify holding water as I went. My beat started with a massive pool at the bottom. As it moved upstream the river split around an island. The main channel had two really nice looking runs on it while the side channel had some nice looking pocket water. The side channel also split into several braids. I scouted one and saw a couple of fish in it. The other braid went over the top of the island through some brush. I didn’t scout this braid because I didn’t want to spook fish in it. This ended up being my worst mistake of the session.
As the beat progressed upstream there were more nice runs and some lake size pools. If I had received this beat on most rivers I would be jumping for joy inside. There just weren’t many fish in this section of the river though so all the nice holding water in the water I could ask for didn’t end up meaning much. I ended up splitting the beat into seven or eight likely looking pieces of water which I wanted to cover. This meant I had about 20 minutes to spend in each spot before running upstream to the next one.
I rigged up a 10’ 8” 3 weight T and T Contact with a micro leader for a nymph rig, a 10’ 3 weight T and T Contact with a dry dropper on a micro leader, a 10’ 6” 3 weight Cortland MKII with a streamer on a micro leader, and a 9’ 4 weight T and T Paradigm with a leader I could switch between dry dropper and a single dry.
From the beginning of the session, the wind was unbelievable. Winds ripped down from the plateau above between 20-40 miles per hour the entire session. It never let up even for a few minutes! Needless to say, this made casting accuracy and presentation a little more than difficult.
I started at the bottom of the beat where there was a massive deep pool. It was the kind of pool I could have spent 90 minutes on alone trying to re-rig and cover it from shallow top deep and tail to head. I covered the bottom 2/3 of it with the four-weight making long casts to seams and foam lines along the rock wall on the far side. I re-rigged a few times trying to work progressively deeper once it became clear that no fish were going to come up for the nymph in mid-column. When I reached the top shelf coming into the pool, I switched to the micro leader nymph rig and worked across the shelf to the eddy on the far side. By this point I checked the time and it was already 30 minutes into the session. It was time to get moving despite having no fish.
The head of the pool at the bottom of my beat.
I moved into the main channel around the island and crawled my way up it to avoid spooking fish at distance in the clear water. This was a low gradient run without a lot of broken water. Given this water type, and the wind which hampered casting with the Euro rigs, I stuck with the four weight for this run and most of the rest of the beat. There was some enticing water in the two runs in this channel including tree overhangs, deep foam lines, and hard seams. It was the type of water that screams trout at you in any trout river on the planet but if there were fish in this channel, I couldn’t make them eat.
After I fished the main channel I backtracked and went into the side channel. I switched back and forth between the Euro leader dry dropper rig and the straight nymph rig to cover all of the riffles and pockets among the boulders. Even though I’d covered three consecutive great pieces of water with no fish to show for it, I still believed there would be a fish in each new pocket I covered. Either you believe in a situation like this or you give up literally or figuratively. Despite my belief, no trout materialized.
A juicy looking run on the main channel. The type of water I would love to have in any beat but I couldn't catch fish here.
Keeping a low profile and making fishless casts into lovely water. Photo By Bret Bishop.
I rounded the corner into the braids. There was a braid that came over vegetation which blocked my view of its source. It looked like a channel similar to one on the Leven River where I watched our team captain Bret Bishop catch a couple of fish on a Royal Wulff during practice. I figured I might as well give it a try since nothing else had worked to that point. I switched the rig on my four weight to a single dry fly rig featuring a CDC version of a Royal Wulff. I worked up the small channel making upstream casts to where there was a downed tree with a small depression in the riffle beside it. As soon as I cast beside the tree a 13” brown rose and ate my fly confidently. It was one of those simple yet profound moments where I was shocked that this thing called fly fishing still actually works. Thankfully my reflexes took over without breaking the fish off or missing it because I’d been staring at a dry fly for long enough without any response that I wasn’t as I could have been.
I brought the fish back to the controller relieved that at least I wasn’t going to blank. However, with hind site I badly wish I would have continued up that small channel, despite not being able to see where it went or what water it featured. Pablo, from the Spanish team, caught eight from my beat in the final session. I asked him about his session after the tournament, and he caught all of his fish from this channel. I may never have a 1500 meter beat again which features a set of braids, but if I do, you can bet I’ll be scouting each of them one way or another.
A view of the island near the bottom of by beat. The small channel where I caught my first fish is actually flowed over the top of the green bushes in the upper right of the photo. This is where I missed out on my best fishing opportunity.
Bringing back my first fish. You can see the small channel behind me where I caught it. Photo by Bret Bishop.
Avoiding the dreaded blank and measuring my first fish. Photo by Bret Bishop.
After I caught my first fish, I turned my attention back to the main channel and re-rigged back to the dry with a deep dropper for the next deep pool. I started fishing where the pool deepened just a bit and there was actually discernable current. The tailout was shallow, slow, and featureless except for the heavy chop which the wind was creating. About six or seven casts in on my way up the pool another brown trout rose from deep in the pool to take my CDC Wulff, which I had moved back to a dropper.
I didn’t find any more fish in the juicy looking head of the pool. It seemed the brown trout in this river either wanted woody cover in the side channels or they wanted cover in the form of depth.
There was a deeper glide above the preceding pool. As I got into position to fish it, I saw a rise a few inches from the opposite bank near a foam line. Given how hard the wind was blowing, I have no idea why this fish was rising but it rose twice more as I switched my rig back to a single dry. During practice I had caught fish on a baetis dry that was just a gray version of the Pliva Shuttlecock. If I saw a fish rise, I was able to get them to eat this dry every time unless I bungled the cast or drift. I put the shuttlecock on for this fish and on my second cast it ate confidently. It was a nicer fish that I had to follow downstream a bit but I was able to put it in the net for my third fish on the board.
Netting the fish that rose to my CDC shuttlecock. The foamline along the far bank in the upper left of the photo is where it was rising before I hooked it. Photo by Bret Bishop.
After this fish I switched back to the dry dropper and kept working upriver trying to stick to no more than 20 minutes in each likely spot. I fished through a shallow broken run, a pool, and another smooth run with no success. I then moved into one of the best-looking pools of the beat, which was formed by a left turn and a downed tree in the river.
I only had 10 minutes left to fish at this point, so I took a step every two casts and tried to progress through the best-looking water without getting lead feet. As I neared the mid-way point of the pool, where it was still very slow and deep, a giant head rose and ate my Wulff pattern. It was the type of slow big fish rise that is burned into my head from my trip to New Zealand last year. I ended up fighting the fish for probably three or four minutes trying to keep it out of rocks while only fishing 7x tippet. I got several good looks at it and it was the largest fish I hooked during the competition. I would have estimated it in the neighborhood of 22-23 inches. When the fish got the point that is was starting to wear down it came to the surface and breached at a weird angle. The hook pulled out and that was that.
The pool near the top of my beat. The large fish I hooked was downstream to the left of the photo in the continuation of the foam line.
I didn’t have a chance to mourn the fish as I had six minutes left to finish fishing the pool and run to the last spot near the top that I wanted to fish for the last several minutes. Unfortunately, no other fish took my flies, and I ended the session with three fish for a mediocre 12th place finish. This put me in 57th place overall with a long way to climb in the last three sessions. Our team continued to have a bit of a roller coaster with Josh Graffam taking a 2nd place on Penstock Lagoon, Michael Bradley finishing 11th on the Meander River, Lance Egan finishing 13th on Woods Lake, and Pat Weiss finishing 4th on Little Pine Lagoon.
My beat on the Mersey went on to produce two fish in the third session and zero in the fourth session, followed by Pablo finding eight in the side channel in the last session. My session here offered lessons on scouting and maintaining a rhythm to coverage of a beat.