Later this month, the Coastal Conservation Association’s summer-long STAR tournament kicks off in Louisiana. Once again, there’s a fly fishing division. Awards will go to the anglers weighing in the heaviest speckled trout in the East and West Divisions.
For many longtime flycasters, this tournament has presented a dilemma.
Fly fishing has often been described as the “quiet sport.” For the fly angler, time on the water is contemplative. There’s you and the fish. Nothing else seems relevant.
The combination of art (the fly) and science (casting) in a peaceful environment is what has attracted participants to our sport for centuries.
Competitive angling seems a contradiction to all that fly fishing represents. Indeed, many traditionalists look at tournaments with utter disdain.
Further, killing a fish for prizes doesn’t jibe with their staunch conservation code.
But to quote Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changing.”
Our sport continues to grow among the age 18-to-35 demographic. The vast majority of these young anglers readily embrace a contest.
While interest has spiked in recent years, competitive fly fishing does have a long history.
The first tournament was held in Scotland in 1880. In the United States, the oldest event is the Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament held in the Florida Keys. It began in 1964 as a spin, plug and fly format but in 1972 was changed to fly fishing only.
Today there are dozens of fly fishing tournaments across the country.
One of the largest is the Salty Fly Tournament held in Tampa. Registration is limited to 100 two-man teams, and it often fills up within hours after registration goes live. The waiting list is nearly as large as the field.
Another prestigious clash is the Jackson One Fly in Wyoming. Held in September, it attracts over 200 anglers from across the country. Administered by the Jackson Hole One Fly Foundation, proceeds from this tournament benefit conservation projects in the Snake River Basin.
Conservation hasn’t taken a back seat. Rather, technology — specifically digital photography — has made contests and conservation compatible.
The vast majority of these events are CPR — catch, photo and release. Anglers are given a tournament token. When a fish is caught, it’s placed on an approved measuring board. A photo is then taken of the fish, with the token, fly, and part of the tackle in the background.
At the “weigh-in,” the angler submits the camera’s SD card. Or in the case where a phone camera was used, a USB cord to download the photo. Awards are based on length of species.
Fractions of an inch can be deducted if the fish’s mouth is too wide open, or if the fish is misplaced on the board, or for other photo issues.
The CPR format has resulted in growth of regional tournaments as well. They range the gamut of species.
The Mystery Fly trout tournament is held on the Lower Mountain Fork in southeast Oklahoma. Bass On The Fly is held on Lake Fork in Texas. And BreamFest is held in Clinton, Miss. The last two take place this month.
In Louisiana, the oldest tournament is the Rio Grande Fly Fishing Rodeo hosted by the New Orleans Fly Fishers club. Going on nine years, it will be held this year on Oct. 10.
Louisiana’s two largest kayak fishing clubs, Bayou Coast and Lafayette, each have a year-long CPR tournament for members with a separate fly fishing category. Awards are given for longest redfish, speckled trout and bass, with the biggest prize for “Fly Slam” — a total of all species combined, based on points.
If you’re thinking you might want to be a professional fly tournament angler, better find a large box to live in. Because you’re going to be homeless. The entry fees for these contests range from free to $50, with the median being close to $20.
And don’t count on big sponsorships. The industry is one-tenth the size of conventional fishing and sustaining on tight margins.
Prior to getting into CPR tournaments, get rigged up right. Get the right measuring board. Most events don’t allow folding or collapsing boards. For freshwater, the Hawg Trough is recommended. For saltwater, where long fish are common, metal boards are okay, but floating PVC boards like the YakGear Floating Fish Ruler or the Full Moon Ruler are best.
Consider adding a 3-inch cross section of pool noodle over your rod handle. This will prevent the rod from sinking if it falls overboard. But it also makes a great background for placing your fly for the CPR photo.
Finally, make sure your fish is handled properly. I’ve found metal fish grips to be harsh, so I’ve moved on to floating plastic grips like The Fish Grip. The grip comes with a cord that you can tie off to your boat cleat or kayak so the fish can swim while it awaits its picture.