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DOUBLE MEDALS IN BOSNIA AND LESSONS FROM THEIR CAPTURE

BY DEVIN OLSEN

I think most children who grow up watching the Olympics dream of hearing their national anthem played for them as they stand on the podium one day. I suppose I was no different as a child and I would watch with awe and envy as American athletes would receive their medals while the Star Spangled Banner was raised and played behind them. Though I have been blessed with a modicum of athletic ability, I have not been given the drive or ability required to achieve that dream in an Olympic sport. However, when I learned in 2005 that this country was represented by Fly-Fishing Team USA at the World Fly Fishing Championships, I thought I might have a chance to make that dream come true with the sport I’ve loved more than any other since I was a child. When I was fortunate enough to make the 15-man roster in 2006, I set out to achieve two goals: a team and an individual medal at a FIPS-Mouche World Fly-Fishing Championship. I made the world championship squad in 2009, when we fished in Scotland, and have been incredibly fortunate to fish with my teammates in each championship since. But after three 5th place team finishes in the last four years and a personal best of 11th place in Italy in 2011, I honestly began to wonder if our team or I would be able to achieve our metallic goal(s). That all changed in June 2015 when Fly-Fishing Team USA earned a silver medal and I earned an individual bronze at the 35th FIPS-Mouche World Fly-Fishing Championships in Bosnia.

Going into Bosnia I have to admit that I did not have high expectations for the team or myself. After seven world championships I’ve learned just how good the teams are from many of the European countries and have come to revere their consistent finishes despite variable waters and conditions. I also thought the ultra clear spring-fed Bosnian rivers and the one fly only local angling regulation did not suit the strengths of myself or some of my team members. Of the six-man team, five of us (myself, Lance Egan, Norm Maktima, Josh Graffam, and Russ Miller) are from western states where we spend most of our time fishing higher gradient western rivers and productive lakes and reservoirs. In most of these western waters fishing 7x as we did in Bosnia would be asking for a break off. We also mainly fish multiple fly rigs and break out single fly rigs mainly for dry flies or for complicated pocket water. Pat Weiss, from Pennsylvania, spends most of his time fishing limestone buffered rivers in PA, but none with the clarity we found in Bosnia in my experience. I thought our captain/coach Bret Bishop was actually best suited to the conditions given that he guides for Silver Creek Outfitters in Sun Valley, ID. On top of the unfamiliar conditions, unfamiliar icthyofauna were also present in the form of European grayling (Thymallus thymallus). While Lance, Norm, and I have had prior experience with European grayling from previous championships, Pat, Josh, and Russ were relatively uninitiated in their foreign habits and none of us have had sufficient time to come to “know” their specific behaviors like we have with our trout at home. On the other hand, most of the European teams are very familiar with the “lady of the stream”, as grayling are often referred to in the UK. In short, I think the deck was stacked against us…..but everyone loves a good underdog story.

Since this is a fishing blog though I’m guessing readers would rather have some useful advice rather than a full regaling of our Bosnian experience. So here are nine tips based on lessons or reminders I had during my Bosnian experience and from my years competing for Fly Fishing Team USA. Some of the tips are specific technical recommendations while others are overarching approaches to fly-fishing success and progression.

#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. At the World Fly-Fishing Championships, competitors draw a random beat (short stretch of stream), which they fish for three hours. By the fifth session that stretch of water has been fished four times in the last several days by world-class anglers. It is often the anglers who find ways to catch fish in every water type who find success. This requires solid all around angling skills and the ability to adapt to a beat whether it consists of a 20-foot deep stagnant pool or a 10-inch deep riffle (I had both in my final beat on the Sanica River and my first session on the Sana River). It seems to be a common misconception that competition fly-fishing just consists of a bunch of guys “Czech nymphing” or Euro nymphing”. This couldn’t be further from the case. While in Bosnia I used nymphs, dry flies, and streamers to catch fish on the rivers and the lake (a different and completely neglected discussion in American fly-angling). Too many anglers I know have a monomaniacal addiction just to their thingamabobber, their dry flies, or their giant articulated streamers. They are so concerned about fishing the way “they” want, or the way that the blogs and magazines tell them is “cool”. Instead, if we anglers worried more about what method the fish want, I think we would be more successful and we would find that variety is the spice of fly fishing as well as life. Different fish within a river will eat a different fly with a different method at different times. I consistently find, even in the same riffle or pool, that I can catch fish on dry flies, nymphs, or streamers, that I was not able to catch with another method that I fished only minutes before.

#2 How are you setting your hook? If you are missing fish try a different angle, alter your timing, and/or the length and speed of your setting stroke. The grayling in Bosnia not only had small mouths but they often were cautious when rising to a dry. I found that a smooth deliberate upward hook set resulted in a lot of missed takes on dries. I found better hook ups when I set the hook in a sharp and quick wrist flick which was parallel to the water and towards the back of the mouth. Since returning home, the last few weeks I have found a similar pattern with trout here in Oregon. I’m now working on committing it to muscle memory instead of having to think about it each time I’m fishing dry flies.

#3 This tip relates to #2 and might seem insulting to some of you. The tip is simply to THINK! If you are presented with a situation while you’re fishing and you are unsuccessful, stop and analyze it, find a logical reason why you failed, and then find a solution to the problem. See my scenario in tip two as an example. Many anglers rely on the flies the fly shop told them to use or the technique a magazine recommended without seriously contemplating the underlying reasons behind their success or failure on the stream. One of the fundamental reasons I love fly-fishing so much is the intellectual requirement that it brings to fishing if you are to be consistently successful. It’s why sitting on a bank dunking Powerbait would produce a severe case of ennui but I can’t stop thinking about fly-fishing between outings

#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. Learn how to catch fish in water you’ve already fished and you will stretch your technical breadth and ability. You will often also be surprised at fish you missed the first time through. In my final session in Bosnia I had a very difficult beat. I knew it would make it difficult to hold on to a medal despite the first place position I entered the session with. The short stretch of skinny holding water I had was at the bottom of my beat. I fished up with nymphs and only netted two fish. I then fished back down the same water with a dry fly and netted three more with a couple more missed chances. I then fished the spill of a small diversion dam at the top of my beat with less success than I expected. I returned to the bottom of my beat with two minutes left and landed a brown with 30 seconds to go on the same dry fly I had fished earlier. That fish earned me a bronze medal. However, I’ll always be left wondering what might have happened if I had returned to that water earlier. Maybe the color of my medal would have changed. Since returning home I reaffirmed this strategy over the July 4th weekend. The stretch of river I fished behind my campsite yielded a decent number of small brook trout and resident bull trout in my first pass through with a caddis dry and perdigon style mayfly dropper. I took a break for dinner with the family and fished back through the water by nymphing with a rubber legged bugger. I was pleasantly surprised the second time through by fish in many of the spots I had caught fish in during the first pass and some in places where I had drawn blanks as well. In addition, some larger bull trout graced my net who didn’t fall to the dry and dropper.

#5 Find a fishing partner who is better than you and fish WITH them. I highlight WITH because many angling partners I know split up when they arrive at the water or they hopscotch each other from holding spot to holding spot. Essentially, splitting gas is their only reason for going together. For the first few years of my path through competitive angling I spent as many days as I could fishing with my teammate Lance Egan. I learned more from taking turns with him on small Utah streams in a few days a month than I would have in years on my own. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to fish with a lot of other great teammates. Regular outings on the water with Glade Gunther, Kurt Finlayson, and Josh Graffam, among others, expanded the breadth of my angling ability and provided me with thought provoking ideas which I’ve tested and learned from since.

#6 Observation in and around the water is key. Often it is the sights out of the corner of your eye or the rise you hear outside your field of vision that translate into an extra fish or more. I’ll provide two examples: #1. During my fifth session in Bosnia I was crawling on my knees up the skinny water at the bottom of my beat. At the bottom of my vision I saw a large trout that darted out from under a weedbed that was only about 2/3 of a rod length from my knees. At first I thought I had spooked the fish but then I realized that it had left its lie for a food item. The weedbed had obscured me from the trout’s vision and all I could see of the fish was its protruding tail. It took four fly changes to get the pattern and the weight correct but eventually I was able to drop a nymph off of the steep shelf within the trout’s view but without hitting bottom. The brown ate confidently and was my largest fish of the session. I only saw the fish through a combination of luck, close observation, and a low profile (see tip nine). #2. During my lake session I started with an intermediate line thinking I would try and tempt some of the fish that were rising before the session to a fast pulled lure (UK lingo for streamer or other glitzy attractor fly). The fish quickly stopped rising as the boats scattered, however, and after several other anglers caught fish I felt I had to make a change. I knew I had to catch a fish while they were rested from the night before as the majority of fish had been caught in the first 45 minutes in previous sessions. With a considerable amount of angst I put my head on a swivel and watched three anglers who had caught fish nearby. I noticed each one was retrieving with a medium speed rolly polly (hand over hand retrieve) and the angles of their fly lines suggested a medium to fast sinking line. I switched to a DI5 sinking line and 10 minutes later my first fish went berserk with five heart-stopping jumps before I was able to land it. My second and last fish of the session came about 20 minutes later. After that I only witnessed two other fish being landed in the session. The time I took to observe other anglers and make an informed change led to the fish that gave me a 3rd place in the session. It was risky time knowing that I likely had a limited window to catch active fish but it allowed me to capitalize on the short remaining window of productive fishing. This was especially critical because most of the anglers in my group blanked the lake and there is no worse fate in a session.

#7 Fish banks, under structure, and in shallow water. Especially from spring through fall, fish will often be found outside of the obvious pools and comfortably deep runs that most anglers frequent. It is the secondary water that is overlooked which oftentimes holds the easiest fish to catch. I repeatedly found this in Bosnia and my first two sessions provided examples. In my first session on the Sana River, 40% of my fish ate nymphs and the other 60% ate dries. Regardless of the method, 60% of my fish were within two feet of the bank and/or in water less than 18” deep. Several were near or under trees and it required side arm or bow and arrow casts to reach them. The slow deep flat pool at the top of my beat held few fish. In my second session I fished a channelized section of the infamously difficult Pliva River through the town of Sipovo. In my previous experience with water of this type, often the best holding water for fish is adjacent to the bank because it has rip rap which provides just enough friction to create slower holding water. During my rig up time I walked the bank and spotted a fair number of fish (some holding behind sewer pipes entering the river!!!). I spent my entire session crawling both banks. Much of the time I did not even enter the water. This approach allowed me to coax 15 fish and a session win from a river that was producing single digits from most beats. When you are on your local water, focus on the water less fished and you can tell Robert Frost afterward that it isn’t just the road less traveled that makes all the difference.

#8 Tie flies! My dad actually taught me to tie a wooly worm before he put a fly rod in my hand so tying flies has always been an integral part of the sport for me. I’m often surprised how many fishermen I meet who fish a lot but do not tie flies. Tying flies does require time, which many of us are severely limited by. However, it is my opinion that not tying flies is a counterpoint limitation to your success on the water. Tying flies allows you to customize a suite of patterns to your exact situation(s) on the water. It allows you to employ hooks with shapes and wire you have confidence in, which is especially important if you’re fishing for large fish and/or with barbless hooks. You can tailor the weight, size, color, etc. to the exact water you are fishing. Furthermore, you can tie simple patterns, which may not have fly bin appeal but have plenty of fish appeal. I still haven’t had a fly pattern accepted by a fly manufacturer, despite submitting several dozen patterns. I’ve been told my flies do not have sufficient bin appeal or catchy enough names. Thankfully, I find that simple patterns are appealing to fish even they supposedly won’t sell in a fly shop. I also find that many of the patterns in fly shop bins have a laundry list of materials, which serve to catch the eye of customers and require drastically more time to tie, but they often are less appealing to fish, especially after a dozen people have walked out the door with the same patterns to fish the same water.

#9 Be cognizant of the angle of your approach and your profile. Bosnia provided some good and poor examples of my execution of this tip. In my first session back on the Sana River, I spotted two browns and one grayling near the bank I was rigging on. Unfortunately, I either had to approach them from a trail cut straight to the water and on a high bank, where I would be perpendicular to or above them, or I would have to cross the river at an entrance below and spook the bottom of the tailout. I chose to first option to avoid spooking unforeseen fish and spooked the two trout I’d spotted nearest to me with my movements and casting over them. I only managed to catch the grayling below because I maintained a kneeling position, which was out of its range of vision. In my second session, described in tip six, I crawled my way up the bank without entering the water. This approach allowed me to catch fish that were tight to the bank from within their blind spot downstream. I was also able to capture several fish fishing sideways drifts in deeper water just off the bank, because the low profile I maintained either did not alert them to my presence, or it suggested that I was not a sufficient threat.

There you have it. Nine tips I’ve learned through my years with Fly Fishing Team USA because I either wasn’t savvy enough to come up with ten or just because my fingers are tired. Hopefully, they will serve you well and help you in your quest to catch a few more fish.

I have to give a huge thanks to my teammates Lance Egan, Josh Graffam, Pat Weiss, Norm Maktima, and Russ Miller. Without them I would still be left with goals unfulfilled and I’m confident that any one of them could have earned an individual medal as well if they had been given my draw. My teammates names are not celebrated at large within the press of the USA fly-fishing scene. This is largely because their abilities are far greater than their egos and they’ve chosen to focus their effort at becoming better anglers rather than telling everyone on the internet how amazing they are. But these anglers are incredibly skilled and I feel honored to have my name associated with theirs. I also have to thank our team captain Bret Bishop for his leadership and angling skill and wisdom and our team manager Jerry Arnold for making our trips to the World Fly-Fishing Championships possible. Our team and I would also like to thank Sage for being our fly rod sponsor and Jerry Siem specifically for designing rods that meet the wants and fancies of our diverse team members and their methods. Lastly, my long-suffering wife Julia has supported me through every competition along the way, even after the birth of our son Levi. I cannot thank her enough. I also want to congratulate the home Bosnian team on their bronze medal and the Spaniards on an amazing gold medal performance. Further congratulations are owed to Nikola Trebjesanin of Montenegro for his silver medal, and to Piotr Marchewka of Poland for becoming the 2015 world champion.