When 32 fly-fishers from around the country converge on the Syracuse area June 1-2 for the Fly Fishing Team USA North Regional competition, Brian Wheelock of Amsterdam will be among them, and he’ll be dead serious — until he gets on the scoreboard.
“I’m very intense until the first fish,” Wheelock said. “After the first fish is in the net, I can relax.”
Wheelock, 39, has fly-fished since he was 18, but only became a competitor this year, when he joined the TroutLegend Competitive Fly Fishing Cooperative, a recreational league that’s been around for a few years and now counts about 400 members, mainly in the eastern states.
He took third place at a TroutLegend competition Sunday in Bradford, Pa.
Fly Fishing Team USA is a separate organization from TroutLegend, but as you might expect, many anglers are members of both.
The Team USA event in Syracuse is one of five regional tournaments around the country. The top 10 anglers from each regional are invited to compete at the national championship for the 15 spots on the national team, and the best five from the national team represent the U.S. at the world championship.
This is the second straight year that Team USA has held a regional competition on Syracuse-area streams. The first time, there was some apprehension among local trout fishers.
“People didn’t understand what a fly-fishing competition was,” said Ken Crane of Syracuse, organizer of the event. “People thought we were all going to run into the best pool and fight it out.”
In fact, he said, the competition anglers are careful not to interfere with recreational anglers, the competitors do a stream cleanup at day’s end (20 bags last year), and they share their skills and secrets with anglers who’d like to up their game, especially those who volunteered at the event.
It may be a regional tournament, but there are only three New Yorkers in the Syracuse competition: Wheelock, Leonard Sauers of Lake Placid and Ryan Wilbur of Auburn. The rest are from Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
They could have tried to qualify for Team USA events closer to home, but some competitors treat travel to a regional comp like a fishing vacation, taking in other local waters — like the Salmon or Delaware rivers — in addition to the competition venues.
“Who doesn’t like to fish a new body of water?” Wheelock said.
Last year’s North Regional was won by Lance Egan of Utah, who Crane called “the Michael Jordan of fly-fishing.” Fortunately for the rest of the 2013 field, Egan won’t be at Syracuse this year.
The 32 competitors will fish three-hour sessions on sections of Chittenango, Butternut and Limestone creeks, as well as Green Lakes State Park. Each angler’s session will be monitored by a controller, who will make sure each trout is fair-caught and at least 18 centimeters (a hair over seven inches) in length.
Each trout caught is worth 100 points, plus another 20 points for each centimeter of length.
As is the way in competitive fly-fishing, the tackle is somewhat specialized. Long rods and fast-sinking nymphs are common, as they are at competitions in Europe, which has a long tradition of competitive angling.
Wheelock generally uses a 10-foot 4-weight, for dry-dropper rigs and streamers, and an 11-foot 3-weight for general nymphing.
When he’s fishing for fun, Wheelock likes the streams of the Middlebury, Vt., area, the Delaware and the limestone creeks near Syracuse. He especially likes them in winter, when the crowds are thin and the fish are big.
“The West Branch of the Delaware has a fantastic midge bite from mid-January through March,” he said. “It’s just you and monster rainbows and browns, taking a size 20 zebra midge. There’s nothing better.”
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at email@example.com.