Brian Wheelock didn’t choose the piece of water he found himself fishing Saturday afternoon. It had been randomly assigned.
Nor did he choose when to fish. He had three hours to catch what he could. Precisely at 2 p.m., Wheelock strode into Butternut Creek and began flicking his flies — a bead-head Walt’s Worm and a Prince variant — into a deep run, following the drift downstream and keeping the line tight.
After several uneventful drifts, the line hesitated. Wheelock struck, his rod tip quivered briefly under the pull of a hooked trout — but then stopped. The fish had gotten away, and Wheelock’s frustration was evident.
Nobody likes to lose a fish. But when you’re competing for a spot on the national fly-fishing team, every fish counts, and every “dropped” fish is an opportunity lost.
Wheelock, 39, a millwright for General Electric Co. who lives in Amsterdam with his wife, Carole, was among the 28 anglers taking part in the Fly Fishing Team USA north regional competition in the Syracuse area Saturday and Sunday.
He’s an accomplished angler, so Wheelock did not get skunked during his three-hour session. The fishing was slow the first two hours, producing only a couple of trout, but between 4 and 5 p.m., shade crept across the water and the fish started biting.
Competition fly-fishing is on the rise.
There have always been local contests, some for good causes and others just for fun, but there seem to be a lot more of them now than there used to be.
The national team has existed for more than a decade. And now there’s a recreational league, with teams, standings and everything: the Trout Legend Premier Fly Fishing League, which includes several hundred members in the eastern U.S.
Wheelock is a member of Trout Legend Team Ammala, named for a German outfitter and tackle company that specializes in the long, light rods favored by competition anglers.
The league’s comps are a little less intense than Team USA events, but the fishing is still taken seriously.
“The Trout Legend events are awesome,” Wheelock said.
Competition fishing is fun in a different way than strictly recreational angling. Instead of leisurely, it’s intense. You don’t fuss over which fly to use; you tie on a tried-and-true pattern, usually a nymph that sinks well, and cast it to every possible spot. Participants enjoy the challenge of having to make the best of water they may not have chosen on their own, and of catching fish regardless of circumstances — heat, cold, high water, low water, big hatches or none at all.
At the Team USA event Saturday, I actually measured Wheelock’s fish. I was there to cover the tournament, but one of the volunteer controllers who vouch for each competitor’s catches didn’t show up, so I filled in.
Each time Wheelock caught a trout, he walked to where I stood at the edge of the creek and I scooped the fish out of his net (the competition anglers use really big nets) and laid it down in a measuring tray, made of PVC pipe cut in half lengthwise with a sticker delineating inches and centimeters.
To count, a trout had to be at least 18 centimeters, or just over seven inches. I recorded its length, species and time of day, and added my initials, per Fly Fishing Team USA rules — which is to say, FIPS Mouche rules. The Federation Internationale de Peche Sportive Mouche is the world body that covers national and international fly-fishing tournaments.
Wheelock and the other competitors were vying for a chance to make the national team at the U.S. championship tournament, and possibly even a spot on the American team at the world championship.
For Wheelock, this wasn’t the year. He finished 22nd with 11 trout. Leonard Sauers of Lake Placid finished 20th with 45 fish, and Ryan Wilbur of Auburn finished 25th with eight.
They were in good company. One of the country’s best-known competition anglers, Devin Olsen of Utah — who will travel to Norway in August for his fifth consecutive world championship — also failed to make the top 10 last weekend. He finished in 11th place.
Wheelock will be back in Central New York June 29, when Trout Legend Team Freestone and Team Ammala will host a one-day comp on Nine Mile Creek in Camillus. The field is open to the public, but limited to 32 competitors; to learn how to register, visit www.troutlegend.com and click the Find A Tournament box.