One of the reasons I love to fly-fish is the relaxing rhythm of the sport—the total removal, in place and purpose, from the stress and competition of work. So when I was invited to participate in the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) One-Fly contest last September, my first concern was that competing in the sport might nullify its healing powers. My second concern was that I wouldn't be as good as the other contestants. But the official literature for the contest insisted that this would be a different sort of competition: "While some fly fishermen may find the idea of competitive fly fishing repugnant and against what fly fishing is all about, let us point out that this is a friendly competition."
Friendly. I found that reassuring. And I admit I needed all the reassurance I could get; after agreeing to fish on one of the 36 teams in the One-Fly, all my insecurities about my fishing ability came roiling to the surface, like so many trout in a feeding frenzy. The so many trout that over the years had ignored my attempts to "match the hatch" of insects on the water with just the right artificial fly.
But in this event there would be no "matching the hatch." The great equalizer in the One-Fly is exactly that: one fly. Each angler is allowed one fly for each day of the two days of competition; the four anglers on each team do not have to use the same fly, but all 144 contestants face the same daunting problem. Once you have lost that fly, be it a Double Humpy, a Royal Wulff or a Madame X, to any obstacle, be it a tree, a rock or even a fish, you are out of the competition for the day. You may continue to fish, but the trout you catch won't count on your team's score, which is based on the number and size of the fish you hook.
There is not a fly-fisherman on earth who has not been humbled by a low-hanging branch or a submerged boulder. Depending on the difficulty of retrieval, an angler often chooses to snap off the fly and tie on a new one. In the One-Fly, however, contestants and their official guides will go to great lengths to retrieve that one precious fly. One of my guides, for example, brought along pruning shears and a saw, as well as a snorkel and mask. But more on that later.
The One-Fly is an invitational event put on annually by the One-Fly Foundation in Jackson, and it is designed to promote conservation projects, including catch-and-release fishing. The use of a barbless fly is encouraged, since it does less damage to the fish and speeds up the process of getting the fish back in the water. In the One-Fly any fish deemed mortally wounded by the judges results in penalty points for the contestant. I bring this up because it is crucial to the moral of our story.
I was invited to participate by the captain of our team, Silvio Calabi, the editor of Fly Rod and Reel magazine. He had put together a team of journalists (the Journos), but by the time contest day arrived, two members had dropped out. We filled in the blanks with two fishermen on the alternate list: David Kern, senior vice-president of Zebco Corp., which manufactures tackle in Tulsa; and John Garrison, a 36-year-old from Knoxville who introduced himself as a doctor and a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. At a Jackson Hole restaurant where the team gathered for a get-acquainted dinner, Garrison told me an intriguing story about working undercover for the Drug Enforcement Agency, work that had resulted, he said, in threats against his life. As we were leaving the restaurant, Calabi whispered to me, "I'll bet that there's more to this guy than meets the eye." Much more.
I had arrived in Jackson Hole two days before the competition. I first wanted to have a chance to fish for the native cutthroat trout without the pressure of cutthroat competition. And so I had a delightful day fishing on the meandering Snake River, learning the way the trout strike (fast, with no slack allowed in the line) and where they tend to feed (near the banks, naturally, under fly-eating trees). The weather was sunny and mild; the Grand Teton range, a dramatic backdrop. But the weather was about to change dramatically, dropping a curtain on those mountains and, for that matter, on the whole Jackson Hole valley.
At the cocktail party on the eve of the contest, weather was one of the main topics of conversation. If it rained, we wondered, would a wet fly, fished underneath the surface, work better than a dry fly fished on top? If it snowed, someone asked, as it had in 1988, would the fish be feeding at all? All around the room the fly question was being discussed in conspiratorial tones by the contestants, who included the governor of Wyoming, Mike Sullivan, and sportscaster Curt Gowdy. There was also some speculation about whether the rain would prevent actress Heather Thomas from fishing in a bathing suit this year (it would).
Scott Sanchez, a local flytier, was working the room, dispensing special-ordered flies from a small box. I was among those waiting to buy. I had ordered a couple of Royal Trudes, a fly that can be fished wet or dry. In a field of contestants that included expert guides from New Zealand and casting champion Joan Wulff, I figured I would need all the help I could get.
I awoke at six the next morning to the sound of rain. Groan. We all met at Nellie's, a local restaurant, for breakfast and pairing up with guides. Each guide was to act as judge (monitoring our flies and measuring our catch) and boatman for two contestants from different teams. We would fish from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a break for lunch, on various assigned stretches of the Snake. Before leaving for our assigned stretch, a local guide said to me, "Don't worry about which fly you choose. It's not the fly that counts; it's how it's fished." Little did he know he had sent my insecurities rocketing into the stratosphere.