At 4:30 in the morning, after many hours of restlessness and only about two or three of sleep, I finally got up, made myself a cold bowl of cereal, and watched the weekend farm report bleary-eyed and in my boxers. I already knew this was going to be a long day.
By 5:00 I was on the road, traveling down highways 60 and 14 toward Viroqua, stopping only to pick up Red Bull and Mountain Dew at the gas station. I don’t think I’ve ever had Red Bull that wasn’t already mixed with Jagermeister. But lack of sleep, an early morning, and a full day’s worth of fishing ahead makes you do crazy things. I rolled out in front of Driftless Angler just as the sun was making it’s appearance, and came across Jan Hulstedt, who had been there for a half hour already and was looking a lot better off than I was. He graciously offered me a shot of 5 Hour Energy, but having already downed the Red Bull and half a bottle of Dew I didn’t need my heart to explode.
Then we got down to brass tacks. Jan popped open a small fly box and dropped a buggy, nymphy-looking fly into his palm. This was what he would be using for Pete Cozad’s Driftless 1 Fly. In the next hour a lot of my interactions with folks in Driftless Angler revolved around the flies we’d be using to compete in the tournament, and a lot them looked buggy and nymphy. Hell, mine was buggy and nymphy.
The rules for the 1 Fly are pretty simple. You choose one fly, tie it to the leader, and keep fishing until it breaks off (technically you choose two flies: one copy is given to the event organizers for posterity, the other is eventually given to the fishing gods at the bottom of the nearest stream). Working in a team of four, you earn points by catching fish. Lose your fly, and you’re done. Team with the most points at the end of the day wins.
This was the second year of the Driftless 1 Fly, the brainchild of Pete Cozad from Driftless Angler. I heard about it last year from a few folks who frequent the shop, and the idea sounded both intriguing and intimidating to a guy who will switch flies in between every cast if I think it will make a difference. This year Pete personally invited me to field a team, and I quickly rounded up the guys from the shop and managed to somehow convince our store manager to give all of us a Saturday off in order to compete. That alone might be the biggest win of the weekend.
By 7:00 Driftless Angler was abuzz with sixty-plus folks, talking strategy and trash and hopped up on caffeine and sugar and antsy to get started. We were led upstairs one team at a time, gave an introduction for the camera (I’m hoping that, in the finished product, there will be snazzy graphics and it’ll look like were introducing the starting line-up for the Green Bay offensive line), met the two stream judges that would be observing our team (in our case, Zak Jude and Rodney Cain) and then stood around uneasily outside the shop waiting for the 8:00 start time to arrive. We were given one final reminder to be safe and not to do anything stupid, and then a caravan of cars loaded with anglers peeled out from downtown Viroqua, a scene vaguely evoking Cannonball Ball or Smokey and the Bandit (and as long as I’m in Burt Reynolds Appreciation mode, I’ll throw in Gator, too).
We decided a long time ago that we’d split into two groups and tackle separate streams during the day. Mike, Dane, and Zak headed north of Viroqua. Bill, Rodney, and myself headed south. By luck my preferred starting spot was untouched. It was still early, still a cold nip in the air, and we casually readied ourselves for the day. I paid careful attention to the knot when tying on my one-and-only fly, testing it gingerly to make sure it would hold up for the duration. Normally I would use 4X or 5X nylon leader here; on this day I used 8lb fluorocarbon.
Tied to it was a fly that has no proper name, although I’ve started calling it a Carpetbagger since the original nickname I drummed up is too vulgar to repeat. In truth it is a poor clone of Ben Lubchansky’s Nosedive, which I’ve watched Matt Sment use to deadly effect on the very same stretch of water earlier this season. I was going for versatility in the nymph/streamer category and hoping I didn’t go overboard with a heavy tungsten beadhead. Bill was using a black beadhead Krystal Woolly Bugger tied by his daughter.
By 8:30 we were wadered up, loaded down, and tied on. The sun was looking over the valley between thin strands of cloud cover. Maybe it was all of that sugar and artificial colors running through my veins, but I finally began to wake up; today was going to be a good day to fish the Driftless. The pastured section was empty as we entered it, and we walked downstream to see what kind of trouble we could get ourselves into.
My goals for this event were minimal: 1) don’t end up last; and 2) don’t lose my fly before I had the chance to land a fish.
If you want to learn something new about fly fishing, or yourself, I highly recommend entering into a 1 fly tournament. I recommend pretending you’re in a 1 fly tournament. I recommend that when you hit streamside, tie on one fly, and then throw the rest of your fly box downstream and wait until it has drifted out of sight before making your first cast. Relying on that single fly will make for a completely difference experience.
I twice snagged the Carpetbagger in a tree; and not in an easy-to-reach place, but juuuust far enough above my head that it required some creative thinking and a little patience to extract it. I blew up pools a multiple occasions to reach a fly lodged in sunken wood or jammed between boulders, a situation where I would otherwise eagerly break off to avoid spooking fish. I stuck with a pattern much, much (much?) longer than I normally would to find fish. I held steadfast to that same fly when fish began rising with abandon to a blue-winged olive hatch in the afternoon (though, had I some 5x leader with me, I may have intentionally broke off to fish dry). I was much more conservative in my approach, skipping fishy spots that may have risked a fouled fly in favor of better casting opportunities.
Most importantly, I slowed things down, thought a lot more about how to fish and where to place the fly, and found myself getting frustrated less. I didn’t have a multitude of fly patterns and approaches open to me; only one fly and a handful of tactics that would be effective. By the same hand, I didn’t need to second-guess whether what I was using or doing was the right option, or even the best one; it was simply what I had. There was something very zen about that. It put the focus on the fish, where it belonged, rather than the fisherman.
The fly survived until the end of the day. As we left our last spot, I hesitated to snip the fly from the line to stow the rod. After cutting it away with as much respect as any angler has had for a lure, I stuck it atop my newest lucky fishing hat, putting it out to stud in hopes it will spawn its successor in time for next year’s rematch.
It was 9:30. I felt bad for getting well ahead of Bill as we fished upstream. I’m used to fishing alone; I prefer it actually. I don’t like to match my fishing habits to other people, and I have found few companions who sync up well to my impatience and rapid pace. I told myself to stick with Bill and fish every hole in tandem, but I was now about two runs ahead of him. I stopped, feigning deliberation in figuring out my next step, and waited for him to catch up. I hollered out to him as he approached.
“Why don’t you take the first crack at this next hole? It’s just up around this bend?”
He yelled back. “I’m out.” He’d lost the fly.
“The pressure’s on…” Rodney joked.
You know the climatic Death Star attack scene in Star Wars? You remember that face Luke make after his childhood friend Biggs is blown away by Darth Vader (and after Wedge already pulled out because his X-wing was hit) and he realizes he’s all alone and the last hope for the Rebellion? I think I made that face.
Well, good news was now I don’t need to adapt my fishing approach to match Bill. Good news was we still had yet to hit the best water on the stretch we were fishing. Good news was I had 8lb test leader.
Now, it’s important to note that we’re fishing barbless flies for this tourney. That’s fine with me—I always go barbless for trout anyway—but I mention it because, when you fish barbless, you run a greater risk of losing fish.
Fifteen minutes after Bill lost his Woolly Bugger I had barely caught sight of the first hooked fish of the day when it wriggled free and disappeared, the rod dying in my hands.
There are approximately three levels of frustration an angler reaches on the water, and they are discernible from how intelligible their reaction is. The first level skips right past formalities and goes straight into four-letter words. The second is composed of primal sounds and other non-word utterances. The third produces no sound at all, and the angler just simply stands there, unmoving for what feels like eternity, contemplating the sometimes futility of fly fishing for trout.
This last one is the most severe. It happened only once on Saturday, after I had a nice brown halfway in the net before it flopped free, took off downstream, and didn’t come back. Bill and Rodney paid their respects, and we moved on.
I don’t like losing fish any more than the next guy. I liked it even less knowing I was being scored for it. However, that first lost fish with a good sign, since I expected it to be there. Up until this point we had nothing in holes where I expected to find something. The fish were here, and at least some were willing to take more than a look at the Carpetbagger.
A few holes further upstream and I finally connected with and landed the first fish of the day, a nice brown coming in just over 11 inches long.
I ended up landing seven fish on this stretch of water by lunchtime, at which point we turned around and walked along the highway back to the car to grab a bite to eat and plan our next move. We still had a good four-plus hours of fishing before we needed to get back to Viroqua. I missed a few fish, but I’d take seven on any given morning, which included a couple of nice brookies. Fish seemed to be moving, the Carpetbagger seemed to be enough to fool them, and I was hopeful for the afternoon.
After some streamside lunch we high-tailed it to my second choice spot of the day, and to my luck (and surprise!) it was unoccupied. This stream meanders through a quiet valley and despite plenty of public access and improvements I don’t think it gets it’s fair share of pressure.
It was a hour or so past noon, and fish were on the rise. A great rise, the kind I’ve been dreaming of since January. BWO hatch. The Carpetbagger did not look like a BWO. The fish agreed. In hindsight, I was now being kind of an asshole, bombing a heavy nymph into calm waters and spooking every riser in a twenty foot radius. I should have turned to Rodney and Bill and said, “Let’s fish!” and gave up the 1 Fly to catch a mess of trout on top. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the day, except that I could have given two other guys the chance to fish a fantastic afternoon hatch.
But I was selfish. A little too hopeful, maybe. Delusional, probably. I kept at it, pool after pool, blowing up runs and snagging my fly on the rocky bottom. I only managed to land a single fish the entire afternoon, although considering how deeply colored this beautiful brown was, it was worth the remaining hours of frustration.
And just that like that, my Driftless 1 Fly experience was over. Sure, we hit one more stream before the day was over, but the result was the same as the last: rising fish and nothing landed. We ended up turning in about a hour earlier than needed, because I was personally tapped out. Back to the Driftless Angler and from there a rendezvous at the American Legion for beers, fishing stories, and some final bravado before dinner and announcement of the winners.
I didn’t stick around for the closing ceremonies. I was exhausted. However, I heard that Team AZN ran way with the contest, and it wasn’t even close. Their top angler scored 73 fish on his own. This was their second year of running away with it all, and it is well deserved. From comparison, our entire team managed to land only 20 fish during the day.
So we didn’t win. But that never was the point, anyway. Cozad’s Driftless 1 Fly is more than just fishing: it’s a great vehicle to raise money for a good cause. Peter Cozad says this was the impetus behind his creation of the 1 Fly in a YouTube video from last year. All proceeds from the event go toward youth education programs an the Coulee Region chapter of Trout Unlimited. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you know this is something I can get behind. This is something that we, as anglers, all need to get behind.
Of course, winning would be the best outcome. But, this is still pretty good.
If you’re thinking of joining in on the 2017 Driftless 1 Fly, here are my takeaways from this year:
- Make a weekend of it. There was a time I could run hard the whole day on just a few hours of sleep; this is not that time.
- Use split shot. Mike Goeser and I discussed using an unweighted soft hackle fly and adjusting depth using added weight (which, according to the 2016 rules, is legal). I can’t prove it, but with no weight and a good amount of floatant I might have been able to coax some of those rising fish to take a soft hackle.
- Don’t let competitiveness get in the way of fishing. I missed out on a great hatch, even though I pretty much knew the chances of landing fish on the Carpetbagger were slim.
- Don’t overthink it. I was surprised/not surprised that most teams fished the “obvious” streams. There’s a lot of great fishing the Driftless, no need to try and out-think everyone else. Out-run them is another matter.
- Have fun. After all, it’s for the kids!
Tying the Carpetbagger
Hook: 60-degree jig hook, barb smashed down
Bead: 5/32″ slotted tungsten
Thread: 6/0 Pink
Body: Spectrablend Nymph Dubbing, light sowbug, spun into dubbing loop
Collar: Hungarian Partridge