Lessons Learnt

by Joe Riley - Presented from Issue 91
Some time ago, in fact while I was away at the World Championships in Poland, the Editor, Mike Stevens received an email from a reader asking the following. ‘I was only just thinking today that of all the magazine’s I’ve read, I’ve never read an article on how competition anglers differ from us recreational guys. If they have three hours on a given stretch of water or lake, how do they approach it? What skills do they have that we lack? My hunch is they’re much quicker at zeroing in on what the trout are doing, where they’re feeding, what they’re feeding on etc. I suspect I try a certain fly setup or location or depth for too long.

Rather than doing an interview I thought I would run through some thoughts, and what it takes to be successful as a competition angler. Hopefully this will be close to the mark and answer the questions of the reader suitably.

Australia is the lucky country we all know that, but from the anglers point of view we don’t know just how lucky we are. Our fishing licence in Tasmania comes for the price that you would pay for a day of fishing in Europe. Further in fishing rivers, although you pay a fee, generally you are stuck to one river and probably one beat about three hundred meters long at that. An angler overseas will need to fish every fish every square foot of water because he has no choice, on rivers that is the approach competition anglers need to take. Likewise on a lake an angler will purchase the right to catch 6 trout, once they are bagged you are finished even if it only takes an hour!

Furthermore I started competing in the early 90’s, at this stage when I started I was advised that if an angler caught 1 fish in each of the 4 x 3 hours sessions they would medal in the top three if not win the competition. Since that day the constant drive for knowledge, advances in technique and equipment have seen a massive increase in the numbers of fish now caught in order to win a competition. In the two rounds of the 2011 Tasmanian Championship I recently caught 32 and 28 fish respectively. Where once an angler required one or two fish to win a lake session now you generally need 6 or more, on a river you need about 12 or more often up to 20 fish for a session win.

Finding Fish: Trout live by simple rules, they need food to grow and survive and they can’t expend more energy in catching food than they get from it, so they will seek the lies of a river that place them near abundant food while not exerting their selves too greatly. The pockets and seams in the faster current either at the head or where the current gathers pace again at the tail. These pockets and seams provide the ideal environment as food is concentrated here and the trout can sit in the seam at the side of a fast run and quickly dart out to take food from the run as it comes past. Good competition anglers can identify these hot spots and target them thoroughly as they hold more fish than the general angler will realise.

Likewise on a lake finding concentrations of food is a key to finding fish, looking for wind lanes, areas where food will concentrate in the downwind drift from points, behind weed beds or off shallows where food is hatching, all of these are likely spots for a competition angler to target.

While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea fishing sinking fly lines on lakes has now developed into an art form such are their effectiveness in the hands of a skilled angler. The use of these lines around the areas I’ve just mentioned, matching the sink rate of the line to the depth being fished initially and the depth the fish are found at once located is a skill which a good competition angler seeks to use to his advantage as quickly as possible.

In a competition sessions are generally three hours, on lakes in Tasmania I will generally move every 15 minutes if I am not touching fish with regularity, and during that 15 minutes change depth and style of retrieve constantly to identify where fish are. Once a patch of fish is located they are worked over to make the most of the opportunity with the correct retrieve and depth of flies.

Multiple Flies:

In Tasmania the current rule is that up to three flies can be used on a leader at any given stage. Competition Anglers will in most cases use a considered mix of three flies and range of colours in the leader to identify the ‘colour of the day’ or the type of fly trout are taking. On lakes when no hatch is happening and fish are on the top, bead head woolly buggers in various sizes and colours make up a lake leader for me, Woolly buggers are a proven fish killer and will perform time and time again in general conditions.

On rivers I usually limit flies to two rather than three however again with nymphs I will use two different patterns e.g. a hares fur nymph and a pheasant tail nymph with tungsten beads of an appropriate weight to get to the fish, paying attention to whether a particular fly is being picket out on the leader.

On the issue of flies, while there are stand out performers and flies that have stood the test of time, good presentation to the trout is far more important than the fly. In a competition many patters will catch trout, but if the best fly in the world is clumsily slapped onto the water or not fished at the right depth or with the right retrieve it will not. The fly is only part of the equation but the mix of colours and patterns fished well helps to maximise your result.


Competing in fly fishing is no different to competing in any other sport, particularly at elite levels, practice and training is required to hone skills. A professional golfer or tennis player would not go out once a fortnight and hit a ball, they hit practically thousands in constant practice. The same applies to competition fly fishing, practicing a large set of skills, wading , casting, playing fish, netting fish, tying leaders and knots smoothly and quickly, all are very important and all require regular practice. For any sport constant focus on skills and processes, identifying why things go right or wrong, noting mistakes and eliminating them from technique are all vital to success, fly fishing is exactly the same.

The one thing that no competition angler wants to do is lose fish, one fish can make the difference between Hero and Zero. In every competition there are several anglers who ‘would have won if they hadn’t dropped that fish at the net’. Practice is paramount in reducing the mistakes that cause these lost fish, when the pressure is on and you get one fish one the end of the line the temptation is to get it into the net quickly, of course this eagerness will lead to pressuring the fish too greatly, trying to drag it across the surface and have it flip off the barbless hook. Having a set process for playing fish in given circumstances and playing the fish according to that practiced format will see the greatest chance of landing it. This is one of the major keys to success.

New Techniques:

In the mid to late 1990’s the Loch Style of fly fishing and multiple fly techniques were widely introduced through the information sessions of visiting English competitor John HORSEY. These techniques were eagerly taken up and developed by competition anglers and resulted in catch rates increasing exponentially.

Likewise on rivers the ‘French Leader’ a long leader of 10 meters fished with a long soft rod has been a closely guarded secret amongst elite anglers overseas. Much subterfuge, study and practice with the odd failure here and there along the way has now seen the ‘leader to hand’ technique developed for Australian conditions. Again this is a 10 meters leader fished upstream with a long soft rod and only leader extending from the rod. The technique allows gently presentation of nymphs with absolute contact, truly deadly.

These are some of the key aspects to being a successful competition angler, along with these preparation, fitness, and hydration during sessions all play an important role in winning competitions. Certainly finding fish quickly is important this is achieved by using systems to find fish and offering variation in flies which assists in quickly identifying what will maximise your opportunities. Making the most of opportunities by using a refined system of practiced techniques and processes is vital.

Many of these lessons can be applied by the recreational fly fisherman to increase catch rates, but my favourite saying applies; “The more I fish the luckier I seem to get!”

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