Most anglers interested in competitive fly fishing only think of rivers when they think of a venue for a competition. This isn’t the case at all. Rivers play a massive role in the competitive scene and are integral to the success of an individual or the team, but there is another side to that coin, stillwaters. There are a lot of moving parts to a fly fishing competition on a lake, but I’m only going to get into one of the aspects of it. Angler placement within the boat and why some areas might suit you better or worse in your first large stillwater competition.
When it comes to stillwater competitions that happen in boats you are going to find them in the West or Midwest regions opposed to the Northeast and Southeast regions. This is due to the fact that there are more lakes and impoundments that have fish, rental boats, access, and infrastructure around to host a competition. They host bank competitions throughout the country and boat based comps as well but the majority are being held in the West and Midwest competition regions at the time of writing this blog post.
Competing out of a boat has its own challenges besides just the fishing. Angler experience, boat placement, organization, drogue management, line control, wind assessment, and more are all factors to consider when choosing where to sit for your sessions in the boat.
Most competitions consist of two, three hour sessions, with a break for lunch in between. In each of those sessions each of the two anglers has control of the boat for 90 minutes. This means you get to choose where each angler sits, who gets control of the motor, what side to deploy the drogue, etc. When it is not your turn for control you can not oppose those decisions unless there is a safety concern. This isn’t usually how it goes though at the local or regional level. Most of the time it’s a democracy and whomever is voted to control the boat gets to for the whole session. In my opinion and lots of other competitors’ opinions, having control of the motor is where you want to be as much as possible. That fine control can be a massive advantage not just against the guy sharing the watercraft with, but against the other competitors as well.
There are a few reasons I would default to not controlling the boat. First, you have never used a boat with a motor before. This can add stress to you when you are already stressed about what could be your first competition. No one wants to be sharing a boat with someone who doesn’t know how to start the motor, steer, and battle wind. Next, would be if you have little knowledge on stillwaters or that stillwater specifically. If I had a choice between a local that has fished the lake 3 times already this year versus myself who may have just practiced on a similar lake a month ago I would default to the local angler with the experience to direct us where to fish and let them take the throttle. The next reason I wouldn’t want control of the motor would be if I was bad at captaining a boat. If you want to have control of the boat more often than not you need to be skilled with the tiller and know how to navigate a boat. Just because you used a motor before doesn’t mean you’re good at it. There is a popular local lake that is used in competitions, and it’s basically a flooded forest with trees just under the surface, poking out of the surface, and everywhere in between. If you aren’t skilled and run the risk of damaging the boat or being caught up in obstacles or not able to set up the intended drifts no one, including yourself will want you at the stern of the boat. Finally, if you’re an asshole. If you don’t like to discuss where to go and why, if you act like a dictator, you’re rude, act unsafe, don’t instill confidence, or just off putting in general don’t be the motor guy. Luckily the boat mates I’ve had have been nothing but pleasant and reasonable. If any or all of these apply to you and you want to control the motor of the boat then I would suggest you fix what you can and until then stay off the motor during competitions. Some of these anglers have been competing for years and have real shots at being on team USA or are trying to keep their place on the team, being able to recognize that and not let that be ruined by an inexperienced motor operator is important. Let the angling be the deciding factor that gets them or yourself a slot on the national team.
I alluded to it earlier, but once you have all that down and you’re ready for control of the boat, why should you lobby to have control over the boat rather than the other guy with you? First, you get to angle the boat in the most advantageous angle for yourself. Remember, don’t be an asshole, but also remember it is a competition. Next, you get to control the speed of the boat. Some places have speed limits or the motors don’t have enough power to go that fast, but it also means you get to go as slowly as you want if you’re trying to get into position. In fly fishing competitions there is allotted travel time and you don’t want to still be traveling when the fishing time starts. Next, you have something to do while traveling to fishing locations on the lake. When you don’t have control of the motor you are not allowed to do anything besides sit there and maybe take some pictures or eat a snack. The rules don’t allow you to change gear, change flies, mess with tangles, look over flies, etc. It’s about fairness and because someone who is working the motor and can’t do that the person has to just sit there and do nothing. Lastly, it gives you implied authority. When you are in charge of the motor that implies you know what you’re doing, so act like it. This is a great opportunity to guide and help a new competitor and give them an experience that they want to have again. Be a good steward of this still stigmatized part of fly fishing so it can be a part of the sport for years to come. We don’t want to give fly fishing competitions a bad reputation in the industry.
As I mentioned before I like the motor and the control of it, in spite of the added stress and potential line hang ups. I think it’s worth it just for the potential added advantages it gives you at lower level competitions and the practice it gives you when you are hopefully competing at nationals or worlds. Stillwater fly fishing competitions are loads of fun. The lakes here in Oregon and around the West are impressive and beautiful, so any excuse to be out there is great. They can be overwhelming to new anglers and even new competition anglers, because of that they tend to fill up slower and have more people drop out leading up to the competition. This means you can usually get a slot as a new competitor. Hopefully this will help inform your decision when you do go out for your next stillwater competition.