The Big Fish Off – Beware of the man with one gun

Story and Photography by Bob Wyatt

He started it. Just wouldn’t let it lie. Threw down the gauntlet one night on the Virtual Fly Shop’s Chat Room. Actually, Lance Filimek of Elko, British Columbia, suggested something of the sort as we were discussing our intention to hook up on the Elk River later that year. Lance said something like, it would be interesting to watch Hans and I fish together, each with his favourite fly. Hans Weilenmann is a regular on the VFS, and he’s got a good trout fly his CDC & Elk.

It’s a simple and deadly tie, based on Al Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis, he says, but with no palmered hackle and employing a CDC feather wound as a body. It has all the characteristics of a great fly. Hans, himself, isn’t shy about extolling its elegance, simplicity and effectiveness. Why should he be? I mean, if you come up with a good fish catcher, you’re almost duty bound to press it onto everyone you meet, right? Hans says his CDC & Elk is his best dry fly, wet fly, or streamer, in any situation, anywhere. You’ve got to admit, that’s what you call an all-rounder. I’m worse. I’ve been banging on about my own Deer Hair Emerger for a couple of years now, to anyone who will listen and to some who won’t. Frankly, my pals are sick of hearing about it. They’ve all stopped asking what fly I’m using because they can’t stand it when my eyes glint and that knowing grin spreads across my face. Oh no,’ they cry, Pu-leez, Wyatt, don’t start.’ I don’t care. These days, like Hans with his CDC & Elk, I don’t use much else, and I’m catching more fish than I ever did. So it’s like, okay, you don’t have to use the DHE but you should.

Anyway, old Hans was feeling frisky that night. He picks up on the implication in Lance’s remark, and says, May the best fly win, Wyatt. Right there for everyone to see. Now, of course, there’s no going back for him and no way out for me. I have to say here that I don’t really think competition has any place in fishing. I think it spoils everything, and I know Hans feels the same. Even friendly contests have a way of putting an uncomfortable edge on what is essentially one of the purest forms of pleasure and happiness. Besides, this is just the kind of pathetic male posturing that makes women pity us. I thought about this as we chatted amiably on the CR that night, and tried to think of a way to allow both of us to climb down gracefully, avoid silly contests, and just fish together, like the mature and sophisticated adults we are.

Well, that’s what I was thinking at any rate. What came out was OK, Hans bring it on’.

So, two months later, there we were Hans, Fran Freisen, and myself rigging up on the banks of the Elk River on a sultry August morning. Hans was over for the big fly fishing conclave in Livingstone, Montana. Fran was out from Vancouver. They had been driving all over the western states for two weeks straight and were really excited at the prospect of finally getting in some serious river time. Just as we are slapping each other on the back, starting toward the water, Fran chirps: So, this is the day of the big fish-off, huh, guys?

It was at that point that I realized that the reason men are such idiots is mostly because women make us that way.

Hans didn’t respond to that, but I saw a wee smile cross his lips as he turned toward the river. Confidence, I wondered? Superiority? Oh my god, I’m thinking, what if he really does have a better fly than me? I remembered grimly the old time gunfighter’s maxim; Beware the man with one gun’.
The worm of competition has begun to turn, and I look down at the scrap of fur and deer hair hung in the keeper ring of my old RPL. Hans notices this and says, So, Bob, you’re a keeper ring guy, I see, in what I regard as a tone pregnant with meaning. Me? NO! I mean, not usually, just today, because, you know, um, this is a cageless reel, and the leader bites into the line when I bring it around the reel, uh, like you do. . . My voice trails off. I’m thinking, what’s this. . .Hans psyching me out here?

With cool deliberation, Hans hooks his little CDC& Elk in the stripping guide of his GLX, tightens up on his rare and spectacular Waldron fly reel, and falls in behind Fran and me. I’m thinking, surely, he’s not doing anything it’s just me. I’m the one who’s feeling competitive here. C’mon, Wyatt, shut up and fish.
Just to show everybody that a fish-off is the furthest thing from my mind, and I’m like definitely not competing, I go into my chilled-out guide mode. Pointing out riffles and slots on water with my rod tip, I position myself casually downstream as Fran and Hans work out their lines and limber up. Fran hooks a fish immediately. One for the CDC& Elk, she shouts you know, in case I might have somehow forgotten this was a contest.
Of course! shouts Hans then hooks a fish from the same riffle.

With some relief, I see that they are both ten inchers. Small fish on this river. Still. . .
Now, since I’m trapped in my laid-back guide impersonation, I can’t just tear off downstream and start frantically thrashing the water, you know, like I want to, so I point out another particularly nice patch alongside a log jam. Hans ambles over, wades into position and goes to work, fishing downstream dry. . . expertly. I watch him lay out a beautifully controlled loop (Hans is a tournament level caster), presenting the little fly perfectly with his hand-plaited furled thread leader, mending, fishing through the eye of the pool in an impeccably drag-free drift.

Nope.

Five more casts. . .still nope. Hmmmm.

I’m well downstream of the sweet spot on this pool, so I flip out my leader and a few feet of line with as much nonchalance as I can muster. The leader is lying on the surface like a frozen garden hose, and the DHE has doubled back in a sloppy tangle. Nevertheless, a fifteen-inch cutt sails in out of nowhere and eats the fly in a slam-dunk rise only two feet off the bank. He’s on, and in a couple of minutes is unhooked and back where he came from.
Nice fish, I hear Hans say from upstream. Outwardly impassive, on the inside I’m doing a Jim Carrie, A-W-W-W-RIGHT!’ But, then I think hey, these are guests here, on my home waters; that’s no way to feel. Then again, I am ahead on size and that feels good.
We fish down the big river for a quarter mile, Fran hooking up with another fish, a nice one too, on the CDC& Elk. Hans has no more action but, still doing my guide impersonation, I manage to nail two more chunky trout before we have to meet Lance back at the bridge. We all head downriver to a run I had reconnoitred the afternoon before, and where I had taken a cracking twenty-two inch cutt, the best trout of my summer (on a hare’s ear bodied, white wing DHE, in case you’re interested). I quit after that fish, not wanting to spoil it for today. I put Hans in the spot where a couple of good fish had shown. He works the run carefully and intently.

Nope.

Hans fishes his way up the run and I step in downstream of him. No more fooling around. I really want him to hook up with some fish now. However, at this juncture, the planets swim into alignment and the trout gods wink. The air is right, the light is right, the water is right, and the fly is right. . .everything. I’d been out for five weeks, after a week in New Zealand and another in northern Scotland, fishing myself stupid, and right then couldn’t give a hoot whether I caught another trout all day.
You’ve been there. You know what I’m talking about, right? I was in the zone.’ I couldn’t miss. All I had to do was put that DHE down somewhere, anywhere, in the middle of the river, and chug! Five fish hooked in a row, all over fifteen inches. Three of them I managed to bring to hand and release. While this was going on, I noticed with concern that Hans had not hooked a fish. Uh, oh. I reeled up and climbed out of the river, walked up to Hans and told him to come down below. There were more trout in that stretch, I knew, and I was starting to feel some real anxiety. I was really regretting that we’d ever mentioned a stupid contest.

I’m rising a few, Hans said, but I’m missing them. Lipped a couple is all.

I said, Well, you’re probably just a little rusty, Hans. Timing’s off. You’ll get em. Just chill out a bit. There are some nice ones down here. Don’t be too fast on the old trigger. Let em take it.
I certainly didn’t need to tell him that, and I didn’t want him to think I was being patronizing, but I wanted him to know that I was feeling for him, that the fish-off was now officially off. I meant it too. He hadn’t been doing much trout fishing that season, didn’t have his eye in yet, and this stupid fish-off thing was maybe making things worse, putting him on edge. Well, you know how this one goes, right? Poor Hans struggled for fish the rest of the day. I fished behind him and continued to rise fish after fish. He got a few fish, one a cracking twenty incher but, let’s face it, this was my day.
In the late afternoon, I put on one of Lance’s Filimek’s big, beautifully tied grasshoppers, just to get away from the one-fly contest aspect of the day. As we were winding down, wading across the river together, I casually tossed the fly toward shore. Chug! Another cracking trout from an insignificant pocket tight to the shore we were approaching. There was a collective groan from the group, including me. I’ve been on the other end of that kind of thing enough times, so I know what it’s like. Lance, of course, was delighted. He hadn’t yet fished that grasshopper pattern of his, and he just beamed. In fact I’m sure I caught that glint in his eyes that said we’d be hearing more about that hopper. We’re all a bunch of hopeless loonies.

Later in the trip, after I’d headed back to Scotland, Hans and Fran had some great fishing on the CDC & Elk, and on the same water we fished that day and a couple of other streams in the area. I just wish we hadn’t started that ridiculous one-fly fish-off, on the only day we had to fish together. It certainly didn’t prove anything with respect to the flies. Hans is a superb fly tier and angler, and as sure of his fly as I am of mine maybe more so, and with good reason. We’ll never settle which fly is best. First, because it doesn’t matter. Second, because it’s impossible anyway. Fly fishing just has too many variables; it’s too subjective an experience for such a positivist approach. The main thing is, I’d fish with Hans anywhere with his flies, too. I’m sure he feels the same way as I do about competing in something we love, and certainly isn’t the slightest bit interested in a stand-up rematch.
You know, just to settle this best fly thing once and for all.

Editors Note: Bob Wyatt lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he teaches art. He comes home to British Columbia as often as he can, to fish the Elk. . . and hold on to his reputation as top gun. He is also regular contributor to Flyfishing and Flytying (UK) (http://www.flyfishing-and-flytying.co.uk/), and Home Waters magazines.