What do insanely-good anglers do that we casual ones do not? What gear gives them “edge”? What special flies?
Well, here’s an interview with Alec Baker, who competes. I stumbled upon his insights while reading the fly fishing Reddit and was struck by his observations: super-insightful, practical, patient. He co-moderates the group, and it now has over 10,000 subscribers.
So, I reached out to him and am thrilled that he was willing to be interviewed for this blog. It’s lengthy, but he shares gear tips, flies, and techniques.
I learned a ton.
How did you get into fly fishing?
I first got into it at age 12 and was taught briefly by my grandfather before he passed. After that I was a three-to-four-times-a-year guy until about 16, when I got my drivers license and started to pick it up again. I fished maybe once a month until I enrolled in a university in New York. I joined a fly fishing club and that got me really into it and changed me from all bass to 90% trout.
How did you start competing?
A buddy and I decided to do a one-day competition in NW Pennsylvania. We drove five hours through the middle of the night to get there. I came in dead last, (which wasn’t the last time that happened!) but had a ball.
After that, we couldn’t get enough, and on the drive home decided to create our own team, Team Dead Drift Mid-Atlantic. I’ve been doing that along with college, where I’m majoring in Aquatic & Fisheries Science, and haven’t looked back.
What’s the best part of competing? Most challenging?
Definitely the people you meet. I’ve met up to 100 people across five or seven states. Only two or three have rubbed me the wrong way. Just a fun time to get together and fish. You hang out with new people every time, since you have a judge following you. You get to travel, so I fish up and down east coast from NY down to Virginia.
The hardest part is the mental attitude of it. So few comparisons I can make. 90% of it is not getting yourself get into your own head. You really have to keep a positive attitude and not let a bad session or losing a fish get to you. While there isn’t much we can learn from Bass Masters in the way they fish, we can learn a lot from their mental approach.
For me, keeping a positive mental attitude came only with practice. When I first started, I was very frustrated for the first year or so. For me, it’s turning that frustration into something positive, to turn off the emotion. You truly have to analyze every aspect of your fishing, and I have to train my mind to think logically; what I’ve been taught in the past, and how to apply those lessons.
All competitors have access to the same rods, leaders, flies. There really are no “secret” flies left. All the info is out there. All the comp guys know what everyone else has in their fly box.
Sometimes things aren’t going to go your way. The best anglers know that, they are able to keep positive after pulling a bad beat or having a bad session, and are able to succeed in various conditions, in various places, and not to give up.
Just a few weeks ago, I fished a competition in a small local stream that had blown out overnight. With five cm of visibility in the water and hardly being able to cross, it looked bleak. We almost changed venues last minute but one person had already lost a couple fish so we decided to keep going. I caught one trout with nine minutes left in a two-hour session. That one fish probably pushed me from 16th+ to 8th overall.
Best ways you’ve found to improve?
Fish with people better than you. I was lucky in that when I started, my buddy had been Euro-nymphing for a year and was able to teach me the basics of it.
He and another fishing buddy of ours were constantly teaching me when we fished, and when I moved to NY, a member of Team USA was nearby, and in the three years I’ve known him we’ve become great friends and fishing buddies. He has taught me most of what I know about competition fishing.
You go fish with them, observe them, and after, ask them about their thought process and why they did what they did. That really helped me when fishing lakes. I started fishing lakes as part of training to compete and was completely lost. Asking him his thought process and how he analyzed and worked a seemingly featureless sheet of water really helped me learned. I’m still terrible at it, but improving.
Your go-to gear and rig?
I fish Cortland’s 10.5’ 3 wt. nymphing rod though it’s about time to retire the old girl for one of Syndicate’s new rods. My leader is designed for Euro-nymphing, but it can cast dries and dry dropper as well.
I use 000 wt. fly line, nail knotted to a nine-ft. section of 15# Maxima chameleon. From there I run two 18″ sections of Cortland sighter material at 0.015” and 0.013”. Tied on to the sighter is a tippet ring and to which I add one or more level sections of tippet.
I can tell you all about my leader now, but I guarantee in two months’ time I’ll have completely changed it! A leader is always a work in progress.
For tippet, I use TroutHunter’s fluorocarbon tippet at 6.5x during competitions and Rio Powerflex for practicing, though I have recently moved more towards mono all the time. For tippet length, I usually do water depth plus 1’.
I also add big blood knots to the sighter and leader, for when I grease up the rig to make it float, the knots give the grease something to hold onto.
I don’t buy super fancy reels, but my favorite so far has been a reel from a European manufacturer (but it’s a mass produced reel so they are available on certain auction sites). The thing I love about it is that it has no incoming click, so I can spin the arbor with one finger and it will pick up 10 feet of line very quickly. Great for getting fish on the reel when you need to focus on fighting them. The downside is that it will spin on you during casting so you have to pinch the line at all times. For this reason it is my nymphing line and reel, and I use a more traditional reel for lakes, dry flies, and streamers.
For my lake fishing, Rio’s Intouch series is absolute gold. I highly recommend these lines to anybody who fishes stillwater.
For fly tying, I can’t get enough of Syndicate’s hooks. Hands down the best nymph jig hooks I’ve tried yet.
For packs, the William Joseph Confluence is a hands-down winner for me. It was the old standby of competitive fishers in the US who have recently moved to other packs, but you can have mine when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.
For nets, Frabill makes an incredible net at a great price. I have one of the largest sizes which allows me to throw my pack, waders, wading boots, rod, and reel all in it and carry it at one go. It’s big enough for steelhead, and makes landing 4 inch trout so easy.
For flies, my main groups are pheasant tail variants, walts worms variants, green weenie variants (for rivers), vampire leeches, and crunchers (for lakes).
Biggest things comp guys do that casual anglers do not?
First, focusing on presentation. That’s probably 90% of the game. I’ve got flies in my box that aren’t anything special, but they catch a ton of fish. You need to try and analyze what’s working. Every time you see a flash, but not a take, stop and think why the fish didn’t take it.
Second, you have to be flexible. I know some guys who will have tried 10 to 15 different flies in the first 20 minutes of a competition. If they’re confident in their presentation, they know to try a different fly or a different weight, and changing up flies until something works.
Last weekend, at a competition, the change up was a key factor. We learned that the fish really wanted a swung fly. Dead-drifting worked, but the guys who decided to try other presentations really did well. One friend caught 81 fish in two hours!
So, constantly think about what you’re doing when you’re on the water. You’re solving a moving puzzle. Once you figure out your different presentations enough to be confident in them, the puzzle stops moving and you can start piecing the rest of it together.
Your advice for someone thinking of competing?
Just go do it! The small competitions are out there, and they’re only about $20 and all over the place. And, there’s always the option to start your own. On the east coast, if you live between Syracuse and Atlanta, there are many events.
It’s a great way to learn how to catch more fish, particularly if you want to learn Euro-nymphing, the dribbling of competitive fly fishing if you will. It’s so hard to learn that technique from a book or a video. You want to see folks doing it, to know how to manage the weight and the slack.
And, it’s not about age. Know that the best anglers in the US are between 16- and 19 years-old. The USA Youth national team is doing very well and has won at the World level several times in the past few years. For two or more years now, the top youth angler in the world has been from the US. They all spend a TON of time fishing together and figuring it all out.
For more information on where to find competitions, Troutlegend.com is a league that has many competitions all along the East Coast, averaging one every two weeks. If there are no competitions you can make it to in that league, you can always try your hand at a Team USA regional competition. In those, you’ll be going up against the best of the best; however it is a bigger buy in. In Canada, InnovativeFlyFisher.com, hosted by Canadian Team Member Todd Oishi, has information on most competitions.
Your future plans?
I graduate from college in December. I’m planning on moving to the PNW to chase chromers and trout, as well as to work on projects in conservation and restoration of anadromous salmonids, especially dam removal.
In the next three to five years, when I have enough time and money to commit, I’ll be making a run to get on Team USA and to eventually represent my country at worlds. That’s the dream of every comp fisher though so I’ll have a hell of a time getting there, but we all need goals!
Please feel free to contact me with questions anytime!