The very first World Championship Fly Fishing competition held in the U.S. took place on the waters around Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1997. The event had been around since 1981, but this was the first time the U.S. had hosted “the Olympics of fly fishing.”
Jackson Hole, Wyoming. That would be home court advantage USA?
Nope. The USA finished dead last.
It’s taken 18 years to live that down, and a fly fisherman from Enterprise was on the comeback team.
This year, the World Champion Fly Fishing Team USA took its first team medal, a silver, at the 2015 World Championship in Bosnia. Spain claimed a team gold, Bosnia/Herzegovina took the team bronze — and Devin Olsen of Enterprise, a member of Team USA, took an individual bronze.
The event was held June 16–21 on the rivers and lakes of Jajce, Bosnia. Fifty countries participated in the 2015 event with five entries from each country.
Olsen’s medal is the second individual medal won by an American. Jeff Currier, of Victor, Idaho, took the first individual bronze in Spain in 2003.
Olsen made the USA Team by competing in two to three regional competitions per year and a weeklong national competition every other year. He made the team in 2006 and went to his first World Championship in 2009.
Olsen started his odyssey toward Olympic-style fishing when he was just 9 years old.
“My dad put a fly pole in my hand when I was 9 and for me it became a personal pursuit,” he recalls.
His first fly, with which he caught his first fish, was the same one he won the medal with — a humble flying ant.
He undertook his journey to excellence in the way that suited him best, by watching others and emulating them — but he hurries to point out that there are dozens of ways to learn and none is better than the other.
“I’ve known lots of people who learn to fly fish in many different ways: guided lessons, watching videos, trial and error,” he said.
“The thing that people need to realize is that it does require a higher level of ability and it does take time. Most of the people I know that do really well at fly fishing do it all of their free time.”
Olsen, who is a fish biologist out of the Joseph Nez Perce Fisheries office in Joseph, does just that — fishes all of his free time.
“I consider all of my days on the water to be practice fishing,” he said. “I try to fish at least once to twice a week and try to have a specific goal each day I’m out; something I want to get better at, or a technique or situation I want to work on each time I go out.”
The practice paid off, but Olsen will be the first to admit there is always a bit of luck required in a competition.
At the championship event, fishermen are assigned “beats” (sections) along the river or in the lakes and have three hours to fish that spot. They are judged solely on the number of fish they catch.
In Bosnia, competitors fished four rivers (Pliva River, Sana River, Vrbas River and Sanica River) and one lake (Pliva Lake).
The way the competition works is that competitors rotate through four or five bodies of water and fish against people who are fishing the same water body at the same time.
“It was pretty cool the way it (the winning moment) happened,” Olsen recalls. “In my last session I had six fish out of a poor section of river. I knew I had to fish well enough to keep a medal. With four minutes left I had six fish on the board and I knew it would come down to my last fish. I sprinted back, doing my best Usain Bolt impression, and with two minutes left started fishing the best spot on my beat. I made half a dozen casts using an ant dry fly.
“In the last 30 seconds, I had a brown trout rise to my fly. My seventh fish ended up being my bronze medal fish. He was only about nine or 10 inches, but it was enough.”
How does one feel when one wins a world championship medal? A lot of ways, Olsen said.
“It was my seventh world championship,” he said. “I’ve fished against all these amazing anglers from around the world, some of them have been at this 15 years and still haven’t had the chance to get a medal — to get one for myself was pretty humbling and pretty exciting.”
He’s hoping to recreate that heady mix of emotions in 2016 (Sept. 11–17), in Vale, Colorado when the World Championship returns to the USA for the first time since the Wyoming debacle. If ever there was a time for Team USA to fish like pros — and get lucky in their beat assignment, this will be it.
Olsen is doing his part to prepare; he’s fishing.
The good thing about Wallowa County, he said, is “there is a lot of variety here. I can do anything from fishing the Grande Ronde to hiking into a tiny little lake; it keeps it interesting.”
Since he’s a married man with a 19-month-old child, he often fishes with wife, Julia, and son, Levi, in tandem.
“We absolutely love it here,” he said.
And his game strategy for next year in Vale?
“You can never stop learning,” he said. “The more you’re on the water the better off you’re going to be.”
But it wouldn’t hurt for Wallowa County fans to cross their fingers for luck.