Harman’s North Fork Invitational – 2012

If you’ve read my book, you know I’m not an avid fly fisherman.  My focus is on catching fish, whatever’s biting in good size and numbers. I consider the fish, habitat and conditions, then choose tackle and lures that permit me to catch the most fish. Spinning or baitcasting rods, light or heavy action, braided or mono lines, I’m comfortable with any equipment that supports effective presentations. However, I’ve always recognized I was missing some good fishing because fly fishing tackle is not part of my standard equipment. At times, small featherweight lures are the best choice for many types of fish. And the challenge and skill required to catch big fish on a fly rod has always attracted my interest. So learning the basics of fly fishing and acquiring the necessary equipment has been on my to-do list for a long time. All I’ve needed to get motivated was an overview of the tackle required, some education on presentation, and reassurance that the time and expense invested would result in productive fishing. Little did I know that a phone call from my friend Curtis Fleming, host of the Fly Rod Chronicles television show, would provide all the motivation needed to peak my interest.

With my good friend and fellow Mountaineer, Curtis Fleming, host of the Fly Rod Chronicles television show on the Outdoor Channel.

Curtis and I share some common family history, raised in the same small area in north-central West Virginia where many of our family members are close friends. But because of the age difference he and I had never met until we chatted on the phone one evening. During our conversation, he invited me to attend a national fly fishing tournament at Harman’s North Fork Cottages in Cabins, WV where fly fishers from across the country would compete for two days while being filmed by the Fly Rod Chronicles television crew. I couldn’t have been more honored to accept the invitation. I knew the area well with all its scenic beauty and great fishing but wasn’t quite prepared for what greeted me when I arrived at Harman’s. The cabins, grounds and conveniences were incredibly nice but the people I met there presented the most favorable impression. The anglers gathered at Harman’s, including many highly-skilled fly fishers from across the country, welcomed me with sincerity and outstretched hands. I quickly made many new friends and was drawn into the excitement of the event.

Team WVAngler – Zach Adkins & Jonathan Paine

The tournament was well organized and staffed. Sixteen teams competed including several anglers from the northeast, West Virginia, North Carolina and from as far away as New Mexico, Idaho and Alaska. A portion of the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River flows through the Harman’s property and had been sectioned off into eight beats, or stretches of water, each clearly marked with bright ribbons. On the first day of competition each two person team and a judge would be assigned by random draw, three different beats to fish for two hours each. On the second morning of competition, each team would fish one additional beat for two hours. At the close of the second morning’s competition, final scores would be totaled and the top eight scoring teams announced. By finishing position, each of the top eight teams would then choose the beat they wanted to fish that afternoon in a single three-hour championship round. Point scores would be reset and the final eight teams would hit the river to determine the winners and final standings.

Team Davidson Rivers Outfitters with Head Judge Greg Hall.

Judges were tasked with controlling starting and stopping time, measuring and recording each fish caught, and ensuring rules were followed. Tournament rules were reviewed prior to competition and most were easily understood and accepted by participants including only one angler may fish at a time, maximum legal rod length, style of flies permitted, the use of single barbless hooks, and the fact all fish must be released and survive to avoid points deductions. All fish caught would be measured and their length recorded in centimeters. Also, each team could submit a maximum of seven fish per period, or heat. Any fish could be measured, released and not counted but once a fish was added to their score sheet it could not be replaced by a larger fish. But some rules were more dependent on the discipline of competitors while fishing including anglers must tag, meaning physically touch each other, before one stops fishing and the other starts, and no fishing in waters beyond the marked boundaries of each beat. These rules were more easily forgotten in the heat of competition and became key focal points for judges. “Marked boundaries” sounds cut and dry, but there’s no way to draw a line across a flowing stream and in a few places, I saw trout rising that seemed to know where the boundary lines were and fed there with reckless abandon. Judges were tasked most where this occurred and anglers pushed the borders between two marked beats, though all parties talked through boundary issues like professionals and the tournament continued without incident. However, I did learn that long-distance knuckle bumps and touching ten-foot-long rod tips did not qualify as legal tagging. I had to laugh because if I were competing, I’m sure I’d have been called on the carpet for the same thing. I’ve fished tournaments in the past and know that competition, a ticking clock and adrenaline have a way of pushing one to take shortcuts. But aside from these minor incidents, the tournament continued flawlessly.

Trevor Owens – Team 2 Fly Guys

The rule that tweaked my interest most was the 2-fly rule. Each team, in one of the four two-hour preliminary heats, was required to choose and show their assigned judge two flies they would use for the entire period. They could choose any heat to apply the 2-fly rule but had to announce their intent before they began fishing. Then, if they lost one of their flies, they shared the remaining fly. If they lost both, they could no longer fish during that period. As an experienced angler, I fully understood the challenges this rule presented. I asked many of the competitors about their strategy in applying the 2-fly rule and received a variety of answers. Time of day they were scheduled to fish and the water they were limited to were common considerations. But the most skilled anglers took the 2-fly rule in stride and caught their seven fish as if they had access to a fly shop. It was during these discussions that I began to realize the depth of knowledge and skill that separated the good fly fishers from the best in the field. My admiration for them grew as I listened and learned.

Team Brazos’ Colby Hackbarth lifts a trout from the net under the watchful eye of a judge while Jarod McClure from the Fly Rod Chronicles television show captures the moment.

Day one of the tournament dawned under clear skies and soon the banks along the North Fork were full of people. After the tournament began, you could stand in the river in some places, look upstream and see a single fly fisher carefully presenting flies along seams in the current. On longer stretches, you may see another angler further upstream doing the same. But step along shore and move in either direction and there were people everywhere. Teammates and judges stood close-by each busy angler, waiting to spring to action; cameramen, support personnel, observers and a lone outdoor writer slipped along the shorelines, trying to be everywhere at once. Tournament Director Ryan Harman had given me an overview of the teams and each section of river. With added tips on tournament favorites and the most productive sections of river, I hurried to watch and take pictures. After moving the length of the tournament area to get acclimated, I began spending time with each team to watch them fish.

Paul Bourcq – Team NC

Team DUSM’s Dustin Hotsinpiller with a big rainbow trout that didn’t get away.

I quickly became impressed with the skill of the competing anglers. Many could dissect a section of water with a fly with little wasted movement or time. It was easy to become entranced while watching their lines move gracefully through the air and tiny flies land inches from the previous cast. I saw many nice fish caught because everyone was catching fish. Some teams seemed to catch every fish in reach and several recorded their seven-fish limit quickly. However, occasionally the trout won the contest. I once found Team WVU on a flat stretch of river as Seth Neptune hooked a nice rainbow. The big fish fought hard and after several minutes led Seth downstream to a single protruding rock in midstream. He worked skillfully to pull the fish away but it suddenly streaked around the rock and broke off. With little more than a head-shake, Seth tagged Anna Harris and she took his place casting. I admired his self control because I would have reacted more strongly and everyone within a hundred yards would have known a big fish had been lost; no profanity mind you, but the wailing and crying could attract a paramedic. My most impressive battle observed was in a deep hole along a steep shaded bank close to the main staging area. As I approached, Dustin Hotsinpiller fought a pig of a rainbow. From my elevated position, the big fish’s every move could be seen in the crystal clear water. Dustin fought the trout patiently as he moved along close to shore. But when it appeared he had the fish about whipped, it simply came unbuttoned. Dustin was devastated, but in no time he was back fishing with a staunch look of determination on his face. At the end of the first day of competition, spirits were high among the competitors and groups of anglers stood everywhere sharing experiences, strategies and offering advice.

Team 2 Fly Guys – Sam Starr Jr.

Day two, again blessed with beautiful weather, found competitors spread the length of the North Fork. Those with a shot at the championship round were focused and deliberate with every move. Others accepted the fact they were fishing their final heat but showed the enthusiasm of professionals. In such a beautiful place, with so many nice fish and supportive friends, everyone felt privileged to be there and participate. The final heats passed quickly and everyone hustled to the main staging area to see which teams would compete in the championship round. When the final finishing positions were posted, the eight teams leading at the end of day one remained in the top eight spots, though there had been some movement in rank. Team NC dropped from the lead to the fourth position, while last year’s runners-up Team Hoffler/Brown moved to first.

Team NC’s Kevin Lowe shows a nice rainbow.

Teams Davidson River Outfitters and 2 Fly Guys made strong final-heat showings and moved to second and third. Most of the remaining top eight moved a position or two with Team DUSM retaining the eighth and final spot. The top finishers held an advantage because each, by finishing order, could now choose the section of water they preferred to fish for the championship. And after several heats, everyone had a clear idea which sections of river should produce the most and largest fish. The top eight teams chose their respective beats and the championship round was set.

The championship round looked very much like previous heats with eight highly-skilled teams carefully dissecting some beautiful water and catching trout. But I quickly noticed two differences. First, the remaining teams were now following their friends and tournament favorites so there were many more observers along the river. Also, many who had competed now offered their time as judges and stream monitors so there were more support personnel at each beat. But what captured my attention most was the Fly Rod Chronicles television crew.

Team Brazos’ Ethan Baca shows a trout to the Fly Rod Chronicles camera.

With a single heat left in the tournament and the best-of-the-best fishing, these camera professionals went to work. They seemed to be everywhere and miss nothing. Curtis Fleming and I were lounging on a sunny streamside rock chatting and watching Team Davidson River Outfitters fish when along came cameraman and co-producer James Montgomery with a very expensive looking video camera on a long tripod. He passed us, waded into the water along the edge of a steep hole like a duck and headed for what looked like a dead end. In minutes, he scaled a cliff overlooking the anglers, set up the camera and tripod on a very steep incline and began filming. I was amazed by his bravery and skill with the camera. Curtis looked on as if it was another day at the office but I couldn’t help wondering when James, equipment, or both would slide off into the swift water. After several minutes of filming, he scurried down the incline like a mountain goat and headed for the next beat. These guys are really good at what they do; no wonder the Fly Rod Chronicles television show wins so many awards.

The new Harman’s Invitational champions, Team Free Stonefly – David Woody & Mark Hanes. Congratulations!

At the end of the championship round, the staging area filled with excitement and impatient anglers while final scores were tabulated and rechecked. Curtis and the Fly Rod Chronicles team set up and filmed the announcement of the winners, final standings and awarding of prizes for a future show on the Outdoor Channel. Team Free Stonefly, anglers David Woody from North Carolina and Mark Hanes from Pennsylvania who ranked fifth after the preliminary heats, won the tournament. Teams Hoffler/Brown and Davidson River Outfitters remained at the top of the field and finished second and third respectively. At the conclusion of formal ceremonies, the celebrations began and Harman’s North Fork Cottages became a place of fellowship among close friends. This tournament and all I learned were wonderful experiences for me, filled with new knowledge and ways to catch fish. But without question, the greatest rewards were the company of other dedicated anglers and the many friends I made. I hope to spend more time with all of them again soon.

I must say again, the accommodations at Harman’s North Fork Cottages were exceptional. The cabins were clean and nicely decorated with all the comforts of home, plus extras. The hot tub on our deck was a huge hit with my wife Tammie. Add the beautiful view and it was a comfortable place to camp for a few days. And though I didn’t fish I was impressed with the quality of the fishery and saw many sixteen- to twenty-inch trout caught; fine trout fishing in my opinion. I hope to visit Harman’s again for next year’s tournament and, who knows, perhaps dip a fly or two myself. Anyone know where a guy might find a nice fly rod for a really good price; maybe some free lessons as part of the deal?

Posted on May 27, 2012, in Fishing Trips and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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