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Fly fishing: A contest

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By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

Fly fishing reigns in Montana. It’s relaxing, gets people on the water, and any competition is generally good-natured and between fishing pals.

But Brian Kimmel, originally from Billings, casts his fly in a different way. He fishes to pull as many trout from the water as possible.

“We’re not there to fish,” said Kimmel, who owns Shadow of a Trout Outfitters in Bozeman. “We’re there to catch fish.”

Kimmel, 42, is also a fly-fishing guide on the waters in southwest Montana. He enjoys teaching his clients – from novice to expert – but there’s a competitive nature coursing through his veins. He quenches this thirst by entering tournaments and catching fish – a lot of fish. Knowing what makes trout tick is his key to success.

“Trout are paranoid, hungry and lazy,” he says. “And if you give only those attributes to fish, it will change the way you approach angling.”

Competition fly fishing is nothing new to European anglers, who have been exposed to these tournaments since the 1970s. But in America, the concept is only recently gaining traction. There is currently one international tournament in the states this year, compared to more than 20 events worldwide.

Competitors use a European nymphing technique, which Kimmel says produces greater numbers of fish, and is devoid of strike indicators – an adaptation of the bobber. The technique involves casting weighted flies

A competition fly-fishing box is much heavier than recreational fly boxes, since nearly all the flies are weighted nymphs. PHOTO BY JOHN KNIGHT

A competition fly-fishing box is much heavier than recreational fly boxes, since nearly all the flies are weighted nymphs. PHOTO BY JOHN KNIGHT

or nymphs approximately 30 feet and letting them drift and roll along the streambed, while staying in constant contact with the flies.

This style eliminates long casts as well as drag from strike indicators and fly line. It also excludes dry flies, an element that some fly-fishing purists feel takes away from their sport.

But fishing guide Ennion Williams feels that tournament fly fishing is up to the angler. “All the fish are being measured and put back, so I don’t have any problem with it,” said Williams. “There are certainly [anglers] who feel that you should catch a fish on a dry fly, but they’re missing opportunities to catch more fish,” he said, indicating that 80 percent of fish are caught subsurface.

Kimmel just thinks tournament fishing gets a bad rap. “There’s a misconception about competition fly fishing,” he said. “But it pushes innovation in the product, the same as the X Games pushed skiing and snowboarding.”

Kimmel has been fishing Montana’s rivers and streams for 30 years. At 13, he earned his first fly rod – an Eagle Claw – by selling three subscriptions to Montana Hunting and Fishing News. He was soon fishing most evenings and weekends on local streams and lakes, and when he got a driver’s license, he ventured a little farther.

“At that time in Montana you could drive at 15, so I’d go wherever 5 bucks worth of gas would get me,” he said.

Kimmel began guiding in the summer of 1996 with an operation called Wyoming Rivers and Trails in the Wind River Wilderness area, and then spent five years guiding for Lone Mountain Ranch, where he earned the 1999 Orvis Guide of the Year award. The next step was to compare his skills with the best fly fishers around.

He began fishing competitively in 2005, when he entered the Great Outdoor Games on the Henry’s Fork outside of Ashton, Idaho, and qualified the following summer for a spot on the U.S.A. Men’s Fly Fishing Team. He lost the coveted position on the squad in 2011 after he failed to place in the top eight anglers at a tournament in Asheville, N.C.

The day before, Kimmel caught 52 fish in three hours – the most during that session – but in the final session came up a fish shy of retaining his spot on the team.

“It was bittersweet,” he said. “It’s amazing that you can fish for 10 or 12 hours just to come up one fish short.”

Looking for a comeback at the next U.S. tourney, the Utah/Southeast Idaho Regional Qualifier from June 19-21, Kimmel hopes to start climbing the competition fly-fishing ladder once again. His final destination is a spot on the U.S. men’s travel team, which will compete in the World Fly Fishing Championships in 2015.

In 2016, the World Championships are coming to Vail, Colo., the first time since 1997 that the tournament will be held in the U.S.

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