26th World Fly Fishing Championships & Conservation Symposium - Coimbra, Portugal
September 11, 2007
by Todd Oishi
As fly fishers, when we ponder fly-fishing "dream destinations" throughout the world, rarely -- if ever -- does Portugal come to mind. Although it is one of the most beautiful and scenic places I have ever visited, it proved to be one of the most challenging locations to hold a World Fly Fishing Championship.
During the first week of September 2006, six members of Team Canada assembled in the small, picturesque, hillside village of Pennacova, Portugal. Three of us were from BC: Gord Bacon of Kamloops (a veteran of several championships) was our captain/alternate, Trevor Welton of Langley, and me from Maple Ridge. John Nishi was from Millarville, Alta., Terence Courtoreille from Hay River, NWT, and Tom Irvine from Gravenhurst, Ont.
John, Terence and I competed as teammates at last year's WFFC in Sweden, and Tom had competed in Spain in 2003. Although the entire team competed at the 2005 FFC National Fly Fishing Championships and Conservation Symposium at Campbell River, BC, it was Trevor's first international competition. With our team's collective competitive fly-fishing experiences, we were optimistic about placing well.
During the week prior to the WFFC commencing, we planned to travel throughout this mountainous region of Northern Portugal, fishing the official practice waters as we viewed and assessed the actual competition waters. One major setback troubled and concerned our team, however -- the airlines had lost several of our bags containing fly-fishing equipment. We got by with sharing clothing, rods, reels and equipment until the lost luggage arrived at our hotel -- nearly one week late.
With the help of our Portuguese guide, Joca, we navigated through a confusing maze of winding roadways. His ability to find prime angling waters proved to be more valuable than any fly pattern or fishing advice he could possibly offer. Joca planned our practice days to include long, leisurely lunch breaks, which allowed us to escape blazing the mid-afternoon temperatures, which were consistently in the upper 30s.
Although the rivers and lakes were difficult to locate at times, brown trout were even more difficult to find in the rivers. More concerning, not one of the twelve trout that we encountered during our river practice sessions met the minimum 19 cm qualifying length for the WFFC.
Results on the lakes were equally disappointing, for we found only small fish in the weedless, clear waters. While walking about the shorelines, we observed a few grasshoppers, several black sedges, and some minute airborne midges, which provided valuable clues about the main food sources available to the rainbow and brown trout.
Other competitors were experiencing the same dismal results during their practice sessions. This left a very uneasy feeling with many teams, for few of us had developed a technique or fly pattern for enticing the larger trout. We remained optimistic, however, feeling that if larger trout were actually present, they would accept our offerings. But our experience left us wondering whether Portugal actually possessed any fish of size at all.
My first venue of the championship was the Ciera River, which offered one of the most beautiful and serene settings imaginable. A tiny, intimate mountain stream, it is surrounded by fragrant pines and eucalyptus that blanket the steep rocky slopes. Fishing required extreme stealth while approaching its crystal-clear waters that averaged one to two feet deep. This level of stealth was magnified ten-fold by the over-abundance of whitefish (Iberian Nace), called "Bogas" by the locals. When intimidated by my approach, they would panic and scatter, in turn alerting and spooking the brown trout.
While fishing my 150-metre-long beat for the allotted three hours, I crawled right up the river's middle on my knee pads, with one hand in the water at all times. This supported my upper body low and horizontal to the water's surface, but after observing how visible and exposed I still must have appeared to the trout, I donned my camouflage face-mask. Using extremely small, light-coloured adult caddis patterns, I made short, precise, sidearm casts from a downstream position to avoid overhead casting, which would have definitely spooked those wary trout.
By the session's conclusion, I had managed to land four trout: two of eligible size and two that missed by just a few millimetres. After boarding the competition bus, I was shocked to hear from my friend "MC" (a South African) that he and eight other competitors in my group had blanked (caught no fish) during the session. My results earned seventh place for the session.
After a spectacular lunch, we bussed to the next venue: the Alva River. A wide, slow-flowing river, it snaked alongside the colourful fields of sun-dried corn and melon patches that dominate the arid valley floors. Also, as this region is known worldwide for producing excellent wines, vineyards lined the Alva's banks and surrounding hillsides. One local told us that at this time of year, the river's brown trout hold tight against banks, in the shade of overhanging vines, and feast on any grapes that fall into the water.
I started at the bottom of my beat, casting a dry fly upstream while working upstream toward two riffles where the river curved sharply. Five minutes into my session, the skies opened and it rained harder than I've ever experienced before while fishing. The large raindrops hitting the water definitely helped conceal my presence, but made dry fly fishing completely impossible.
After reaching the riffles I decided to Czech Nymph the faster-flowing water, as I'd had good success with this technique during practice. I tied on one of my heaviest Czech nymphs as the top dropper, a much lighter Czech nymph for the middle dropper, and a small Pheasant Tail Nymph as the point fly.
Fishing the riffles proved difficult, for the bottom was full of weeds and snags, and the banks were choked with brush and overhead limbs. It proved fairly productive, though, as I netted five trout during that session; three counters and two just barely under the minimum size.
By the session's end I was soaked from head to toe, chilled, shivering, and not looking forward to the 90-minute bus ride home in wet clothing. Back at the bus, a Spanish competitor saw my dilemma and kindly offered me his spare set of clothes for the long ride back. I accepted with thanks.
My performance in that session produced 14th place, and I was 33rd overall on the scoreboard.
Rossim and Lagoacho lakes were selected for lake venues. Both are large reservoirs that were built on top of some of the highest peaks in all of Portugal. The harsh environment surrounding them is nearly void of vegetation, and resembled an eerie painting of a lonely moonscape.
Our bus arrived at Rossim Lake early in the morning, to unimaginable conditions: winds were blowing steady at 80+ kph, with near zero visibility as thick clouds blew up from the coast, and the temperature plummeted to a chilly 5 degrees Celsius.
Unfortunately, with the extreme wind and mist blowing directly into my face for the entire three-hour session, I was rarely able to cast farther than 30 feet, and even then my leader and flies would often hinge back on the line, rendering my cast useless.
Whitecaps pounded against the sandy beach, churning the water near shore into a brownish, silty soup. Since competition rules clearly stated that lakes were to be fished "bank-style", meaning positively no wading or setting foot into the water, while I managed to hook several small trout I was unable to reach the larger ones. I blanked that session and received a 21st place in my group, as did the Australian and Bosnian competitors who fished the beats on either side of mine. The anglers who had the wind to their backs, or could cast sideways to the wind, did fairly well, but in the end five trout was the top catch for that session.
The afternoon was reserved for the Conservation Symposium, at which local authorities educated our group about their efforts to preserve and enhance the rivers of Portugal.
I shared a portion of the morning bus ride to Lagoacha Lake with an English competitor named John Horsey, a true legend and champion in the world of fly fishing. John had been to Kamloops, BC, in 1993 to compete in the WFFC, and was curious about how those lakes were fishing now.
The winds at Lagoacha had let up slightly since yesterday, but were still a force to be reckoned with at speeds up to 60 kph. Fortunately, my beat had a small bay that lay directly downwind from a tiny point of land. While stringing my rod I surveyed my beat, then rigged a three-fly setup with a large black Boobie as the top dropper, followed by a Hare's Ear Nymph and a Pheasant Tail Nymph on the point. I then slipped on a pair of fingerless gloves to seek some respite from the cold wind.
I made my first cast and counted down to allow my line time to sink, and on the very first strip my line shot through my fingers as a large trout absolutely hammered my fly. I was caught completely off guard and it was gone before I could set the hook. I took off my gloves in disgust and tossed them to the ground. My decision to seek comfort had just cost me my first fish of the session.
Three casts later I had another hit, but this time I set the hook and brought a 30-cm rainbow to net. With the pressure of drawing a blank now off, I could relax and have some fun. After landing a second trout, I eventually switched to a dry line and changed my flies.
While stripping my three-fly combo on the surface, a rainbow swirled on my top dropper, a Boobie. I paused to allow it a second opportunity to take the Boobie, but instead it leapt into the air and crashed down on top of the middle dropper, an Elk Hair Caddis. I twitched my line to impart some action, and the same trout turned and took my point fly, a Hare's Ear Nymph. I set the hook, then quickly landed, measured and released the trout. My controller and I discussed what had just happened, for neither of us had ever witnessed such an event.
At the session's conclusion I had landed six counters and lost three trout. That was my favourite session of the entire championship and earned me 7th place in my group.
The afternoon session was on the Mondego River, a wide, lowland stream. I quickly discovered that it fluctuates severely, rising and falling with the release of water from hydro dams farther upstream. Such erratic conditions would make any river challenging, but combined with the effects of the recent drought that Portugal had been experiencing, the river's current temperatures were in the extreme range of 75 degrees. Although the Mondego was teaming with a very healthy population of Bogas, which thrive in that environment, the brown trout were few in numbers and obviously had a harder time adapting to such harsh conditions.
I decided to "high-grade" my beat and spend the first hour working prime areas that would most likely hold fish. I set up with a Czech Nymphing rig, and was immediately into a dozen Bogas. Each gave me hope that it might be a brown, but as they came to net my heart sank. After my watch sounded the end of first hour, I started long-line nymphing with a"hopper/dropper" rigging, from the uppermost beat marker to the bottom. After reaching the lower end, I switched tactics and worked my way back upstream using a double dry fly setup.
With darkness setting in and less than half an hour left in the session -- and still no trout -- I worked back downstream, this time swinging a Rolled Muddler. The seam of a promising-looking shallow riffle produced a hit, and the one and only brown in the entire beat ran upstream toward me and into the back eddy. I tried putting tension on my line, but the trout spat the fly just as quickly as it took it. Time was up -- I had drawn another blank. I was in good company, for 65% of the anglers in my group also blanked in that session.
Prior to, during, and after the competition, many teams agreed that the Mondego River, with its low number of trout, erratic flows and extreme temperatures, should have been excluded from the competition. The majority of the competitors failed to catch a single fish the Mondego during the WFFC, and this river proved to be the undoing of our team's efforts, and for many other countries as well. Even our U.S. neighbours blanked four out of five sessions on the Mondego. Once again, the Europeans, who are used to fishing under such difficult and adverse conditions, dominated the competition.
Although the overall catch per person was significantly less than a "typical" WFFC (27 trout for the individual gold medalist), I personally enjoyed my Portuguese experience, and feel that I gained a great wealth of knowledge as a result of having to fish under such extreme and challenging conditions. It was definitely one of the toughest -- yet most rewarding -- fly-fishing experiences of my life, as every trout that was landed and released was truly treasured, as they were by everyone who attended the competition.
1 Czech Republic
1 Czech Republic, Antonin Pesek
2 Spain, Jonathan Torralbo
3 Czech Republic, Martin Droz
67 Canada, Todd Oishi
78 Canada, John Nishi
87 Canada, Terence Courtoreille
90 Canada, Tom Irvine
96 Canada, Trevor Welton