2120 kilometres through British Columbia, the scrub land and fruit orchards of Washington and over iconic Oregonian steelhead rivers that fill my books, piling up on my office floor, we arrived in San Francisco, California. Cramped into a pickup loaded down with rods, duffles, gear, cameras, waders, a bag of discounted chocolate mini-eggs and two nervous souls; it was our first time competing in the world championships of two handed casting, Spey o rama.
I had been just starting to experiment with long lines when I was first approached with the notion of competing. I laughed it off, convinced I would never be able to compete at such a level, with other women who have spent years perfecting their casts and making a name for themselves in the industry. I was just a part time guide, part time school teacher with my first 45 foot head. There was no way I was going to step into that pond to make a fool of myself.
Flash forward to April 2016, at the Michael and Young Spey Clave, where I picked up a 15 foot, 10wt CND ISpey. Light with a soft flex, this rod felt forgiving, but powerful. I rolled a right single spey off easily, shooting my 67 foot head, and 10 feet of line. I bought the rod on the spot. I quickly called my fly shop, ordered a new line, a new reel, and a set of lessons from the best guy around. The following fall, I fished left hand high all season, practicing my left snake whenever I had the chance and dedicated 2-3 hours daily of practice time. I felt as if I was at the top of my casting game. I had this, I had been consistently casting 130-140 feet off both hands, and had tight loops. I never felt more confident in my casting; until I arrived at the Golden Gate's Angling and Casting Ponds. I went from feeling top of my game to loosing my cast completely; too much over hand, not enough underhand, too fast, too slow, no anchor placement, sloppy D-loops, too much torque, not enough hip movement. I was warned that there would be a steep learning curve for a first time competitor, but I hadn't realized just how steep that would be. I was hoarded with well intentioned bits of advice, and 'this is how you shoulds'...'. that I completely lost my own style. Succumbing to the pressure of competition and advices, I tried mimicking what people were telling me to do, and what to change. Finally I broke my rod down, tucked it into its sock and then into its tube. I was over tired, overwhelmed and over practiced. I went into San Francisco and took a half a day to explore a new city. I needed a break from the ponds, and I needed a break from my rod.
When I returned the next day I ended up picking up a 15 foot Bruce and Walker Norway Tournament Caster with an 11wt tip, and everything changed. Another competitor graciously came over to remind me that I can cast, adjusted a few techniques and gave my head a shake. She got me to focus, and that's what I needed. The next day I arrived at the ponds before day break and bombed a 160 foot cast out, my personal best, and 16 feet over the Women's Word Record. I was back in the game. It was too bad that was during practice rounds, because I never hit that cast again, but I know I did it, and those watching knew as well.
The morning of the competition, I was unnaturally calm; which was an odd feeling after a week of excessive highs and lows and one mid practice breakdown. I arrived before day break again and had one practice session, tucking my rod back in the rack until it was my time to compete. I shared a celebratory scotch with another competitor and practiced my yoga breathing. And suddenly I heard my name over the loudspeaker, "Kate Watson on deck." It was then I realized the grassy knoll used as an audience stand was full, and the ponds were lined with people and their cameras. Yoga breathing, yoga breathing, yoga breathing. Just as fast as everything hit me, muscle memory took over and I was wading into the ponds, and soon before I knew it I was standing in the middle of the pond with all eyes on me and the loudspeaker introducing me to all of the world; at least that is what it felt like. Serenity swept over me, calmness soothed my nerves and self talk took over; "roll cast, breath, lift, breath, lift more, breath, turn, breath, push, breath, pull, breath, let go, breath, breath, breath."
The thing about Spey-o-Rama, is that you are humbled by mother nature. For some competitors, she gives a nice tail wind and others she presents a nasty head wind. Unfortunately I met her for 12 minutes where she couldn't decide weather to blow from left to right, or right to left. Just like fishing though, it is up to the fisherman to know where the wind is coming from and choose your cast accordingly. Only this time, it's in front of an audience and a judge calls out on a loud speaker what your scores are and if your cast lands out of bounds or not. While I was disappointed in my scores initially, I am realizing how proud I am that I even competed. From never having thought I would be strong enough or talented enough to keep up to the likes of Whitney Gould, Donna O' Sullivan or Kara Knight, I ended up in 5th place, which is pretty damn good for a first time competitor.
Empowered by the buzz of excitement, competition, comradery and chance, this has been the most frightening experience as of yet; an experience though that is now fostered by addiction and acts as a catalyst for next year. I didn’t score as high as I knew I could, or as I wanted, but the knowledge gained, the friendships nurtured and the opportunities granted were above anything else I could have imagined. That was the real ‘prize.’ Now I have a 15 foot Norway Tournament Caster with an 11wt tip being made for next year and my CND ISpey waiting for steelhead season.
* Funny thing about that rod, it has gone to SoR twice now, with me and its previous owner both backing out from using it, so it has yet to be used as a comp rod. However, I now have a beautiful rod with a brand new reel and new line.