by Howard Croston
At the end of day three, Team England had slipped to fifth place. Although a fall of three places, it was a long way from a disaster, and we still had everything to play for. Individually, my seventh place on Woods Lake helped me stay in medal contention and with 12 place points for three sessions fished, I was only trailing bronze by two points and gold by four, as I sat in fourth place overal.
Session 4, day four my group, was the Mersey river. Again, the draw wold be a contributing factor to the results, with an uneven spread of fish in some areas. For this session, three separate coaches were used for travel and, prior to the actual beat draw being announced, anglers were sent to the relevant coach roughly corresponding to the area that they would fish. Over the previous three days it had become clear that if you were directed to board at the first coach then you had drawn the higher, more difficuts beats of this particular sector and, whilst your fate wasn´t actually sealed, it would be an uphill struggle against the more productive lower beats.
So, as I was called and directed towards the first coach in the line, my heart sank a little, as did the eighter other anglers who boarded the same bus! As we sat waiting, I recalled to myself the number of times that I have previously seen „sleeper“ beats suddently perform mid competition. „Sleeper beats“ are beats that fail to produce a good result in an event. Until Session 4 even 5. This can be for any number of reasons, including the ability of the anglers who have fished them previously, changing water and weather conditions, and even fish movement from one beat to another. Just as I reassured myself all was not lost, the sector judge boarded the coach, an shouted „Ewerybody off. Wrong coach!“ and we were directed to the last coach in the line. It was nine relieved anglers that settled in for the drive to the river.
I arrived at my beat having been decanted from the coach into my controller´s car, along with Bernie Maher, the team reserve and stand-in captain. It was a long beat with two areas of good-looking water and fair amount of „B“ water as a fall back. My walk-trough complete, and with a few moving fish spotted, I set up four rods. The duo; the single Nymph on a level Euro-stile leader of 0,17 mm with a 0,12 mm tippet; a single dry fly, a double streamer set up – both of these realy being my last resorts.
The wind was blowing strongly down-stream, and as I set up all this gear I asked Bernie to sit and watch a wide flat at the upper end of the beat for rising fish and to position my dry fly rod in a tree, close to the bestlooking water, in case I needed to resort to plan B.
With 30 minuts to go I asked Bernie to watch the flat and only come and get me if the fish become active. As acting captain, the only support Bernie can offer is verbal during the actual session. I walked quickly to the end of the beat and settled in, sitting on a large rock at the very end of my beat behind a wall of hard-to-penetrate bush directly opposite a nice run that terminated my beat.
My controller shouted to start, and I flicked my duo rig into a perfect mid-river seam. A short drift, and the dry sid away. I struck and a large brown went airborne, hooked on the Nymph, before it ran downstream out of bounds. A few frantic minutes later, including me fully submersing as I slid off my rock into much deeper water than I expected, and then the fish bolting back upstream between my legs, it hit the net and I was on the card.
I worked upstream through the „B“ water – prospecting quite quickly where I had seen some smaller fish move, but pushing to reach the „A“ water within 30 minuts. En route , a large fish head-and tailed tight against a big rock over deep water. I hung back a few moments to see if the wind would drop- it didn´t, so I covered the fish with the duo and immediately saw a big flash below the dry as it ate the nymph. Again, this one ran me ragged before making the net, again on the Thread Quill Nymph. Checking my watch, I had burned more time than expected, so skipped a chunk of the average water to try and get back on track.
As I hit „ A“ water it seemed suspiciously quiet. That said, the wind was incredibly strong, actually picking flies, leader, line – the whole lot out of the water on more than one occasion, and I was struggling for any real control. I switched rods from duo to heavy single Nymph a couple of times to gain better control, but to no real avail. Reaching the top of the run I found some fish, landing three, but losing four on the duo, mainly due to the horrendous wind robbing me of any kind of contact – it was so bad it actually blew two of them off the hook as they jumped in play, something I have never seen happen before.
With five fish on my card and the obvious „ A“ water almost expended, I looked upstream at the wide shallow run above me. On the walk down it looked good, but it become clear it was shallower than expected. With time running out, I decided to increase my work-rate and ditched my Nymph rod on the bank, rerigged my duo to the minimum permissible lenght between flies (50cm), cut the dry fly dropper down to 4cm to increase indication speed and over-weighted the point fly to a 3,5 mm bead – way too heavy for the shallow run, but the only way I could get my flies consistently in play with any kind of accuracy and contact.
I started to work fast – crouching, occasionally kneeling, and peppering any water that looked promising with short drifts. As I moved upstream, I started to find fish – and big ones at that – fantastic quality browns hiding in five or six inches of water. The 3.5 mm bead Nymph actually fished well and didn´t foul bottom too much, as the wind pushed the leader and large dry downstream, balancing out the overly heavy Nymph and giving me a workable drift of sorts. Whenever the wind dropped, I held more line clear of the water with my prototype 10,8ft Nymph rod and „carried“ the nymph through the thinner water.
I still lost a couple of fish, but another seven made the card and as I signed for the last one as the session expired, my controller remarked they had been the biggest fish he had seen in four days of controlling the beat, and the only ones caught in the areas I had fished, despite other good anglers fishibg the same water. Until one of us catches a talking fish some things will always remain a mystery, but my gut-feeling was the rivers at lower altitude had started to switch on, following a few days of warmer weather, and those larger fish simply hadn´t activity fed in the earlier sessions.
As we drove back to the coach pick-up point I silently cursed my lost fish, fearing they had cost me many points. As it happened, I came second in the group, helped by my larger fish beating the 13 caught by Vojtech Unger of Czech. Julen Aguado of Spain had also drawen well and fished expectionally well to land 21 fish and win the session.
That night at our final team meeting England stood in eight position, 23 points away from the team medals. Not imopssible to recover, but unlikly, I had moved into first place by a single point, ahed of Valerio Santi Amanti of Italy. The team rallied round and gave me every drop of info they could from the previous four sessions on Little Pine Lagoon. I tied three flies and hit the sack.
On the final morning, as the coach headed to Little Pine it started to sink in that I was fishing to become world champion, a position that I had been close to before, and a situation I had dreamed about many times and, as this was a boat session, my fate was in my own hands to a degree. My mind raced as I reviewed the venue information over and over again. Halfway to the lake I realised my mind-set of the last few days had contrbited to my succes and as pressured a situation as it was, if I just „fished“ I would probably perform better than if I tried to force the issue and with that I put my notebook and competition map away and attempted to swich off.
My boat partner was Rene Koops a great guy, whom I know well, but a left-hander with a low side-arm casting style that effectively put me on the pointy end of the boat for the whole session; not ideal, as I had found far more succes fishing the engine side. As we motored out for our first drift I looked around for Valerio, who quite by chance as well as sitting in second place was also in my group, meaning that in exactly four hours´ time I would know if he had overtaken me or not. I couldn´t see him and decided that wasn´t a bad thing.
We started our drift over the clearer water of the incoming river, a hot-spot on Pine that had produced well. Unfortunately, so did everyone else and fresh, unfished water was at premium. Two drifts in, I had a fish on the card, but Rene had three with probably three times as many moved by him pulling an Orange lure and Sparkler combination at high speed on a slow intermediate, whilst I had stuck my Di3 and Streamer/Dabbler set-up. I changed to similar tactics, but just couldn´t generate the same amount of interest. As I had control of the boat, we switched ends but with Rene´s bad shoulder and low-arm casting style we just couldn´t make it work with too many tangles to be effective. Reluctantly, I went back to the point.
With time ticking and unfished water becoming increasingly hard to find in the „good“ area I made a big call, and we bolted for the opposite end of the lake which, despite being heavily coloured, hadn´t been fished that day. I changed lines to a slow intermediate but kept my Hot-head Shreck (Mike Dixon´s variant with which he had won his session on Little Pine, and the fly I had tied the night before), a Dabbler in the middle, and an orange-beaded black streamer on the point.
First drift at the top of the lake and just as we were about to turn the boat for another drift my flies pulled through an unseen weed-bed in the brown water. I quickly cleared the flies and cast short to try and fish close to the hidden structure. One pull and everylthing locked solid as a big brown thrashed the surface hooked on the orange bead head. With my adrenaline racing, before I realised in I had bullied the fish into the net, and at 49,5 cm long and thickly set, pressuring it into a net was probably the right move in this shallow, weedy water. Relieved, I set another drift and Rene quickly took another fish in the same area, whilst I momentarily hooked another one that thrashed free in the shallow water.
After a quiet drift or two we slid closer to the dam wall. As soon as the boat settled, I hit another fish on Mike´s Green-headed Shrek and after a few heart-stopping leaps and one botched netting attempt, number three made the card. Rene was now sitting on four fish, and with only 30 minutes left and a slow-down in action, we decided to run back to the favoured area at the bottom of the lake for the last few drifrs.
When we arrived it became clear it was still a busy area, so we started our drift well back behind the pack and Rene quickly took fish number five within a few casts. As the minutes ticked down, I fished the hardest I had for four days – one back-cast, pull and hang, constantly working the angles and practically willing a fish to také, but cast after cast brought nothing. Starting to despair, and feeling my chances start to slip away, I felt a slight pluck towards the end of the retrieve as I came onto a hang. Concentrating, I hung the flies and jigged them slightly, eyes straining on the line for an indication, nothing… I made a blind a blind strike before re-casting (something that Steve Cullen) but made no contact. I dropped the rod tip slightly for a second to shake free some weed that had fouled the rod tip and then threw a roll-cast to clear the flies, but nothing happened and the flies remained buried. Half-knowing the probable reason I hit the roll cast again as hard as I could, with frantically stripping to recover the line I had shot into my aborted roll-cast, unsure if I was pinned in weed or ... as the line came tight the fish cleared the water with the Hot-bead Shrek clearly visible in the end of its nose, as soon as I regained tension the fish shot upwind behind the boat towards the drogue, forcing me to bury the rod over the front of the boat to prevent fouling the hull. As you would expect, this fish made me sweat, boring deep into the weed and constantly trying to get under the boat before eventually dropping into the net.
With no more than a few minutes left we had one more short drift and was it, 2019 World Fly Fishing Championships were over and I could do no more. For the final time, I folded my copy of the score sheet into the same pocket as the previous four and made the short motor back to the landing point.
As we beached, I was collared by other competitors looking for scores – mainly trying to work out their own placings, but a few wondering if I had done enough individually, an impossible question to answer at that stage! Talking with the Canadian captain, I learned that Valerio had sufferd boat trouble so was still out on the lake, as I pressed him he revaled they had been watching him fish and seen two fish caught in no more that 15 minutes, with my score of four hard-won fish I felt a sense of dread that maybe I just hadn´t done enough.
Trying to keep busy, I helped Tim Urbank, one of the boatmen and our guide in the practice week, to haul his boat out of the lake whilst scanning the horizon for Valerio. Eventually, the boat appeared and as I grabbed the front end to help in beach Valerio gave the universal point of the finger for „how many fish?“ I held up four fingers and he shook my hand „Only 3“. Although Velerio was my most immediate threat, David Garcia of Spain was only three points adrift, so my brief relief and elation was quickly repleaced with uncertainly!
The mandatory end-of-session beer consumed, we borded the coach and I preapared for the torture of waiting for the official results. I have to say the coach drive back was the most stressful part of the whole event. Former World Champion Marek Walczyk from Poland was also on my coach and quickly started to call around the other coaches for the scores. After 15 or so minutes he waved and gave me a thumbs up followed by „ You are World Champion by one point!“ The coach cheered and the passangers started to stamp their feet, but I still had my doubts until the official results were published. Twice in my competition career I have been congratulated for winning a major event, once a Rivers National and once a Rivers International, and on both occasions quirks in the scoring saw me miss first place by a point or two, so I was well aware in an event as tight as a world championships and with information often coming second or third hand (and occasionally even false information being circulated) the result was far from clear at this point.
When we arrived at the hotel I was swamped by many of my fellow competitors many asking the impossible question „ Have you done it?“, exhausted from the last five days but sky-high on adrenaline I couldn´t cope, so grabbed the rest of the England team and retreated to a small restaurant and bar around the corner to eat and try and stay calm until the results become official.
About an hour into dinner I started to reactive dozens of Facebook messages and notifications. Picking up my phone and expecting either a wave of commiserations or congratulations I was met with more uncertainly … Facebook comments questioning who had „Actually won“, and following one of the links it became clear that the image of official results had been posted but were blurred and unreadeble! Whilst the team huddled around trying to second-guess the blured image a clearer one was posted….I had done it, not by one pointbur drawen on points with a higher fish point-score – the tightest of margins possible – to make me 2019 World Fly Fishing Champion.
The closing ceremony was a grand affair and frankly even without the result one of the best I have ever attended. With the medals presented, Marek tapped me on the shoulder and said „We must také the pictue“ and with that I was welcomed in his words into „The most exclusive fishing club in the world“.
I owe many people a great deal of thanks and it would be almost impossible to list them all here, but I must call out the England team who did a sterling job under a great deal of adversity and pressure, the host organisers for laying on an incredible event and, much closer to home, my girlfriend Lucy for putting up with the many hours of practice and weeks away from home competiting, my Uncle Sid, who encouraged my interest in fly tying and lastly my late father, Eric, who sadly didn´t live to see me become World Champion but without whom I wouldn´t have had the chance to pick up a fly rod.
As I write this, locked in the house due to the Corona Pandemic, the incredible month I spent in Tasmania last November and December seems a milion miles away and frankly it still hasn´t sunk in fully , I ld from 2009 and team bronze from 2014, I always said if I managed to medal individually in a Word Championship to complement my team gowould happily retire. Maybe not just yet, though.