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Our Moby Dick - With apologies to William Humphrey and ESPN (07/18/2004)
By John Edstrom

     (l to r): John Edstrom, Ginny Hickey and John Hickey.
The golf tournaments on ESPN over the past couple of months have been incessantly disturbed by a promo for something called, "The Great Outdoor Games." What will you think of next, I asked myself, and why not let us watch the golf if you have unsold inventory? I was soon to find out when the phone rang and my trout-fishing buddy, Davey, informed me that we had been selected as judges in a fly-fishing tournament to be put on by ESPN. "How is that," I asked? "What would a fly-fishing tournament be, and what would qualify us to judge whatever it is?"

It turns out that we had been recommended by his friend Jon Reynolds, who works for City Brewery down in LaCrosse. I met him last summer down on the South Fork of the Root when he rolled up in his truck and began dispensing from a trove of City product to all in sight who were of age (an age by now). He supposedly knows some local expert in cold water biology, but I suspect our line of authority as judges really emanated from the beermobile and its contents, down through our association with John.

Anyhow, we found ourselves at the Best Western Motel in Sparta, Wisconsin, last Thursday night, where ESPN's John Davis explained how the tournament worked, and what our duties and responsibilities as judges would be. A stretch of nearby Silver Creek, which flows through the Camp McCoy military reservation, had been divided into six approximately half-mile beats, to be fished by 12 different anglers on 6-9 a.m. and 6-9 p.m. flights. Biggest fish landed wins the gold medal and top dollar.

However, and this is where most of the judging comes in, the angler cannot book one fish and then go in search of another. Once he casts again the first trout goes off the board, so that if the fishing is slow, he might spurn a smallish fish only to catch nothing else and wind up with no entry at all. In a field of very ambitious fishermen, most might not record a fish at all in bad conditions. The job of the judge is to follow the contestant with a measuring crib to record the size of the catch, and then observe whether his man casts again. (ESPN will want people to know that we judges also were responsible for ensuring that fish were handled properly and released healthy.)

One popular tactic is to go ahead and book a fish and then scout the stream for a big riser; should one be spotted, the angler then must judge his chances of catching it and decide accordingly whether to cast again or not. However, if he wants to nymph or throw streamers, the more productive ways to catch bigger fish, he has to make a decision as to whether the trout already in hand can win or place. Especially in bad conditions, a tournament held under these rules has a very interesting element of poker.

Those taking part in the first flight were to meet at the Silver Creek Rod and Gun Club at the gruesome hour of 5 a.m., particularly for those who had spent the previous night in proximity to the beermobile. Before sunup we crept down to beat #1 through waist-high, dew-drenched grasses which exhaled clouds of mosquitoes as we went. Our "stick" was John Hickey, of Jackson Hole by way of Virginia. His wife, Ginny, served as rod caddy and coach; accompanying us also was a camera crew of two, a camera bearer, Aaron, and his senior, the appropriately nicknamed Bear, a large man with a furry beard. They were filming the proceedings for ESPN, but actually worked for a company based in Missoula, Montana, that produces all sorts of outdoor features. Bear told me that already this year he has been as far as South America and Australia.

John explained his strategy for the camera. At first light he would cast a dry fly and hope to entice a big fish with it. Then, he wanted to fish the deepest water with nymphs and streamers. Nothing complicated. 6 a.m. arrived, he inserted an enormous wad of chewing tobacco into the side of his face, and crept down to the stream to fish. Chaw being a favored vice of outdoorsmen, only Ginny and I were without. What with the mosquitoes, I wished I had a cigar.

John works a swift run with an enormous Wulff-style dry fly with a red and green middle, spider legs, and enough deer hair to dress a fawn, a sort of Royal Caddispider. Despite having oversized rods for such small water, in my opinion, he covers the water beautifully, line slithering in and out of the brush, silent, insinuating, rarely any hang-up. Ginny eyes him approvingly, something between a snake charmer and a violin virtuoso.

Unfortunately, the fish are having none of it. The water is tannin-stained to begin with, and dingy from all the recent rain. It is hard to tell where it is deep, or simply muddy, and no fish are working at all.

Finally near a highway bridge, John spots a riser. We are all motioned to get down in the brush with the mosquitoes while he studies the fish. He casts once, twice, and the rod rears up, pulsing with the fish at the other end. Edstrom, get down there with the crib. Don't get between the camera and the money shot, and whatever you do, don't drop that fish!

John positions me just so, and after a short struggle, there in the crib is a perfect little silvery brook trout, just the size to adorn the bosom of a large woman as a brooch. Eight inches, I say, and John says, thank you, and releases it.

There is barely an hour left in the flight. John and Ginny have an intense discussion. He, basically, is mortified to be associated with such a guppy. Ginny, however, points out that the fish aren't biting, conditions are rotten, and heavy weather is coming that the second flight could well have to deal with.

"If we throw it back," she pleads, "we are not even in the game. Let's keep it and you can scout for a bigger fish."

Finally John agrees with her, they high-five, exchange a quick kiss, and he turns aside to loose a discreet stream of tobacco juice.

Later, Ginny told me that in a derby two years ago, they threw back a 12-incher in similar conditions that would have put them in the money, which is not huge, but the publicity is enormously valuable to a professional guide. Plus, placing one year insures an invitation the next, kind of like an exemption in professional golf.

Despite John's sharp vigil, nothing else showed itself during the next hour, and we returned to the rod and gun club with one 8-inch brook trout officially logged. I approached John Davis and informed him that we had hauled out a monster of the deep, only to be told, rather sharply, to hold my tongue. No information could be let out to influence what the second flight might do. In fact, the first flight was to be sequestered, either at a golf course or a stream miles away so that they couldn't pass anything on to buddies fishing in the evening.

Now, a steady drizzle turned into a heavy downpour, and I suspected the sequestration would probably take place at some remote tavern. We, however, had to return to Winona, and made our farewells. On the way home, Davey informed me that his contestant, a saltwater guide from Marathon Key, Florida, had spurned a 12-inch fish pulled from one of the poorer beats. I said that he could well regret it.

A few days later an e-mail arrived from Davey. The winning fish was a 13 3/4 inch rainbow trout. John Hickey's 8-inch brook trout placed second.

You can watch the 2004 Great Outdoor Games Fly-Fishing Tournament on ESPN this very Saturday at 2 p.m., or very early Sunday morning.



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