“Across The Pond” with Robbie Bell

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As the TroutLegend Premier Fly Fishing League builds a foundation for competitive fly fishing in North America it is often beneficial to look “Across the Pond” to our European counterparts who have been at it for decades. Robbie Bell is an accomplished English competitor and guide who would have placed in the top 50 in the 2010/2011 Ranking Cycle based on his finish at the 2011 Canadian National Fly Fishing Championship if he were a North American resident. In this interview Robbie gives us a unique look inside the rich history of European Competitive Fly Fishing and offers some perspectives from a different angle.

Hamann: Robbie, just wanted to thank you out right for being a great source of sage advice and friend to the League over the last few years. If you don’t mind, let’s jump right in. Take us way back if you will to the origins of competitive fly fishing in England? How old is the sport really? Are there origins even older in neighboring countries?

Bell: I would at the outset like to thank you for inviting me on here as it is a great honor for me to follow in the footsteps of all these fantastic anglers.

Well now I suspect the origins of Competition Fly Fishing in England would be at the same time as in the rest of the world. That would be the first time two anglers were on the same piece of water! Being a bit more serious the origins of competition fishing will be lost in the mists of time. There would almost certainly be competitions amongst members of Clubs and Angling Associations or just groups of friends that have long since disappeared.

I am very proud to be a member of the Ellem Fishing Club which is recognized as the Oldest Fishing Club in the World and they held their first Competition in 1829. However it is only in recent years that it became “Fly Only” as up until then most fish were caught on a fly rod but using the “Upstream Worm” technique.

The oldest National Fly Fishing Championships first took place on the 1st of July 1880 on Loch Leven in Scotland. Members from seven Scottish Clubs took part. A Mr. McGregor was the first winner and the famous PD Malloch caught the heaviest fish at 2 lb. 51/2 oz.

Hamann: When would you say we entered the “modern age” of competitive fly fishing globally?

Bell: Well the first International Competition took place between England and Scotland in 1928 and in 1932 Wales and Ireland joined in.

The early Internationals were always held on Loch Leven and such was the prestige of the Competition that England’s first Captain was to be HRH the Duke of York. However state business forced him to relinquish that post and W.H. McCreath became England’s first Captain. He was from my hometown of Berwick on Tweed and it is maybe of some interest that his son H.G. McCreath is currently the President of the Ellem Club having been a member of the club for 78 years!

However, the first Fips Mouche World Championships in Fly-Fishing took place on the 3rd of October 1981 and was held Lake Echternach in Luxembourg. The winners were the B team from Holland with Luxembourg A and Belgium A in second and third place. Obviously the event has grown from then to the event we see now.

Most likely one of the major turning points was in 1990 when the World Championships were held in Wales. This year was probably when modern techniques and flies really kicked in. The Polish team blew the field away with their “Rolled Nymph “ technique. I believe it still really grates them that this method is now almost universally known as Czech Nymphing.

Hamann: This is a 2 part question. Could you first take us, in detail, through the architecture of English Competitive Fly Fishing? From small weekend clubs to how your National Teams are chosen and organized?

Bell: Well there is a major difference between the English system and the Scottish system for Loch Style. I live on the border between England and Scotland and have fished in both systems.

In Scotland you have to be a member of an Affiliated Club and then to finish in the top 3 in that club to enter the National Championships which consist of heats, a semi-final and then the National Final.
At one time only the Club Champion was allowed to enter and a club might have as many as 20 outings during the season to decide the champion who could enter the National the following year!

In Scotland the top 18 anglers will then go forward to the Home Internationals the following year where they will fish in either the Spring or Autumn International against England, Wales and Ireland.

In England there is not so much of a club system and anyone can enter the regional eliminators where a proportion will progress to the National Final. The exact number is determined by the number of entrants to the individual regionals and the total number of entrants to all the regionals. We normally have 100 in the English National Loch Style Final and the top 28 will qualify for the two Home Internationals of the following year. There are 14 in each team.
At one time only the top 20 qualified and the top four anglers were carried over from each of the previous Home international.

Scotland still has a carry over system to make up the 28 needed for the following year.

For our Rivers Home Internationals both Scotland and England have similar regional competitions with a pro rata qualification to the National Finals where the top five anglers make up the National Teams. You still need to be in a club in Scotland and some have eliminators to enter their regionals

For the World Championships the systems are again different.

In Scotland another governing body is responsible for these teams and they have recently set up a league system where the top anglers from the 1st Division make up the World team. There is also a promotion and relegation format between the 1st and 2nd Division.
There are around five competitions a year in these leagues.

In England the World Championship Team is picked behind closed doors and this inevitably leads to discontent. There was a system where English results are put into a “League Table” but this was only used as a guide. When England won the World Championship in Scotland in 2009 it was not the top five who were in the team although it was some of them. However this did cause a lot of grief as some anglers were denied a realistic chance of becoming World Champion. Nowadays the league table has disappeared from the website and I can only assume that the team is totally picked by a committee. Although I am sure they will still have access to all the results. Now it is not my place to recommend how anyone chose their World Teams but I do know that any system that is not based solely on results (matters of discipline excepted) will cause resentment. This can lead to politics and splits and Scotland now has two separate Governing Bodies for Competitions which is in no ones interest.

The Stillwater Bank Internationals are a recent addition to our competition scene. The English National Championships started about 20 years ago and before they were granted International status they were a revenue generator so multiple entries to the regional qualifiers are allowed. The top six in the National Finals now make up the teams for the Home Internationals.

The whole system as you can see is a bit of a mish-mash but it is just the way it has grown organically.

Czech System.

My good friend Milan Hladik has supplied me with this information and I have condensed it down to give the gist of it. Some of the forum members will know Milan from the Czech Nymph Masterclass where he is now the principal organizer. He was also the Chief Organizer for the European Championships in 2011.

The Czech system is run over a two year cycle and there are first and second divisions with a promotion and relegation system.

Points are awarded with regard to the prestige of the competition and the number of entrants.

Winning the world Championship would give you 50 points 2nd 49 points 3rd 48 points and so on.

Winning the European Championships would give you 50 points. 2nd 49 points 3rd 48 points and so on.

A First Division competition win would be 30 points and second division 24 points with pro rata points for the lower positions.

Open competitions get 30 points for the winner if more than 40 entrants and 25 points if more than 30 entrants.

An interesting point is that competitions in other countries also count and some of the Czech Anglers are regulars in John Horsey’s Lexus competition where good points are available.

A running total is kept on a Czech website and an anglers best seven results are counted.

Around 190 points are usually needed at the end of the year to qualify in the top 14 anglers who go forward to another set of competitions in the following year.

This is a set of 5 competitions which reflect the upcoming World Championships with a balance of river and lake sessions.

After these the scores from these 5 competitions together with the previous years points are added together.

The first three positions are guaranteed entry into the World Championships and the next three almost always make up the team and the reserve. The next six competitors make up the second team and take part in the European Championships. The Team Coach does have some discretion to make minor changes between these two teams with regard to specific venues but this is seldom if ever used

This is a pretty comprehensive system but it is open and transparent and so there are no arguments and anglers have to be consistent over a two year period to make the teams.

All the Czech Competitions follow a strict set of rules. They are mainly Fips Mouche or an adaptation but could be something like British Loch Style rules. For the more serious competitions they will have controllers but many of them will be angler controlled.

River competitions are on fixed beats but they often sacrifice time to increase rotation with some sessions as little as an hour. This will help even out the luck of the draw.

Hamann: If you are able, can you give us a sense of how the English National teams are financed? Is there any funding from the government?

Bell: There is little if any government funding for the teams.

The various nationalities rely on entry fees as their primary source of income and sometimes there is some sponsorship money but not often. Some companies will offer the teams goods or a discount but that is generally it.

There has recently been some movement for the teams to organize some fundraising themselves. Particularly by the Scots. They have been organizing some Bank Fishing Competitions through the winter which are open to everyone and members of the teams come along to support it.

I personally think this is the way forward.
Any government funding is someone else’s tax bill…………

It would be easy for the Angling Bodies to draw up blueprints for small groups of team members who are local to each other to organize fund raising with competition and or tuition days.

Hamann: What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of your national competitors and organizing body?

Bell: With regard to the organizing bodies I think some of my answers above will point out the weaknesses.

Of course the vast majority of officials are unpaid volunteers and I respect that. However that does not preclude things from being done better. Entries for national competitions in England are declining and are probably half of what they were 20 years ago. There are almost certainly a number of reasons for this but in England one of them may be the lack of a totally clear route to the World Championships.

I also think it is becoming harder and harder to qualify for even our Home Internationals. Even though numbers are declining every one has access to the internet with all the information and videos etc. There are literally hundreds of Guides and Instructors in the country these days. Many people will have more disposable income so the technical developments in rod and line technology are open to almost everyone. Magazines have all the latest techniques and flies and these flies are quickly brought to market by top companies like Fulling Mill and Highland Flies. You can fish to a very high standard these day without ever having tied a fly!

I think the strength of our competitors is the long history and tradition of Competition Angling particularly in Loch Style.
I think one of the weaknesses is that we had our first full Fips Mouche competition in 2010 apart from when the World Championships were here.

Also our River Internationals only go back to 1992. The qualifiers and National Final for these are also held on a roving basis rather than a beat basis which probably stops us from progressing in river techniques which dominate the World Championships.

I have some sympathy with this method as we are only allowed one shot at qualifying for the final and it is a one day fishing final so you do not wish to be hamstrung from the outset by a bad draw.

Hamann: Is fishing access an issue in England? Or would you say there are ample river and lake opportunities available to anyone.

Bell: Yes and No is the answer to that one.

We have probably the best Lake organization of anywhere in the world. Places like Rutland and Grafham have 50+ identical boats and engines with all the facilities that go with them. There are also plenty of smaller venues throughout the country with more than 10 boats on them.

Scotland has the Lake of Menteith with a fleet of 30 boats and again there are also many other smaller venues with boats.

There are also numerous small water venues where bank angling takes place. This is the biggest part of fly-fishing in the UK now and there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. It can be easy on a stocking day but these fish may see tens of thousands of flies in a week! They soon wise up.

Access to Trout fishing on Rivers whilst different to North America is easy and reasonably priced in the North of England and Scotland.

However it is generally limited and expensive in the South of England.

Salmon Fishing in Scotland can be ridiculously expensive but can be obtained more reasonably in the smaller and less well known rivers.

Hamann: What about wild vs. stocked trout venues in your country? Would you say the primary venue might be a stocked, “put & take” lake situation? What is your personal preference and how do you think the norm in your country affects your anglers progression?

Bell: Well as I have said the vast majority of fly fishers in this country now use small put and take fisheries. It is not hard to see why. Everything is put on a plate for you. Easy and safe parking, a log book with flies and methods that are working, friendly staff, refreshments and meals available. You can fish with friends and easily make friends amongst the regulars and you have the opportunity to watch and learn from other anglers.

With regard to an anglers progression then it is a fact that a very large percentage of our anglers start on these small waters and never get past them. However many of the venues do have competitions such as Winter Leagues and Charity Events and this does encourage those who are minded to move on.

Personally I like all fly fishing. In fact I love all fly fishing!

The best fishing of all for me is good wild river fishing but as we all know rivers can be very cyclical, unpredictable and often inconsistent.

Stillwaters as a general rule are more consistent and as you get older boats with a good seat become ever more appealing! A good box for sitting on a bank comes a close second……..

Hamann: It’s no secret. English competitors are very proficient lake fisherman. There is no doubt a well rounded competitive angler must be both proficient at lakes and rivers. What would you say are some of the conceptual differences an angler must adopt when transitioning from being a river angler to both? And what do you love about the Stillwater sport?

Bell: Most of my Stillwater fishing is for stocked rainbow trout and that is the case for the vast majority of stillwater competitions in this country.

With that in mind I think for a start you need the right tools for the job.

It has taken up until the last few years for North Americans to embrace our longer rods both in Salmon fishing as well as Trout fishing. I personally think that 10 foot 8 weights are the tool for the job. It is what Iain Barr uses…….and it is what I used in Canada last year.

Within reason there is nothing you can do with a 6 weight that you cannot do with an 8 weight but it does not work the other way around.

If you cannot get your point fly 35 yards away with only a couple of false casts you are already behind the 8 ball. I was going to say LBW but only a few will understand that as it is a cricket term!

Casting Distance is one of the keys to successful Stillwater angling be it bank or boat.

I often see a lot of girls rods talked about on Trout Legend. Get yourselves some proper mans rods!………. J

In all seriousness you do need at least a 10 foot 7 weight and around 15 lines or more.
Preferably 3 identical rods and 3 identical reels to go with them for bank fishing competitions

I also think that at times Rivers are easy to read.

You know where the fish are going to be, well at least some of them.

In still waters they could me anywhere and in stocked Stillwaters in some places and not in others.

I would probably think that Stillwater fishing is to a larger extent more of a three dimensional game than rivers.
Not always but generally more.

It is also often about the decisions you make rather than out and out ability. Of course good anglers will be more consistent but information about where and how can really level the playing field or tilt it in your favour.

Iain Barr may arguably be the Worlds Best Competition Loch Style Angler but most anglers on our competition circuit will have beaten him on the odd occasion. Even me!

Hamann: How has the culture of competitive fly fishing shaped the evolution of gear offered in Europe and vice versa?

Bell: Well I think it the same as in other fields. Motor racing has brought about things like ABS and traction control and competition fly-fishing has pushed the envelope of fishing tackle.

Companies like Airflo have brought about innovations like the Di-7 and 40+ plus lines.

Rod makers like Greys have brought in the11 foot 3 weight.

Leeda were the first company to bring in the cassette reel and many have followed suit.

I would think it fair to say that this has been in the most part from demand from competition anglers. Mind you that is not to say “recreational” anglers have not played their part.

I also think it probably works both ways. Things like the 11 foot 3 weight allow anyone to fish a long French leader easily.
Cassette reels allow quick and easy and cheap line changes for anyone.

Hamann: What are some your favorite European publications covering competitive fly fishing?

Bell: Well there are not really many magazines that extensively cover competitions these days. It used to be a big part of them many years ago but then virtually died out in print.

Up until recently even a National Final would not make the news section however it is coming back a little bit.

The best general magazine in the UK is Fly-Fishing and Fly-Tying. However for novices Trout Fisherman is good for at least a few years

Hamann: I know it’s a bit cliche, but what are your top 5 favorite lake patterns? What about your top 5 favorite lines?

I was a mentor for the USA team in the run up to the World Championships being held in Scotland in 2009.

I answered many e-mails from the team members and Lance Egan asked almost this very question.

This was my reply.

”Lance asks for my top five flies…..

That is an impossible question………..

Thanks Lance!……….Ha Ha

What I can do is give you my top five groups and then try an narrow those down to a few of my favourites.
The groups would be;
Hopper/Daddies (UK Style)

Now I know that covers almost everything except wet flies (I have some of those as well) but I could not envisage going out on a Loch without all of them.

One of the main things about Loch Style fishing is that you have an opponent in the boat with you. Obvious yes, but it does have consequences that a river session does not have.
Now I have to once again put in the proviso that I am not trying to teach my grandmother to suck eggs and as I do not know that much about all of you I would rather be blunt than miss something out.

Not easy for an Englishman…..
Good job I am half Scottish! J

So to get back to the point there you are in a boat and your partner, Iain Barr has just had 2 fish in 2 casts on a Pink Booby.
What do you do?
Well the only answer I know is to strap on a Pink Booby…… (and the same or nearest Fly line if you have it.)
What if you do not have one…..
Well you could ask him for one!
Knowing Iain as I do he would give you one but he would wait till he was 8-0 up!
The thing is that you cannot have 5 favorite flies and you cannot have even five favorite groups.

What you can have is a system.

You cannot have all the flies in all the colors and all the sizes………..and then have them all again with a red head!
So If we take Boobies, I have in my box most of the colors and the named boobies such as Cats Whisker and Viva Booby in size 10 and a few repeats in the favorite colors such as Peach and CW in size 12.
That way if my partner starts catching on Pink Booby even if it is a bit different to mine I can then put on something similar.
Now my system with nymphs is the same.
I take a few patterns such as Diawl Bach, Cruncher, PTN, Hares Ear, and I have them in different colors in 10 and 12 with a few 14‘s thrown in.
It is the same with Hoppers (UK) I will have around eight colors in 10 and 12 with a couple of them, say Black and Hares Ear in a 14 as well.
The same type of thing would apply to the other groups. What I am trying to achieve is to have a range of flies that will cover a range a scenarios including some thing similar to anything my boat partner puts on.

You cannot have everything but you need something for each of the ballparks.
Just as an insight I will list a few of my favorites in each group.

Peaches and Cream
Pink Straggle Fritz
Cats Whisker
Cocktail Coral
Orange Fritz

Olive Cruncher
Black Cruncher
Diawl Bach
Red Headed Diawl Bach
Red Holographic DB

Black Buzzer 1
Black Buzzer 2
Black Buzzer 3
Olive Buzzer

Real Daddy (foam)
Black Hopper
Olive Hopper
H.E. Hopper
Orange Hopper

Red Bodied Cormorant
Pearl Bodied Cormorant
Cats Whisker

So Gentlemen there we are; the basis of a system that hopefully covers the fishes bases but also your boat partners bases.”

My current favourite lines are Fast Glass, Floater, Di5, Di3, and Di7

Hamann: Just as in the States with the conventional Bass circuit there is an in depth culture of competitive fishing not oriented around trout and the fly in England. Could you give us a snapshot of this world? What is Course Angling? Do you think these other divisions compliment or contradict competitive fly fishing and do you see many “crossovers” from sport to sport?

Bell: Well Coarse Angling is by far the biggest sector in fishing in England. Not Scotland though but it is increasing there.

Basically it is the catching of Coarse fish. These would be mainly Roach and Perch. Bream, Chub, Rudd, Gudgeon etc. In recent years Specialist Commercial Carp Fisheries have become increasingly popular. I suppose it is a bit like our small water fly-fishing in that everything is laid on and it is so convenient. In the south of England these fisheries are very popular and many a trout fishery has been converted to Carp. One of the reasons for that is that Carp are able to withstand the rigors of catch and release in the warmer temperatures of summer which trout are not.

Some of our best Fly Anglers started off as Coarse Fishermen. Indeed Brian Leadbetter who was the first man to win the Individual WFFC for a second time started as a coarse fisherman. I think some of the things they appreciate more than us is depths and presentation.

I do hear about a number of fishermen coming over to fly-fishing from the coarse world and this may be because fly-fishing is a more continually active form of the sport and suits the less patient angler!.

Hamann: In the States we have Army teams in other sports, but not yet Fly Fishing. Could you tell us a little about the British Army Fly Fishing Team?

Bell: Well it was all started by Andy Croucher who some of you will know. The Soldier Palmers is the organization for fly fishing in the British Army and this has been going for a good number of years. In 2005 when Andy was the Secretary he started thinking about having a trip abroad for some of the members. He found out that if there was a competition involved the Army Sports Lottery Fund would give the serving members a small subsidy. He then started looking around for a competition and came across the first website for the 2006 USA National Championships. So basically Andy blagged a place in the competition and the British Army team was born.
I think the organizer were glad to have us as perhaps we added an extra dimension to this competition which was in its inaugural year.

We must have behaved ourselves as we got invited back the next year. This is also when we met the Canadian Team and we got invited to their Championships as well but because of date clashes we were unable to take them up on the offer until 2010.

Hamann: You’ve signed on as a “hired gun” to two Canadian National Championship squads in recent years. Who did you fish with and can you share some of your experiences on the way to your Team Medal finishes?

Well I think Hired Gun is a bit strong but I will take it as a compliment………….. J

In 2010 we accepted the Canadians long standing invitation and our team consisted of Andy Croucher as Captain together with Graham Lumsden, Pete Mumford, Ronnie Christie and myself.

The competition was partly cancelled because of the wind but we had a fantastic time in the town of Roblin where everyone made us so welcome. We were lucky enough to win a Bronze Team Medal which was the icing on the cake. The end of term party was simply outstanding and I think we were the gold medal winners in the beer stakes.

By 2011 Andy and Graham had left the Army and Ronnie Christie was in Afghanistan so it was not possible to send a team over.

However one of the Canadians who was on my sector in 2010, David Forgeron told me his wife’s family was from Whitehaven in England and he might look me up when he was visiting in 2011.

So David came and stayed with me for a few days and I guided him for some River and Loch Style fishing. Over a couple of beers in the evenings he forced me into agreeing to return in the Autumn for the Championships in Quebec. I then contacted Randy Taylor to see if there was a place available and there was. Randy said I could fish as an individual and if a team was short of a man I could join them.

So I stayed with and practiced with David’s team the Dredgehogs but as it turned out one of Randy’s team accidentally eliminated himself by fishing a venue too close to the competition and so I took the slot in Equipe Airflo. As you will be aware the we won the Gold Medal but they would have still won it if I had been placed last in every session.

I was lucky enough to come second but quite rightly could not receive the Silver medal as I was only a guest. The Quebec experience was different from Manitoba but will always be one of the great memories in my fly-fishing life. I hope to get an invite back this year.. In 2011 was lucky enough to fish with Todd Oishi, John Nishi and Philip Short as well as Sunny Van Der Kloof but also to meet up with many people from the year before.

Hamann: What is your take on the Trout Legend League? How have you seen it evolve over the last 2 years and where do you think it can go?

Bell: I think the Trout Legend League and Forum is fantastic.
I think it is significantly responsible for propelling North American Fly-fishing into a position where it can seriously challenge for WFFC Team Medals in the near future.

I remember talking to Eddie Pinkston after the 2007 USA Nationals and he and I were of the same opinion that the USA would never win a team medal. This was not because of the ability of individual anglers but because of the lack of a National Competition structure.

We could both see brilliant American anglers around us but as they improved so did the anglers from other countries and we could not see the gap significantly closing. I think Trout Legend has changed this and I am sure Eddie would agree. A National structure is now emerging and your WFFC Team is now being pushed forward by hundreds of anglers and not just by a few well meaning and enthusiastic people.

I think Trout Legend will continue to grow and the only problem I can see coming is finding someone or some group to take over when you decide to pass on the reins.

Hamann: From “across the pond” can you offer some outside advice to the competitors and organizers on how we can improve our North American competitive scene, stock of anglers, and competitions?

The biggest problem the USA faces is the sheer size of the country. Canada has even more of a problem in that respect and a small relative population to boot. The way around that maybe to organize State competitions. I am sure the possibility of becoming Colorado, Montana or North Carolina Champion would have a great appeal. I think the next logical move would then be to have Interstate competitions between neighboring states.

I also think at entry level competitions keep the rules to a minimum.
Other than that just keep progressing the way you are.

Hamann: Recently there has been some discussion on whether the Trout Legend League should develop it’s own set of rules governing play or stick strictly to the Fips Mouche rule book. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Bell: Well to save some typing here is what I said on the thread at the time.

“In the UK up until a couple of years ago there were no competitions that were fished to Fips Mouche Rules.

Even now there isn‘t even a slack handful.

Now I am not trying to tell anyone how to run their competitions but would perhaps make these points.

At the lowest level of your competitions every single rule you have in place will reduce the numbers of anglers who enter.

At the top end of your competitions every deviation from Fips Mouche will make it just that bit harder for your representatives to step up to the world stage.”

I honestly believe that you must encourage newcomers both young and old into competition fishing and easy, relaxed competitions are the way to do that. The enthusiastic amongst them will move on to the more serious levels as full blown competitors and if that is not for them perhaps as controllers and officials but you have to get them in the first place.

Keep all your major competitions at or near full Fips Mouche regulations.

Hamann: Well thank you again for taking the time to do this interview. In closing could you leave us with some thoughts on what competitive fly fishing has meant in your angling life?

Bell: Well I did not get into fly-fishing until well into my thirties and competitions until my forties.

Fly-fishing and competition fly-fishing is now a major component of my life.

My wife Margaret says I have three loves in my life; Trout, Grayling and her and she is not sure of the order……………!

I just love it. I like the taking part and on the odd minor occasion the winning but the most important part is the people.

My best fishing friend was a person I met by being drawn in a boat with him for a Loch Style competition on Rutland which is 250 miles from where I live. I also treasure the people I have met in Canada the USA and Czech Republic. I cannot begin to imagine my life without fly-fishing and competitions are a major part of that.