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Airflo International Final – Redemption at Rutland Water

Read Time: 10 Minutes | Published: 24th November 2023 | Author: Rob Edmunds

The last 12 months have been challenging for us both individually and as a team. We’ve experienced both the highs and lows of competition fishing. But it was the tragic loss of one of our teammates Pablo Mullins in January 2023 that unquestionably had the biggest impact. These feelings weren’t just restricted to our team. Pablo was a huge character loved by everyone on the circuit.  Throughout the season we frequently traveled and roomed together for 4 or 5 days at a time. So it’s inevitable that you develop a strong bond and friendship. As a team we are “tight”. In an instant everything was knocked sharply out of focus. We no longer had that desire, belief and excitement as other matters were more important and took precedent. It’s fair to say the team was suffering, disillusioned and very close to folding.

The Airflo International Final

The most prestigious competition in the fly-fishing calendar is the Airflo International Final. It’s a 2-day match held at Rutland Water in early October. It’s a historic team fly-fishing competition that began in the 1980’s when it was originally known as the “Benson & Hedges.” Over the last 45 years sponsors may have changed but the competition still remains the blue ribbon event and the magic remains.

The International Final consists of the 21 best competition teams. Each time is comprised of 6 anglers. Entry to the final is only obtained via qualification from one of the “heats.” These heats are held throughout the UK over the earlier part of the season. In short, it’s the highest standard of “loch style” competition fly-fishing anywhere in the world and boasts a rich and unique history. Gareth Jones of Airflo, a passionate and highly successful competition angler himself, should be applauded for his sponsorship and continued support of the event in these ever-challenging times.

The 2022 season

In 2022 Team Tequila won a silver medal and missed out on gold by the smallest margin in the event’s history. We were 0.25 of an ounce or 7g behind first. Most teams would consider second a huge success. However, to be perfectly honest we were all gutted. I’m sure each team member analyzed every part of their individual performance over the two days of competition. We all wondered if any of us could have done something slightly different that may have resulted in just 1 more fish for the team and affected the final result in our favour.

Looking back I don’t think we could or should have fished any differently. We made decisions based on our position, practice, the conditions and the information we had available at the time. There has always been a very fine line between success and failure at the highest level. On this occasion, we finished second.

So despite initially having reservations about competing at all in 2023, we entered a team for a preliminary round of the Airflo Open at Rutland Water in late April. Fortunately, the water was fishing well on a variety of methods.  2 Cocktail blobs spaced 9ft apart vigorously pulled on a Di-5 sinking line initially worked well and allowed us to put some quick easy fish in the bag. As the day progressed conditions warmed and the buzzer hatches began. 3 “straight lined” 2-tone buzzers fished on a 14ft leader of 10lb Masterclass fluorocarbon became our most effective method. With 3 of the team securing quick limits of 12 fish before 13:00hrs qualification to the final was thankfully a formality.

The International Final – Rutland Water October 3rd & 4th 2023

The Airflo International Final is a huge step up in the standard of opposition. Almost every competitor participating in the final has numerous “international caps,” so has represented their country on multiple occasions. There simply are no poor teams or poor anglers at this stage of the competition.

As a team we were now determined to give it our all and put in our best performance. The agony of losing by such a small margin the previous season still hurt. In every sport you only get out what you put in. Some teams view just getting to the final an achievement, but personally we had higher expectations.

For us the final started in early September. Every weekend saw at least 2 different members of the team fishing Rutland Water fishing and reporting back to the group. Areas, flies, methods, conditions, depth of fish and all other information each angler identified in the preliminary practice stages was shared amongst the team. It allowed us all to build up a picture of the water and it’s ever-changing moods. This detailed background information is essential as we needed to identify those small areas that consistently held just a fish or two. If things got really difficult in the match it’s these small “fall back” spots that may make all the difference between winning and losing.

Advanced Practice

This advance practice not only allowed us to identify methods and patterns that worked consistently, but it gave us plenty of time to prepare and tie the required patterns. Rather than to struggle the night before competing, stuck at the vice until the early hours of the morning feeling tired and exhausted before the start of the competition, we were ready long in advance. Arguably our best and most experienced angler, Andrew Scott (Scotty), meticulously tied over 1,000 flies for the team just in preparation for the final. Scotty is the consummate professional and he sets the standard the rest of the team aspire to.

Resident Fish

During our periods of extended practice, we found that the larger resident fish were holding in Rutland’s vast weed-beds. They were feeding predominantly on snails, shrimp and fry. The top of the North Arm, Barnhill Creek and New Zealand Point were consistent areas for these better quality fish. As such we tied numerous “international rules” suspender fry patterns and shrimp patterns. For me this style of fishing (targeting resident fish over weed beds) although exciting is always a gamble the first day of a competition.

Resident fish are much more difficult to catch. They’re less numerous and require good angling conditions and so the margin for error is significantly less. With the fish actually holding in and just off the weed beds there is also the real risk of breakages when a hooked fish runs through the weed. So for these reasons I personally would only opt to target these fish on day 2 IF as a team we were behind by a significant margin in the competition. In essence, the bigger the gamble the bigger the reward. But, also the bigger chance of failure!

Suspender Fry that follow international rules.

Official Practice

Like all the other teams competing, official practice starts 3 days prior to the actual competition. This means that there are 126 of Europe’s finest anglers on the water fishing a variety of methods. Experience tells us the fish receive sustained angling pressure and quickly become spooky and significantly more difficult to entice into the take.

Practice wasn’t easy for any of the teams during this year’s Airflo International Final. Each day we were all greeted each with winds of just 0 – 2mph, 18c and bright sun. Conditions meant you simply just couldn’t drift, cover the water and search for fish as you normally would. Our background information would prove invaluable as conditions were due to dramatically change the morning of the actual match. Almost everything competitors identified in “official practice” was of limited use.

A Team Injury…

Worse was to follow. Scotty became injured just 2 days before the match hurting his casting arm and declared he was unable to fish. He was absolutely devastated; the team was gutted. To put this into perspective this is akin to Argentina loosing Messi before the World Cup Final!

It’s fair to say moral nose dived! Thankfully we had a reserve team member in Sam Smith that we knew would do a good job. But with just 1 day’s practice in challenging conditions, it would be difficult for Sam given the standard of competition.

Our Best Method

The team’s best method during practice was a suspender fry on the point of an 18ft leader of 10lb Masterclass flurocarbon with 2 foam daddies on the droppers. They were fished on a floating line in and over the weed beds for resident fish predominantly feeding on shrimps and fry.  We caught a reasonable number of fish in the 3 to 5lb class. These larger fish did somewhat make up for the low numbers we were catching. It was a tactic we perfected and thought that we may have to employ on day 2 of the competition. Our method was simple. First, a couple of short sharp strips to “pop” the flies and gain the fishes attention. Then just hold on and fish static or ultra slowly for 20 – 30 seconds. Wait for the take as fish appear from nowhere out of the weed and take the fly aggressively.

A fantastic brown caught by Matthew Griffiths.

Airflo International Final: Match Day 1 – October 3rd

Conditions had totally changed from the previous 3 days as predicted. The hot weather had deserted us and it was now overcast with intermittent sun and a stiff 15 – 20mph North Easterly wind. From our previous weeks practice we knew the smaller stocked fish were holding in the 2 – 5ft band of water from the Sailing Club to the Dam area, and from Whitwell Creek to the Monument. Despite the recent unseasonal high daytime temperatures over the past 3 weeks, the evenings and nights were now significantly cooler. There was that distinct autumnal chill in the air, meaning that the water wouldn’t warm significantly. We reasoned that as the resident fish were still holding in the relatively shallow water around the weed-beds and weren’t affected by the conditions then the stock fish also wouldn’t be affected. We decided to fish at approximately the same depth as we had previously identified.

Decision Making

Match fishing is not only about angling ability it’s also about the decision-making process, reading the conditions and adapting as the competition progresses. Being fluid is better than being ridged in your outlook and sticking to a method that clearly isn’t working. To make the best decisions during a match you need as much relevant information as possible. Communication between the team members is therefore essential. For example, a 30 second chat with team mates on the water may seem like wasted time in a competition, but in reality it allows you to pool information and often can save you and your team mates an hour or two of fishing the incorrect method or areas.

Following a meeting the morning of the match our captain Matthew Griffiths—with unanimous support from the rest of the team—decided to go for broke. Experience tells us that the second day of any competition is significantly harder than the first. This is because all the known fish holding areas have been targeted by other anglers at some point during the initial days’ competition. At this level there really aren’t any secrets after 3 days of practice. We know a big lead is not only difficult to claw back in challenging conditions, but it also has a significant psychological effect. Some teams aren’t strong enough mentally for the fight.

Going All In

Spreading the team out in a variety of areas reduces the risk if a particular area of the reservoir doesn’t produce fish. However, it also reduces the reward – we opted to gamble and “go all in. A very risky strategy given the standard of the opposition and if we made the wrong call it would be practically impossible to claw back the top 2 or 3 teams.

Every team member was to target the fish from Whitwell Creek to the Monument. The added bonus was we knew there were also a significant number of larger resident fish in the area too, and that would give our bag a welcome boost. The law of averages suggested as a team we would catch 2 or 3 of these better quality fish over the course of 2 days. Still if the area didn’t produce fish we knew it was only a relatively short distance back to the Sailing Club and Lodge. In essence it was an estimated gamble based on our findings over the previous month and our 3 days practice.

The Flies

As the fish had already received 3 days of angling pressure, many would have been caught and released or hooked and lost. Rutland Water was also extremely clear with 20ft visibility again making things more difficult.  We were now positively targeting smaller fish in open water away from any weed beds. We reasoned we should scale down our tackle and fish smaller flies and light leaders. This normally leads to confident takes more positive hook-ups and less lost fish. We initially opted to fish fast intermediate lines and a 3-fly cast.  A small size 14 Cat’s Whisker Booby on the point, a Black Pulling Hopper on the middle dropper and a Green Ribbed Cormorant top dropper. All flies were spaced 8ft apart on a 24ft leader of just 7.12lb Masterclass fluorocarbon.

Modifying The Patterns

With all 6 anglers in one 400m area it was easy to maintain contact and keep appraised of best methods and patterns. After 4 hours it became clear that keeping things simple was the best tactic in the clear water. Other teams were mostly fishing 4 flies on relatively short 18ft leaders and were struggling to catch consistently. Yet our whole team had caught at least 2 fish each. Some team members went further as fish started to become spooked and harder, myself included. I dropped down to just 2 flies spaced 12ft apart on a 24ft leader with a tiny size 14 Cocktail FAB top dropper and a black Hummungus Booby or size 14 double black blob on the point.

The team consistently picked up fish every two drifts or so and started to build some decent bags. By 16:00hrs 3 of the team had actually reached their 8 fish limits which given the recent fishery rod average of 1.5 was exceptional and in all honesty exceeded our expectations. Our self-imposed target at the start of the day was just 4 fish per angler, 24 for the team. Motoring back to the lodge we chatted to other competitors. It was clear they all had struggled with the majority on just 1 or 2 fish. We knew we had put in a decent performance and would be occupying one of the top positions.

Results: Day 1

The official results confirmed that Team Tequila had amassed 37 fish in total for a weight of 78lb. We also had a sizable lead over the Welsh Hawks who had 29 fish in second place. This equated to approximately a 20lb advantage going into day 2 of the competition, or 10 fish.

With a rod average of just 2 fish per competitor on day 1 we knew we were in a very strong position. However the Welsh Hawks captained by former World Champion Russell Owen are a phenomenal team and easily capable of producing a special result. The biggest compliment I can give them is I wish they were 40lb behind us heading into the second day 😉 After last year’s final we knew we couldn’t become complacent. We had to remain focused, have a thorough debrief and formulate a match plan for the second day which we were all happy and confident with.

Returning from a tough day.

Day 2

Analyzing the first day’s results made our second day match plan relatively easy. Every angler had found the fishing extremely difficult.  Other teams’ catches were generally extremely low and it was clear there were no big shoals of fish or methods that we had missed in our practice sessions. Our decision to go for broke had clearly paid off on this occasion. Had we initially made the incorrect decision then we would undoubtably been at the lower end of the table.

However, we were in pole position. 20lb is a huge advantage when the fishing is so challenging, and our confidence was sky high. For a team to beat us, we knew they had to take a huge gamble and target the larger resident fish off the weed beds in Rutland’s North and South Arms and hope that as a team we failed to catch. This would be a very tall order but not impossible given the standard of our fellow competitors. We had to get some early fish in the boat to settle the team, allow us to get into a rhythm and increase the pressure on our closest competitors.

Starting Out

On day 2 of the competition we were greeted with 18 – 20mph winds and a temperatire of 15c. All 6 of Team Tequila again started between Whitwell Creek and Stockie Bay. As expected, a large number of other competitors decided to fish the same area as us and rightly so. It was easily the most prolific location on day 1. We knew this added pressure on the fish would be detrimental to our catch rate. The important thing was not to panic and stick to our game plan.

In just the first hour all our team members had caught at least one fish. We knew the best drifts, retrieves and patterns so had a distinct advantage over the other anglers there. This immediately calmed any nerves that we may have had. It was now just a case of digging in, maintaining our focus and grinding out an additional fish or two each over the course of the day. Just one fish every 2.5 hours – our belief was that just 3 fish an angler would be enough given the sizable advantage we already held and how hard the water was fishing.

14:00hrs

By 14:00hrs many of the boats had motored away from Whitwell Creek as they were clearly struggling, looking across Rutland’s Main Basin there was a lot of activity. Boats were well spread out from the Lodge frontage to the Dam. It was clear to me that no one had located a specific area holding fish and everyone was covering water. They were trying to find a fish or two rather than grouping up and targeting an established shoal.

As a team we had already amassed 16 fish, which based on our practice and the previous days results was a reasonable score. We couldn’t risk every boat remaining in the same area as other locations may produce significant numbers of fish later in the day, plus Whitwell Creek had virtually dried up (stopped producing any fish) with the prolonged pressure of 2 days of constant angling.

15:00hrs

At 15:00hrs boats were starting to congregate at Normanton Church and the Blue Pipes, it was clear they had found fish, but in what numbers? Two of our team were quickly deployed as a safety measure to get in on any late action. With just a couple of hours of the match remaining it was a sensible option for us as a team to have anglers in the area just in case it really “switched on”. It reduced any risk, while 4 of us remained at Whitwell Creek. It was again an estimated gamble, and we were playing the percentage game in the final hour or so of the match.

Motoring in at the end of the match it was clear that it had been another very tough day. Many recognized international anglers had struggled for just one fish with some even blanking. My initial though was at least the “weigh in” won’t take very long 😉

The Results

Two day matches are always tense affairs, there are often 6 to 8 teams challenging for medals. After 5 days of hard fishing anglers are physically and mentally drained with emotions running extremely high. So obtaining information regarding other teams catches must be done with a great deal of sensitivity. Team Tequila had again performed very well with 26 fish in total for the team, with our closest competitors the Welsh Hawks managing 14 fish and the Tartan Tyers lying in 3rd place after day 1 with 23 fish. 

We sensed at that moment we had done enough to win. The feeling is immense, it’s such a natural high and we were all euphoric. This is the match that every competition angler and every team wants to win and dedicates themselves too all season. It’s by far the biggest and most prestigious event in the competition calendar and everything revolves around this moment. Dreams are realized but also shattered as we knew only too well.

The results.

The Formal Presentation is always an enjoyable evening it gives everyone a chance to dress up, have some banter and recap on the weeks fishing over a drink or two. Suddenly everyone knows how and where they should have fished 😉

Top Rod

An additional bonus for the team this year was that Phil Dixon was crowned the overall “Top Rod” in the competition with 14 fish over the 2 days for 31lb 9oz. An incredible individual performance from a truly world class angler and it was thoroughly deserved. I also feel a special mention should go to Sam Smith who was our last-minute reserve. He was fishing in just his first international final. Despite the occasion and with little practice Sam put in an excellent performance for an individual 10th place and his contribution to the result cannot be underestimated.

We’ve won the big one, a gold medal at the main event. We’ve achieved our ambition and what the team was created for. There is a lifetime of dedication and so much pain in this result and it’s a “thanks” to every member of the team, including those that unfortunately weren’t there with us that weekend.

Yes, we may have been slightly fortuitous with our decision making and match plan over the 2 days, but as Gary Player once said “the harder I practice, the luckier I get.” Next season will be an even bigger challenge and we are under no illusions. The Hawks are hurting, as are a lot of other teams and they’ll all be gunning for us. Until then we plan to kick back and enjoy the moment.

A excellent film of the final, including drone footage was professionally produced by Andy Ford and is available to watch free via the following link:

To read more from Rob Edmunds, head to our blog where he has dozens of articles.

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