Guest Blog Post by Troy Hythecker
One evening I was sitting in my recliner searching the internet on my phone and I somehow stumbled upon a strange event called a "flyathlon." As an avid fly-fisherman and middle-aged athlete looking for a better reason to get in shape, I was curious enough to click on the link and discover more. As I poked around the site, I saw pictures of people running and catching fish with a Rocky Mountain background. I found myself wishing I lived closer to the Rockies so that I could participate in the event, but as an Iowa resident I resigned myself to the possibility of someday scheduling a vacation around a flyathlon.
A few weeks later, I caught word that there would be a flyathlon in the Driftless area! I was so excited that I would have the chance to participate in such an exciting event so close to home. I set a reminder for the registration date and was one of the first to sign up. I stepped up my daily jogging and got in better shape to be sure that I could run the 5 miles without stopping. Since I had never fished Paint Creek, I showed up a day early and spent some time fishing along the race route, finding the holes and seeing if I could entice some fish to chase my flies. I had some success locating fish and was confident in my flies.
The next day, the flyathletes started rolling in to the campground. We enjoyed chatting, sharing stories, all of us excited and a little unsure of what to expect. We sat around a crackling campfire with a cold craft beer and discussed our strategies for the race, shared stories of catching trout, discussed our favorite creeks and had a great time. We went to bed and woke up the next morning, took the hay rack ride to the start area and before we knew it, the BB gun was fired into a can of beer to start the race and the race was off!
I ran a couple miles to the first hole I had scouted, and after a few casts and drifts, a nice 13" rainbow went for my black wooly bugger! I fumbled through my pack to find my race bib, snapped a picture, carefully released the fish and started jogging down the trail. My heart was thumping from the excitement of landing the fish so quickly and then I realized, "Maybe I could win this thing!" I kept jogging along, straining, switching my rod from one hand to another to get comfortable and then before I knew it, I rounded the last bend and the finish line was in sight. As I huffed and puffed down the last quarter mile, I decided to give it one last kick at the end just like I did back in my glory days of running track. I finished!
After catching my breath, I grabbed a nice cold beer out of the cooler and waited for the other people to finish. As it turned out, I was the second to cross the line and a person behind me caught the biggest fish of the day which leapfrogged him above me, so I finished third. After the race, we went back to the campsite, enjoyed an amazing BBQ meal, distributed the prizes and swag, and we went our separate ways.
For the next several years, this would be my routine... eagerly wait for the email anticipating when the next date would be, set a reminder to sign up when registration opened, do some running to train, show up at the event, meet great people, enjoy the event, and do it all again next year... until 2020.
Like we all have experienced, 2020 has been a disappointing year with almost everything I enjoy being cancelled. For a while I was holding out hope that perhaps the flyathlon might be able to go on as normal since it was in the fall, but then the inevitable happened and the news was announced that the flyathlon as it was would not be happening this year, but it would be a "socially distanced" flyathlon.
I tried to get excited about it. I still set my reminder and signed up as soon as possible. I had visions of making this the year I would crush it with fundraising, I would go fishing several times until I caught that 20"+ Iowa brown trout and would run a half-marathon the same day. I'd figure out the points and maybe I could win this year.
But that wasn't meant to be. Shortly after the flyathlon started, some good friends of mine were in a bad car accident and nearly lost their lives. Their kids started a "Go Fund Me" to help with medical expenses and to replace their lost wages, and I couldn't bring myself to share a post asking money for trout when people I loved were fighting for their lives. Without the specific date on the calendar, I lost a little bit of the drive to keep my running mileage up and without the anticipation of gathering together with great people in the driftless, the flyathlon went on the back burner and I lost interest.
I did meet up with a friend for a couple days of trout fishing and caught a beautiful 16" brown a couple weeks ago, but I forgot my race bib at home and my back was too sore to run. With only a week to go until the Halloween deadline, I had raised $0 and the opportunities to fish were dwindling. After looking at my crammed calendar, I only had one window of opportunity- a few hours available on a Wednesday morning that I could take off work and flex some time so that I could make a quick jaunt up to my most-frequented stream, catch a fish quickly, get back to work, then go for a run in the evening. My wife and I discussed whether it was worth it or not, maybe I should just not do it this year, but in the end I decided to go and keep my streak of competing in every Driftless Flyathlon alive.
I arrived at Catfish Creek (great name for a trout stream, right?!), slipped on my waders and briskly started walking to my dependable honey hole, carrying a Febreze scented trash bag along the way to pick up any trash I could find so that I could get some points for the community service project. I got to the hole, tied on a size 16 red Copper John behind a Frenchie and sure enough, I caught a pretty 11.5" rainbow after just a few drifts. I snapped the picture, released the fish and meandered down the stream to see if I could find a bigger one while stooping to pick up some litter along the way.
As I walked back up the hill to my car, I thought about the flyathlons gone by and the disappointment of this one. I missed the camaraderie and conversations, the adrenaline at the start, the pulled pork sandwich after the finish and the whole experience of being together with great people in the heart of the Driftless. But even though this flyathlon was different, I discovered some unexpected lessons.
The simple act of taking a garbage bag with me to pick up a few pieces of trash changed the whole experience for me. Instead of just seeing the stream as a resource- something that provides me with solitude, pleasure and an occasional trout, I felt like a steward- that in a small way, I had a part to play in making the stream a better place for the people who would walk the same trail in the future. Over the years of competing in the flyathlon, I'm not as motivated to try to win, the "wins" are meeting a new person and sharing the experiences with others, and passing on a passion for fly fishing to people who are just learning. My hesitation to ask people for money when there are so many other pressing needs has been overcome- if people want to give, they will and if they don't, they won't. Even if they don't give, my simple act of sharing and asking will raise awareness about a precious resource that we often take for granted.
Although the 2020 Driftless Flyathlon was not my favorite, I will always remember it and the unexpected discoveries I learned along the way.