Devin Olsen has been on fire this year with two consecutive gold medals and a 4th place finish rocketing him to a comfortable position atop the leader board. Devin divulges more than a few secrets to his success in this great interview.
Interview with Devin Olsen by Dejon Hamann
Hamann: Devin, I know it’s cliché’ but let’s start with your age. What did it take to get on Fly Fishing Team USA before the age of 21?
Olsen: To become a team member it takes a lot of experience with the sport of fly fishing itself. It requires a level of talent and skill surrounding the techniques of the sport of fly fishing and also an understanding of the fish you are pursuing. Most importantly, it requires a drive and desire to dedicate your self to getting better at fly fishing and a commitment to spend every bit of available time on the water or at the tying vise. Luckily, my father introduced me to fishing as a young child and by about the 6th grade I was becoming fairly proficient with a fly rod. Throughout my life I’ve always had a competitive nature and desire to be the best at what I pursue so it was perfectly natural for me to combine that competitive nature with the sport I love so much. In 2005 I started working with Ryan Barnes and Lance Egan in the new Cabelas fly shop and the rest is basically history. From them, I learned more about what the team was and how they were personally fishing and I decided I wanted to become a member. So I put my indicators and split shot away and started focusing on getting better at legal competition techniques and things just came together for me from that point.
Hamann: Most people don’t understand the physical requirements of competitive fly fishing. Do you prepare for competition in this respect? Do you believe your age may be a great asset? Looking ahead, do you think the sport may eventually be dominated by the 20 something demographic?
Olsen: Fly fishing may not be the most physical sport around but there are definitely benefits to being fit. When it comes to competition, any edge you can get makes a vital difference. If you can add a few seconds of fishing time by sprinting up and down your beat or by having stamina throughout your session than you are bettering your chances of success. Competitions are exhausting affairs with early morning rises, late night tying sessions, long bus rides, and 6 hours a day of adrenaline pumping fishing sessions. Anybody who thinks that it doesn’t take stamina and mental toughness to stay sharp and motivated through the entire process is kidding themselves. I believe in trying to stay physically fit to begin with so I don’t really change my normal cardio and strength training regimen for competition. When it comes time for competition, I definitely believe the hard hours at the gym beforehand benefit my time on the water. I don’t really think my youth helps me all that much as far as my fishing goes. What has helped me was starting to fish and study fishing at a young age because it has given me a lot of experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise to this point. I also don’t really think that the sport will become dominated by younger guys like myself in the coming years. Most kids these days are focusing on video games, other sports, or the opposite sex in their grade school years so the ones that do become serious about fly fishing often don’t do so until college. At that point it takes most of them a few years to gain enough experience to become successful on the competition stage.
Hamann: I know it’s a big subject, but let’s talk about how you prepare for competition by breaking it down a little. First, do you differentiate between “Everyday Practice” and “Competition Specific Practice”?
Olsen: I do change my practice prior to competitions. Most of my practice until about a month before a competition is just fishing with a specific focus for the day. I usually try and think of something I want to work on and then just implement as I fish that day. I try and spend equitable time on still and moving water when lakes aren’t frozen. If I know in advance where I’ll be fishing in a future competition then I’ll try to start fishing waters that are somewhat similar. Once a competition is about a month away, that’s when I try and pour the heat on. I try and get as much information on the waters I’ll be fishing as I can and then I try to replicate those conditions as much as possible by matching water types and fishing conditions accordingly. This isn’t easy though as no two waters are exactly alike. The major difference though is that I start fishing mock 3 hour sessions where I try to mentally recreate an actual competition session and fishing beat. If can get a fishing partner to help, we’ll set up beats and make a mini competition between ourselves.
Hamann: Now you’re at the venue. What is your practice schedule or approach towards training within the days you have on site?
Olsen: When I’m at the venue I try to take things as easily as possible. In general, my goal is to get confident about the waters I’ll be fishing without expending too much energy that I’ll need later. I survey the competition water and try and find water that is similar for my practice. Then I simply fish and try to develop a sense of the flies and techniques that I believe will work. Once I’m feeling confident that I’ve got flies and a general plan than I try to spend the rest of the time scouting beats, if I know them in time, and forming a detailed game plan for each session. I usually try to write down time allotments for sections of water within a beat so that I can stay calm and confident in what I’m doing throughout the session.
Hamann: What does “attention to detail” mean to you?
Olsen: Paying attention to details for me is one of the most important aspects of competition. Many of the conversations you’ll hear among competition fisherman center on having confidence in what you’re doing. For me, the best way to have that confidence is to make sure that every detail surrounding my fishing approach is covered. I constantly scrutinize every piece of gear in my arsenal and every technique that I’m using. The practice time immediately before a competition is not the time to be trying a bunch new things so I try to tinker with all of the details beforehand. When it comes down to it, one fish can make the difference between success and disappointment so if I can better my chances of hooking and landing that fish through what I’m using and exactly how I’m using it I’m going try and analyze every part of the process to make sure that happens.
Hamann: How do you decide what flies to use in competition?
Olsen: I decide what flies to use just like any other fisherman would decide what flies to use. I survey the water, take some bug samples, and use my basic knowledge of entomology to match any hatches there are. As much as anything though, I try and fish as many flies as possible during practice so that I can experiment and see what works. I also rely a lot on the findings of my teammates to find any other flies that might be important.
Hamann: Do you find that being a guide or working in a fly shop helps your competition game?
Olsen: Any time that you can spend theorizing about techniques or watching others fish is time well spent pertaining to competition. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been lucky to work with Ryan and Lance in a situation where we can bounce a lot of ideas around that we might not have thought of ourselves. Those ideas can always lead to epiphanies and breakthroughs on the water. As far as guiding goes, it’s basically a teaching job spent on the water. Often the best way to help your self understand something is to teach it to someone else. Being able to put fish in the net for a client with little skill or in tough conditions only helps you understand things further when it’s time to put fish in your own net.
Hamann: What were some of the keys to placing 5th in the 2007 Oceania Games in Tasmania?
Olsen: I think I went about Tasmania just like I would any other competition. The main factor contributing to my success and the team’s bronze medal was the way we worked together as a team. It was awesome to have Scott, Riley, Kurt, and Loren there and we really did our best to solve every situation. We spent a lot of time strategizing and sharing patterns. Most of us got very sick during practice with the stomach flu and if we hadn’t been able to rely on each other for help we certainly wouldn’t have had the success that we did.
Hamann: You’ve competed against some of the best nations in the world. What have you learned from watching teams like the French or Poland?
Olsen: Most of what I’ve learned from them has come from footage I’ve religiously dissected from the 2004 championships in Slovakia. I’ve tried to break that footage down just like a coach scouting an upcoming opposing team and I’ve learned a lot about the techniques and little details that set them apart. I’ve also gleaned a few bits of information from books they’ve written, internet sites that relate to them, and secondhand knowledge from other team members who competed against them.
Hamann: I know it’s cheesy, but if you had to go to the finals with only 6 patterns what would you carry?
Olsen: I can’t break it down to six patterns but I can probably go 6 for rivers and 6 for lakes. Obviously this would defer by season and venue.
For the rivers I’d choose a Frenchie Nymph (a variation on a pheasant tail),a Krystal Flash Hare’s Ear, my Biot-backed stonefly nymph, a basic Czech/Polish Nymph, a Stimulator, and a Parachute Adams. For the lakes I’d have a Black Wooly Bugger/leech, a Chromie Chironomid, my Blue Wonder (soft hackle nymph), a Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail, Damsel Nymph, and a Pregnant Scud.
Hamann: What drives you? I mean, at the root, why do you want to get on Fly Fish Team USA and compete on the International stage?
Olsen: I think every person wants to find something that they excel at because that’s a natural human desire. For me fly fishing is one of those things. Every time I go to a competition I come back wanting more. I love the adrenaline rush each session brings, the comradery of the other competitors, and the feeling of accomplishment when I achieve success. My dream is to stand on the podium at the World Championships for a personal and a team medal. Keeping that vision in mind keeps me driven to fish hard every time I’m on the water.
Olsen’s Track Record:
• World Fly Fishing Championships 2010 Poland June 2010, Placed highest among team USA competitors
• World Fly Fishing Championships 2009 Scotland June 2009, Placed 1st and 4th in the two sessions fished
• Oceania Fly Fishing Championship, 5th Place Tasmania, February, 2007 (Team Bronze Medal)
• America Cup International Fly Fishing Tournament 1st Place September 2010 (Individual Gold Medal) (Team Gold Medal)
• America Cup International Fly Fishing Tournament 2nd Place September 2008 (Individual Silver Medal) (Team Gold Medal)
• Fly Fishing Team USA National Championships, PA 2009 (Individual 5th place) (Team Bronze Medal)
• Santa Fe Team USA Regional Trial, November 2010 1st Place
• Durango Regional Trial, May 2010 3rd Place
• Bozeman Regional Trial, September 2009 1st Place
• Pagosa Lakes Competition, May, 2008 5th Place
• Salt Lake Competition, July, 2008 1st Place
• Cody Regional Trial, April, 2007 2nd Place