Fishing is his sport today, but Bret Bishop was a basketball player back in his high school days at The Community School in Sun Valley—a guard, but not quite Magic Johnson.
Community School basketball coach Mike Wade recalled, "I don't think Bret had a lot of basketball experience when he first came out for the team."
Bishop and the Cutthroats matched up well in inexperience. Having just moved to Ketchum with his family from California, Bishop was an original Cutthroat for Wade. The basketball team was in its infancy and lost nearly all its games by substantial margins.
But even then, you could tell Bishop had attributes that went far beyond dribbling the ball, scoring six to eight points a game, playing tough defense in losing causes and keeping the ship upright when the other team was scoring in bunches.
"He was playing a sport that wasn't popular at our school to begin with," Wade recalled last week. "But Bret became our best player and captain of the team. His trademark was a positive attitude, not getting down and working hard all the time. He was tenacious and got after it 100% all the time."
Bishop graduated from The Community School in 1986 and earned the Top Senior Scholar-Athlete award at the independent school's graduation ceremony. And in 1990 he graduated from Colorado College with a degree in English.
Twenty years later, Bishop's journey has taken him down a few beats, or streams, and it has been extremely rewarding.
Now 38, he has a wife and two young daughters. He is an English teacher at Boise's Capital High School. But one thing sets him apart from his graduating classes in Sun Valley and at Colorado College.
Bret Bishop loves fishing, and in June he became a national champion in the sport of competitive fly fishing.
Bishop became the first-ever national champion crowned by Fly Fishing Team USA during its first National Fly Fishing Championships and Conservation Symposium staged June 1-4 at Boulder, Colo.
Taking a gamble in some deep water on Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Bishop trusted his instincts, got a little lucky and won the individual gold medal by landing five trout in the final of five sessions.
He rose from second place overall to first place in the final standings because of the catch.
Bishop out-fished 64 anglers from all over the country and earned one of six spots on Fly Fishing Team USA that is heading to world competition in Portugal in September. It is Bishop's first world team berth.
"I enjoy the intensity and focus of doing the best you can for three hours," said Bishop referring to the length of each of the five sessions at nationals. "It's satisfying being in that moment and totally focused."
Fellow Boise schoolteacher Pete Erickson, a fishing buddy of Bishop's for nearly 10 years, said, "Bret is a finesse angler and he's a natural at catching trout. You could make an analogy to being a baseball player. Bret just makes contact."
Bishop will miss two weeks of school teaching because Fly Fishing Team USA is traveling to the 26th FIPS-Mouche (International Federation of Sport Fly Fishing) World Fly Fishing Championships Sept. 9-17 at Coimbra, Portugal.
Bishop's achievements don't surprise coach Wade.
Wade said, "I'm not at all surprised that Bret has risen to the top of something he is passionate about."
Bishop, an experienced fly fishing guide for Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum, said in his Team USA bio, "I get the same thrill out of competition angling as I do casting to tarpon, stalking wild trout or teaching a client to set the hook. I love to fish. Everything I do, I do with passion."
For those who believe fishing is about relaxation and not the stress of competition, keep in mind that competitive fly fishing doesn't have any of the commercialism and cash you see on television in bass fishing tournaments. It's amateur.
Physical and mental demands are tough for a competitive fly fisherman. But conservation is written in bold letters on the sport's mission statement. Anglers like to do well and catch a lot of fish. Their priority, though, is meeting people from all over the world and exchanging ideas.
No compensation or cash awards are provided to the competitors or members of Team USA. The sacrifices by all are substantial, according to Fly Fishing Team USA writer Paul Prentiss. Sponsors interested in selling product are the only monetary beneficiaries.
Bishop likes the idea of being an ambassador of the sport.
He said, "What I teach and what I do exemplifies a respect for the environment, the trout and the other anglers." About the competitive aspect, he added, "I'll be interested to see where it goes."
Summers on the streams
Born in Palo Alto, Bishop grew up fishing in the Squaw Valley region of California. His stepfather Jim Mitchell was mountain manager at Squaw Valley and his mother Katharine Judd ran a ski shop.
Whenever spring rolled around and ski season ended, Bishop's family piled into a van and became fishing gypsies. They'd fly fish at the Henrys Fork, around Livingston, Mont. and here in the Sun Valley area. Bret built his own rod at the age of nine.
Bishop said he got a little "burned out" on fishing and interested in other things during his high school years. After college, though, he started to teach skiing and do fly fish guiding in Taos, N.M. on the Rio Grande and its tributaries. He also guided in Wyoming and Colorado during those post-college years.
He returned to Idaho and started working for his teaching certificate and Masters at Boise State University. In the summers starting in 1997, the year he married wife Julia, Bishop guided in Ketchum. For the last three years he has fly fish guided for Silver Creek Outfitters.
Bishop's knowledge of Idaho fishing streams is one huge plus for Team USA heading to Portugal, according to four-time world team member Pete Erickson. He has been friendly with Bret since the first day they started attending BSU as grad students nine years ago.
Erickson said, "Bret showed me this whole area. The thing about Portugal is their streams are very similar to Bret's home waters. His abilities are built for Portugal. That's one reason we needed him on this team and why I was so excited he made the team."
Silver Creek is "slow water," similar to the water in Portugal, Bishop said, and the Big Wood River resembles the streams in Finland where the 2007 World Championships will be conducted next June. In Portugal they'll be fishing for brown trout.
The close proximity of Silver Creek and the Big Wood River was one reason that 12 members of Team USA including Bishop and Erickson gathered in the Wood River Valley July 27-29 to meet with sponsors, exchange gear, get to know each other better and simulate the world competition. They were headquartered at Silver Creek Outfitters.
"In Portugal we're expecting small flies, crystal clear water and finicky fish," said Bishop. "The research I've done on Portugal is that they have very few guides there and fly fishing is relatively new. We'll be fishing on three rivers and two lakes. Meeting with the team here in Ketchum beforehand was a way of bonding with the guys and sharing techniques."
Besides Bishop and Erickson, the six-member Team USA going to worlds includes Jeff Currier, George Daniel, Lance Egan and Mike Sexton. Team captain is Anthony Naranja of Grand Junction, Colo.
Currier, a 2003 world fly fishing bronze medalist and author, manages the fishing operations for the Jack Dennis Fly Shop at Jackson Hole, Wyo. Daniel is a Penn State grad student. Egan, of Sandy, Utah, is a champion distance caster. And Sexton, of Pagosa Springs, Colo., is a certified arborist who owns a guiding service called Cutthroat Anglers.
The team's official fly tyer for worlds is Dr. Leslie Wrixon, a New England clinical psychologist. All members of Team USA going to worlds have their travel expenses paid for, Erickson said, but otherwise they pay for everything else.
Erickson and Bishop are alike in that they're both Boise schoolteachers and good friends, but Pacific Northwest native Erickson has more experience in competition and has become Bishop's mentor. Erickson was the top American finisher at worlds in 2004 (12th in Slovakia) and 2005 (in Sweden) and he knows how difficult the competition can be.
"Team USA is due to have a real good showing—I don't think we've ever finished higher as a team than seventh—but finishing in the top 25 individually is a very difficult plateau and one that's necessary for an angler to qualify for Team USA going worlds in Finland next June," he said.
However, because it seems impractical to run qualifiers and a national championship before the 2007 World Championships next June, it seems likely that many members of this year's world team to Portugal, including Bishop, will also be heading to Finland in another 10 months.
Bishop fits right in with the elite group, but the fact that he won the national championship and made the 2006 world team was never a done deal.
Erickson said, "The odds were stacked way against him going all the way through qualifications and winning."
Last casts critical at Lily Lake
The U.S. has been sending a team to world fly fishing championships for 25 years, since 1981, but it wasn't until this year that Fly Fishing Team USA was chosen in a qualifications and tournament format. Previously coaches selected U.S. team members.
A series of events leading up to a national championship was needed to make Team USA more of a contender in the Olympic-style world competition, team officials concluded.
Bishop, encouraged by Erickson, decided to go for it last year when making the world team was still relatively discretionary.
He attended his first fly fishing competition in May 2005 at Sunriver in Bend, Ore. Two world team positions were open for 25 trying out, he said. Bishop did well enough to make the 15-member Team USA but not well enough to qualify for Sweden, where the U.S. had a poor showing.
Jack Dennis, Team USA head coach, decided a better system of qualification trials was needed to make sure the U.S. selected its best fishermen for worlds. Fly Fishing Team USA set up three trials leading up to its first-ever National Championships in Colorado.
Bishop, still learning to understand the sport, decided to attend two trials, one last October at Fresno, Ca. and the second April 1-2 at Salt Lake City. He was glad he did.
Not only did he gain more competition experience, he learned more about the preparation and focus needed to fish intensely for three straight hours. He became known more and more to those in the know.
He also learned a couple of things about the sport.
"The better anglers seemed to keep finishing well," he said. "Also, you won't have the same luck in every competition. You hope the luck factor evens out so you'll have the person who is the better fisherman.
"It helped me focus. I knew what I had to do and what my goal was."
All the pressure came down to the national championships, though, since the top two finishers automatically qualified for the six-member Team USA going to Portugal. Bishop said, "It was tough fishing at Fresno and I didn't finish down in Salt Lake City, so I was determined to do well at nationals."
Bishop started off nationals on a strong note in Colorado.
His first session took place June 2 on a short stretch of very low water on the Upper South Platte off Deckers Bridge. Bishop caught 15 fish by the end of three hours, three of them 20-inchers. That was the second-best of all 65 competitors, the tops 18 fish.
The fishermen earned points for fish caught and how large they were. An official scorer measured the fish and then released the fish.
Bishop's next three-hour venue on the same day was a high, off-color stretch of the Lower South Platte in Waterton Canyon, its location closer to Denver. "It was tough wading and I had to work hard," he said. He caught five or six fish and ended the day in second-place overall.
The next day, Saturday, Bishop hung in there and maintained second place.
With wind howling he fished the tough, high altitude Clear Lake near Georgetown and caught four smallish fish over three hours. "They were barely eight to 10 inches, just enough to measure," said Bishop. Then he took a long drive for afternoon fishing on The Big Thompson in Estes Park and hooked another 12 to 13 fish.
It came down to the final day and Bishop randomly drew Lily Lake, a small u-shaped body of water in Rocky Mountain National Park "that had been skunking a lot of people," he said. Bishop added, "I knew it was going to be tough." It was.
At each venue the competitors drew "beats," or assigned sections of water. Bishop said he drew a "weird little area," of shallow water. For the first hour, he had no success whatsoever. "I saw some nice fish cruising but they went the other way each time I threw a cast," he said.
Bishop knew the situation was getting dire. Other Lily Lake anglers were hooting and hollering because they were catching fish on their beats. He could hear them. He knew he had to catch some fish. Erickson later said, "There was a lot at stake. If Bret hadn't caught any fish, he might have finished 12th or 13th."
Fortunately Bishop caught a break and made the most of it. He noticed fish feeding on surface insects, but they were in deeper water, beyond reach of his cast. Bishop said, "A callibaetis hatch started coming. I could see fish rising way beyond my reach. I got determined."
He started wading out and wading out until he was up to his armpits. "My vest was floating and I was taking on water. It was windy and I was on my tiptoes," he said. Most of the lake's fish were cutthroat trout, appropriately enough for a former Cutthroat, and he cast a dry fly into the feeders.
Bishop netted a smallish fish within 10 minutes but he didn't know if it was long enough to meet the eight-inch measuring requirement. He plodded back to shore to the tournament judge. The first fish measured all right for points and Bishop immediately headed back out into the deep water.
It's not easy physically to keep wading in and out, but Bishop said he made six trips over the final two hours of competition and five of the six fish he caught measured. Suddenly, he was the successful angler. All the earlier hooting and hollering from others at Lily Lake disappeared.
"As I started to catch fish, others around the lake got real quiet," said Bishop, who said he felt destiny was in his hands. "The stars were aligned and I started to catch fish."
With his late rally Bishop switched places with his world teammate Mike Sexton, who had started the day in first place overall. He said, "I bumped Mike out. He ended up second and I was first."
Bishop's team also won the silver medal for placing second of 13 teams during the Colorado meet. That team featured Bishop, team captain Barbara Pentoney of San Diego, Josh Stephens of Colorado, Eddie Pinkston of North Carolina and Norman Maktima of Santa Fe, N.M.
Bishop left Aug. 2 for a 20-day fishing trip with five buddies to Dillingham in southwestern Alaska, near the fine salmon fishery of the Nushagak River. They'll spend 18 days on the river, six people in two boats. It's the fifth straight year the group has done the fishing trip.
The new national fly fishing king is due back at school in Boise Aug. 25. School starts Aug. 28. He'll teach a week, and it's off to Portugal for two weeks, Sept. 2-17. Bishop will have the rest of fall to teach students and play with the couple's daughters Clara, 3 ½, and Martha, 1 ½.