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The Challenge is real – reel fun
The 15-week, 15-species tournament's focus on public waters forces a fresh close-to-home look
Even in the blur over the top of my bifocals and beyond my tack-sharp near-sighted focus on the 5X tippet in my fingers, the scene remained uncomfortably unusual.
Dog walkers, joggers, and disc golfers are not part of the typical fishing scenery for me. I am more accustomed to looking over my shoulder to avoid hooking a stray willow with my back-cast than a sports bra.
I felt odd as I strolled out across the manicured sod of Hunter Park in my knee-high camouflage boots and fly-fishing vest. My expectations on the day ran thinner than that light fishing line and the little tungsten-head streamer on the end of the loop knot that resulted from my close focus.
That attitude would soon change.
What put me in this situation is the local Trout Unlimited Chapter 420 dropped a new rule for the 4th Annual All Fish All Oklahoma Fly Fishing Challenge. All fish for this summer’s challenge “must be caught in public waters only.” On top of that, I’ve also been serving on a committee promoting “Close to Home” fishing waters with the City of Tulsa Department of Parks and Recreation.
So, well, it was time to cast a fly where my lips have been flapping.
Shorthand for the summer challenge is “The 15-by-15,” which in social-media text looks like “15X15.” The challenge is to catch 15 different Oklahoma species on a fly in the roughly 15 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The first time I participated I was doubtful I’d complete the challenge, but I did. Last year I started out a little over-confident, and I didn’t.
Individuals compete for half the cash pot, a traveling trophy, and bragging rights ($30 entry fee). Four people also can team up to compete, with the top prize being a guided group fishing trip with Donavan Clary Fly Fishing on the Illinois River. ($100, or $25 each for a team of four).
Several individuals and teams complete the challenge each year and are entered in a drawing for the top prizes.
A bonus prize for the second name drawn in the individual category depends on how many anglers sign up. If more than 75 enter (last year it was 80), Chris Queen of Creek Adventures has offered a guided two-person Upper Illinois River trip.
By my count, 53 have entered individually so far. But it’s not too late to sign up, not at all, as my experience at Hunter Park illustrates.
Start relatively small and all-purpose. That’s my typical approach to a pond. My typical favorite fly is a green woolly bugger. My friend Scott Hood ties a tungsten bead head woolly he’s dubbed The Fly That Catches Everything, and I love that thing.
Two casts at Hunter Park and all 9 feet of my 5-weight rod was curled under pressure strong enough I worried would snap that light tippet I decided to start with.
“Bass?” I thought for a second.
The fish quickly ran deep and dug in. Dead stop. On the bottom.
Then came the steady sweep, the steady swishing of the tail almost tactile through that 9-foot Orvis.
“Ah! It’s a channel cat!”
I laughed aloud.
“Well, I’ll be dipped! Ha!”
When not restricted to public waters, I have a pond or two on private lands where I know catfish are plentiful and I can find one without much trouble. I’ve caught plenty on the Arkansas River and Illinois River, too, but usually while fishing for something else.
When it comes to the 15X15, it always seems like it comes down to that one species. It can feel like you can catch 400 each of the other 14 species, but then there’s that one, and catfish can easily fall into that category.
I was a little worried about channel catfish, and here I was at a park pond, on my second cast of the tournament, tussling with a channel cat, and not a bad-sized one at that.
In three short early-morning outings to Hunter Park to fish the pond and Fry Ditch Creek, I hooked the channel cat, entertained Whiskey as I hopped into mud up to my knees to untangle a 2-pound largemouth that slammed a popper at sunrise, and also tallied up three other species, green sunfish, longear sunfish, and bluegill.
That pond also has plenty of crappies too, but so far I haven’t been able to get past the plentiful green sunfish and hybrid bluegills to hook one of those.
This pond and a peaceful little stream close to my home, at a city park, offered the potential to catch six of the 15 species required for the challenge.
If not for the tournament, I doubt I would have given the park such a close look. Truth is, there are little jewels like this all across Oklahoma, and they can be really fun.
Grab a fly rod, get a box of flies, sign up and give it a try. You never know what you might find, and you could win a pretty nice prize for the effort.
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