This past weekend, the titans of fly fishing flocked to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park with waders and rods to compete in Spey-O-Rama, the world championship of long-distance Spey casting.
Spey casting is named for the River Spey in Scotland, where anglers developed techniques nearly two centuries ago to send their lines dozens of feet over the water to hook salmon and sea trout. It’s now become an international sport.
“Once every year all the ninja warriors of Spey casting are converging for Spey-O-Rama,” said Xavier Carbonnet with the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club, which hosts the three-day event at their ponds. “These are some of the longest casts in the world."
This year, anglers from 14 countries — including the U.K., Russia, Japan, Korea, Argentina, Canada and the U.S. — competed for the title.
For the tournament, competitors wade thigh-deep into the water and have six minutes to complete a series of two-handed casts from both their strong and weak sides.
The highlight for many spectators is the Snake Roll, in which the caster loops the rod through the air in a circular motion, animating the line above the water, before drawing back and shooting it forward.
“You’re making these beautiful sweeping motions that are extended through the rod and the line,” said tournament chair Libby Wolfensperger.
“When it’s done right, it just becomes a physical extension of the person, and it’s just astounding.”
When the clock times out, the longest of each of the four types of cast are tallied into a single score.
Prizes — which this year included glass trophies, handmade fishing reels and bottles of aged Scotch — are awarded for total score as well as the longest cast in men’s, women’s and senior divisions.
This year’s men’s champion Gerard Downey of Ireland picked up his sixth Spey-O-Rama title and made the longest cast of the tournament at 191 feet.
Senior division champion Martin Kiely broke the tournament record for ages 55 and up with a cast of 169 feet.
It's Not Just Old Guys
Tournament officials say they've seen a growing interest in fly fishing in women and young people in recent years.
This year's event included a record number of female entries with nine, and the ages of competitors ranged from casters in their early 20s to those in their 80s.
Wolfensperger says the beauty of Spey casting is that with enough practice, anyone can learn how to do it.
“It takes skill. Does it take a lot of strength? No. So the women are competing and really, really as good as men,” she said.
Kara Knight, who finished third overall in the women’s field, had the longest individual cast in the division, hitting 136 feet.
"It’s becoming more accessible to ladies," she said of the sport. "It's great to be out here and show other people they can do it."
But it's about more than just competition. Knight, who made her sixth trip from British Columbia for Spey-O-Rama, says the camaraderie and sense of community is what draws her back each year.
Warming up for the tournament, rivals can been seen giving each other tips and comparing gear.
“Everyone wants the best for each other, even among the competitors in the same field,” Knight said. “It is like a family.”
When Knight isn’t in the water competing herself, she said she's a fan, like the estimated 200-300 spectators who came to Golden Gate Park to watch the tournament over the course of the weekend.
“These people are the best in the world at what they’re doing. They set records every year it seems, so it’s pretty neat to watch.”