Weston athlete excelling on big fly fishing stage
PITTSFORD, Vt. — Cam Chioffi, 17, was named after Bruins great Cam Neely. He is the starting goalie for the Weston High School hockey team. But that’s like saying Michael Jordan was just an outfielder for the Birmingham Barons.
When the ice melts, Chioffi is also a world champion fly fisherman.
His combination of talent seems contradictory. In hockey he strives to keep pucks out of the net, in fly fishing the more trout the better in his landing net.
“He’s certainly already more decorated than anybody in the [United States] adult or youth [teams] ever in history,” said Paul Bourcq, head coach of the US Youth Fly Fishing Team.
In June at the US Youth Fly Fishing National Championship in Syracuse, Chioffi won both individual and team gold. That comes on the heels of his individual and team gold-medal wins at the Youth Fly Fishing World Championship in Ireland last summer. Chioffi is the first US angler – men’s division included — to hold titles in both the team and individual categories at once.
Recently he and his father fished the waters of central Vermont as a tuneup for the 2014 World Youth Fly Fishing Championship in Poland that began Sunday and ends Saturday. His goal was to be the first US angler to repeat individual and/or team gold.
Fly fishing, where imitation bugs lure fish on light tackle, is big in Europe and out west. Here people don’t really understand it, said Chioffi, who is the youngest member of the US travel team.
“People say to me ‘You guys live near some of the best striper waters in the country, Cape Cod Bay.’ Yet we drive thousands of hours and spend thousands of dollars to catch these little trout. We put all our time and effort into the pursuit of the trout.”
He said the magic is in the battle.
“They have this saying, ‘The tug is the drug.’ When the fish eats the fly and you’re connected on the other end and you feel them fighting that’s, I think, what people are in pursuit of the most . . . it’s a huge adrenaline rush.”
As the rushing Furnace Brook cascades around the rocks, the young angler explained why it’s more fun to fly fish than fish with a traditional rod and reel.
“The fight on a fly rod is a lot better, every time you catch a fish, you feel like you have a monster on the end of your line every time.”
There’s history here. In June 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower went fly fishing at Furnace Brook. He only caught one undersized trout despite the fact that the local fish hatchery got wind of his visit and stocked the waters with rainbow trout.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a local man apologized for the poor showing.
“Oh that’s all right,” replied Ike. “It was a hell of a lot better than sitting behind a desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!”
Chioffi likes to play mind games with the trout.
“I like to think of myself a little bit like a trout psychologist. Part of being a good angler is thinking like the fish think. Where they’re going to hide, where they are going to be eating, what they’re going to be eating, ” he said.
But there will be no Trout Almondine for him. Everything Chioffi catches with his barbless flies, he releases.
“This morning we were fishing and we just caught 30-40 trout. We stopped at a deli and got turkey sandwiches with bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato,” he said.
Chioffi was hooked on the sport in 1999 in North Carolina by his very patient father, Bill: “He was 2 and he yanked the fish out of the water and it was dangling at the end of the line and he kept yelling, ‘Hold on fishy, hold on fishy.’ From that point on he always wanted to be in the water with me.’’
Cam was fly fishing at 8 and learning competitive fly fishing at a clinic in Central Pennsylvania when he was 13.
He’s has a great deal of experience but he has also made some rookie mistakes. As a novice, he nearly drowned in the Pulaski River in Upstate New York when he slipped on a ledge, falling into the icy rapids.
“My waders were filled up,” he said, but he managed to pull himself out. “It was scary, but I didn’t think I was done.”
He said there are many misconceptions about the sport.
“There’s a criticism that it’s a rich-man’s sport,” he said. Perhaps some of that comes from movies such as “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” where a rich sheik wants to bring fly fishing to the desert.
“The gear is expensive,’’ he said of the sport, which can cost up to $1,000 for a rod. “But things are changing. It’s not just rich people fly fishing these days.”
Others see only the romance of it. A young Brad Pitt casting ribbons of line on sunlit streams from Robert Redford’s 1992 movie, “A River Runs Through It.”
Cue the violins?
Not exactly, said Chioffi, who has gotten more banged up from slipping on rocks than playing hockey.
“It’s just so painful hitting your legs on the rocks and it happens so often,” said the soon-to-be high school senior.
There’s also pressure in both sports. The competition was intense at the Youth World Championship in Ireland last year.
“Ireland was pretty sneaky actually,” said Chioffi. “[The Irish team was] winning with several different flies. So at the beginning of the session, when they were rigging up, they’d put tin foil over their flies so you couldn’t see what they were using.”
Chioffi won by delivering in the clutch on the last day.
“I knew if I caught one more fish I’d probably win, but I knew time was ticking down,” he said.
In the last 15 minutes, he rowed to the deepest part of the lake and then let the line sink to the bottom. When he brought it up, he felt a big tug from a rainbow trout.
“I started stripping [reeling] it in and my heart was beating out of my chest,” he said.
His coach said when he returned to shore the first thing Chioffi asked about was the team, not himself.
“He never gets too worked up,” says Bourcq. “He’s an amazing fly tyer, he’s willing to work, ask questions, and he’s always pushing the envelope.”
At Furnace Brook, Chioffi had some extra flies stuck in his baseball cap, for rapid response. A waterproof case carries a hundred others, with names such as Sexy Walt’s Worms, Pheasant Tails, and Stretch Tubing Nymphs.
It’s a world where nymphs are unhatched flies and not beauties. Being world champ doesn’t help with the ladies either, he notes.
“Not really,” says the tall, handsome lad. “Women are not into fly fishing, apparently. It sounds cool but . . . ”
His voice trails off.
He climbs down a hill and across some rocks near a waterfall. He wears dark polarizing sunglasses that help him see the trout in the water.
His mouth puckers up like a fish, because he’s spotted a monster trout near a ledge. The problem is, the fish has seen him, too. It hides under the rock.
Chioffi can hit a bull’s-eye at 60 feet, the distance between a pitcher’s mound and home plate. He tries repeatedly to coax the fish out with cast after cast, but he fails. The big one has gotten away.
“I’m just annoyed I can’t get him,” he said. “A fish that old that’s been in here that long, they’re really smart. That’s how they get that big.”
Chioffi said that if the pay were equal he’d rather be a fly fisherman than be Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, but he knows that will never happen.
The teenager says there are new opportunities in fly fishing today. He already is a fishing guide and has sponsorships.
There is now a Professional Fly Angling Tour, a competitive fly fishing league with benefits of financial reward. Members dues for the first season were $5,000. Chioffi called it “a possibility.”
“I just want to fly fish when I grow up,” he said with a laugh.
Chioffi does not want to be famous, like TV’s Charlie Moore, the Mad Fisherman.
“I don’t really want that for myself,’’ he said. “Not another person could know my name and I’d be happy with that.”
But he did issue a challenge.
“Dad thought it would be fun to challenge [Moore] to a fly fish vs. a spin casting for bass, but they never got back to us,” he said with a confident smile.
“I think he’s scared I’m going to beat him.”