Trout Run: Trail race meets fishing tournament at the Driftless Area Flyathlon

The Driftless Area Flyathlon is taking place October 13–15 in Harpers Ferry, Iowa // Photo courtesy Brian Kouba, Driftless Area Flyathlon

The Driftless Area Flyathlon, a trail race and fishing event, is taking place October 13–15 in Harpers Ferry, Iowa // Photo courtesy Brian Kouba, Driftless Area Flyathlon

Social media swirls with events in the fall, like so many maple leaves on a windy sidewalk. The trick to capitalizing on these short and perfect autumn days is to choose activities that blend multiple interests together. Like the 2017 Driftless Area Flyathlon, a trail race with fly fishing along the route and craft beer at the finish line.

“Run, fish, beer. It’s a fun concept for a race,” says Ryan Rahmiller, local fly fishing guide, running coach, and Flyathlon race coordinator.

The concept originated in Colorado as the Rocky Mountain Flyathlon, put on by the conservation nonprofit Running Rivers. So far these Flyathlons have raised over $60,000 for trail restoration, stream restoration, and native trout education projects.

The Driftless Area Flyathlon, on October 13–15, 2017 in Harpers Ferry, Iowa, will be the first official (after a test-run last year) Flyathlon outside the Rocky Mountains. Proceeds from the race will be used for local conservation projects in partnership with Trout Unlimited’s Iowa Council. Participants will camp in northern Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest, with camping fees, craft beer, and catered food all included in the registration fee. There are 60 registered runners—the race sold out in August—from four different states. Dozens of sponsors, local and national, are supporting the event with prizes, swag, and beer.

Racers in the The Driftless Area Flyathlon stop to fish in the Big Paint Creek along the 4.4 mile race course // Photo courtesy of Brian Kouba, Driftless Area Flyathlon

Racers in the The Driftless Area Flyathlon stop to fish in the Big Paint Creek along the 4.4 mile race course // Photo courtesy of Brian Kouba, Driftless Area Flyathlon

The 4.4-mile there-and-back race course runs along Big Paint Creek, a trout-friendly spring creek that is typical of Iowa’s Driftless area. The Flyathlon website rates the difficulty of the course as “easy” and fishing as “moderate,” and the course will be open plenty long for those who want to fish hard or just walk. Either way, cold local beer is waiting at the finish line for those over 21.

“We’ve got a lot of different age groups represented here,” Rahmiller says. “And all different abilities. People don’t have to fly fish, either. It’s open to spin fishing.”

But there are a few rules. Runners must carry a fishing rod and fish along the route. They’re allowed to enter one fish, which they must measure with the ruler on their race bib, photograph, and then release. Each inch of trout reduces total run time, and native trout—in this case, brook trout—score double. This scoring scheme allows for lots of flexibility when it comes to race preparation.

“People have two different strategies for the race,” Rahmiller explains. “If your strength is running, you’ll run it first and then fish a little on the way back. If you’re more of an angler, it’s vice versa.”

Dave Kuntzelman, a Chicago-area fly angler and runner, falls more into the first camp, since he mostly fishes for warm water species like bass and northern pike.

“I normally run 25 to 30 miles a week anyways,” he says. “But I’m not a trout guy. So my plan is a 3-weight with a borrowed reel and some pink squirrels.” The pink squirrel is a famous Driftless trout fly, and one that stands a fair chance of catching a fish or two—but in the end, winning isn’t all that important. It’s more about the community and the cause.

Photos courtesy of Brian Kouba, Driftless Area Flyathlon

“‘Run, fish, beer’ is something I do anyways on weekends,” Kuntzelman says. “What I’m looking forward to the most is […] hanging out with cool people who understand the passion for what we do.”

Rahmiller agrees: it’s about the community of folks that comes out.

“It’s about bringing people together who are like-minded in terms of conservation, and being able to strengthen that camaraderie among that group,” he says.

Of course, the only unknown is whether the fish will be biting in Big Paint Creek.

“It’s been fishing well this year,” Rahmiller says, optimism in his voice. “Hopefully people can get into some fish.”

 
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