There’s a good chance Blake Hall can be found after school most days casting a fly fishing rod in the fresh mountain waters that surround his rural Smyth County home.
After all, it’s his favorite thing to do since he inherited his grandmother’s fly rods when he was just 10.
“He was hooked,” his mother, Kellie Vernon, said about her tenacious son who practiced a whole month before catching his first fish.
After years of watching fishing videos, reading books and magazines, and chatting with locals in his neighborhood fly shop, the teen has become somewhat of a legend in his neck of the woods.
And now his name is known worldwide.
The 14-year-old freshman at Marion Senior High School was one of the youngest participants to compete in the 2023 World Youth Fly Fishing Championship in July in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Blake and five other U.S. team members reeled in a first-place victory for their combined scores, marking the first time a U.S. team has won the world competition since 2015.
Competing against as many as 12 teams from throughout the world, the U.S. team placed first with a 28-point lead over France, which finished in second place, and a 67-point lead over Slovakia, the winner of the bronze award.
But winning the gold at a world competition is no fishy business.
The young angler credits the camaraderie among his young teammates for their success in a competition that sent them thousands of miles from their homes in Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico.
“Our team was super experienced this year. In fact, I’d say our team was the perfect definition of a team,” said Blake, who even attended a fly fishing practice session in Montana to brush up on skills before the world competition. “We were surprised to win gold, but we knew there was a decent chance we could make it.”
Blake became acquainted with his fellow anglers when he placed third in the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing National Championship in 2021. Last year, he was awarded first place in the national championship, an annual sporting event that put him in the running to compete at this year’s World Fly Fishing competition. He plans to attend this year’s national championship in Montana in October.
During the national championship last year, the team members competed against each other, but during this year’s world competition they united as a team.
Team USA Youth are a selected group of young anglers from throughout the country who are associated with leaders in the sport and have been successful at regional clinics and tournaments.
“It’s competitive. Everybody wants to win, but at the end of the day everybody’s friends too,” Blake said.
His mother recalls that Blake’s competitive nature began to flourish at age 12 when he broached the subject of attending a fly fishing clinic that could lead to national competitions.
“Who even knew this was a thing?” questioned Vernon, who describes herself as the mother of a “self-driven, goal-oriented, fly fishing competition-obsessed 14-year-old.”
“We followed his lead, played a lot of chauffeur, and three months later, he was bringing home a third-place finish in his first-ever national championship.”
When Blake was invited to participate in the world competition, Vernon and her son created a GoFundMe page to help supplement any money contributed from Blake, who earns extra cash taking clients on guided trips on public and private stretches of the nearby rivers.
“When a child lives and breathes something the way Blake does fly fishing, as a parent, you find a way to make it happen for him,” Vernon wrote on the online page. “He wanted to contribute as much of the money himself as possible, so this was my way to help him live his dream. I created the page for him, but the passion, drive, and goals are all his.”
The mother said her son has always liked being outdoors.
“That’s his peaceful place — always playing in the woods,” she told the Bristol Herald Courier last year. “It’s very easy for him to go to the river and spend time there.
“He has a wicked ability to spot fish. He really understands where the fish are going to be and how many fish are in that spot. He’s very patient and persistent.”
Against the world
On July 8, Blake and his team manager boarded a plane at Charlotte, North Carolina, en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where they met up with the other team members. From there, they flew together to Serbia and then to Sarajevo. Their travels to Bosnia-Herzegovina took them as many as 38 hours counting flight layovers.
Blake’s father, Brent Hall, who is a contractor, and his mother, a counselor at Smyth County Public Schools, managed to free their work schedules to be there the following week. “The architecture and culture in Bosnia were beautiful and diverse. I definitely want to return when we have the freedom to see more of the area,” Vernon said.
On the flight from Serbia to Bosnia, Blake had the good fortune of occupying a window seat.
“Bosnia is pretty neat from a bird’s-eye view,” said Blake. He spotted fields with vineyards combined with large mountains that looked similar to those around his Southwest Virginia home.
With the help of fishing guides, he and his teammates spent the first week in northern Bosnia during an orientation and practice time. The five afternoon sessions of the competition took place the second week in Mostar, a city that straddles the Neretva River.
“Some of the rivers were identical to those here at home, but others were flat and weedy,” said Blake. “I was surprised how clear the waters were. And they were cold, which helped a lot with temperatures that hovered around 100 degrees.”
The sessions of the competition required stamina and concentration.
The young anglers were randomly assigned to a beat, a section of water usually between 100 and 300 meters in length, and an allotted time to fish within that confined area. Competitors from different countries fished in beats next to each other, experiencing settings that varied in difficulty due to the lay of the land.
One of his beats, Blake said, was very swift and deep water, making it difficult to navigate with few sightings of fish. The other beat was railed by his teammates the day before so it was difficult to trick the fish on the same techniques they used as a team two days in a row.
Alternating with another team member during the week, Blake caught 29 fish during his two sessions. His favorite fly is a pheasant tail, but in Bosnia he liked using a France fly because it closely imitated the bugs found there.
Each competitor was assigned a controller, usually very young Bosnian youth, who measured each catch-and-release fish and recorded the weight, length and species — mostly brown, rainbow and softmouth trout, and other native fish. Scores were based on the teams that caught the highest overall length of fish caught.
“There’s a lot that can happen in five days of competitions, but we knew by the fourth day that we had a good shot at the gold,” he said.
“After the competition, we were whipped. It’s physically tiring because you’re in the water for four straight hours and it’s mentally taxing because you have to concentrate so hard.”
Everyday life hasn’t changed too much for the world champion. He still fishes every day after school, mastering new skills every time he hits the water and communicating with his fishing buddies on new fly fishing strategies.
The youth plans to compete at next year’s World Youth Fly Fishing Championship in the Czech Republic.
In the meantime, Blake is trying his hand at bass tournaments. His first one is this Saturday.