Zac Horrocks of Lake Placid, New York, is fishing his 25th consecutive Derby, and he’s only 29 years old. The fishing guide, hunting guide, skiing guide and part-time professional skier has been fishing the Derby since he was 4 years old, and he’s been exclusively fly fishing since he was 10.
“I put life on hold for the Derby, even if it means sacrificing income,” he said. “I’ve always made this a priority.”
Zac won the coveted fly-fishing Grand Slam last year — the heaviest combined weight of the four fish in the Derby — and is currently atop the leaderboard with less that two weeks to go. He’s in first place in the boat albacore and boat bluefish categories, and third place in the boat bonito and boat striper categories. Currently he’s the only fly fisherman to weigh in a fish in all four categories.
The Times caught up with him on Tuesday, during a small window of time that he didn’t have a fly rod in his hand. “I pretty much fish 24 hours a day,” he said. “I go out about 3:30 in the morning until about 11, maybe catch an afternoon nap, then go back out.”
He’d just gotten back from trip off of Cuttyhunk where he landed three bass in the 15 pound range, but nothing that topped his board leading 16-pound striper.
“I’ve got a good bluefish and a good albie on the board. One of my buddies, John Rapone, has a 22-pound bass on the board, so I’m on a quest for a bigger bass to protect my [Grand] Slam,” he said.
Zac said he’s known the Rapone brothers, Tom and John, for many years. “They’re both great fishermen. They’re a hard team to beat. We’re good friends but we have a pretty healthy rivalry.”
Several of the closest competitors for the Grand Slam have yet to weigh in a bonito, which is an especially difficult fish to land on a fly. “It’s pretty hard to fool them with a fly when it’s bright and calm, so you really have to get them in low light or rough conditions,” Zac said. “The trolling boats were killing them but I couldn’t get them to take a fly — either I couldn’t move it fast enough or couldn’t make it look real enough. The bonito have also been more sparse since [tropical storm] Jose. My strategy was to get my slam in before Jose, because I knew that would really rearrange things. I’m glad I pulled it off.”
Jose only kept Zac off his boat for two of the five days, but he still fished from shore. “The day that Jose started I got my bonito,” he said. “I did really well in the big swells. Then when Jose departed and the fog set in, I did really well with the bluefish.”
Surprisingly, the big bluefish didn’t put up much of a fight. “When they’re up and feeding in shallow water they can put up a heck of a fight. I’ve had seven pound blues in the shallows beat me up like no other fish. But when you get them on a slack tide they tend to be full and fat and happy. I had one day with four bluefish over 15 pounds and none of them got me down to my backing.”
False albacore have been different story.
“The big albie I had took me around two different crab pots. I had to guess left or right and if you guess wrong it’s going to break off, but I guessed right both times. That one beat me up pretty good, I was well into the backing. I use a short, stiff rod, it doesn’t mess around. It’s almost like having a spinning rod with 20-pound test. I fish alone a lot so the 7 foot, 6 inch rod makes it easier to bring in and weigh.”
Bright, moonlit nights, like the ones we’ve been having this week, tend to leave bass fishermen grumbling and empty handed. But Zac said he’s still had success. “They have to feed at some point,” he said. “But when it’s low tide, and calm, it’s awfully hard to fool them on a fly rod.”
Initially, Zac said he was using flies that had worked well last year, but had to make adjustments.
“It depends on how I see the fish react,” he said. “The joke is we’re throwing kittens. Most of the flies we’re throwing are the size of a small cat. I find throwing bigger flies gets the bigger fish to come take a look at least.”
For fishermen who are fly-curious but reluctant to put down the spinning reel, Zac said the best way to learn is to watch some of the many talented fly fishermen on the Island and to ask questions.
“Never be afraid to ask people questions,” he said. “All the fishermen I know here are easy-going guys. There’s a lot more help out there than people would think. I’d say go to Lighthouse Beach and watch someone like Dave Nash, Bob Hayman, Peter Crabtree or the Rapones. Seeing it is a big part of it.”
Tom Rapone is the last fly fisherman to win the Grand Slam in consecutive years, in 2006 and 2007. The Rapone brothers also won in consecutive years, John in 2009 and Tom in 2010.
The Derby is a family affair for the Horrocks. For the past 10 years, Zac and his mother and father have rented the same house near Morning Glory Farm.
“My dad brings his boat, I bring my 19-foot Pathfinder. I fish about half of the time on my own,” he said. “My dad’s been a Grand [Slam] leader twice on fly, I’m kind of following in his footsteps. He always took me out of school and brought me here to fish the Derby when I was a kid. When the truancy officer showed up, I’d go home and my mom would bring me down on the weekends. But my Dad always let me fish as much as legally possible. I was awfully lucky.”
He has to leave the Island this week to guide a few hunting trips in the Adirondacks, but plans on being back late next week.
“The Rapones and Dave Rimmer are snapping at my heels,” he said. “Nothing is in the bag.”
Zac spends almost all his waking hours in the great outdoors, 365 days a year.
On his tax return, Zac puts his occupation as “fishing guide.” He guides in the Adirondacks for five months of the year, putting clients on lake trout, brook trout, rainbow trout in the spring, bass in the summer, and trout and salmon as autumn nears. He fishes the Derby for vacation in the one month gap between fishing and hunting season. “I guide bird hunting and some deer hunting before I go west and ski,” he said.
In the winter, he’s ski tour guide, based in Utah, with occasional sorties to Japan to lead tours and to do film and photography work. He’s also professional mogul skier on the Freeskiing World Tour.
Zac studied mogul skiing in high school at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid and continued his skiing studies at the University of Vermont.
“I do six to 10 competitions internationally every winter. I’m not going to get rich doing it, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I just bought my plane ticket to Japan last night.”
“I’m trying to live my retirement in my 20’s and 30’s,” he said. “I figure I’ll go to work later.”