WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Looking for the best young fly fisherman in America? Cast your eyes at Norman Maktima.

A month removed from his 21st birthday and a month away from starting his senior year at Whitman College, Maktima leaves soon for Swedish Lapland to compete Aug. 14-21 in the World Fly Fishing Championships.

One of six members of Team USA, Maktima will be the youngest person to ever represent the states in the international competition, now in its 21st year.

Introduced to fly fishing at age seven by his father, Maktima first cultivated his skills in the waters of the desert Southwest. Then, after graduating from high school in 1998, he was recruited into the world of competitive fly fishing.

Recommended by a former employer at a fly fishing shop in Santa Fe, N.M., Maktima was named that summer to the USA Junior Team. He and his teammates placed a surprising second in the junior world championships, which were held in Wales.

"It all came as a big surprise," Maktima says. "I was surprised they asked me to be on the team in the first place. I was even more surprised when we finished second as a team, and that I did as well as I did in the individual competition."

Maktima did well, indeed, winning the individual gold medal by catching 20 fish in the two-day event that included river and lake fishing.

"The USA Junior Team wasn't really expected to win anything, mostly because our adult team had not done so well in the past," he says. "Our junior team was just there for representation, I think. We surprised a lot of people when we finished second to the Czech Republic."

Modeled after the Olympic ideal, the junior and adult World Fly Fishing Championships award gold, silver and bronze medals to the individual and team winners.

By the summer of 1999, Maktima was too old to compete when the U.S. sent its junior team to Ireland for that year's world championships. He accompanied the squad as an assistant coach, however, and got the chance to fish again with Walter Ungermann, captain of the adult team.

"That's when Walter first asked me to compete with this year's adult team," Maktima says. "I was worried there might be a conflict with school, but they emailed me again this spring and I decided everything was going to work out."

Rather than return home this summer to Glorieta, N.M., Maktima stayed in Walla Walla and did some preliminary work on his senior thesis. An environmental studies-biology major, he plans to focus his thesis on the dietary habits and feeding patterns of trout in the Walla Walla River.

He and other members of Team USA leave for Sweden on Monday, Aug. 6. That will give them a week to practice before the competition begins on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

"Judging is based on the number and size of the fish you catch," Maktima says. "There will be five days of fishing, divided between three rivers and three lakes."

A total of 21 countries are entered. Each team consists of five members. Others expected to compete for the U.S. are Jeff Currier, Jay Buchner and Dennis Butcher, all of Jackson, Wyo., and John Wilson of Russellville, Ark. Ungermann, the non-playing captain, divides his retirement years between Jupiter, Fla., and West Barnstable, Mass.

What makes a good fly fisherman might be surprising to people not familiar with a sport that dates back at least 2,000 years. "Casting is the part that has made the biggest impression on the general public," Maktima says. "They like the grace and beauty of the fly and line as they flow through the air. But casting is just one part of it. There are several other components that make it an art. It takes practice and experience to bring all the elements together and do well."

In Maktima's opinion, the ability to "read the water" in connection with normal fish behavior is the single most important element. "There are a lot of points to consider when you look at the water. Is it reflecting light, or is there cloud cover? What about wind direction and speed? Are there any large rocks or boulders in the water? And you need to think about the eating habits of the fish.

"You need to have a good idea of where the fish might possibly be," he continues. "If you cast your fly into areas where fish don't normally hang out, you aren't going to catch anything. If you know where the fish might be holding, you're almost guaranteed of catching something."

Casting comes into play once you pinpoint a likely spot for fish. "You still need to get your fly to the right spot, and it might take a long cast to get it there," Maktima says. "You also need to get the fly to the right spot in the right way, so that the fly is presented to the fish in the same way that takes place in nature."

When using dry flies, which float near the surface of the water, Maktima aims for three feet upstream from his target. "Fish under water only have a three-foot-by-three-foot window of vision. The idea is to drop the fly three feet upstream and let it drift through the zone without any odd or peculiar movements. Otherwise, the fish will avoid rather than strike the fly."

The use of wet flies, which mimic insects in their infant or juvenile stages, requires another whole body of knowledge, Maktima says. "Those types of flies are meant to just tumble along the bottom of the river or lake bed. Different line weights can be used to get your fly to different depths. Then, the angle at which you bring up your fly can trigger different reactions in fish. You need to know how to approach many different situations."

Maktima credits his father, Duane, for teaching him the basics of fly fishing at a relatively early age. "My Dad taught himself, basically, and I've learned a lot from him. He's very good at it. I also think that's where my competitiveness comes from. Whenever we fish, we challenge each other to see who has to buy dinner."

The elder Maktima is a jewelry artist who sells his work through fine art galleries and shows. His work incorporates the history of his Laguna Pueblo and Hopi heritage with what he calls the "forward movement" of today's Native Americans.

For the younger Maktima, home remains the Santa Fe area, even though he has divided his last six years of education between Fountain Valley School, a private prep school in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Whitman. His mother, Janice, works in a Santa Fe art gallery, and his 17-year-old sister, Kari, will be a high school senior this fall.

Maktima, who also has San Felipe Pueblo ancestry, has continued to return home during the summer months and other breaks from school, both to fish with his father and work for fly fishing shops.

While he has yet to make any firm plans about his future, he likes the idea of possibly opening his own shop someday. He also hopes his future includes a regular spot on the Team USA Fly Fishing squad.

"For as long as they'll have me, I'll keep going back."