Posted by: Katie Coakley
New event pairs up anglers and oarsmen to reel in the biggest catch from Edwards to Wolcott
By Scott Willoughby
If war is hell, then Catch Wars are both hell and high water. But you’d never know it from the smiles on competitors’ faces once the inaugural two-man float fishing competition was finished.
“It was fun,” said Kyle Harris of Breckenridge. “But it was gnarly. Pretty fast. Pretty high water. It’s like a whitewater fishing contest.”
That’s just the kind of competition you might expect to evolve from the GoPro Mountain Games, which began as a celebration of whitewater and grew into the largest celebration of mountain sports, lifestyle and music in the nation. That evolution has always included whitewater paddling — and for several years now, fly fishing — but until Thursday it never included rowing. Much less rowing your fly fishing partner down class III+ whitewater — then swapping seats and doing it all over again.
“I’ve been talking for years about ‘rowing’ as an event rather than just fishing as an event — or, really, casting,” said Matt Debus, a local Vail fishing guide with Gore Creek Anglers. “I always said if I ever did this, I wanted to do it backward: I want to go fishing first and if I catch the most fish I’ll go cast through hula hoops and off a bridge and stuff. But as a fishing guide for the last 13 years, I’m not good at casting. I’m good at catching. And rowing. So this has been awesome.”
Prior to this year’s debut of Catch Wars — a new format where pairs of anglers and oarsmen take on the currently raging Eagle River to see which team of two can catch the most fish — fishing competition at the GoPro Mountain Games were based largely on casting skills — both distance and accuracy — which qualified 20 competitors to fish in the finals of the Costa 2-Fly X-Stream fly fishing competition.
While the casting competition doesn’t sit well with some anglers, fishing is something they can all relate to.
“That’s the funny thing about Colorado. Everybody thinks, ‘You’re a guide. You should be able to cast like 500 yards,’” said Larry Laguardia, a pro guide and proprietor of Buggy Waters in Brighton, CO. “But fishing in Colorado, there’s not a river that’s 100 yards wide. All my experience is just small rivers and roll casts. I can probably roll cast 500 yards.”
Debus is among the volunteers who would row finalists down the river. As a new qualifying event for Sunday’s finals, Catch Wars offered him and partner Ryan Smith an opportunity to fish in the finals for a change.
“I fish for fun so I really don’t like competition fishing, but this contest is just fun enough because it’s just you and your buddy rowing and fishing,” said Debus, whose team placed just off the podium in fourth place. “It’s more of a team sport between the rower and angler, rather than every man for himself. So it was actually my first fly fishing competition; to be able to combine the Costa 2-Fly X-Stream with some challenging whitewater is the best event yet.”
Rowing a raft — or in Debus’ and Smith’s case, a stout aluminum dory — for fishing is a unique skill set that requires oarsmen to continuously pull against the current in order to slow the boat long enough for a cast fly to drift in front of fish holding tight in fast water. When the river approaches peak runoff — as the Eagle is this week — savvy oarsmen with the skill to park their vessels in small eddies offer anglers a better opportunity to hook up with trout seeking refuge from the swift current.
That was the technique used by Catch War winners Patrick Duke and David Burgher, who managed to boat 13 fish, two of them measuring 16 inches and a third taped at 17 inches. With partner Stephen Balogh on the oars, Gavin Greeley managed to land the biggest trout of the day at 24 inches, pushing the duo into third place overall. Kurt Olesek and Justin Carr finished second with 13 fish in their boat, the biggest measuring 17 inches.
“It was kind of like a race to each hole and if that hole was taken you were out of luck,” said Harris’ fishing partner, Eric Syverson. “I didn’t land any fish, but it was still a good day on the water. I’d call it a fishing competition worthy of the Mountain Games.”
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