Posted by: Ross Leonhart
By Scott Willoughby
The competition fly-fishing community could conceivably be broken down into two camps: casters and catchers. To borrow a saying from the golfing world, you cast for show and catch for dough.
So goes the theory on Day 1 of the 2021 GoPro Mountain Games, where 20 of the Vail Valley’s core flyfishermen took to the waters of the Eagle River and locked oars in an effort to prove their prowess as all-around anglers in the contest known as the YETI Catch Wars.
“We brought this to the Mountain Games in 2019 because these local guys can really fish, right? They can fish circles around most people on the planet, but they aren’t competition casters. They cast for fishing rather than casting at hoops,” said Rick Messmer, GoPro Mountain Games fishing competition organizer. “By winning this event, they don’t have to compete against the casters in order to make their way into the finals of the YETI 2 Fly X-Stream, where it’s a fishing contest.”
But like any respectable fishing competition, there’s a catch: In order to compete in this fishing contest, you also need to know how to row a raft down a mountain river during peak runoff for 6 miles.
“I mean, it’s fast action,” said local fishing guide Shaun Twomey. “You have to row your butt off to get your teammate to the right spots and then get down the river.”
That’s not to diminish the target casting demands required to catch fish on the fast flowing Eagle River. With the river running at a swift 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Wednesday morning, trout were holding tight in the few small pockets of slow water, requiring accuracy to land a cast and drift a fly with enough finesse to entice a bite. In other words, you have to be as good with the “stick” as you are on the sticks.
Oh, and did we mention there’s a time limit?
“It’s a little stressful, but it’s a hell of a time,” Twomey added.
The stress failed to get the best of Twomey, however. After helping his partner, Andrew “Otter” Smith, net nine trout while rowing the morning leg, Twomey swapped seats and managed to land the day’s top tally of 22 trout within his allotted two hours of fishing. Factoring in the bonus points for two fish measured at 15 inches and a third at 14 inches, Twomey’s total score of 242 points would have been enough to beat all of the remaining nine teams singlehandedly. Combined with Smith’s score of 114 points (including one of three trout taped at 17 inches on the day), the duo posted a winning score of 356 points to take first prize. Their closest competition, local guides Kirk Lewis and Joseph Schwonke, landed a total of 21 fish for the second-place score of 212 points, edging out Matt Debut and Ryan Schmidt in a tie-breaker.
Now comes the hard part.
“You really do help each other out in this competition, until you win. Then you’re fishing against each other in the YETI 2 Fly X-Stream Finals on Saturday,” Messmer said. “It’s a fun twist. After working together to get to the finals, now you have to out-fish your buddy. So they’re probably holding back some secrets.”
In the close quarters of a 12-foot rubber raft, it’s hard to keep too many secrets. But Twomey and Smith aren’t sharing their recipe for success with anyone else when it comes to fly patterns just a day away from the finals of the GoPro Mountain Games’ marquee fishing event, where anglers are limited to just two fly selections for the duration of the day-long competition.
While the casters take center stage on Friday with distance and accuracy casting qualifying rounds to fill out the remainder of the field, Twomey and Smith — neither of whom have ever entered a casting competition in their lives — will be back to their day jobs, rowing clients back down the river and taking keen mental notes of what fishing tactics are working on the water.
Both men recognize that they’re long shots, at best, to qualify for the money round in the YETI 2 Fly X-Stream Fishing Finals if they had to enter the field of competition casters. So in that sense, the YETI Catch Wars have leveled the playing field. For the moment.
“It levels the playing field and it doesn’t,” Smith said. “We guide here every day, so the other guys won’t really have the same advantage when it comes to fishing in the finals.”
Score one for the catchers.
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