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Passion, controversy and rain at America Cup fly fishing tournament

John LaConte, Vail Daily
EAGLE COUNTY ó Under rainy skies, the America Cup wrapped up one of the most challenging years in the young tournamentís history Sunday.

But despite a venue change, diminished volunteer presence and a scoring controversy, competitors described the Eagle County-based fly-fishing tournament as a rain-soaked paradise.

"I had an incredible time up here, loved every minute of it," said Jaime Sullivan of, Atlanta, who came into town to compete in the sixth-annual event. "This, for me, is paradise."

Sullivan said he got in early and spent a warm-up day at practice fishing in the brown waters of the Colorado River, a day he enjoyed but gleaned no actual tournament advantage from.

"Just before the event, we called off the Colorado (River) and switched to Black Lakes," said tournament organizer John Knight. "It was just too muddy from all the rain."

The great equalizer

Competitor Brandon Withrow said Black Lakes, near Vail Pass, ended up being the great equalizer.

"There were 70 competitors, and I think only 15 or 16 actual fish were caught ... We were fishing from the bank, which definitely changed things."

With 14 "beats," or territory areas for anglers along the Black Lakes banks, "Your fish had to swim right through your beat to catch him," Withrow said.

Anglers fished three different beats for one hour per beat at the Black Lakes venue.

Withrow said in addition to the Black Lakes curveball, the other big challenge for him was simple exhaustion. Three-day tournaments such as the America Cup arenít as common in the sport ó competitors fished two sessions on Friday and Saturday and one session on Sunday. A session lasts three hours.

"I was in bed every night at 8 p.m.," Withrow said.

Quality presence

For judges at the event, getting to bed early wasnít an option.

Judge Adam Papuga drove in from Grand Lake, arriving at noon on Thursday, and basically worked straight through to Sunday.

"Youíre up until 1 a.m. putting scores out and handing issues," he said. "And then weíre back out a 5 a.m. the next day."

Papuga said the volunteer presence was severely affected by the flooding on the Front Range.

"We didnít see the turnout because of the flooding," he said. "But everyone was still able to pull it off, they did a great job."

Always impressed with the America Cup, popular outdoorsman and television personality Tred Barta said he was glad to be a part of another great week of competitive fly-fishing in the Vail Valley.

"And I won my division," he said. "Itís the over 60, gray hair, profuse grey chest hair, paralyzed from the chest down, colostomy and urine bag carrying, lung cancer division. You have to use a bamboo fly rod, 2-pound test line and dry fly only."

Passion and controversy

With an international field and former world champions like Frenchman Yann Caleri on hand, the competition was the toughest youíll see at a tournament in the U.S., said Fly Fishing Team USA member Pat Weiss, of State College, Penn.

"Itís definitely the highest-level competition that happens during the year," Weiss said. "Thereís more people here than at nationals, and youíve got an international field here with former world champions."

Nationals are Oct. 4-6 and are nearby this year, just down the road from Eagle County in Basalt.

"This event was a great tune up for October," said Jaime Sullivan, who will also compete at nationals. "Now I know what I need to work on a little in this geography."

At press time, Weiss was seated third overall, with Caleri second and Team USA member Devin Olsen in first, however a controversial rules dispute still had scores far from solidified.

At Sundayís Lake Dillon venue, Caleri and Olsen were among several anglers who didnít reach shore within the allotted time frame. Knight said the error was a mistake on the part of the "controller," an official in the boat with the competitors, and not the anglers.

"He had the wrong time in his head, didnít write it down and misinformed the competitor," Knight said. "Maybe itís because Lake Dillon is a new venue, thereís three days of fatigue, maybe he couldnít hear the horn (indicating time remaining), but weíre learning all these things. Itís a tricky situation, but it says great things about the tournament to see everyone so impassioned."

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