Kathryn “Kat” Vallilee of Key West, Florida is no stranger to the permit tournament circle, fishing in the last six March Merkin tournaments and landing a heartbreaking second last year. But determination and a lot of hard work over the last year has scored Vallilee the title of Grand Champion Angler, making her the first woman to ever win this coveted tournament.
The March Merkin, which took place March 13-16, is considered one of the largest and most competitive catch and release tournaments in the world. Twenty-five teams of elite permit anglers took part this year. With cold fronts common in March, the tournament is known for tough conditions and multiple tournaments have been won historically with only one fish wins. “This year, visibility was bad due to cloud cover, the wind was very high, the temperature was cool and, on top of that, there were few fish around. Not a great combination for catching permit,” said Vallilee.
After fishing the first two days of the tournament with no permit to hand for any of the teams, the last day proved successful for Vallilee. On the third day, she earned the title after her guide, Capt. Doug Kilpatrick of Sugarloaf Key, put her on one permit, which measured 21 inches to the fork of the tail. It would be the only permit caught and released in the entire tournament. For guiding Vallilee to victory, Capt. Doug Kilpatrick was named Guide to the Grand Champion.
Vallilee, who got into fly fishing when she moved to Key West after college, quickly realized that fishing in the Keys was her passion and before long she found herself entering tournaments. “I’ve been working hard to become more competitive in the field and fishing these tournaments has been a humbling experience. The other teams in years past really showed me that I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to have a real chance at winning,” said Vallilee. “Last year was a real heartbreaker for me, so for Doug and I to come back this year and win with such tough conditions felt really great.”
Her choice of fly rod for this tournament was a no-brainer. She fished the Hardy Zane Pro, which has been the rod of choice for many saltwater tournament anglers who have ended up on the podium in recent years. “I love the Zane Pro because it’s fast enough to deal with the wind and the urgency of saltwater fishing, but still has a great feel and is fun to cast,” she reported. Congratulations are indeed in order to Kat on her historic win!
The March Merkin began in 2006 and is hosted by the Lower Keys Guide Association, a non-profit organization of professional fishing guides that is dedicated to sustainable fisheries management. The proceeds from the tournament benefit the Lower Keys Guide Association and the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, which helps conserve and restore bonefish, tarpon and permit fisheries and habitats in the Western Hemisphere.