EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – The Vail Valley has hosted world championships in skiing and cycling, and John Knight thinks the valley could someday host a world championship fly-fishing event.

Knight is the driving force behind the America Cup International Fly Fishing Tournament, a three-day event that brings teams from around the world to basically fish like crazy on area lakes and streams. This is the fifth annual America Cup, and its second year centered in the Vail Valley. And this year’s event has a new twist – it’s helping injured veterans.

The tournament is now officially a nonprofit venture. At the end of this weekend’s event, a check will be presented to Healing Waters, a charity that provides fishing trips and instruction for injured and disabled veterans. Beyond the check, some of this weekend’s tournament participants have spent time fishing with the veterans.

Other funds from this year’s tournament will help offset the travel expenses of future participants. Knight said if the tournament is going to grow, it has to help other teams – particularly youth teams – get to the valley.

Growing the tournament is one way Knight and other organizers can use to reach their ultimate goal – hosting a fly-fishing world championship in the valley. It’s been nearly 30 years since the last world championship was held in the United States. Most are held in Europe.

But Tom Drinan said this would be a fine place for a championship event after what he’s seen of the Vail Valley so far.

“You could certainly host a world championship here,” Drinan said. “It’s like this tournament only bigger.”

Drinan, who lives in Ireland, is a veteran of international tournaments. He’s here this year as part of Team Emerger, sponsored by an Irish fishing-gear manufacturer. This year’s team has members from Ireland, Canada, Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy.

Team Emerger won last year’s team trophy and hopes to repeat this year. To do that, Drinan and other team members spent a week in the valley before the tournament, getting familiar with the waters they’d be fishing.

Drinan said water here is generally more clear and faster-flowing than streams in Ireland and Europe. There’s also a greater diversity of insect hatches. The fish are also a little different, mostly rainbow trout as opposed to the brownies found across the Atlantic.

Drinan’s teammate Todd Oishi – who lives near Vancouver – said the conditions here are different even than in British Columbia. Mostly, he said, the fish here tend to be a bit larger.

Oishi and Drinan said Team Emerger members are learning a lot from each other, including fishing and fly-tying techniques. North Americans are better at matching hatches, Drinan said, while Oishi said the Europeans can be better at working nymphs.

“To fish as teammates – that’s an opportunity you can’t pass up,” Oishi said.

And both said that while still-water fishing is part of the competition, they’re both looking forward to the stream-fishing portions of the tournament.

“I prefer wild fish,” Oishi said. “Although the stocked fish are fine.”

Ultimately, though, a lot of stocked fish are going to find themselves hooked during the tournament – fishing tournaments are about catching fish, after all, and the participants in the America Cup land scads of them.

Last year’s tournament participants caught and released nearly 2,200 fish. The sheer number of fish caught has led to some criticism of tournaments by other enthusiasts.

Tred Barta said he’s now a former critic, but only after learning more about how fish are caught and handled.

Barta, the host of a cable TV show, “The Best and Worst of Tred Barta,” linked up with the tournament because of its new support for Healing Waters, a charity he supports.

“Most guys (I know) were skeptical,” Barta said. “But as we’ve met these guys, we see how it’s done … I haven’t met one (tournament participant) who doesn’t put the fish first.”

To protect the fish as much as possible, anglers use only barbless hooks and cotton nets, and the fish are handled only by the tournament volunteers who score each catch and accompany each participant.

The fish that are caught are left in the water as much as possible, so they aren’t stressed by being literally yanked out of their element.

While the point of the tournament is to hook and land as many fish as possible, both Drinan and Oishi said they’re still in it for the fun.

Drinan held his hand about tabletop height when asked how long he’s been fishing – he said he still goes out on the water every chance he gets.

And both Team Emerger members were clearly impressed by their surroundings.

“When you get in a setting like this, you can’t help but look around,” Oishi said.

That’s one more reason Knight thinks Vail would be a great place to host a world championship event.

“Getting all these people up here, on this world-class water, would really be something,” Knight said.

Before that, though, Knight hopes to answer one big question:

“Where’s our local Vail team?”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.

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