KEY WEST, Fla. — Kathryn “Kat” Vallilee of Key West was named grand champion angler at the March Merkin Permit Tournament that ended March 16, becoming the first woman to win the Florida Keys event that targets the famously elusive gamefish.
Tournament veteran Vallilee earned the title after releasing one permit, a fish that measured 21 inches to the fork of the tail, on the Merkin’s third and final fishing day. She fished with Captain Doug Kilpatrick of Sugarloaf Key, Florida, who was named guide to the grand champion.
“Permit are notoriously difficult to catch on a fly rod, and the fishing conditions were particularly challenging this year,” said Vallilee. “Doug and I went the first two days without seeing a single permit, so the fish we caught on the third morning felt like such a gift.”
As well as her historic March Merkin win, which followed a second-place finish in the 2022 tournament, Vallilee holds three International Game Fish Association world records for permit — the women’s tippet permit records in the 4-pound, 6-pound and 8-pound line classes.
Acclaimed as among the globe’s most competitive catch-and-release permit tournaments, the March Merkin began in 2006 and is hosted by the Lower Keys Guides Association. The nonprofit is an organization of professional fishing guides dedicated to sustainable fisheries management and a flourishing sport-fishing community.
Twenty-five teams of elite permit enthusiasts took part in the 2023 tournament.
“I’ve looked up to the other anglers and guides that fish these tournaments for years, so it’s such an honor to win the March Merkin,” Vallilee said.
“My gratitude goes to the LKGA for hosting the tournament and all the work they do for the fishery, and to my guide, Doug, for helping me become a better angler,” she added.
Proceeds from the March Merkin benefit the Lower Keys Guides Association and the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, which helps conserve and restore bonefish, tarpon and permit fisheries and habitats in the Western Hemisphere.