Larysa Switlyk Leads Team USA to Top-10 Finish at World Catfish Classic in Spain

Larysa Switlyk didn't get hooked on fishing until she was in college, and her first hunting trip came on a whim while vacationing in New Zealand. But the 27-year-old Sarasota, Fla. woman has made up for lost time, jumping headfirst into an impressive bucket list of outdoor adventures, including big-game bowhunting, spearfishing, bungee jumping and skydiving. Switlyk is working to parlay her passion for the outdoors into a TV show called "Larysa Unleashed," which aims to get women and youth involved in the outdoors. She also fishes the professional tournament circuit, most recently leading Team USA to a top-10 finish at the Berkley World Catfish Classic on Spain's River Ebro in May. Switlyk's mantra: You don't have to start early or be an expert to enjoy the great outdoors; you just need to enjoy trying something new. The proof, she says, is in her own story. "I didn't grow up hunting and fishing; I didn't have the opportunity to hunt and fish until I made my own," Switlyk says. "So now that I found my passion, I want to share it. I want to bring women and kids out and give them an opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy God's creation. I want to spark their interest."
At the World Catfish Classic, Switlyk and teammate Gary Sheriden weighed in nine Wels catfish for a tournament total of 164 kilos. On day one the pair lost two fish and got skunked. On day two they won their section of river but still lay far back of the leaders in 32nd place. On the final day they roared back to finish 10th, just meeting Switlyk's tournament goal of placing in the top 10. The strong finish also earned them an automatic bid to next year's tournament.
It was Sheriden who introduced Switlyk to the Wels catfish. While in Spain to visit a friend in December, she did what she always does when traveling: set up a side trip to sample the area's best hunting and fishing grounds. She turned to Sheriden's Carp Dream Fishing to book a trip for River Ebro's legendary Wels catfish.
"I had been fishing in Thailand for the Mekong catfish, which is the largest freshwater species," Switlyk says. "So when I saw a picture of the Wels and heard it's the second largest, I said, 'I need to catch one of those.'"
"I didn't realize we were going to camp by the River Ebro all night. It was December and cold, and at 1 a.m. I was trying to go to sleep when the rod alarm went off. I didn't want to get out of my sleeping bag, but Gary was screaming, 'Fish on! Fish on!'" The 167-pound Wels was one of three she caught on the trip, all well over 100 pounds.
"I had no idea what I was getting into when I booked the trip, but it turned out awesome. The Wels is such a big, slimy, unique-looking fish. I felt like Jeremy Wade fighting a river monster. It was great to check it off my list."
The list is a long one: skydiving, paragliding, tiger cuddling. But don't call her an adrenaline junkie. "I just want to live with no regrets. If I'm interested in anything I'll try it once, and if I enjoy it I'll do it again. That's the way I live my life."
Switlyk grew up in Albany, NY, a city girl through and through. Aside from a few fishing outings with her three brothers, she rarely participated in outdoor sports. "My dream was to work in New York City," she says.
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting in four years at the University of Florida, Switlyk took her CPA exam and became a certified public accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York. But the exposure to fishing that she got from friends at UF was tough to shake. "I realized that wasn't for me anymore," Switlyk says of her New York City dream. "I realized that I really liked the outdoors."
She started a pattern she continues today: work hard, save money, and take time off to travel. On a trip to New Zealand, she booked a hunt on a whim. "I'd never even shot a rifle before," Switlyk recalls. "The guide picked me up from the airport and said, 'Really? You're going to hunt? Let's see if you can shoot.'" She bagged her first big-game animal, a fallow deer, on the trip.
She took a ram on the same trip, and was hooked. "It just all came together. It was everything I really enjoy doing: being outside, hiking in the mountains. You never know what to expect and it's always an adventure. Whether you kill an animal or not, you always have a good story to tell."
"It snowballed from there. Two months later I was in South Africa hunting." Kudu, warthogs and blue wildebeest fell to her gun.
"Then I got into bowhunting, for more of a challenge," Switlyk says.
"After I took up bowhunting, I saw a show about bowfishing for Asian carp and decided I wanted to try that. It's all instinctive shooting, and I didn't think I'd be any good at it. But I shot 20 in three hours and broke their female record. At one point I got hit in the head by a fish so hard I saw stars."
"I'd always wanted to try spearfishing," Switlyk says. "I fell in love with it because it's hunting underwater. The first time I shot a fish I screamed like I do when I'm hunting, but all I did was blow bubbles." While filming the outing for her TV show, Switlyk's cameraman--using a rig that had been intended for her--ran out of air 90 feet down. "He grabbed my buddy breather and I brought him up. Everything turned out good, but it was a scary situation."
Switlyk's various adventures have a common theme: Undaunted by a lack of experience, she resolves to try her best and plunges in. "I like experiencing something new. It's not about making a kill or catching a fish. It's about the memories and the people you meet along the way and the stories you get to tell."
Some of her favorite stories involve her work with Hunt Of A Lifetime, a non-profit organization that arranges hunting and fishing trips for children diagnosed with life-threatening illness. Switlyk accompanied a boy named Alex on a successful ram hunt. "He wanted to call his doctor and tell him he'd found the cure for his illness: hunting," Switlyk recalls. "That's why I do this. It's awesome to be able to put a smile on someone's face and see their love and passion for the outdoors."
Other memorable hunts include an April horseback trek in Argentina. "It was a hard, hard hunt, physically and mentally," Switlyk says. "We were climbing crazy steep mountains on horseback, which is something I have zero experience with."
"It was also the worst weather I've hunted in, but when it all came together and the weather cleared long enough for me to take a red stag, it meant so much because of how much I had put into it and how hard I worked for it."
The Argentina trip also included a dove hunt, where Switlyk shot 1,000 birds in a single day.
A trip to Thailand checked off another bucket list item. "The one thing I wanted to catch on that whole trip was a red-tailed catfish. They are just the most beautiful, sought-after fish. That was my prize fish, and it turns out it was the very first fish I caught. It made my trip, pretty much."
The same trip produced this piranha. "The lake was stocked with tons of exotic predator fish. It was not a place you'd want to swim, but it made for an awesome day of fishing."
Closer to home, Switlyk has fished for silver salmon in Alaska.
She has caught Spanish mackerel off the Florida coast.
And she chased rainbow trout during a snowboarding trip to Colorado. The connecting thread in all these adventures is an eagerness to master new skills. "I'm a learner, that's my thing. I don't say I'm an expert at hunting or fishing because there's always something new to learn. I'm a sponge trying to absorb as much as I can, and the best way to learn is by experience."
"I'd never tried fly fishing until I took a lesson with my dad's friend, who is a master fly fisherman," Switlyk adds. "It's just another challenge with these fish."
Switlyk says she also takes criticism as a challenge. "When I came home from college the first time, my three brothers told me I'd gained my freshman 15 and was fat. So without telling anyone in my family, I entered a bodybuilding competition. After I won, I sent them pictures and said, 'Do you still think I'm fat?'"
Switlyk's next challenge will be the World Carp Classic in Italy this September. She and Sheriden will again compete together as Team USA. More than 30 countries will send teams to the enduro tournament, which runs around the clock for five nights and six days on Lake Bolsena.
"I have no experience with carp, except for shooting them with a bow," Switlyk jokes. "From what I hear, it's ridiculous how big this tournament is. It attracts anglers from all over the world, and of course carp are a huge deal in Europe." "I've never done anything like it, but I'm just gonna jump in headfirst and fish my heart out," she adds. That's Larysa's way. Unleashed and undaunted.

Larysa Switlyk is always ready to tackle a challenge and to try something new. Whether she's out participating in fishing tournaments, hunting big-game animals, or skydiving, the 27-year-old host of "Larysa Unleashed" is out to engage people to experience and enjoy the outdoors. After leading Team USA to a top-10 finish at the Berkley World Catfish Classic on Spain's River Ebro last month, her next adventure will be the World Carp Classic in Italy this September.