In the blue-green waters off Florida's Palm Beaches last month a group of anglers gathered for what is perhaps the most unusual fishing contest in America. The event was the 5th Annual Sailfish Tournament of the International Women's Fishing Association, and the contestants had traveled across the continent to catch fish but not to keep them. Most were trying to make their scores on the lightest possible tackle, as light as six-pound test monofilament; and all were out to show the male world, which has long excluded women from fishing competition, that the International Women's Fishing Association was ready to compete with anyone.
The IWFA, whose members come from 28 states and five foreign countries, is not, however, a suffragette movement. It is made up of more than 300 serious anglers who, in the five years since the organization was formed, have developed some strong principles on fishing.
Most important is conservation. The IWFA stipulates that to be eligible in a tournament a sailfish must be released alive after being officially caught. Since a sailfish, though one of the gamest fighters, is too rich for most people's taste, the IWFA believes that unless the fish appears to be of world-record size, there is no justification for bringing it back to a dock where it will be photographed and then wasted.
To encourage its members to release fish, both in tournament and everyday angling, the IWFA has set up official scoring rules, based on the honor system, in which points are awarded not on the basis of size but on the lightness of tackle used. An Atlantic sailfish caught and then released on 12-pound test line is worth 498 points, or more than twice as much as one taken on 50-pound line.
As the IWFA has grown, the use of very light tackle has become more and more popular, and it has without question decided the outcome of recent competitions. In 1958 Mrs. Dorothea Lincoln Dean of Cohasset, Mass. stayed with her 10-pound line and eventually won the tournament although several women, who had switched back to heavier tackle because of rough weather, got more fish.
Mrs. Dean almost did it again last month, using the lightest tackle ever tried in an IWFA billfish contest. Perfect fishing weather gave the ladies an opportunity to try their skill on really light lines. Three women caught five sails each during the tournament, but the highest number of points was scored by Mrs. Sharron Riseling of Marathon, who won by taking hers on 12-pound line. Mrs. Dean, on the other hand, using six-pound test line, came in second with only three fish.
In the calm seas, six-pound line, while increasing the odds against the angler, was a plausible if daring choice for Mrs. Dean. "It made angling skill most important," says Mrs. LaMont Albertson, "but tackle is getting so light that we are beginning to scare off members who might otherwise enter the tournaments." This may eventually present a problem, but the basic purpose of IWFA tournaments is to test angling skill, and very light tackle, while it certainly separates the novice from the expert, is the logical means of testing it.
I tried my hand at it, too, and I was surprised. In three days of continuous fishing I lost six sails on 10-pound line before bringing my first alongside. All six might have been caught by an experienced angler, and with each mistake my respect increased for the women fishing the tournament. When finally the seventh sail was officially caught and released, I was soaking wet, there was a foot of water in the cockpit, a callus across my left palm and an ounce of salt water in the works of my watch. But the important fact was that I had whipped this fish, not by luck or strength but by careful manipulation of a wisp of monofilament.
This, of course, is just what the IWFA has been trying to prove, and its success so far has earned the organization an excellent reputation. "We have matured a great deal in five years," says IWFA Chairman Virginia Sherwood. "Next winter we are taking the tournament to Acapulco because we are ready now to show the world that the IWFA can hold its own anywhere."