When Izaak Walton wrote, "God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling," he expressed a truth of his age. The sport was, as Walton's friend Sir Henry Wotton put it, "a rest to my mind, a cheerer of my spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness." But that was before women discovered what a juicy apple the sport of fishing—especially big-game fishing—really was. Ever since the ladies began angling in earnest, there have been few activities less calm, less quiet or less innocent. From the beginning, the female approach to angling was unlike any Izaak Walton ever dreamed of. Women tackled the sport like commandos establishing a beachhead, invading in force, storming male territory. By the time the men realized what had happened, the ladies were firmly fastened into fighting chairs and had no intention of giving them up.
The next step was predictable. In April 1955 the International Women's Fishing Association was formed in Palm Beach, Fla., a logical place for ladies to assemble. In addition to an embarrassment of money, mansions and moguls, Palm Beach, in season, boasts what is probably the heaviest concentration of anglers anywhere in the U.S. It also has better than its share of fish and fishing tournaments. The ladies of the IWFA, whose numbers rose from three initial members to almost 300 before the organization was a year old, promptly added a few events of their own to the tournament roster. Men were not invited to participate. In light of that first all-female tournament, it was probably just as well.
Sixty-six entries turned out for the initial IWFA Billfish Tournament in January 1956, but it was clear even before they took off from the dock that the transition from chaise longue to fighting chair had not been made quite as gracefully as rumored. The gals showed up in what had to be the most unorthodox array of angling attire ever assembled. The costumes ranged from long Johns, galoshes and fur parkas to silk pants and Chanel sweaters. One woman climbed aboard in a full-length mink, another in gold lamé slacks. Heads were rollered, ribboned and ruffled with lace. Nobody wore high heels, it is comforting to report, but heels could not have been any more hazardous than some of the other odd footgear on deck.
The weather did not make things any easier. It was, as January in Florida often can be, terrible. A raging norther sent 10-foot waves crashing across sterns and into cockpits, pushing temperatures to record lows and tossing the 32 small fishing boats around on the ocean like kernels of corn in a popper. Keeping breakfast down was only one challenge; staying upright was another. Women were thrown into transoms, against bait boxes, down galley ladders. They were bruised, battered and bounced about for two days without letup.
July 9, 1967
One woman spent the entire tournament in the head. Another gratefully dropped everything and rushed shoreward when word came over the radio that her poodle was about to produce puppies. A middle-aged matron slept, incredibly, through two strikes and then woke up only long enough to be sick over the side. Another tossed sandwich and cigarettes overboard when a wave snapped her line from the outrigger. Still another froze after striking her fish and then watched transfixed as line whizzed off her reel until finally there was no more. "Was I surprised!" she said later.
Surprised was not exactly the way to describe the crews. "Five fish on, five lost," mumbled one captain. "Let's go get drunk." Most of them did, but they also managed to get the ladies through the tournament.
At its end, remarkably, the score stood at 82 sailfish, all caught under conditions that would have discouraged Sir Francis Chichester. Even the most begrudging captain had to admit that, if nothing else, the gals were game. Before long the captains were also admitting, reluctantly or not, that there was nothing more formidable than a female who has learned how to fish.
Soon after their first billfish tournament, the IWFA was invited by the Club Nautico Internacional de la Habana to send a team to Havana to compete in the International Marlin Fishing Tournament for the Hemingway Trophy, an annual event that attracted top anglers from the entire Western Hemisphere. The Cubans, it seemed, considered the ladies no threat. Ha!
The gals cleaned up. Competing from a borrowed boat in high seas and strong winds that cut the original fleet from 86 to 50 boats, Mrs. Thomas Sherwood, one of the IWFA's three founding members, Mrs. Milton Bird and Mrs. Joseph Dixon, the lone females in the tournament, outfished 14 teams and 194 anglers—including Papa himself, who in three days aboard the Pilar did not catch a single fish. The IWFA victory was, as one Havana daily put it, "a new kind of revolution."
The revolution did not end with tournaments. World records began falling to women so fast that by the time the IWFA was 5 years old 23 of its members accounted for 27 of the world-record catches in the International Game Fish Association book.
But the IGFA record book, impressive though it may be, is no longer the arbiter elegantiarum of angling. The ladies changed that, too. IGFA records are based upon weights, and in order to weigh a fish obviously it must be dead. The ladies' objection was not to killing fish—even the most conservation-minded angler has little objection to killing a fish that is to be eaten or mounted—but, rather, to wasting fish. With the exception of swordfish, few billfish are eaten or mounted. After the pictures are taken, most are left to rot at the dock or are tossed to the sharks. Even among edible species, waste is high. It was too high for the women.
After a fish has been hooked, played and brought to gaff, they reasoned, why not set it free to fight again? Certainly the moment of truth for the angler comes not when the mate thrusts his gaff into the side of the fish, but rather just before, when the fish is at last brought alongside the boat. The test of the angler's skill ends here. For all practical purposes, the fish has been caught. To kill it tests only the efficiency of the mate.
Bolstered by such irrefutable logic, the IWFA set up its own reward system based not on fish boated but on fish released. The purpose is not to discourage members from making further bids for IGFA records—no woman would underwrite that kind of foolishness—but to encourage them to release fish that are clearly not of record size. Informed anglers, and most IWFA members are, can usually tell whether a fish has a fighting chance to make the books long before it is brought alongside the boat. The lady may have trouble figuring out the phone bill, but give her one glimpse of a leaping sailfish at 200 yards and with computer speed she will come up with a pretty accurate estimate of its length, weight and girth. Unless it is an obvious challenge to the record, there is no point in boating the fish. But by releasing it she can earn points—the kind that eventually add up to prizes.
Such serious angling for points demands remarkable discipline and meticulous bookkeeping. Not unexpectedly it has produced criticism of what less award-oriented anglers call an overemphasis on scores at the expense of sport. But, in spite of such criticism, the release-fishing concept has proved an incalculable contribution to conservation. Its widespread acceptance among virtually all angling groups today can be attributed almost entirely to the early efforts of the IWFA.
Bouquets are equally owed the ladies for their pioneering efforts in the use of light tackle—although the sincerity of their motives has sometimes been questioned. Nowhere in the battle of female vs. male angling have women excelled as dramatically as in light-tackle fishing, and nowhere have their accomplishments proved quite so frustrating to men.
The light-tackle revolution, along with the female revolution, began in the mid '50s and steadily gathered momentum along with the IWFA. Male anglers embraced the movement wholeheartedly. By the time they understood its full ramifications it was too late. Again they had been had, but good.
"Men just don't have the patience for light tackle," says Mrs. Helen (Billie) Lynch of Pompano Beach, Fla., who obviously does—if her roomful of fishing trophies is an indication. "A man gets a big fish on light line and he can't wait to whip hell out of it. Right away he starts horsing it in, and snap! the line breaks. Then he turns around and blames it on the captain instead of on his own stupidity. Women don't fish that way. They know brawn never beats brains on the really light stuff, but try to tell that to a man!"
Trying to tell anything about angling to a man can be, in itself, a herculean feat—a fact that has hastened considerably his fall from the fighting chair. The most damning witnesses to the capitulation are the fishing-boat captains, who see all, hear all and seldom mind telling all.
"Give some guy two weeks with an outdoor magazine and two days on a boat and he thinks he's written the book," says George Staros, one of the masters of the Fort Lauderdale sport-fishing fleet. "Women approach the sport differently. They listen to what you tell them, then they go ahead and do what you say, exactly the way you say it. They don't feel they are losing their dignity by taking directions."
"No matter how much they learn," adds Staros' brother, Bill, captain of the Windsong, "women keep right on asking questions. That way they keep adding to their skills. But no matter how good they get—and some of these women are really good—they never act like they know more than the captain. That's why women are a lot easier to teach and to get along with on the water. It's also why they catch fish when men don't."
It took men five years to win the Key Colony Beach Sailfish Tournament, and then the male victory was decided on the basis of time by breaking a tie with two women. When the late Dorothea Lincoln Dean won the Cat Cay Tuna Tournament in 1963, the upset was comparable to a George Plimpton knocking out Muhammad Ali. The same year Dorothea went to Newfoundland where she boated five giant tuna in a single day for a total catch of more than 2,800 pounds, a feat that made her as well-known as the Queen in that province.
Last year's World Series of Sport Fishing was won by another IWFA member, Mrs. Gloria Nicholson of Palm Beach. That city's annual Silver Sailfish Tournament, probably the best-known open contest on the Florida coast, has been won any number of times by women, as have most of the tournaments in which they are eligible to fish.
Such feminine angling skill is not limited to the deep sea. Women like Mrs. H. Howard Babcock of New York, Mrs. LaMont Albertson of West Palm Beach, Fla. and Mrs. D. Gordon Rupe of Dallas are among the finest freshwater anglers in the U.S. Indeed, IWFA member Joan Salvato has cast a fly 161 feet with a one-handed rod—just a few feet short of the men's record for this event.
The almost fanatical determination that women bring to angling has won them as much notice among the professionals as has their prowess. One woman had an engine blow up while she was fighting a fish. She kept right on while the captain and mate fought the fire. Another, pulled to her knees by a giant tuna, cracked her mouth on the transom and lost a front tooth in the process. When the mate ran to help her, she told him in decidedly unladylike terms exactly what his fate would be if he so much as put a finger to her gear.
It is an inviolate rule that no one but the angler may touch any part of the rod, reel and line while a fish is on. The rule applies even if the reel falls apart, as it did to Mrs. John Stetson of Palm Beach during a tournament at Palm Beach in 1965. With a sailfish tugging on her line and with nuts and bolts strewn all over the deck, she calmly asked the mate for a screwdriver, put the reel back in working order and then proceeded to land the fish.
Other women have fought fish in braces, in plaster casts, while shot full of novocain, in the throes of mal de mer, the final stages of pregnancy and during a variety of illnesses that ordinarily would hospitalize less determined anglers. Still others have passed up confirmations, graduations and luncheons with rich relatives and have even abandoned vigils outside the operating rooms of loved ones in order to go fishing.
One woman interrupted her honeymoon, leaving her spouse in an empty bridal suite 200 miles away, to fill a team for a recent IWFA tournament. Another, fishing from a 15-foot open boat off Marathon, Fla., hooked into a tarpon that appeared to be of record size. Five hours later, with the radio out, the hands of the clock past midnight and the boat now six miles off shore in treacherous water, the lady refused to listen to the near-panic pleas of the guide to cut the fish off and head home while they still had a chance. A shark, most likely male, put an abrupt end to the battle.
While the professionals agree on the angling abilities of women, they seem less sure about what inspires a woman to take up the sport. One thing is certain. She does not do so because of the fish. There is probably no single, all-encompassing reason why women angle, but the one that doubtless comes closest to the truth is men.
If the husband is a fisherman, he may persuade his wife to take up angling to keep him company, or to give him a chance to show off what he knows in front of her, or because he is not especially good at the sport himself but hopes to achieve a modicum of fame through his wife or because he wants to get her so hooked that he will have some free time to skip out on his own now and then.
Besides the fishing husband who lures his wife into the sport, there is also the fishing husband whose wife takes the initiative. She may be jealous of his sport or feel left out if she does not fish, too, or she may view angling as a unique opportunity to compete against him in an area where she has a good chance of beating him at his own game, or she may be consumed by curiosity about any activity that takes his time or captures his attention or, though such women are rare, she may simply want to be with him and to share his interest.
If her husband is not a fisherman, angling offers a woman even broader horizons. It is her entree to new adventures and new alliances. It is a thoroughly aboveboard excuse to get away from home and hubby as frequently as she wishes, to whip off to the islands or the interior or to one of a dozen resorts and spas where, alone, she might be viewed with suspicion, but where as an angler she is never alone. Her travels are always complete with rods, reels, boat and crew—a most respectable and businesslike combination. The fact that the captains and mates on the top sports-fishing boats are frequently young and handsome and that the husbands of women who can afford to fish such boats are more often than not old and faded though rich, is not entirely coincidental.
"Fishing is not all sunshine and soft breezes," explained one woman in defining the multifaceted relationship of crew to female client. "The weather can get so vile on some of the tournaments in the islands that the boats do not get out of the harbor for four, five and even six days at a stretch. If you don't have a pleasant captain or mate, you might just as well fly home. There's nothing to do out there but drink and read, and one can do just so much of either."
"Let's face it," says another, "What other way in this one-sided society can a gal really swing on her own with not one but two paid escorts at her beck and call? Believe me, a woman could do a lot worse with her money."
Within the lush though limited captain market, trading is always brisk. The rules are simple: every gal for herself—and the stakes are high. Everything from swimming pools to sports cars (SI, Sept. 2, 1963) has been used to bribe captains out of one cockpit into another. The most popular captains move from angler to angler, and the loot they pile up along the way can be considerable. Several women, obviously of independent wealth, have even resorted to matrimony as the ultimate bribe. Marrying one's captain or mate was definitely out a few years ago, but it is currently in vogue in the most exclusive angling circles.
A first-class captain can make even a poor angler look good. Nobody knows this better than the first-class female anglers who have been making clean sweeps of the tournaments and record books in recent years. Where these women are concerned, no price is too high for a really top captain, but when they pay they expect more than play. The captains they hire, no matter how agreeable after hours, had better catch them fish or look for other jobs.
Dorothea Dean was particularly renowned for firing crews as fast as she hired them. "Usually she hired a crew for three months at a time," says Jako Marston, one of the many captains who fished her. "But if anyone else caught more fish than she did, or caught fish when she didn't, that was, 'Goodby, boys.' She'd sign up another crew, and sometimes she was paying off four crews at once."
Money, obviously as vital as a good captain to big-time angling, was never a problem to Dorothea. She had more than she could spend, and she spent so much of it on angling that even Palm Beach's Old Guard finally had to admit that she lived there, too. When someone asked her not long before her death two years ago if she ever fished for fun and recreation, her answer was an unhesitating "Good heavens, no! If you mean just to go out and fish, never."
Dorothea fished with a record book in her hand and an all-consuming desire in her heart to become the best-known angler in the world. She came very close. In the brief eight years that her entire fishing career spanned, she set more records, won more tournaments, collected more trophies than any other woman. She was written up in countless newspapers and magazines and was listed in Who's Who of American Women. Such rewards were not easily won. She fished with relentless, punishing dedication, sometimes for weeks without interruption, wearing out her crews, herself and, often, her welcome among other anglers. Fishing seemed to be a compulsion to Dorothea. She seldom sat in the fishing chair unless she had a fish on, and rarely did she watch the baits as a more interested angler would. Most of the time when she was not fighting a fish she reclined in the cabin, doing her nails or touching up her lipstick or reading a magazine.
What fishing really represented to Dorothea is perhaps best indicated by the fact that in the house in which she lived alone, every wall of every room was solidly covered with framed prints, clippings, notices and notations about her fishing feats. Every trophy, plaque and award she had ever won was prominently displayed. The Who's Who—open to her name—lay on a table in the living room.
There is not likely to be another Dorothea Lincoln Dean in angling for some time, but several women since her death have shown flashes of the incredible drive that pushed her to the front of the sport. The late Mrs. Patricia Church of Palm Beach, for a brief two years before illness forced her to stop fishing last winter, seemed destined to rewrite all the records in the book. In her first year of angling she made an unprecedented sweep of the IWFA annual awards, winning not only the Crowninshield Release Trophy but the top-weight trophy as well. Like Dorothea, she fished with a dedication close to fanaticism, trolling from 4 in the morning until after midnight, if necessary, to pile up points. There seemed to be little pleasure in the process.
Nor can there be much pleasure in the fishing Mrs. David C. Lake of Fort Lauderdale is doing this year. Her goal is not even so grand as the Crowninshield Trophy, the IWFA's No. 1 prize. It is to win the organization's sailfish release trophy, one of six that Mrs. Church won in 1964-65. But for Mrs. Lake it is evidently important enough to justify being away from her four small children for weeks at a time, turning her back on friends, her home and any semblance of what is considered a normal life in order to fish daily, often under miserable conditions, from dawn to dusk. The investment of at least $20,000 in boat, captain, mate, bait and motel bills seems almost incidental.
In this modern age of angling one cannot really take too seriously the captain-snatching, island-swinging, squaring-off of the sexes on the high seas, even though one can feel a certain sympathy for the egos that find bolstering through the sport of angling. But when a handful of women—in spite of their extraordinary accomplishments—can transform the once-peaceful pursuit Izaak Walton knew and loved into such a frantic production, one cannot avoid wondering if angling has not indeed strayed too far from its primary purpose.
Men, we still need you!