If asked for one word of self-description, not one of us would have chosen "outdoorsy." Big skies, fresh air and far-off horizons had never held much appeal. Camping under the stars? Not on your Sears' Boating and Fishing Catalog. Stalking wild game? Get serious. Sitting in a bass boat skewering worms on a fishhook? Well, we would rather be dead, that's all. Yes, it would be safe to say we were blissfully deaf to the call of the wild until boredom, two long-in-the-tooth Zebco 404s and a quarter-pound of dead shrimp came into our lives.
It's not that any of us thought a woman's place was in the home or that the wilderness was too untamed for womenfolk. We wondered why anyone—female or male—would prefer a night swatting mosquitoes in a tent to an evening sipping champagne in a Plaza suite. Who would rather hunt ducks than hunt mall merchandise? Why angle for trout when you could do the same for compliments or party invitations? Questions like these baffled girls like us.
Admittedly, it might be stretching things just a bit to think of ourselves as girls at age 27, but we did, we do, we are. Gloria Steinem is a woman. Martina Navratilova is a woman. Vanna White is a woman. Jane, Jackie, Shawn, Betsy and I? Well, we're girls—old girls, but girls just the same. Career girls. Jane is a fashion merchandiser. Jackie, a freelance artist and designer of T-shirts. Shawn teaches elementary school. Betsy works in the real estate department of a bank, and I make my living by exploiting my friends with stories about their lives and intimate personal experiences.
Friends since college, we gathered occasionally to shop, to visit, to eat Mexican food or to relax by the pool but never, ever, to commune with nature or to murder God's lesser creatures in the name of sport...until that weekend two summers ago when Jackie, Betsy and I were thrown some very tempting bait. And while we will most probably remain forever ignorant of the allure of sitting around a campfire and declaring war on deer, we five climate-controlled city girls now fish with a zeal that would do Squanto proud.
November 2, 1987
That bait we nibbled, and eventually took, was disguised as a simple invitation: Please come to a friend of a friend's weekend hideaway "at the beach." It turned out that the closest thing to a decent "beach" was 15 or 20 miles from said hideaway. However, there was a private pier, jutting out over the marshy shore of a bay, just a few steps from our host's door. As we sunned and raised griping to an art form on the pier, we spotted two Zebco spin-casting outfits well into their autumn years and a newspaperful of rancid shrimp well beyond theirs. Bored silly and already closer to nature than any of us really cared to get, we were forced by unfortunate circumstance to fish, to angle, to do something.
Our host baited the hooks. We learned to cast. And before the afternoon was out, we landed a flounder, two croakers, a crab and—almost—a sea gull. We dropped both rod-reel combos into the salt water, twice. We hooked our host in the shoulder, once. We did not touch a single fish or shrimp. By day's end we were nicely tanned, our catch was cleaned and put into a deep-frozen hereafter and our hands remained as clean and unsullied as when we had started. We were hooked.
Jackie, Betsy and I became proselytizers. Passing up shopping, bridge, charity work, league tennis and other such traditional feminine activities, we preached the gospel of fishing to our pals and soon had made converts of Jane and Shawn. We purchased our first modest rigs—$15 "ready-to-fish" spin-casting outfits—from a five-and-dime store. We traveled to various fishing piers almost every weekend, gradually gaining piscatory expertise.
Before long we were baiting our own hooks—and with live, wriggling shrimp, too, thank you very much. After four or five outings we were even able to remove our own catches from the line. All our fancy pocketbooks soon contained fishing licenses adorned with saltwater stamps authorizing us to harvest the fruit of the Gulf of Mexico. We became faithful readers of the area newspaper's outdoor reports. The Orlando Wilson Show and Fishing with Mark Sosin replaced Dynasty and Cosby as favored TV fare. As our Vogue subscriptions lapsed, we replaced them with Salt Water Sportsman.
Our telephone conversations began to change from talk of careers, men and clothes to serious discussions of tide schedules and water temperatures. We shopped at the plastic-worm-by-the-pound bar at the big fishing expo, and we lusted dreamily after tackle boxes the size of picnic baskets and the jewelrylike reels we saw in shop windows. When Jane's husband gave her a custom-made graphite rod—with her name indelibly scripted on it under a layer of clear epoxy—and a to-die-for filigreed bait-casting reel, the rest of us coveted them with an envy previously reserved for multicarat diamond rings, Rolexes and BMWs.
We talked tackle in the powder rooms of trendy restaurants. Jackie made dangling earrings out of spinnerbaits. For birthdays we gave each other spoons and root beer-colored imitation shrimp. The Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico became our bible. I wore my khaki 10-pocket fishing vest as a fashion accessory. It was clear: This fishing habit of ours was getting serious.
We even flirted briefly with the idea of mastering freshwater fishing. But after some dinner-party debate, we dismissed pond-, lake-and river-fishing as not chic enough. Jargon weighed heavily in our decision. Much of freshwater fishing is done from a "bank," while shore-bound saltwater anglers cast their lines into the "surf." I ask you, which sounds more romantic? No, we were saltwater girls proud and true, nurturing a hope that perhaps the future would see our passion elevated to the level of a semiexclusive but ultrafashionable sport along the lines of court tennis or polo.
As vacation time rolled around we discussed a group getaway. We had shopped Europe together after college, spent theater weekends together in New York and pretty much exhausted the bargain holiday destinations of Mexico and the Caribbean. A reunion fishing sojourn was inevitable. The more exotic the locale and the quarry, the better. We had already caught our lifetime limit of redfish and were on a cordial basis with practically every speckled trout on the Texas coast. Weekend angling for us was getting to be like baseball for Bo Jackson—just not enough. So we decided on the only adventure big enough and bold enough for us now: a big-fish safari to Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Mexico's Baja peninsula.
We were the only visiting fishermen wearing sundresses at the Giggling Marlin on our first night in Cabo San Lucas, and for that fact alone we received enthusiastic attention, plenty of free drinks and sincere warnings along the lines of "You little ladies don't know what you're gettin' into here. Takes years of practice and lots of muscle to bring in a marlin. Yes, ma'am, fishing for these brutes is a macho sport...."
There were multiple offers to share boats with fishing gurus who could "show you little gals just how it's done." We accepted all the gratis cocktails and gentlemanly attention lavished upon us but decided not to accept the lessons on How It's Done.
No thanks, gentlemen. We five career girls set out all alone at the crack of dawn to face the mighty marlin—all alone, that is, except for Lino, our captain; Manuel, our mate; our gourmet lunch; and 10 live mackerel that wouldn't survive the day.
We were shocked and appalled to find that none of our hard-learned saltwater secrets would be called upon. Our tackle boxes and fishing vests were superfluous. We were superfluous. Only "deflated" can describe our spirits when we discovered the reality of big-game fishing: Lino handled the boat, Manuel spotted and hooked the fish, and we did not have to do a thing except apply suntan oil, snack, chat and fight seasickness until a fish was hooked and ready to be landed by the backing down on it in the boat, accompanied by a little light reeling. Manuel even opened our beers at lunch.
Disappointment pushed us into a sort of submission: We hung our heads as Manuel fished. All around the Sea of Cortez, aboard sportfishing boats like ours, captains and mates were also doing the fishing for the same braying "pros" who had warned us about the roughness of the sport. Macho, indeed!
That evening at the Giggling Marlin, we resumed our places as the belles of the angling ball. As agreed to beforehand, we described in great detail how our guide had failed to show up that morning and how we were able to land three enormous marlin despite his absence. Our banter was matter-of-fact when we reminisced about the world-record marlin Betsy landed in Kona. The gentlemen were mesmerized by our oh-so-casual account of Jackie's having fought a bluefin tuna for eight hours just last spring. Yes, we admitted, the blue marlin were mighty tough, but at least they didn't yank us overboard the way one of their 1,500-pound black marlin cousins did Shawn, near Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Our audience was silent. Hushed in awe and wonder, they stared slack-jawed at the fishermen they had earlier dismissed as "just girls."
You see, we girls had finally learned that the greatest test of an angler isn't the weight of her trophy, her knowledge of the prey or even the expense of her equipment. No, the final lesson in fishing is learning how to tell an artistic fish story with the proper èlan. Doing justice to a tall tale—now that's what the sport is really all about.
Gail Gilchriest's observations about her hometown appear regularly in the "Houston Post."