'Reel' women recast a sport

Dianna Clark remembers the giant turtle that almost caught her cousin. America's top-ranked female bass angler, Ms. Clark will cast and reel from her high-tech Triton boat this weekend on Lake Mitchell, near Birmingham, Ala., hoping to land some scale-straining lunkers in a three-day event that's being hailed by the sport-fishing community as a coming of age for professional women anglers.

But ask Clark about a standout fishing memory and she harks back to age 10 and the summer day when she and a cousin her age, Linda, rode to a creek west of Dodge City, Kan.

"I held the poles and she steered the horse," recalls Clark, who now lives in Bumpus Mills, Tenn.

The pair soon began hooking brem – any of a variety of sunfish – adding the fish they caught to a stringer staked to the bank. Then, from just downstream, Clark saw the turtle surface and angle sharply toward the bank.

"I hollered at Linda, 'Pull the fish out of the water!' " Clark says. "Minutes later she's screaming 'Dianna, Dianna!' – and playing tug of war."

Fans and fellow anglers are the ones likely to be calling to her these days. Clark is one of a number of women professionals – many of them Southerners – earning well into six figures as they don sponsor-labeled garb and compete on tournament circuits called "trails."

The 2007 season is just under way, having kicked off at Lake Amistad in Del Rio, Texas, earlier this month. It will run through September. This weekend's championship (Feb. 22-24) caps the 2006 – and first – season of the Women's Bassmaster Tour (WBT).

"This gives us ladies the exposure we have needed for a long time," says Sammie Jo Denyes, a pro angler from Baker, Fla.

"These are history-makers," says Bruce Mathis, WBT director. "They've been waiting for years for something at this level." The WBT is sanctioned by the Bass Angler Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) and its parent, ESPN. It coincides with fishing's Super Bowl equivalent, the CITGO Bassmaster Classic, on nearby Lay Lake.

That event – a catch-and-release contest, as has been B.A.S.S. policy since 1972 – has yet to have a woman entrant because none has yet qualified by racking up sufficient wins in B.A.S.S.'s Elite Series. Tournament fishing has been a male-dominated sport since it took off in Texas in the mid-1950s.

Not that women haven't made their mark. Michigan angler Renee Flesh won a national championship event in Alabama in 2001. Vojai Reed, of Oklahoma, cracked into Bassmaster events fully 10 years before that.

And few women anglers fail to mention Sugar Ferris, who pioneered women's tournament fishing in the 1970s and, with her husband, Bob, ran the Bass 'N Gals tour. It ended in 1998, just as the Women's Bass Fishing Association began a seven-year run under Willie and Carole Cook.

Kathy Magers, a pro angler from Waxahachie, Texas, emerged from the WBFA to become – in what Mr. Cook characterizes, in an e-mail exchange, as a kind of defection – the driving force behind the WBT, eventually approaching B.A.S.S. with the idea of a major women's tour.

"The timing was perfect," says Mr. Mathis of her 2005 bid. "We [at B.A.S.S.] had been discussing what we should take a look at next."

Part of the answer lies in demographics. Of some 28 million recreational anglers in the US, nearly 26 percent are women, says Doug Grassian, an ESPN spokesman, citing National Fish and Wildlife statistics.

"It is a business, without a doubt," says Ms. Magers, though she describes her own experiences with fishing in terms of deer sighted on shore, hours spent free from cellphones, and the fellowship of "fishing sisters."

Magers, now a grandmother, learned from her grandfather, she says, but often fished with her mother. She spent her childhood with pole in hand, watching peach-and-gray sunrises over the Gulf of Mexico from Galveston Island.

Conversations with women anglers often favor aesthetics over catch sizes. Robin Babb, a contender this weekend from Livingston, Texas, fondly remembers the start of the Lake Amistad event, where some 100 boats sat massed in a cove, quietly awaiting the start, their powerful Mercury outboards stilled.

"We were supposed to take off at safe light, which would have been about 7:15," she says. "And then the fog set in for about an hour-and-a-half and we had to wait. I ended up lying on the deck of my bass boat, staring up at the sky and thinking through my day. It was neat.

"Once it's time to go, it's controlled chaos," says Ms. Babb. "You idle out through the no-wake zone, and then you hit it, and all the adrenaline kicks in."

Anglers disperse over tens of thousands of acres of water. Some work the grass beds near shore. Others favor the "humps" of bottom terrain out in deeper water.

Each professional fishes with a co-angler, but the relationship is unlike the one between golfer and caddy. Co-anglers – some relative beginners, others approaching their own "pro" status – fish separately and compete against other co-anglers. Scoring is based on each angler's aggregate catch weight over the first two days of fishing; top finishers qualify for Day 3.

The women are generally patient and reserved. Some get animated when a big bass strikes. "You get people jumping up and down," says Babb. "We call it 'going Ike,' " she says, a reference to bass fisherman Mike Iaconelli, whose deck dances are legendary.

Through "culling," anglers put back smaller fish and try to hit their catch limit with the largest possible specimens in their live wells. (Juanita Robinson won at Lake Amistad with a record-setting catch: 56 lbs., 8 oz.)

"I'm looking forward to getting out there [this weekend]," says Colleen McKay, a co-angler from Worcester, Mass., who has not yet been assigned her pro for the event but suspects it might be one who will rib her about her accent. Ms. McKay finished second last year at Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas.

McKay says she will enjoy the all–women environment at Lake Mitchell. She often goes head-to-head with men, and predicts more convergence. "Do I see a woman winning the [Bassmaster] Classic some day?" she asks. "Absolutely."

For now she and other women point to the WBT as its own worthy pinnacle. "There are a whole lot of women who don't know we have this level of sport-fishing for women," says Clark. "And the word's got to get out there."

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