In this year’s USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament only one boat—Blue Bayou, a 61’ Viking out of Lafayette, Louisiana—carried four experienced female anglers, a St. Thomas first in this male-dominated sport. Who are these women who fish the deep sea for potentially huge billfish?
Debbie Freeman, 53, owner (with husband, Sonny) of Blue Bayou, has been fishing for blue marlin for about five years. At a Bahamas tournament in June, Debbie landed two blues—one 700-800 lbs. and one 1,000 lbs. During that tournament, Debbie decided to enter a women’s team in the Boy Scout Tournament. Debbie also fishes in the Gulf of Mexico off her 34’ Venture, which is painted a color appropriately called Fighting Lady Yellow.
Tricia Freeman, 38, Debbie’s step-daughter, started fishing when she was a kid and took up deep sea fishing in her 20s. She described her first blue marlin catch, which was in the waters off St. Thomas, as exciting and hard. Speaking of the teamwork between Blue Bayou’s Captain, Scott Hitch; First Mate, Lucas McDermott; and Mate, Thad Michaels, Tricia said, “A good captain and crew help the angler find the rhythm and land the fish.”
While out with the team on Blue Bayou the second day of the tournament, I learned that the anglers are partners, too. Though no one but the angler whose line has hooked a fish can touch the rod, reel, or line without being disqualified, the partner assists the angler by controlling the fighting chair.
Lisa Flack, 42, who partnered with Debbie, is an experienced angler from Lighthouse Point, Florida. Lisa grew up fishing in Ft. Lauderdale, and has been deep sea fishing for four years, mostly in the Bahamas. She met Debbie in a tackle store, they became friends, and Lisa was invited to participate in her first St. Thomas tournament. Lisa’s husband, Eddy, also an experienced angler, joined the group as team photographer.
The fourth member of the women’s team, Lisa Tucker, 44, is from Boca Raton, Florida. This Lisa, Tricia’s partner, has fished in Florida, St. Thomas, Panama, and Venezuela. Lisa’s entire family—husband Tom, daughter Olivia, age 9, and son Thomas, age 6—enjoys fishing. In July, Olivia caught an 81 lb. wahoo while fishing with her dad in Boca Raton.
At 6:45 Monday morning, Captain Hitch expertly drove Blue Bayou from American Yacht Harbor out to the North Drop at around 28 knots through 8-foot seas, with wave tops whipped to spray by high winds.
Forty-five minutes later, the captain slowed Blue Bayou to the trolling speed she would maintain all day, between 7 and 7.5 knots, and the mates helped anglers get their rods and baits ready. At the designated time, Captain Hitch blew a whistle and all lines went into the water. The mates also put teasers – long strings of fake squid – into the water to entice the marlin to come close. Each woman had hooked a blue marlin during their pre-tournament practice sessions; they were very excited about catching more – ones that would count for the tournament.
For the next nine hours everyone watched for marlin. Debbie told me what to look for—a bill rising or a portion of a sail fin—and I watched, too. Each hour Captain Hitch blew a whistle and the anglers changed position, rotating clockwise from pole to pole so that each had equal time on each rod. Food, water and sodas were carefully handed around—the seas remained rough all day and the anglers ate and drank at their posts.
Debbie told me that each person had specific tasks when a marlin struck. Anglers who did not have a strike would reel in their lines, and the angler who was “hooked up” would lift her rod and move to the fighting chair. One mate would pull in the teasers; the other would strap the angler into the chair. The captain would drive the boat in reverse. One marlin struck Debbie’s line, but it “pulled the hook” and got away.
No one on Blue Bayou caught marlin that day and the ride back to the dock was spent in efficient, but very quiet, clean up. Bad luck dogged Blue Bayou all week. Early Tuesday morning she blew a turbocharger, which was repaired on Wednesday, the lay day. The women fished on Thursday, but again had no luck. I hope they will try again next year.
J. Summer Westman lives in St. Thomas, USVI, with her husband, Bill. When not out on their boat, Excellent Adventure, Summer writes boating articles and designs websites. Reach her at [email protected] or www.livingbydesignvi.com