It’s amazing what ideas can come out of a good wine-drinking, brainstorming session. Last year, good friend and Marlin University director, Jen Dudas, and I were spitballing the possibility of having an all-ladies Marlin University after the subject of how female anglers get somewhat jilted on the “teaching” end was going around the dinner table.
So, Dudas and I put on our thinking caps, flooded our Instagram feeds with attagirls and prayed it would work. We really wanted it to. And what we were rewarded with was a class of eight gung-ho women, who had little to no dead-bait experience, especially when it came to billfish, from all corners of the US, ready to rumble. With the help of South Florida tournament-winning angler Debbi David, Jupiter, Florida-based charter mate Chessy Ricca, and marine photographer Hannes Ribbner, we were off and running as we headed to Los Sueños Resort in Costa Rica for three days of fishing with the Maverick Fly boats.
The Marlin U curriculum consisted of splitting up the ladies into two groups, each having a day to fish with each of the instructors. I started the session on Day One on the ride out, going over the procedures of dead-baiting: how to hold the rod, recognize a bite, feed the fish, use the drag and the importance of creating angles to get—and stay—tight. They all watched and listened intently.
Watch: A swimming Spanish mackerel is an outstanding marlin bait. Learn to rig one here.
As we set out, we were rewarded with the first bite just seconds after the lines were in, and even though it wasn’t pretty, we caught it. As the day progressed and I rotated the women every hour through the four positions, I could tell these gals were in it to win it. They were hyperfocused on their baits, my voice, and were asking questions, going over the different scenarios, and recapping each missed bite in order to better understand how to improve. I have fished with tons of people, most of whom had never caught a fish before. So to me, nothing is more rewarding than seeing someone catch their first, and then, hook, fight and release one all on their own. New anglers will always remember the details: the day, the boat, the bite, the fight and the crew. Being a part of the memory is what is really satisfying. You might not remember the details, but they certainly will.
At the end of the day, we had caught 14 sails from 20 bites, and even though some of those were on the captain’s bridge rod, I made sure that whoever was lowest on connections got to catch those to keep their attention span, and even more important, their morale, high.
On Day Two, I had a completely different set of women, and I gave the same speech I had given the day before. The beauty of this program is that every student has an opportunity to fish with different instructors, each of whom has their own way of doing things. This way, students have the option to see which methods—or bits and pieces of each technique—work for them and ultimately, develop their own style.
After a few backlashes and pep talks that relayed the message that if you aren’t backlashing, you aren’t trying hard enough, the girls got to see that even professionals get the dreaded bird’s nest when Geaux Fly’s Capt. David Mesen got blindsided by a fish that left him with the proverbial zing-pow. The bite slowed down in the afternoon, but we still ended up going 10 from 14 bites for the day.
That night, we decided to mix it up a little, and each instructor drew their angler names from a hat. I had two from each group, which worked out great because it gave the students the opportunity to fish with someone they hadn’t fished with before.
The last day was tournament day. It was time these ladies put what they had learned to the test and fish under IGFA rules, with no assistance. They had made real breakthroughs. Each time a fish was on, they knew what to do with their baits: when to keep fishing and when to reel it all in. At one point, it brought a tear to my eye; the ladies were moving around the cockpit like they’d been at Marlin U for a month straight. They fished hard through every bite and knew exactly when and where to go when the boat started backing up for the release.
And even though I repeatedly compared handling a bite like you would a golf swing—combining a million different details that come together for one great shot—or comparing it to baseball, where the shortstop won’t always catch the ball, so you have to back up your teammate, the words definitely sunk in.
My team ultimately won on time in a down-to-the-wire battle with David and her Reel Fly team, and I couldn’t have been any happier. Following IGFA rules, the ladies on Geaux Fly fished hard all day, even during the doldrums waiting on the tide change. They went 10-for-15 on the sails, and you would have thought they’d won a million dollars.
Nothing compares to the feeling you get—as a teacher and a mentor—seeing eight ladies, completely out of their comfort zone just three days before, gain the real confidence they all were searching for.
In three full days of fishing, the first-ever all-ladies Marlin University class of 2020 had a total of 58 catches from 94 sailfish bites. And in my book, anything over a 50 percent hookup ratio is pretty good for newbies, male or female. My job was done, at least for that week, and I am still as confident as ever that women do make the best anglers. I hope their Marlin University memories last forever.