Top Female Anglers

Across the globe, women continue to make their mark as expert offshore anglers.

In the male-dominated world of offshore fishing, we sometimes fail to acknowledge the skills demonstrated again and again in our beloved sport by members of the opposite sex. While we can still claim superiority — although I’d advise against it — in a few areas of sport where brute strength comes into play, many women stand toe to toe with us in the arena where our sport takes place: the cockpit.

Captains tell us that women make better anglers because they actually listen to and heed instructions given by the captain and crew under the duress of a bite and the subsequent battle, whereas we males tend to think we already know it all and proceed to ignore said advice, often at our own peril. I’ll leave that contentious debate to others smarter than myself but, for whatever reason, many women who take the sport seriously undeniably make great anglers.

Their accomplishments prove the point. The women's billfish records in the IGFA World Record Game Fishes Book drive that home. The line of great lady billfish anglers likely began with Helen Lerner but later included now-famous names like Marsha Bierman, Liz Hogan, Deborah Dunaway, Pam Basco and Maudi Lopez, among many others. Today, women continue to take up billfishing in a big way, and they're good at it, so we thought we'd check in with a few of the current top female anglers in the blue-water world and share their stories with you. Those stories follow and, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I am proud to serve on the board of The Billfish Foundation with three of them.

Stephanie Choate

Miami, Florida
Top Female Anglers Marlin
“I was highly competitive, emotionally charged and good at overly dramatic tantrums that led to throwing the rod at my father after he yelled at me for bird-nesting the hell out of his reels, which I did often.” — Stephanie ChoateStephanie Choate

Growing up as the daughter of renowned blue-water pioneer Tim Choate gave Stephanie an insider’s view of the world of billfishing. Tim helped develop groundbreaking fishing operations in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Brazil, the Galapagos Islands and more, and much of what he learned along the way has filtered down to the next generation. Stephanie began fishing with her dad at his Fins ’n Feathers lodge in Guatemala. “I started so young, I somehow thought that was a normal way to grow up,” she says. “I was highly competitive, emotionally charged and good at overly dramatic tantrums that led to throwing the rod at my father after he yelled at me for bird-nesting the hell out of his reels, which I did often. That’s where Capt. David Salazar stepped in and taught me how to sailfish since, like most teenagers, I would listen to anyone who wasn’t my dad.”

She later began fishing with two of South Florida’s best: Capt. Ray Rosher on Miss Britt out of Miami and Capt. Alex Adler on Kalex in Islamorada. “With their help, I started having incredibly lucky fishing days,” Stephanie says, “catching a 350-pound daytime swordfish with Ray and having 10-plus sailfish days with Alex on light line. I saw what happens when you put in more time on the water. I asked my dad to teach me how to tournament fish, and the -floodgates opened.”

Top Female Anglers Marlin
Choate fighting what would prove to be the winning fish in this year’s Blue Marlin World Cup.Bryan Toney

Tim took her to fish with all his buddies, who happen to be some of the best in the world at what they do. “We started five years ago in Isla Mujeres [in Mexico] on Keen M with Anthony Mendillo,” Stephanie says. “I got to swim with sailfish around a baitball, which was truly life changing. We went to Nova Scotia to catch bluefins, the Marshall Islands to catch my first blue marlin with Chuck Handy, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico to fish the ILTTA angler-based -tournaments, Cape Verde to see the rougher side of seas, and even Fiji with Bill Boyce, who has since become a major inspiration of mine. I joined the International Women’s Fishing Association to meet more women who love to fish, and jumped on any opportunity to fish for anything, anywhere.”

Stephanie began posting awesome catches wherever she went, like an 891-pound bluefin tuna in Nova Scotia and a 1,018-pound black marlin (on 10/18 and her first black) off Mozambique, both with Capt. Andy Moyes; a 650-pound blue marlin on 50-pound and her first white marlin in the Azores with Capt. Zack Conde; and her first sailfish on fly, in Guatemala with Salazar. Her streak culminated with her win in the Blue Marlin World Cup when she landed with a 656-pound blue marlin out of Kona, Hawaii, with Capt. Steve Epstein this past July. “To say it’s been a lucky year is an understatement,” Stephanie says. “When someone who doesn’t fish asks me how I am able to catch a fish seemingly 10 times my size, I go straight for what I live by: It’s all in your head. The people who have truly taught me how to fish never questioned my size or strength. If you want something bad enough, you will find a way to do it, and with the support of the people who love you, it becomes that much easier.”

Like her father, Stephanie also has developed a strong conservation ethic. "In many of the places I have been lucky enough to fish, I have seen firsthand the disastrous effects of longlining and overfishing," she says. "This year, I was welcomed to the board of Wild Oceans, a conservation group that aims to preserve fishing opportunities for the future with a broad ecosystems approach to fisheries management. Wild Oceans goes for the jugular which, in my opinion, is forage-fish populations and the actions of Congress. We all want to see the mysterious creatures of the deep while on an adventure into the unknown, but without leveling the playing field and making that opportunity a possibility, there is no point in celebrating our achievements. I've donated the majority of my winnings to the IGFA and Wild Oceans, and I listen. I have listened to those who have seen and done far more than I could imagine doing, and I am forever grateful for their words and wisdom. Thank you to all of you I have ever fished with, especially Colby Mason, who never touched my rod."

Elaine "Lainey" Jones

Kiln, Mississippi
Top Female Anglers Marlin
Lainey Jones cut her angling teeth in the Gulf of Mexico but has since branched out to fish the Bahamas, Bermuda and beyond.Ronnie Burbage

Elaine Jones grew up in New Orleans and started fishing in the Gulf of Mexico out of Port Eads, Louisiana, where she soon fell in love with big-game fishing. “A friend of my dad introduced me to it, John Peters, who was the president of the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club,” she says. “I soon thereafter joined the club. I fished with friends and eventually bought my own boat, an old 52-foot Hatteras that I named Mama Who, after my mother. After Hurricane Katrina, I bought a 60-foot Hatteras because my boat had been totaled in the storm.” Her relationship with the NOBGFC included many years when she took the lead in organizing and producing the Ladies Tournament for the club, getting the female anglers into the action and winning great prizes.

Jones left the Gulf for the first time in 2006 to fish the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout in the Bahamas. "I fell in love with fishing in the Bahamas," she says, "and have fished the Bahamas Billfish Championship ever since. In 2007, I decided to venture to Bermuda to participate in the Bermuda Triple Crown. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of fishing in places like the Turks and Caicos, Madeira, and Cat Island [in the Bahamas]."

Top Female Anglers Marlin
Aboard Mama Who, a 66-foot Viking, Lainey Jones seeks a grander in the Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda and the Bahamas.Ronnie Burbage

Numerous tournament accolades followed as Jones expanded her fishing horizons. She racked up winnings as the top female billfish angler and other categories on a regular basis. In 2007, she won Top Lady Angler honors in the Bermuda Billfish Blast; in 2009, she was the high point lady angler in the same event. In 2010, she was well into the money in Bermuda, though she didn’t take home the top trophy. In 2011, she won Top Lady Angler in the Classic, and in 2012, she won the Top Lady Angler award in the Sea Horse Anglers Club Billfish Tournament. “I won one of the BBC’s legs in Treasure Cay one year, and one year, we had the biggest fish on the dock in Bermuda,” Jones says.

As the 2013 Bermuda season began, Jones had ordered a new 66-foot Viking that had not yet arrived, so she chartered the famous Capt. Alan Card and his boat Challenger for the summer. With Card at the helm, the Mama Who team won the Sea Horse Anglers Club Billfish Tournament. Then, in 2014, she took second-place lady angler in the Bermuda Billfish Blast, and her godson, Sales De La Barre, from Jackson, Mississippi, won the top junior award in the Bermuda Billfish Release Cup.

Like many of the women in this group, Jones is an active conservationist. She serves on the board of directors of The Billfish Foundation and works to assist in raising funds to support billfish conservation, and she also works to get more junior anglers into the sport. As for her own fishing efforts, she isn’t slowing down. “My goal for the past couple of years has been to get the big girl — a grander,” she says. “I’ve been paying my dues, and hopefully it will eventually happen.”

Sandra MacMillan

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Top Female Anglers Marlin
Sandra MacMillan is a past chairman of the board of The Billfish Foundation who grew up fishing in Minnesota and South Florida with her father.Leonard Bryant

Sandra MacMillan is a past chairman of the board of The Billfish Foundation who grew up fishing in Minnesota and South Florida with her father. "Cat Cay, Bahamas, was always a second home for us, and we spent many days inshore and offshore fishing the waters surrounding the island," she says. "But in the past 10 years, I have taken my fishing to a more competitive level. I am the owner of a 63-foot Spencer, Sandman, and I really enjoy tournament fishing and the many challenges it brings to my life. I have met so many incredible people in this industry and made bonds with some that will last a lifetime."

MacMillan and crew mainly fish live-bait sailfish tournaments in South Florida, but they also fish a few marlin tournaments every year in the Caribbean. “We have done very well on the tournament circuit, and I give all the credit to my crew,” she says. “I have been very fortunate to fish with some of the best fishermen in the world, and their hard work and dedication show up in our tournament results. No matter where we place in a tournament, I know they gave it their best effort every time.”

Top Female Anglers Marlin
Sandra MacMillan and her crew aboard her 63-foot Spencer Sandman have become serious billfish-tournament contenders with an impressive track record.Richard Gibson

In 2011, Team Sandman fished the Buccaneer Cup Tournament in Palm Beach, Florida. In that specific tournament, you can fish either live or dead bait for sailfish, but you get more points for fish caught on dead bait. “Right before the tournament started, the fishing conditions were setting up to be more favorable for the dead-baiters,” MacMillan says. “The day before the tournament, we decided to fish dead bait instead of live bait and had to switch everything over in one day. Not only did the crew do it, but we won the tournament. We also went on to win that -tournament again the next year, but that time we won it with live bait. My crew and I enjoy the challenges of fishing, and are always open to trying new ideas and techniques. There are not many other sports where a team owner can be one of the players. Sometimes it can be challenging to compete in this sport as a woman owner in a predominantly male field. I wish more women would get into this sport because I believe women make great anglers.”

MacMillan’s favorite tournament win was at the Boy Scout Tournament in St. Thomas, USVI, in 2010. “We won the tournament, and I won Top Angler,” she says. “I had never won a Top Angler award before that tournament. I have won Top Lady Angler, but never top overall angler. I didn’t know I had won the award until we were on our way in from fishing on the last day, and my captain at the time told me I had won. It had been 20 years since a woman had won that top award.

“I am proud to say that I have never taken a billfish,” MacMillan adds. “I have released every billfish I have ever caught, and hopefully I can keep that tradition alive. For now, my three kids keep me closer to home with my fishing. In the winter, I fish South Florida and the Dominican Republic, and St. Thomas in the summer months. Blue marlin fishing is my favorite. I like fishing the Dominican Republic for marlin because, on average, the fish are smaller, and we can use lighter tackle, which makes it so much more fun for me.”

Martha Macnab

Buena Vista, Mexico/ Newport Beach, California
Top Female Anglers Marlin
Angler Martha Macnab scored a nice 308-pound yellowfin tuna in Puerto Vallarta in 2003, narrowly missing the world record of 314 pounds because the fish wasn’t weighed for 48 hours.Martha Macnab

“I started fishing in Buena Vista, Mexico, a small fishing village 70 miles north of Cabo on the Sea of Cortez, in 1974,” Martha Macnab says. “I caught my first striped marlin standing up in a Mexican panga owned by a gringo friend. In those days, we had to ‘make bait’ before fishing. I caught my mackerel baits and two nice dorado, then the marlin. I was exhausted but hooked.”

Macnab has won many tag-and-release awards through TBF, some more than once, including Top Lady Tagging Angler in the Pacific Ocean for blue marlin and striped marlin, as well as Top Overall Lady Tagging Angler in 2013. Those are impressive accomplishments. Macnab and her husband, Larry Warlaumont, have owned many boats named Retriever over the years, the latest version being a 2005 61-foot Viking. “We have fished on Retriever throughout Mexico,” she says, “including Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and on to Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama. Piñas Bay in Panama and the Revillagigedo Islands (Benedicto and Socorro) are two of my most memorable fishing locations. I have fished in Australia, the Virgin Islands, Isla Mujeres, Hawaii, and Madeira in -tournaments and with friends.”

Top Female Anglers Marlin
Martha Macnab has reportedly won more money on the billfish-tournament circuit than any female angler in history, due to major catches.Gary Graham

Macnab has caught and released well over 1,000 striped marlin, with her best single day taking place on the Finger Bank north of Cabo with 23 releases. “My favorite fish to catch are marlin, but I scored a nice 308-pound yellowfin tuna in Puerto Vallarta in 2003, narrowly missing the world record of 314 pounds because the fish wasn’t weighed for 48 hours,” she says. “I accomplished an IGFA Billfish Grand Slam in 2010.” In the Bisbee Black and Blue tournaments, Team Retriever has been in the money many times, but in the 2013 tournament, Macnab caught a 525-pound blue marlin, earning $1,185,862. “This is the largest amount of cash won by a lady angler ever, in any fishing event anywhere, according to Wayne Bisbee,” Macnab says.

Joan Vernon

Key Biscayne, Florida/ Carrillo, Costa Rica
Top Female Anglers Marlin
Joan Vernon has been a tireless promoter of both the sport of offshore fishing itself, and of conservation to protect that sport.Richard Gibson

Joan Vernon might be the best-known female billfish angler in the world. She came to prominence through her tireless advocacy of circle hooks and through her highly successful tournament series, the Presidential Challenge of Central America. "I began billfishing at an early age and have been going nonstop ever since," Vernon says. "Most of my fishing has been with light tackle and in tournaments where I have been allowed only one rod. That is why I am proud that I have released over 2,000 billfish since the year 2000, all caught on circle hooks. One of my most memorable days was in 2006, fishing with Capt. Ron Hamlin in Guatemala. Using 8- and 12-pound-test line, I released 40 out of 57 sailfish. The next day, using 12-pound-test, I released another 30."

She also released a slam consisting of a blue marlin, striped marlin and sailfish while fishing on Gamefisher II with Capt. Richard Chellemi. “That was -special because it was in my backyard, fishing out of Carrillo, Costa Rica,” Vernon says. “My -tournament -fishing has taken me to Kenya, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Isla Mujeres, Cabo San Lucas, Panama, Hawaii, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala. I was a member of the International Women’s Fishing Association fishing team that was the first women’s team to be accepted to fish the ILTTA Tournament, which that year was held in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. I was fishing against men and, in most cases, was the only woman angler. My proudest accomplishment in tournament fishing was winning the Club Amateur de Pesca Sailfish Tournament in Costa Rica, twice!”

Top Female Anglers Marlin
Vernon's Presidential Challenge -tournament series has raised well over $500,000 for various conservation groups. For more info, log on to preschallenge.com.Richard Gibson

For the past 25 years, Vernon has worked for and raised funds for conservation organizations to help conserve the species she loves to catch. “As a past chairman of The Billfish Foundation, I continue to fight for the fish by fundraising through my Presidential Challenge tournaments,” she says. “Working with TBF in Central America has been very rewarding, and we are seeing the results of our efforts come to reality. I am a strong believer in giving back to the ocean that gives us such enjoyment as a sport.”

Honorable Mention

No discussion of women who love offshore fishing would be complete without the inclusion of Ellen Peel, president of The Billfish Foundation. Peel earned a law degree from the University of Mississippi and an advanced law degree from the University of Washington in Seattle before getting into marine conservation work with the Center for Marine Conservation in 1993.

She became the obvious choice for the leadership of TBF when that position became vacant in 1996, and since that time she has led the nonprofit science-based organization specializing in billfish science and economics, advocacy for responsible fishing, nonpunitive fishery management, and education of the need for billfish conservation to an unprecedented level of respect and influence.

Peel’s expertise caught the eye of the White House along the way, and in 2012, President Obama formally appointed her the commissioner for recreational fishing to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (she served in an acting capacity for three years prior), making her our delegate for highly migratory fish in the Atlantic Ocean and all adjacent waters, and the most powerful female recreational-fishing representative in America.

But in addition to this impressive list of accomplishments, she remains first and foremost a passionate billfish angler. The story that best illustrates this passion concerns Peel’s divorce from her first husband. In the amicable split, she asked for only two things: custody of the dog, and the collection of Penn Internationals.