When Izaak Walton wrote, "God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling," he expressed a truth of his age. The sport was, as Walton's friend Sir Henry Wotton put it, "a rest to my mind, a cheerer of my spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness." But that was before women discovered what a juicy apple the sport of fishing—especially big-game fishing—really was. Ever since the ladies began angling in earnest, there have been few activities less calm, less quiet or less innocent. From the beginning, the female approach to angling was unlike any Izaak Walton ever dreamed of. Women tackled the sport like commandos establishing a beachhead, invading in force, storming male territory. By the time the men realized what had happened, the ladies were firmly fastened into fighting chairs and had no intention of giving them up.
The next step was predictable. In April 1955 the International Women's Fishing Association was formed in Palm Beach, Fla., a logical place for ladies to assemble. In addition to an embarrassment of money, mansions and moguls, Palm Beach, in season, boasts what is probably the heaviest concentration of anglers anywhere in the U.S. It also has better than its share of fish and fishing tournaments. The ladies of the IWFA, whose numbers rose from three initial members to almost 300 before the organization was a year old, promptly added a few events of their own to the tournament roster. Men were not invited to participate. In light of that first all-female tournament, it was probably just as well.
Sixty-six entries turned out for the initial IWFA Billfish Tournament in January 1956, but it was clear even before they took off from the dock that the transition from chaise longue to fighting chair had not been made quite as gracefully as rumored. The gals showed up in what had to be the most unorthodox array of angling attire ever assembled. The costumes ranged from long Johns, galoshes and fur parkas to silk pants and Chanel sweaters. One woman climbed aboard in a full-length mink, another in gold lam� slacks. Heads were rollered, ribboned and ruffled with lace. Nobody wore high heels, it is comforting to report, but heels could not have been any more hazardous than some of the other odd footgear on deck.
The weather did not make things any easier. It was, as January in Florida often can be, terrible. A raging norther sent 10-foot waves crashing across sterns and into cockpits, pushing temperatures to record lows and tossing the 32 small fishing boats around on the ocean like kernels of corn in a popper. Keeping breakfast down was only one challenge; staying upright was another. Women were thrown into transoms, against bait boxes, down galley ladders. They were bruised, battered and bounced about for two days without letup.
One woman spent the entire tournament in the head. Another gratefully dropped everything and rushed shoreward when word came over the radio that her poodle was about to produce puppies. A middle-aged matron slept, incredibly, through two strikes and then woke up only long enough to be sick over the side. Another tossed sandwich and cigarettes overboard when a wave snapped her line from the outrigger. Still another froze after striking her fish and then watched transfixed as line whizzed off her reel until finally there was no more. "Was I surprised!" she said later.
Surprised was not exactly the way to describe the crews. "Five fish on, five lost," mumbled one captain. "Let's go get drunk." Most of them did, but they also managed to get the ladies through the tournament.
At its end, remarkably, the score stood at 82 sailfish, all caught under conditions that would have discouraged Sir Francis Chichester. Even the most begrudging captain had to admit that, if nothing else, the gals were game. Before long the captains were also admitting, reluctantly or not, that there was nothing more formidable than a female who has learned how to fish.
Soon after their first billfish tournament, the IWFA was invited by the Club Nautico Internacional de la Habana to send a team to Havana to compete in the International Marlin Fishing Tournament for the Hemingway Trophy, an annual event that attracted top anglers from the entire Western Hemisphere. The Cubans, it seemed, considered the ladies no threat. Ha!
The gals cleaned up. Competing from a borrowed boat in high seas and strong winds that cut the original fleet from 86 to 50 boats, Mrs. Thomas Sherwood, one of the IWFA's three founding members, Mrs. Milton Bird and Mrs. Joseph Dixon, the lone females in the tournament, outfished 14 teams and 194 anglers—including Papa himself, who in three days aboard the Pilar did not catch a single fish. The IWFA victory was, as one Havana daily put it, "a new kind of revolution."
The revolution did not end with tournaments. World records began falling to women so fast that by the time the IWFA was 5 years old 23 of its members accounted for 27 of the world-record catches in the International Game Fish Association book.