© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- The snickers and snide remarks stopped after the 38-pound kingfish hit the dock.
"I think a lot of fishermen didn't think we could do it," Randy Rochelle said of last spring's win at the kingfish season opener. "They said: "How are you going to fish a tournament with nothing but women on the boat?' "
But Rochelle had fished his share of tournaments with men and saw the need for a fresh approach. When the weather got rough, he said, they wanted to go in. When the fishing got slow, they wanted to call it a day.
"They just weren't serious about it," he said.
So when local angler and "adventure specialist" Leiza Fitzgerald had the idea to field an all-female fishing team in the open division of the Southern Kingfish Association tournament trail, Rochelle had one question.
"He wanted to know if we were committed," Fitzgerald said.
A half-dozen tournaments later, the Gotta Go FishFindHers team finds itself at the top of the standings in the kingfish association's Division 6.
The team's big break came in April when it placed first in the Suncoast Kingfish Classic at the Perico Harbor Marina in Bradenton.
"We targeted a spot that had produced for me in the past," Rochelle said. "When we got out there, lots of flying fish were flying out of the water getting chased by big kingfish. The ladies knew they were on to something."
It was a matter of minutes before a fat king snatched a bait off the downrigger and produced the fish that would be worth close to $20,000.
A week later, the team had a high-place finish and big payday at the Grand Ole Opry tournament in Clearwater.
"That is when people knew it wasn't just dumb luck," Rochelle said. "We knew what we were doing."
But team member April Hoaglin said she never thinks about competing against men. "When I am out there on the water, it is really me against the fish," she said. "There is so much to think about, so much to remember ... bait presentation, is it what they want to eat, are they feeding ... I could go on and on."
At the start of every tournament, the team members, including Marilyn Healy and Jeanne Reeves, pick numbers out of a hat to determine the rotation.
"While two of them work the rods at the back of the boat, two of them are up on the bow catching bait," Rochelle said. "They work in shifts. Everybody has to know how to do everything."
Healy, who fished in tournaments with her husband before joining the Gotta Go team, said she was surprised at how physically demanding it is.
"You are up at 3 in the morning catching bait, then out on the water all day," she said. "Then you go home, maybe get a few hours sleep, then get up and do it again."
Three of the four women on the team have children under 5 years old and said they couldn't do it without support.
"I am basically gone from Friday to Sunday," Healy said. "My husband is great. I couldn't do it without him."
Fitzgerald, who started a local chapter of the popular Ladies Let's Go Fishing, said she heard her share of jokes before the group's first win.
"There were a lot of guffaws," she said. "There were a lot of PMS jokes."
But Fitzgerald said that after she and her teammates fished a few tournaments, the other teams came around.
"When you are fishing with a group of boats, the other teams can usually see what you are doing," she said. "After the first couple of tournaments, the guys started coming up and telling us that they were impressed by our efficiency."
Rochelle said it is the attention to details that separates the winners from the losers: "We talk about everything before we make a decision. It is a democracy."
But Rochelle said that as captain, he has the final say.
"Sometimes they gang up on me," Rochelle said, laughing. "And start calling me Capt. Bly."