ST. PETERSBURG - When Leiza Fitzgerald and Merrily Dunn entered their first redfish tournament three years ago, the competition didn't take them seriously.
"We heard a lot of "Look out! Here come the girls ...," Fitzgerald said. "None of them believed that we could stick with it."
The women, both seasoned anglers, knew it wouldn't been easy. Fitzgerald had some experience fishing area king mackerel tournaments. Dunn, a long-time Sarasota/Bradenton-area guide, had fought more than one battle for acceptance into what traditionally has been been a male-dominated industry.
"Our first couple of tournaments, we had had a hard time weighing a fish," Dunn said. "We could catch the big ones and the little ones, but we just couldn't catch anything in the (18- to 27-inch) slot limit."
But Fitzgerald and Dunn stuck with it. They learned everything they could about artificial lures and the conditions they would encounter on a tour that would take them from Texas to the Florida Keys.
"We just kept at it, doing our homework on each location, prefishing then making sure we placed somewhere in the top 20," Fitzgerald said.
Eventually other teams on the Redfish Tour got used to seeing "the Girls" at every weigh-in.
"I guess they knew we just weren't going to go away," she said.
Both women leaned heavily on their families for support. Fitzgerald, the vice president for membership development for an exclusive hunting lodge, the Gilchrist Club, is married with two young sons.
"For some tournaments I would be gone nearly a week ... traveling, scouting then actually competing," Fitzgerald said. "I couldn't devote that kind of time to fishing without an understanding husband."
Dunn, who is recently engaged, has a 94-year-old mother her fiance cares for while she is away.
"It is a huge time commitment," Dunn said. "My fishing charter business has suffered because I am always off somewhere getting ready for a tournament."
Fitzgerald said she realized she and Dunn had turned the corner in the spring of 2003, when they weighed in an 83/4-pound, 263/4-inch, redfish at the Inshore Fishing Association's stop in Punta Gorda.
"It was the biggest fish caught in the tournament," Fitzgerald said. "When we went up to get our check the guys gave us a standing ovation."
In 2003, Dunn and Fitzgerald were ranked 25th out of more than 100 teams on the IFA's Redfish Tour. That year they were the first women to qualify for the national championship.
"After the first day of fishing, we were ranked eighth," Dunn said. "But on the second day we had a fish disqualified because it was just a little too big. That took us out of the running."
Fitzgerald and Dunn bounced back in 2004, finishing in the top 15 in two of four tournaments on another circuit, the O'Boy Oberto Redfish Cup, and coming in 35th overall for the year. Their team, Screamin Reels and High Heels, was the first women's team to weigh a fish and place in a tournament on that tour.
Meanwhile, on the IFA Redfish Tour, they finished the season 20th out of more than 100 teams.
Their success on the tournament trail has helped pull in major sponsors, including Evinrude Motors and Ranger Boats, two of the biggest names in the marine industry.
"We are only one of three teams sponsored ... the other two being Bryan and Greg Watts, and C.A. Richardson and Ray Van Horn," Fitzgerald said. "It really says something to be considered in the same league as those guys."
The Watts brothers of Lakeland were the Redfish Cup team of the year in 2003. Richardson of St. Petersburg is founder of the statewide "Flats Class" fishing school, and Van Horn, also a Pinellas County resident, is one of his top instructors.
"We'll be heading to Hopedale, La., this week for the 2004 national championship," Dunn said. "We are currently ranked 20th and hoping to do better than last year."
Dunn and Fitzgerald said they hope their stories inspire more women to consider tournament fishing.
Women who are interested in learning more can go to www.flatsclass.com or call Richardson at 727 647-9356. The school will host a women's fishing clinic on Nov. 20 in Seffner.