The Young Girl and the Sea

High school senior Heidi Mason has been reeling in big ones since she was knee-high to a grouper

Heidi Mason will try to tell you she isn't a morning person. Don't believe her. The sun has yet to rise on a cold and rainy Saturday morning in late December when the freckle-faced, long-blond-haired, wholesome-looking seventeen-year-old and her father Don arrive at the Crandon Park Marina on Key Biscayne. While most of her Ransom Everglades high school classmates sleep soundly and snugly, Heidi boards a 46-foot Hatteras fishing boat named the L&H and prepares to do what she does better than any other seventeen-year-old woman in South Florida A maybe even in the world. Heidi Mason is about to go fishing.

Pelicans frolic in the gray-green water dockside, oblivious to the activities of L&H captain John "Louie" Dudas and mate Matt Pipkin as they ready their boat for Heidi's first day of the 1995-96 Metropolitan South Florida fishing tournament, among the oldest, largest, and most prestigious tournaments in the United States.

A strong cold front has just passed through, leaving 50-degree temperatures in its wake. At 6:00 a.m. the only sound you hear other than the gentle lapping of the water is the occasional weather report crackling across the L&H's marine radio: seas four to six feet, inland waters choppy, et cetera. Dudas and Pipkin gather bait fish -- speedos, blue runners, jacks, pilchards, goggle eyes -- from a nearby tank and dump them into the on-board well. Luckily for self-described non-morning-person Heidi, her captain and mate already have most of the bait fish they'll need today; otherwise this trip would have begun at 4:00 a.m. to allow two hours to catch bait.

Once the L&H's massive Detroit Diesel engines roar to life, it takes the Hatteras about an hour to reach the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream about midway between Fowey Light and Triumph reef, where Heidi will go to work. In the meantime she naps below deck, completely unfazed by the noise, vibrations, and noxious fumes emanating from the diesels. Heidi doesn't get seasick. She's fished in twelve-to-fifteen-foot seas under conditions so rough that every five seconds an alarm went off warning that the boat was too far out of the water. This December day's four-to-six foot rollers merely lull her to sleep.

Don Mason, a prosperous attorney specializing in negligence defense cases for insurance companies, passes the time reading fishing magazines in the cabin. He accompanies Heidi on nearly all of her deep-sea fishing excursions. (The sport's charms are lost on Heidi's mother Linda.) Always more of a recreational fisherman than a competitor, Don has served as Heidi's aide-de-camp and head cheerleader ever since that fateful day almost exactly one decade ago when his daughter reeled in her first sailfish.

"I was seven," Heidi remembers of her inaugural saltwater catch. "It was my first deep-sea fishing trip. I was sort of tagging along with my dad. We fished all day on the L&H and we didn't catch anything. We were ready to call it a day. [Captain] John [Dudas] Sr., John Louie's dad, said to give it another fifteen minutes. About ten minutes after he said that, we hooked a sailfish on a twenty-pound test line. It was supposed to be my father's fish. Nobody thought I could handle it at that age -- I probably weighed about the same as the fish. But I've always been very determined. My father let me take over and I caught it. I didn't think it was a big deal at the time, but all these adults did." The 53-pounder -- one of the few sailfish that Heidi, a staunch catch-and-release advocate, hasn't cut loose over the duration of her ten-year competitive fishing career -- now occupies a place of honor on a wall in the den of the Masons' sprawling Pinecrest home.

Don immediately sensed that his little girl might be a natural, and when John Dudas, Sr., told Heidi about the Pee Wee division of the Met tournament -- for anglers under the age of ten -- she encountered little difficulty convincing her father to sign her up. Heidi won the division handily that first year (1986), and since then she has won the 1989 Junior Master Angler title (she was eleven at the time) and the Women's Offshore Grand Champion title the following year (the first junior angler in the Met's 61-year history to do so). She is the youngest fisher ever to win a Master Angler award, and this year -- her last Met tournament before the high school senior heads off to college -- she hopes to reel in the biggest title of them all: Grand Master Angler. Top dog, regardless of age or sex. If Heidi pulls it off, she'll be the first woman and the youngest angler ever to have accomplished the feat.

The Met runs annually from the first Saturday in December through the first Sunday in May, with anglers winning points based on a complicated formula that takes into account quantity, type, and weight of fish caught (and released). No prize money awaits the Met victors (although it does in other competitions Heidi enters, such as the Miami, Bob Lewis, and Fort Lauderdale billfish tournaments), just bragging rights. But that didn't stop some 7000 contestants from 42 states, 9 foreign countries, and a handful of U.S. territories from entering last year's event.

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