By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Heidi's rapid success and her father's constant presence have given rise to rumors that Don had become the sportfishing equivalent of a stage mother -- or worse. "People used to make accusations that my father caught the fish and said that I did," Heidi confirms without bitterness. "I can understand it to a degree -- they're older, they've been doing this all their lives. They don't want to be beaten by a girl. People have accused me of chasing down fish with the boat. We even heard rumors that my dad or the Dudases caught the fish the day before, put them in a box, and said I caught them. But I've taken polygraphs [a standard procedure in short catch-and-release tournaments, such as the Miami Billfish or Bob Lewis competitions, in which money is involved]. I've had unbiased witnesses on my boats. It's taken some people a long time to accept me."
Charges of chicanery aren't the only whispers the Masons have overheard. "Not everybody who enters the Met has a father who can afford to charter a boat like the L&H," reckons Met director Suzan Baker. "Heidi is fortunate to have a dad like Don who encourages her and takes pride in her accomplishments. But jealousy A they've had to deal with that."
Insinuations that Don Mason pushed his daughter into fishing nag the attorney to this day. "People who say things like that just don't know Heidi," he counters. "She thrives on competition. You couldn't make her fish as hard as she does. And we like a different kind of fishing. I prefer to be in a stream in Alaska concentrating on one fish."
And then there was resentment based on the fact that Heidi was (a) a female and (b) a kid. "Men have always dominated fishing," Heidi reflects. "I had to work harder to be taken seriously. I had to show captains [not named Dudas] that I wasn't going to drop their poles overboard or worry about breaking a nail. And the Met has always had male and female master angler classes, but only two years ago they opened the grand master angler title to both sexes. But things are changing. A lot of captains nowadays think women anglers might be better. We use more finesse and less brute force."
In Heidi Mason's case the early resistance backfired. "If you tell me I can't do something, I take that as a challenge," Heidi acknowledges. "I've always had a very competitive nature. At that age [when she landed her first sailfish] it takes something very exciting to catch your interest or attention. All these grownups came up to me and told me what an amazing thing I'd done. It was cool. Suddenly I got all this attention and praise. I was hooked. That first experience probably determined my future interest in deep-sea fishing."
Which is not to say that her father's enthusiasm hasn't factored into the equation. "I think he enjoys my accomplishments more than I do," Heidi concedes. "He kind of lives vicariously through my fishing. But I've loved fishing as far back as I can remember. I grew up on a lake, and I used to fish there all the time. It's really fun. The people you meet are a distinct breed, kind of wacked out. And fishing makes it easy to talk to a lot of different types of people. Everyone has a fishing story."
On this overcast December day, Don relaxes in the cabin, reading or napping, while Heidi -- all five feet five inches, 120 pounds of her -- stands sentinel in the cockpit of the L&H (the uncovered area in the stern of the boat), keeping an eye on her lines. The majority of the trip consists of trolling and waiting, trolling and waiting. The boat trails eight lines behind it, six of them dropping from a pair of kites that suspend the bait just below the ocean's surface. But hours of monotony screech to an abrupt halt when a fish bites.
Pandemonium breaks loose. The diesel engines grind and belch as Captain Louie slams the boat into a lower gear or even jolts it into reverse, maneuvering to give Heidi the best angle on her fish. You can't help but share Heidi's adrenaline rush as a sailfish, more than a hundred feet away, leaps defiantly out of the water and splashes back down. Dudas shouts directions at mate Pipkin, who tries to do ten things at once, following the skipper's instructions while he reels in the fishless lines and tosses the rods into the cabin so that Heidi won't get tangled in them. Heidi focuses all her attention on the fish at hand, her intensity belying her tender years. Don Mason can't do much but stand and watch helplessly while his daughter jams the butt of the arcing rod into the socket on her gimbal belt (a sort of strapped-on metal pad covering an angler's lower abdomen), hunches her shoulders, braces her legs against the gunwale, and furiously reels in her prey.
The fish is completely outclassed. Heidi's first catch of the day is a smallish sailfish that puts up little struggle. Heidi brings it to the side of the boat in less than fifteen minutes. According to the Met's catch-and-release rules, you don't have to actually "boat" a fish for it to qualify as a legitimate catch. All you have to do is get it close enough so that either the mate can grab the leader (the length of wire at the end of the line to which the hook is attached) or the leader touches the tip of the angler's rod. The mate jabs a coded plastic tag into the fish so that it's growth and migration can be tracked should anyone catch it again. Unless the fish looks like a potential world record, the mate then cuts the line and the fish swims away unharmed. The hook rusts and falls out after only a few weeks, causing no permanent damage (or so catch-and-release advocates claim). As this sailfish is obviously too small to be a record, Pipkin quickly tags it, cuts it loose, and sends it on its way.