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 has few peers at catching fish, particularly sailfish like this one, with eight-pound test line. This is where Heidi's special skills come into play. Like all great anglers, she has an extraordinary intuitive sense of just how much pressure she can exert before the line will break. She is also blessed with exceptional balance (the legacy of ballet lessons taken years earlier) and the patience and tenacity to battle her game for as long as it takes.

"I'm very determined," Heidi understates. "If I say I'm gonna do something if it requires me to stay out there for twelve hours, I'm gonna stay out for twelve hours. It bothers me when people don't want to do the same." Both Heidi and Don like to illustrate that point by recalling the same anecdote.

"Once when she was eleven Heidi hooked a sailfish just before turning for home at about 6:00 p.m. and fought it until well past midnight," the attorney remembers. "It got completely dark. The temperature, which started out about 50 degrees during the day, dropped to 38-40. The seas were really rough. There were squalls, and waves crashing over the back of the boat. We were rockin' and rollin' in heavy seas. The cockpit was just awash, just full of water. But Heidi knows no fear. She's always just charged right in. The glove on Heidi's right hand wore through to the raw skin, which blistered. Her hand burned from saltwater getting into the wound. I told her there was no disgrace in letting the fish go, but Heidi would have none of it. Six and a half hours after the fish bit, just as the leader touched the end of the pole to qualify it as a legal catch and release, it broke her line and escaped."

Oddly enough, Heidi was happy the fish got away. "That fish put up the best fight by far of any sailfish I've ever caught," she reasons. "A fish that fought that long had to be huge, a potential world record. If I'd caught it, we'd have been tempted to bring it in and measure it, which would have meant killing it. I'd rather have that fish alive than just another record."

The second sailfish Heidi hooks on this more recent cold December day gives her a run for her money, but nothing like the one she hooked when she was eleven. Angler and quarry duel it out for half an hour. Heidi finally maneuvers the fish to within a foot or two of being a certifiable catch. This sailfish is at least one and a half times as large as the day's first. Pipkin leans over the gunwale, gloved hand extended to grab the leader dancing tantalizingly just out of his reach. But with one final desperate thrash of its head, the sailfish snaps the line and darts away.

Captain Dudas howls. Pipkin hangs his head. The wind seems to go out of Heidi. For one split second she resembles a disappointed seventeen-year-old girl more than a supremely confident master angler. The day is young, however, and before it is over Heidi will catch a kingfish as well as reel in a third sailfish, which Pipkin hauls aboard the boat for tagging and a photo op. Not a world-beater of a day by Heidi Mason's standards, but a solid beginning for her final assault on the Met's Grand Master Angler title.

Duke University sponsors precollege testing designed to identify gifted high school students with an interest in medicine. Heidi Mason blew the test out of the water when she took it back in 1994. Her score, in the extreme upper percentile of all students tested, earned Heidi an invitation to participate in Duke's on-campus summer residential program in Durham, North Carolina, that year. Press releases for the school's storied NCAA Division I men's basketball team probably exercise more restraint than the faculty member who composed Heidi's glowing postinternship evaluation: "Heidi Mason is a marvelous student by any standard. She appeared to me also to be a person who had already developed a fairly strong sense of self."

A fairly strong sense of self? In nursery school Heidi chose her own name. Her real name, the one that shows up on her birth certificate, is Heather Lynn Mason. But Heather -- er, Heidi -- has always had difficulty pronouncing the "th" sound; she substitutes a soft f instead. No one -- not even Heidi herself -- knows where the replacement name came from, but as far back as anyone can remember, Heidi has called herself Heidi and everyone else has followed suit.

"If someone called me Heather," Heidi says with a laugh, "I wouldn't respond."

Robert "Doc" Crabtree, who has taught at Ransom Everglades for more than twenty years, and who instructs Heidi's AP biology class, echoes the sentiments expressed on Heidi's Duke University evaluation. "I expect big things from Heidi," he says matter-of-factly. "She's self-motivated, works hard, does a lot of reading. She has what it takes to succeed in a lot of disciplines."

"She's such an unfortunate thing," jokes Buzzie Borona, Heidi's AP English teacher. "This sounds so corny, but after twenty years at Ransom Everglades I can count on four fingers the students who have stood out. Heidi's one of them. You can't slot her. One minute she's playing in the band, the next she's helping clean up the bay or working on the computer. Most kids focus on either academics or sports, but she's always finding time to do everything. Kids at this school are under a lot of pressure, primarily from their parents. Heidi works well under stress."

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