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.

Grown men have been known to quit their jobs and spend nearly $50,000 apiece in an effort to win the Met. Remember: That's for one tournament that offers no prize money. While the Masons are comfortably upper middle class, Don cannot afford to spend that kind of money on his only child's avocation. Still, you don't find many poor Met contestants. Heidi spends an average of fifteen days per year fishing in several tournaments at a rate of approximately $600 per day to charter the L&H. She also spends countless hours reading about the subject, attending Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club functions, chatting with other anglers both in person and via America Online -- her moniker is "ILUVTOFISH" -- and fishing recreationally. She's fished for fun off Australia's Great Barrier Reef, as well as off the coasts of Guatemala and Costa Rica, and after last year's prom Heidi met her date the following morning at 6:00 a.m. to go fishing. Despite all of her accomplishments and her devotion to the sport, she has not yet been underwritten by a sponsor, although fishing-gear manufacturers such as Penn Reels and Ande monofilament fishing line supply her with tackle for free. She defrays some of her costs by splitting tournament winnings with her boat captains.

But the money is only a minor obstacle compared with the time requirement. The demands of Heidi's senior-year classes at Ransom Everglades and her Herculean load of extracurricular activities take precedence over fishing. Heidi wants to attend med school at either Harvard or Dartmouth. To that end she has maintained a straight-A average at Ransom while piling on the AP (advanced placement) courses. Somehow she also finds the time to edit the school's alternative student newspaper, preside over its ecology club, and volunteer for research work at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine Science for a project to restock Biscayne Bay with redfish. She is also a member of Ransom's sailing team, plays piano and trombone in the school's concert and jazz bands, respectively, and operates the computer keyboard for her school's Quiznet team (a Jeopardy!-like contest conducted over the Internet). In her spare time she reads and counsels her peers. And then there's dating. It's a wonder she has any time for fishing, much less the hundreds of hours she spends pursuing the activity.

Somehow, Heidi makes the time, and her deep-sea angling success speaks for itself. "Heidi is an outstanding all-around angler on a wide variety of baits and tackle," notes Suzan Baker, executive director of the Met. "She's had the opportunity to learn from the best; the Dudases and their boat the L&H are top-drawer. She's bright, talented, and attractive. She's just delightful."

Mike Leech, president of the International Game Fish Association, the Fort Lauderdale-based official governing body that keeps track of world records, concurs. "I've watched her really blossom into a world-class fisherperson," he declares. "She's very serious and dedicated. Highly competitive. Exceptionally talented. She's rewritten the book for women and junior anglers in the Met. There's no telling what she could accomplish if she could take the time to travel to some of the world's fishing hot spots and go after the really big game fish. You have to remember that she's accomplished all of these feats in an area [South Florida] with over 40,000 registered boats. It isn't easy to stand out in a crowd like that. And she's incredibly versatile, catching big fish on light tackle while standing up A even on fly. Sure, she works with a good crew. Still, finding the fish is one thing; catching them is another. And Heidi just excels at that."

At the age of eleven, Heidi caught her first world-record fish, and she has notched a total of four world records to date. One of those was an eleven-foot-long, 472-pound hammerhead shark that a fifteen-year-old Heidi caught from a twenty-foot boat. The next morning, from the same twenty-foot boat, she fought a 139-pound tarpon for three hours in Government Cut, nearly getting swamped by the wakes of passing cruise ships before landing the prehistoric beast -- on flimsy twelve-pound test to boot, line so light that in theory a twelve-pound fish could snap it. The lighter the line, the more finesse -- and time -- required to catch a fish.

Heidi has never finished out of the top ten in any tournament she has entered. She has won the Mini-Met -- a one-day tournament that kicks off the larger Met -- five out of the past seven years. Both Heidi and Don take particular pride in this accomplishment because the Mini-Met does not make distinctions based on age or sex. The person who catches the most fish wins. Heidi has also twice won the women's division of the two-year-old Bob Lewis Billfish Challenge and in 1994 swept the Miami Billfish Tournament, claiming top prizes for overall angler, women's division, and juniors. Both the Bob Lewis and Miami Billfish tournaments offer cash and merchandise prizes, but more important to Heidi they afford her an opportunity to compete head-to-head with the top men in her sport on a level playing field (i.e., shorter contests). After winning those events, no one could say she fishes pretty well "for a girl."

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.

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."

Adolescence is a trying time to begin with, but at an exclusive private prep school like Ransom Everglades, situated between a sun-dappled stretch of Coconut Grove's tree-lined Main Highway and shimmering Biscayne Bay, the emphasis on academic performance can drive a student nuts. Heidi's friend and senior classmate Ingrid Seroppian has known the fishing superstar since the seventh grade. "You get plenty of opportunities to learn how to deal with stress at Ransom," deadpans Seroppian. "I was kind of a typical giggly young teen. Then I met Heidi. My mom says that's what changed me. I started working harder, taking more AP courses, studying more. It definitely helped. I'm going to Amherst in the fall. I've had many conversations with my parents about Heidi. I think she tries to do too much -- I don't think she sleeps or eats."

When asked to choose one word to describe Heidi, seventeen-year-old junior Eric Bernstein -- Heidi's boyfriend, sailing partner, and frequent companion -- immediately responds "busy. . . . I think she really enjoys everything she does." But Eric disagrees with the notion shared by everyone from Linda Mason to Ingrid Seroppian that Heidi might be spreading herself too thin. "She'd lose more by not doing it all," he contends. "College will be good for her. It's getting so she can't find any more challenges."

"Heidi's always thrived on competition, thrived on pressure. She's been like that since I can remember," says Linda Mason with a subtle air of resignation that lets you know she wishes her daughter were maybe just a little less ambitious. "I think she's missed some of the kid part," Linda frets. "She never went through that giddy, silly stage a lot of girls go through. She always read a lot and liked good conversation and people who knew what their beliefs were."

"At Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club functions Heidi would invariably leave the other kids to hang out with the adults," Don Mason chips in. "At eight she was glued to my side. By ten or eleven she'd started to branch out more. By twelve she was right there with the old-timers, discussing setting the drag versus cupping the reel, rigging baits, what dropback she uses from a kite. She held her ground with men who'd been doing it their whole lives."

According to Ingrid and Eric, however, Heidi's parents needn't worry about her missing out on the teen stuff. She enjoys many of the same activities as her peers -- going to movies, the Grove, South Beach. She's been to several proms. She'll frequently record Friends or ER on her VCR and watch them with Eric on a Friday or Saturday night. Heidi listens to, in her words, "everything but country," and hopes to attend upcoming Hootie and the Blowfish and R.E.M. concerts.

Ingrid describes Heidi as "not the typical fake, materialistic person." Which is why it comes as a mild shock to learn that this quiet, humble, down-to-earth honor student tools around town in a fat black muscle car. Heidi's parents surprised her with the spanking-new Firebird Formula -- complete with V8 engine and T-tops -- on her sixteenth birthday. "It was such a great surprise," Heidi gushes. "I pulled up to the dock after winning all these titles [the weekend she swept the 1994 Miami Billfish Tournament] and there are my parents with the car, beaming. I knew it was for me."

Heidi seems perfectly comfortable being an anomaly: a young woman kicking butt in a man's sport. A quiet scholar and avid conservationist with a gas-guzzling car that does 160. And, most of all, a well-adjusted teen with two loving, concerned parents in an era when, to judge by MTV, Beverly Hills 90210, or movies such as Kids or Clueless, the traditional nuclear family is extinct.

She doesn't drink: "Fishing and drinking seem to go together, but I don't see myself ever wanting to do that." She doesn't get high: "For some reason when people try to pressure me to do things, I react strongly to the opposite." She isn't promiscuous: "There's a big difference between the social order at Ransom and the rest of life. Over half of my class has been together from the seventh to twelfth grades. It would be almost incestuous to date someone you've known since they got braces." And she doesn't care about popularity: "I prefer a few really good friends that I can count on to a gaggle of superficial 'Hi, how ya doin's.'"

You'd think her parents would be ecstatic. Cautiously optimistic is more like it. Heidi is their only child, and they prefer to err on the side of overprotectiveness. For example, Heidi has abided by a strict curfew since long before such a thing became countywide law A 10:00 p.m. during the week, midnight on Friday and Saturday. "Some of my friends don't have any curfew," Heidi protests. "That's my only real debate with my parents, though. I mean, I've made up my mind not to do [drugs and alcohol] because I don't want to, not because my parents told me. I respect it, though."

Dating has been a somewhat related point of contention. "My parents have never disapproved of the guys I've dated. They know I'm a pretty good judge of character," Heidi concedes. "The world has changed since they were seventeen."

Don and Linda Mason were a few years older than seventeen when they met in the library at the University of Miami in 1968, a time of social unrest and generational upheaval. They were not what you would call hippies. Don had just received his juris doctor degree from Baylor and was working on a master's degree in law. Linda had been a TWA flight attendant for six years before going back to school to complete her bachelor's degree in education. Today they share their 5000-square-foot custom-built home with Heidi and a pair of coddled dogs, Lucky and Tasha.

"They're a team," Heidi explains of her parents. "He handles the fishing, she handles everything else."

As the array of plaques, trophies, crystal ice buckets, and signed prints covering one entire wall of their living room indicates, Don and Linda take pride in Heidi's fishing accomplishments. But neither parent singles out Heidi's angling as the trait of their daughter's that they most esteem.

"I guess I'm proudest of her conservation activities," claims Don. "It's not just that she goes out of her way not to harm the fish she catches. For over one year she did volunteer work with manatees at the Seaquarium. At Rosenstiel they trusted her to weigh, measure, and anesthetize fish while she was still in the ninth grade. I like to think that she played a part in redfish returning to Biscayne Bay. She's the president of the ECOS club at Ransom. Every month they try to do some kind of cleanup. She was active in opposing sugar interests in the Everglades."

Linda Mason ponders her husband's statement for a moment before expanding on it. "Kids growing up today face so much pressure," she offers. "I'm proud of the way Heidi stands up for her beliefs -- anything, not just fishing or the environment."

Still, the Masons believe fishing has been a positive influence on their daughter. "I truly feel it's something she'll be able to enjoy for the rest of her life," Linda points out. "I think there's some truth to what fishermen say -- 'I've never known a kid who fished a lot and got into trouble.'"

And yet Don Mason worries that maybe his daughter has grown up too fast. He worries that he and Linda have been overprotective. He worries that Heidi spends too much time with Eric -- not because there's anything wrong with the boy, but just because Don and Linda don't think it's a good idea for Heidi to get too serious about any one guy at this point in her life. And naturally, both Don and Linda worry about what will happen when Heidi leaves the nest.

"I'm eagerly looking forward to it," Heidi says of moving away to college. Of course that's exactly the kind of gung-ho statement anyone who knows her would expect. "I started planning for it in the ninth grade. I guess it's scary in a way, too -- the thought of going to bed at night surrounded by people you've never seen before."

"For her, I think it will be great," predicts Linda. "For me, it'll be devastating. Our whole lives revolve around her."

"You hate for that to happen," says Don. "You wish your child was always twelve years old."

"But she's ready," Linda concludes, swallowing hard. "It's time for her to go.

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