Debbie Freeman, of Lafayette, Louisiana, is a woman in a man’s world.
Like the growing contingent of women who are making their name in sports fishing, she has built a well-earned reputation in the sport spurred by the enthusiasm that comes from doing something you really love.
Debbie grew up fishing with her dad on lakes and ponds for bass and catfish. She didn’t embark on her salt-water angling career until she met her husband, Sonny, and moved to Cocodrie, Louisiana, in 1989. The couple bought a 23-foot Grady White and fished inshore for bull redfish and bull black drum, as Freeman says, “every chance we had, every spare weekend when we weren’t hunting in either Mississippi or Texas.”
It took a trip to the Virgin Islands to entice Freeman to take the next step in her sports fishing – that is, billfishing. “I caught my first marlin with Capt. Bill McCauley, on the Prowler, in St. Thomas. That was in 2000,” she says.
After this, Debbie was soundly hooked on catching and releasing billfish. “Its phenomenal. Billfishing will ruin you for all other types of fishing. Its hours of nothing punctuated by this huge adrenalin rush. Sheer mayhem. Plus, fishing in places like St. Thomas, well, its beautiful all around you. I love the water. There are porpoises, whales. The whole experience just makes you happy to be alive.”
After Sonny retired from a career in commercial diving, the Freemans’ purchased a home in Lighthouse Point, Florida, in 2000. They also bought a 61-foot Viking they named Blue Bayou, and started fishing an annual circuit that took them from Florida to the Bahamas, Mexico and St. Thomas each year. “We fished tournaments in Key West as well as Rum Cay and Walker’s Cay, for billfish as well as tuna. In Isla Mujeres, there’s a great bite for white marlin and sailfish. St. Thomas has the blue marlin, we planned our trips around the summer and fall moons. In our first two years, we released over 100 blue marlin, mostly from St. Thomas. To celebrate that feat, our captain, Scott Hitch, gave us a beautiful painting of a blue marlin by Bobby Boyle for Christmas,” Debbie says.
She adds, “Family and friends often came with us on our fishing trip. In fact, over the last five years, we’ve had some 40 of them catch their very first blue marlin with us. That’s been so much fun.”
The Freeman’s have found a real extended family in the fishing community as well.
Debbie says, “Our first trip out with the boat we headed to Cat Island in the Bahamas and we weren’t completely prepared. For example, we got up one morning and found we had run out of milk. There weren’t really any places to buy more. But, there were these guys fishing from Texas beside us. We ended up swapping them milk for some of the hundreds of CDs and movies we had. The fishing community is just made up of a great group of people.”
Living on the boat as they fished and traveled, Debbie says she and Sonny like to fish hard. “We’ve leave the dock about 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. and fish until 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at night.”
As for methods, “I like 50 or 80 pound line test, pulled lures – jigs, nitros, purple and black – it changes from year to year, and teasers. Not a lot of dead bait.”
This year, Debbie went to fish in Rum Cay. “Sonny didn’t come,” she says, “He was busy building our new fishing camp in Cocodrie.”
Four days into the fishing, Debbie was discouraged. “It was slick calm. Nothing was happening. It was about 4 p.m. when I called Sonny and told him what was happening. He reminded me that the bite usually picks up late afternoon and just to wait a bit longer.”
Bam! Fifteen minutes later, Debbie hooked up a whopper blue. “We didn’t see it at first, didn’t know what it was. After a 1-½ hour fight, we had her up to the back of the boat for about 7 minutes. Scott estimated she was over 1,000 pounds. He measured her girth at 77 inches and I released her even though I’ve always had a dream to catch a grander. She would have broken several records – the 80-pound test, the Bahamas women’s... but, conservation is important to me.”
This experience led Debbie to the idea to form a women’s team to fish the 2006 USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament.
Just like catching a grander, Debbie says she’s always enjoyed being able to participate in the man’s world of fishing. “My father let me and my husband let me, and its something I’ve always loved. But, I did wonder how an all ladies team would be accepted in the tournament.”
She need not have worried. “We had unreal support. Mike (Lemon, aboard the Revenge), Eddie (Morrison, Marlin Prince), Bubba Carter (driving South Paw), they all wished us well.”
Debbie handpicked her team. There was her stepdaughter, Tricia Freeman, who grew up saltwater sports fishing off Louisiana. Then, there were two Lisa’s – Lisa Tucker and Lisa Flack. Tucker, from Boca Raton, Florida, had fished in St. Thomas, Panama and Venezuela, and came highly recommended by Capt. Hitch. Flack, grew up fishing in Ft. Lauderdale and the Bahamas, and met Debbie at a tackle store where she was asked to complete the four-women angling team.
The first day, says Debbie, “We didn’t have any good bites. Then the second day, when the bite was on, we had engine trouble. We had parts flown in and the crew – including mates Lucas McDermott and Thad Michaels, worked all day and night to get us back out there. On the last day, we had three shots and missed them all.”
She jokes, “We had a joke on the boat. When he did really well, we were Hitch’s Harem. But when we didn’t do as well, we were Hitch’s Bitches.”
In spite of their showing, Debbie says, “I wouldn’t hesitate to put the same team together again.”
That might have to wait for a year or two. The Freeman’s have Blue Bayou up for sale.
“I know we’ll probably have another boat, but for now we’re just taking a year off – from having a boat, not from fishing,” Debbie says and quickly clarifies.
This year, “we’ll spend time in our new camp in Louisiana. We have a 34-foot Venture for offshore and 24-foot Pathfinder for the bay.”
She adds, “We’ll probably charter in Costa Rica and down in Venezuela. I’m sure we’ll be back in St. Thomas too. After all, we just love to fish. That’s the key ingredient.”