Florida-based lady angler, Debbie Austin, traded her tennis racket for a fishing rod about a decade ago and has never looked back. She's having more fun in the cockpit than on the court, and enjoying both the competition and camaraderie that sports fishing offers.
Austin, daughter of Reel Tight's late owner, Jim Lambert, says, "I traveled with my Dad from forever. But, while he and my brothers fished, the other ladies and I would take the little boat out and snorkel and swim. It was just all sun and fun."
Then, nearly a decade ago, Austin met future husband Vince, while Vince was mating for the late Capt. Lindsay Forde aboard Steve and Jody Lewis' Freebie.
"I remember, it was just after we met, Vince left on the lay day of a tournament up in Stuart to come down and watch me play tennis," Austin says. "After that, Vince put a rod in my hands and I gave up my racket."
The Austin's married on New Year's Day of 2001 at their house in Hillsboro Beach, Florida. Their mutual love of fishing was evident in their vows. Debbie was asked if she would take Vince as her 'captain', and he take her as his 'angler'.
After the wedding, Vince left Freebie to work for his father, Doc Austin, at HMY Yacht Sales, and took over as captain of the family's 61-foot Viking, Sea Trial.
"We have a house in the Keys," says Austin. "One of my first tournaments was the Poor Girls Tournament in Islamorada. I remember there were 10-foot seas. After that, I started fishing the sailfish tournaments out of Fort Lauderdale and Stuart with Jody (Lewis)."
Soon after, the Austin's took the Sea Trial to Isla Mujeres for sailfish.
"I fished in one of Joan Vernon's ladies tournaments. There were 11 boats and we won," she says.
Austin caught her first double-header sailfish in this tournament and she did so on a circle hook.
"I've sworn by circle hooks ever since that day," she says. "I had to reel in one fish, and then put the rod in the holder and reel in the next, back and forth until I got both fish released. If I hadn't used a circle hook, I would have lost one or both. They would have just slipped off a J-hook."
Austin adds, "Using a circle hook calls for a different technique. And, it definitely takes experience to go through and see how it works. If you pull up on the rod, like when you're using a J-hook, you'll pull the circle hook right out of the fish's mouth. You need to let them eat and then slowly wind up."
Also in 2001, Debbie, Vince and friends, set out for a day of fun fishing with the Reel Tight crew aboard Sea Trial. The result? Catching 120 sailfish - a record!
"It was such a blast," Austin says. "I kept calling my Dad, who was back in Florida, every 10 fish. His record was 86. He was really excited for us."
Another favorite sailfish destination for the Austins is Los Suenos, Costa Rica.
"Winning that ladies tournament earned me entry into the Rolex/IGFA Offshore Championships in Cabo San Lucas," she says. "I always wanted to fish Cabo - and its still my dream to do so - but we had a trip to Costa Rica planned for the same time and ended up keeping these plans."
Austin adds, "We and Vince's parents fell in love with Costa Rica. We bought a home and a 46-foot Gamefishermen to leave there and fish, and Doc and Donna bought a condo. Today, we spend from December to April in Los Suenos."
The next year, 2002, Austin beat all the boys when she reeled in a 501-pound blue marlin in the HMY Billfish Blast, held out of Boat Harbour in the Bahamas.
"What I like about fishing is being on the water. It's tranquil. Relaxing," she says. "We spend half the year in Los Suenos. It's beautiful there. Flat calm. We get 50-plus sailfish bites a day. Its wonderful when they jump. They're about the size of the blue marlin in St. Thomas. What a show."
Photo right - Reel Tight wins VIGFC's 2008 'July Open'
Austin adds, "Then in April, we close the house in Los Suenos and head first to the Bahamas and then St. Thomas. It's funny, just when you're getting tired of sailfishing, its time to change to blue marlin, and visa versa."
What Austin likes about blue marlin, though, is the fight. "Once you're in the chair you get such an adrenalin rush. Even the best of the best begin to shake. Backing down. It's crazy. In St. Thomas, its easy to get water in the cockpit up to your knees."
Austin has learned to dress for the occasion, especially in St. Thomas. "I use to wear sarongs. In Costa Rica, you can do that and not get wet," she says. "Not so in St. Thomas and the Bahamas. I finally got some rain shorts and a vest."
One of Austin's funniest fish stories happened in St. Thomas.
"It was last year's Boy Scout tournament," she tells. "It was the second day around noon and we were commenting that we hadn't seen a fish all day. Our observer jumped up, went in the cabin and brought out a vial of what she called 'Holy Water' from her bag. Well, she started spraying the boat all around us with this water and we thought it was pretty funny. But, five minutes later, Vince hooks up. Now, we weren't laughing, we thought it was pretty cool. But, I guess it wasn't enough water or didn't have enough strength or something, because after a two hour fight a shark got Vince's fish."
Austin would love to see more women get involved in sports fishing.
"Guys like having a women onboard because we listen. Guys don't. Guys think they know it all and they're set in their ways," Austin says. "When girls listen, it builds the guys up. It makes the guys look really good when we win."
She adds, "Sports fishing is all about so much more than fishing. It's about camaraderie, friends and traveling to beautiful places. If you have children, it's a sport that offers a chance to broaden their horizons, open new doors."
Photos - Dean Barns and Michele Renick