Three Women Making History at the Masters International Angling Tournament

The Masters welcomes three tournament-ready anglers (from left): Molly Fleming, Laura Russell, and Karen Comstock.
The Masters welcomes three tournament-ready anglers (from left): Molly Fleming, Laura Russell, and Karen Comstock.

Sea Change

For the first time in the long, storied history of the world’s toughest, most two-fisted sportfishing event—the Masters International Angling Tournament—female anglers will participate. And they’re not just there for show.

John Rybovich Jr. knew boats. And he knew fishing. In fact, his was probably the biggest name in open-ocean sportfishing at the midpoint of the 20th century, unless, of course, you count Ernest Hemingway, a guy who in some ways was doing even more to promote and popularize the sport back in the day. But Rybovich wasn’t completely satisfied with the realm he so supremely dominated. And more to the point, he wasn’t completely satisfied with tournaments, especially of the sailfish variety.

As a builder of big, bodacious battlewagons, Rybovich knew well that an angler, even an unskilled angler, could enjoy remarkable fish-catching, trophy-winning success, if only he had the right boat under him and the right captain above. During most tournaments at the time, he felt, it was often the skipper who first sighted the fish, who told the angler when to strike, and who then maneuvered the boat with considerable expertise, essentially chasing the fish backwards, so the angler could reel it in with as little tension on the line as possible, thereby obviating chances of breaking the line and losing the fish.

The skipper of Pilar knew all of this, too. For Hemingway, most tournament fishing in the mid ’50s was a far cry from the lonely struggle he’d described in The Old Man and the Sea, the last novel to be published before his death. Real fishing, he felt, should be an equal contest, man versus beast.

Is there cool equipment at The Masters? Sure, but everyone fishes with the same 20-pound-test!
Is there cool equipment at The Masters? Sure, but everyone fishes with the same 20-pound-test!

Guys like Rybovich, who build boats and operate boatyards, often become friends with boat owners like Hemingway. Barnacles, after all, must be scraped periodically, and engines attended to now and again. So as the years went by, the two friends, each in his own way, became personally identified with a very new sort of tournament, one that would truly test an angler’s skill and character. Rybovich’s cherished Sailfish Club of Florida, a venerable Palm Beach establishment due north of the Rybovich yard on Lake Worth, hosted the event. And the winner received a cast bronze trophy depicting the struggle portrayed in Hemingway’s signature novel, along with (in later years) a distinctive blue jacket. No prize money was involved. There was no betting on the side and there was no “chamber of commerce stuff,” as one of Rybovich’s acquaintances colorfully put it.

Hemingway (left) signs a copy of The Old Man and the Sea for his friend John Rybovich at the Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home in Cuba.
Hemingway (left) signs a copy of The Old Man and the Sea for his friend John Rybovich at the Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home in Cuba.

Lawyers Who Fish?

Today, the International Masters Angling Tournament (informally known as “The Masters”) is held annually, and if you read its “Tournament Rules,” set forth in 10 pages of small print, two things become abundantly clear. One, you do not win this particular event based on the size of your bank account, the size of your boat, the acumen of your captain and crew, the brightness of your smile, or the angling skill of anyone else but yourself. And two, Rybovich, a very accomplished boatbuilder and fisherman, must have also been something of a legal beagle, or at least had a flock of legal beagles for fishing buddies.

The rules of the tourney remain absolutely airtight to this day. Anglers earn points for releasing sailfish based only on the time to release. Faster releases earn more points. After 10 minutes an angler gets no points at all. Moreover, once a fish is hooked, the boat must be shifted into neutral and only maneuvered to keep her transom facing the fish—no backdowns allowed. And anglers must share, fishing two to a cockpit, and they’re not allowed to compete from their own boats or in the presence of their own crews. And finally, anglers lose points for breaking a fish off, a critical stricture given that everyone fishes with the same gear, including circle hooks and relatively light, 20-pound-test line.

Stephen Sloan, writing in The Masters 1986—25th Anniversary, an insider’s take on the challenges of the tournament, synopsized: “Do it without the help of the boat, without help of a barb, and then do it all within 10 minutes or get nothing for your efforts. Do this all day for four days, sometimes in huge seas, and if you do better than anyone else, step up for your winning jacket.”

A Man’s World

Some 30 years ago, a woman almost fished The Masters. Her name is Marsha Bierman, and when her chance came, she was already chalking up sportfishing records, winning tournaments, and pioneering an entirely new method of offshore fishing, “The Standup Short Rod Technique.” She and her husband, Lenny, used to fish on Sundays with their friend John Rybovich.

“Somebody’d dropped out or got sick or something,” says Bierman, “and John said to me, ‘Marsha, we need another angler, go get your gear—you’re gonna fish The Masters.’ So off I went and got all my stuff. But when I got back, John told me some of the members—I can’t remember who, it was so long ago—said women were not allowed. The Masters was men-only. John was sorry and I knew he really felt bad, but that was how it was back then.”

Today, of course, things are different. Generally speaking, there are fewer gender boundaries. Women work outside the home in large numbers, they serve in the military in front-line positions, they head up corporations, and, according to Janice Norman, the current secretary of The Masters, they are finally assuming their rightful roles as anglers in a competition deeply identified with two decidedly macho men who held sway during the last century.

“We put it to a vote this past January—do we allow women to fish the tournament?” says Norman, “and what we got back from the membership was about 75 percent in favor, with seven or eight abstaining, and fewer than 10 against. So this year, out of a total field of 22, we have three females fishing The Masters, the first female anglers ever.”

The Sailfish Club of Florida in Palm Beach was first to sponsor The Masters and John Rybovich was one of its more illustrious members.
The Sailfish Club of Florida in Palm Beach was first to sponsor The Masters and John Rybovich was one of its more illustrious members.

Molly, Karen, and Laura

All three women are experienced anglers. Molly Fleming of Palm Beach Shores, for example, has been fishing since childhood, is a member of the International Women’s Fishing Association, and owns and fishes a 54-foot Merritt called Fish Tails.

“Not to insult the men, of course—I’m honored that they’ve asked me,” she says, “but I think that some women can fish better—they have a lighter touch, and more finesse, which is especially important when you’re fishing light tackle.”

The other two women—Karen Comstock of Ft. Lauderdale and Laura Russell of Jupiter, Florida—feel equally honored but also equally confident. Comstock fishes internationally and regularly, as does Russell.

“It’s time something like this happened,” Russell says, “I know plenty of women who can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone. I think women should be fishing The Masters.”

John Rybovich would have probably agreed, or so says Keith Beaty, a member of the tournament’s board of directors.

“It’s funny,” Beaty says, “but I happened to be talking with Michael Rybovich the other day—you know, John’s nephew. And he said he was in favor of this thing. And what’s more, he said his Aunt Kay [John Rybovich’s widow] would be in favor, and his Uncle John … well, he’d have been in favor of it, too.”


This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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