The charter dock at Los Sueños Marina, on the central Pacific coast, is probably like most charter docks. It’s a place where fishermen gather to work, compete and joke around. It’s fun to hang out at the end of the day, have a beer and listen to the fish stories.
A few women work around the docks, and there are more women anglers every year. But, for the most part, the charter dock is a guy’s hangout: fish talk, cold beers, laughing, joking, bravado and mischief – men in all our glory.
So, I was surprised when Jeremy Trujillo, captain of the charter boat R&J, told me he had a new mate on his boat, and she was a woman. A couple of women have worked on boats here in the past, but almost all were hostesses rather than fishermen.
Being a mate is a physically demanding job. The hours are long, the hot sun is brutal and you handle angry, 100-pound-plus fish every day. I wondered if she would be able to prep baits, set hooks, release fish and scrub decks for an entire season. I expected her role to be greeting customers, answering questions about Costa Rica, making sandwiches and getting drinks – more hostess than fisherman.
A few weeks later, I was invited by owner Rich Binkus to fish on the R&J. As I stepped on the boat, I greeted the captain and the crew, including Nedley, or Ned, as everyone calls her.Nedley, 32, is about five feet tall and 100 pounds dripping wet. Her hair is a sunwashed strawberry blonde, and her fair skin looks like it freckles more than it tans.
Nedley greeted me with a friendly smile and some pleasant conversation. After introductions and chitchat, she offered me a breakfast sandwich, immediately reinforcing my stereotype of her role on the boat – more hostess than fisherman.
As we started the 25-mile run out to the fishing grounds, the crew began to busy itself with getting things ready to fish. Lines needed to be checked, hooks rigged, teasers and lures readied and ballyhoo cleaned.
Ballyhoo are bait fish that come whole and frozen, about 12 inches in length. You have to prep them to be used for bait. First, you thaw them, and then you remove the eyeballs, usually with a knife or eyeball remover.
Then you slit the anal area and squeeze out all the guts, egg sacks and air sacs.
Nobody likes rigging ballyhoo, but Ned dug right in. She rigged a dozen, eyeballs, guts, slime, stink and all. She even taught me a new way to rig ballyhoo that I use to this day.
Once we reached the fishing grounds and started to troll, the crew put all the lines and baits out, and I had a chance to talk to Nedley.
Her real name is Danette Lane’e Cole, but she’s gone by Nedley since she was a kid.
Growing up in Bend, Oregon, her favorite pastimes included fishing and camping with her family. In college, she had jobs as a white-water rafting guide and snowmobile guide. Her love of the outdoors brought her to Costa Rica four years ago. She enjoys kiteboarding, surfing, kayaking and fishing.
I asked her how her first year on the charter dock has gone.
“I love it,” she replied, with a big smile. “It took the guys on the charter dock a little time to get used to me as a mate, but they are all very helpful.”
“Right rigger! Right rigger!” Trujillo yelled, as a sailfish came up into the spread of baits we had out behind the boat.
Everyone jumped into action. Teasers needed to come in, rods and reels needed to be moved. There was bumping, yelling, confusion and chaos.
One of the reels was screaming as the line came tight; a 100-pound sailfish rocketed out of the water right behind the boat and continued on its blistering run. A second later I looked over, and it was Nedley who, in all the commotion, stepped up to the transom, dropped her pitch bait back as the teaser came in and hooked up the fish, just as she has done about 100 times this season.
After releasing the sailfish, we put the baits back out and my conversation with Nedley continued. I asked her what her parents think of her job choice.
“They think I’m crazy,” she said, laughing. “Actually, my dad thinks it’s cool and brags to all his friends, but my mom worries and thinks the worst at times.”
Nedley told me the best part of her job is that she learns something new every day. The worst part is the hot tropical sun.
“Fish on! Fish on!” Trujillo yelled, as everyone jumped into action again. This time we caught a nice mahi-mahi, and Nedley was given the not-so-pleasurable task of cleaning and filleting the fish.
Watching her clean the fish from the bridge, I asked Trujillo if he makes her do all the dirty jobs. He grinned a little and said, “It’s the only way she will learn how to be a good mate and be taken seriously.”
He and Binkus agreed: “Ned will do any job that comes along, and she has a willingness to learn the fishing business.”
We ended our day on the R&J with eight sailfish releases and a big mahi-mahi for dinner.
The weather was great, the boat was nice, the crew was good, the beers were cold, and we caught fish. Having a woman working on the boat was a non-issue. She was good at the customer service part of her job and the fishing part of her job.
It’s estimated that a third of all anglers are women. Numerous Web sites are dedicated to women anglers, and fishing-equipment manufacturers are starting to design products exclusively for women. Many women fish out of Los Sueños Marina every season; I personally have helped dozens of women, age 8 to 70, catch their first sailfish.
Why are many of us still surprised that a woman is working on a sportfishing boat at Los Sueños? Why shouldn’t a woman work on a charter boat? Women are generally more patient, better teachers and better listeners than men, and all of these traits are necessary to be a charter-boat fisherman.
Michael Horn, a visitor from Texas who recently fished on the R&J, admitted to thinking that Nedley was the captain’s wife when he first got on the boat. But his opinion soon changed.
“She was awesome as a mate,” he said. “I have plenty of fishing experience but have never set my own hooks. Nedley showed me how.”
Aristotle Alafouzos of Costa Rica Dreams Sport Fishing sent some serious fishermen from New Jersey out on the R&J. The clients asked about the crew, and when Alafouzos mentioned there was a female mate, they had some second thoughts. He said their exact words were: “Are you kidding me?”
They fished several days on the R&J and in the end were impressed with Nedley as a mate, telling Alafouzos, “She did everything right.”
Nedley said she’s in the fishing business for the long haul and will be fishing on a charter boat next season. She’s studying for her captain’s license, she said, and wants to run her own boat within five years.
For now, Ned will probably have to prove herself every day to most customers who walk on the boat. She will probably have to continue proving herself to the guys she works with. She may even have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition and respect given to other fishermen.
But that’s OK, because fishermen are a tough breed, and Nedley is more fisherman than hostess.