Female Fishing Guides Of Destin Florida
There’s an old superstition that it’s bad luck to bring a woman on board a boat, but there are a couple of ladies making a splash in Destin, Florida, “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” Though women have been guiding fishing charters for decades, female captains still remain few and far between.
It takes a real trailblazer to do what they do.
What’s truly impressive, however, is the fact that Destin’s female charter captains aren’t just forging a path for themselves—they’re encouraging more people to get out on the water, both women and men. They’re also teaching anglers that it’s worth following your passion in life, no matter how long it takes you to get there. Though they may not see it yet, female fishing guides are bringing something special to the Destin sport fishing scene, and their customers are on to it. FishingBooker, a booking website for fishing charters, spoke to two successful female guides in Destin and asked them how they came to be where they are today.
The Women At The Helm
Meet Captain Gabrielle Mercado of Lady Luck Adventures LLC. Born and raised in Fort Walton Beach, she started fishing the nearshore wrecks with her father when she was about five years old. She continues to specialize in this aspect of Destin’s fishery, along with sight fishing the flats for redfish and speckled trout. She decided to become a fishing guide early in life and remembers the moment clearly:
“I was about 23, I was bartending at the time, I didn’t go to college, and I just kind of had one of those moments: ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ I heard a quote in a movie or something that said ‘Go back to your childhood, and whatever you loved doing the most in your childhood is more than likely your passion.’ And I thought about that and was like, ‘Well, fishing was my favorite thing to do growing up…Hey, that sounds like it would be an amazing career!’”
Capt. Gabrielle spent the next four years chasing her dream. After working in a fishing resort in Alaska for six weeks, she made her way to the Bahamas where she became a deckhand on a Navy ship. One year later, she was promoted to Second Mate and got her 100 Ton Master license. A little over a year after that, she moved back home and started her own business. Capt. Gabrielle has now been guiding charters full time for the past year.
For other women, pursuing a career in sportfishing comes later in life. Captain Elaine Rogers started guiding charters in Destin aboard Ruthless five years ago after retiring. Of course, her love of fishing goes back much farther than that, to her childhood in Biloxi, Missouri.
“I guess you could say I’ve been fishing since I was in diapers,” says Capt. Elaine, recalling fond memories aboard her father’s skiff. “He and my mom and my sister and I would get in the boat, and he would put a little cane pole in my hand and it had a little short line on it, and he would put little bait on it and let me fish while they were fishing.”
Capt. Elaine spent her early years fishing for bream, crappie, and bass. When she moved to Destin in 1975 and started fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, a whole new world opened up to her:
“Somebody took me out in the Gulf, here, and I was like ‘Okay, I’m hooked!’ because the fish that I caught in the bay and the bayous are almost the size of the bait that I use in the Gulf.”
After working at State Farm for 32 years, Capt. Elaine retired early and returned to her love of fishing full time. For her, the transition was seamless.
“Since I had my own boat for years and I fished when I was at home, after I retired I decided that I would get my captain’s license—I had the hours and everything to qualify,” she says. “So I went ahead and got my captain’s license and decided to hook up with FishingBooker to get my charters going, which has been awesome because I don’t have to do anything—they do it all. All I’ve got to do is take the people out and make them happy.”
Specializing in big fish and bigger smiles
For Capt. Elaine, guiding charters is all about passing on that feeling she had the first time she cast lines in the Gulf. She usually takes her customers up to 20 miles offshore, where there are plenty of massive bottom fish to be found. She recalls one of the highlights at the very start of her chartering, when a client dropped his line in a great spot and had the fight of his life:
“He dropped down and caught this huge snapper, and he was big—he was a coach, and he had big muscles and everything—and all of a sudden he goes ‘Oh my God, I feel like I’m pullin’ up a Volkswagen!’ After that I was like ‘I want people to hook into the big ones, so they can get a feel for it.’”
Likewise, Capt. Gabrielle loves nothing more than watching her customers hook into a big fish, especially one they’ve never caught before.
“Fishing in Destin is awesome because most people come down and they’ve only freshwater fished, they’ve only caught a couple bass,” she says. “So when they get hooked up to an amberjack—which is usually my favorite fish to watch people catch—it’s amazing ‘cause they are like ‘I had no idea these fish fought like this!’”
These ladies certainly have a knack for putting people on big, hard-fighting fish, but that’s not the only reason they get loads of bookings. For many of their customers, it’s about having a great first-time experience—and in some cases, they specifically choose to have that experience with a female captain.
Capt. Elaine notes, “The reason I think that I get the bookings that I get is because, number one, I’m a female, and a lot of them…like the fact that I’m female and I’m not going to go out there and make them feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. And also because, me being female, they feel more comfortable.”
Capt. Gabrielle sees a similar trend in her customer base. She says, “There’s definitely people who will not book with me because they see I’m a woman; but on the other side, there’s definitely people who book with me because I’m a woman. Families are one of them, families with kids, you know, they like that I kind of have a more nurturing effect on them, I guess … As a woman, I see the motherly tendencies.”
Both captains get a number of bookings from father and son duos, as well, whether they’re fishing for the first time or looking to brush up on some old skills.
Capt. Gabrielle notes, “I get guys, too, like a father and son, and they’ve never been fishing, they don’t know anything about fishing, you know, they feel more comfortable coming with me ‘cause they aren’t expecting me to have a lot of testosterone or to yell at them when they mess something up. And it’s more comforting for the guys who’ve never fished before to come with me—I’ve had a few people tell me that, as well.”
Capt. Elaine recalls a trip she guided last year, when a young boy managed to catch more fish than his father. She explains, “I always put the kids directly behind me so I can watch the tip of their rod … so I was telling this kid how to fish, and then the kid kept catching all the fish and finally the dad, he laid his rod down and he goes ‘Would you do me a favor? Would you change places with my son and you can do a remedial class with me?’ He said, ‘I think my son has the hang of it now.’”
Working with kids is Capt. Elaine’s favorite part of the job, which explains why she’s so good at teaching them how to fish. “If it’s a kid I suggest bottom fishing ‘cause they can actually drop it down and usually they get something, and seeing their face light up is just so cute,” she says. “During the winter I go through my pictures of kids that I took out and see their faces and it makes me excited to go back out again.”
“You’ve got to really love fishing to be in the man’s world”
Women like Capt. Elaine and Capt. Gabrielle prove that fishing is a woman’s sport as much as anybody’s. Making a place for themselves in the charter business hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. Guiding charters takes a great deal of strength and skill, whether one is navigating stormy seas or gender stereotypes. These difficulties tend to discourage women from fishing and guiding charters.
“I think there may be a lot of women out there who don’t feel comfortable on the water,” says Capt. Elaine. “It’s a big responsibility when you’re taking people out and a storm can come up…and it will go from one-foot seas to five-foot seas…and you’ve got families on board and you’ve got to get them into the pass and back to the dock, and it gets scary at times, it really does…You have to be up on the water to really appreciate it and respect it—that’s the key thing: you’ve got to respect the water.”
“I think it’s just history and, you know ‘Guys are supposed to fish and hunt’ and ‘Women are supposed to go shopping’ and I honestly think that’s the main thing,” says Capt. Gabrielle. “Other than that, it’s not an easy job, it’s very physical and you’re out in the sun for 12 hours and a lot of girls I know … don’t really like that too much.”
Physical challenges aside, female captains inevitably deal with stereotypes and misperceptions about women in the sport fishing world.
“When I pull up to a place and they see a guy on the boat, they think it’s his boat automatically and he’s like ‘Hey, I’m not the captain, she is!” says Capt. Elaine. “And anytime you have a career that you break into that’s not common for women, you know, people kind of look at you like ‘You’re the captain?’ ‘Yep, sure am!’”
“You’ve got to really love fishing to be in the man’s world,” adds Capt. Gabrielle. “You do get a little side-eye here and there but you do your job well and they can’t really say much.”
Overall, Capt. Gabrielle says she has found family, friends, and other guides in Destin to be very supportive. “I mean as a woman in a male’s industry, you always feel the need to go above and beyond to get the same level of respect as guys do, so that’s always kind of in the back of my head … but, you know, that’s just something that’s always kind of been inside me, working with guys my whole life. Other than that, there really hasn’t been any difficulties.”
When it comes to breaking down the social barriers of the sport fishing world, both captains consider one of the greatest barriers to be women’s own reluctance.
“A lot of women may feel like they don’t have the strength to do it, you know, they’re very reluctant, ‘Oh I’ll let my husband fish, I’ll just hang over here and watch,’” says Capt. Elaine. “And after a while I’m like ‘Come on, let me give you a rod, you can do it!’ and then once they start catching them, then they get all excited.”
Capt. Gabrielle promises women, “As soon as you catch your first fish, you’re going to be hooked. So catch the first one and the rest is history. Next, you’ll be asking to come out every weekend.”
While it takes just one catch for a woman to get hooked on sport fishing, the impact that women are making on the industry seems to be slowly building over time.
“At first I thought I was the only female captain here…now there’s a couple more,” remarks Capt. Elaine. “It’s like every other sport, you’re going to have some women who go out there and excel at it—it just depends on the woman, I guess.”
“I think that we can have an impact on the sportfishing world,” says Capt. Gabrielle, “and I think that it’s beginning—I think that it’s started now and it’s only going to grow from here.”
Having forged their way into a male dominated industry, captains like Elaine and Gabrielle know just how meaningful it is to have someone cheering you on—whether you’re casting lines for the first time or following your passion in life. And that is the real reason why fishing with these women is special: they pay it forward every day when they take their customers out on the water.
“If you have a dream, if you have a passion, go for it,” says Capt. Gabrielle. “If you love it that much and you don’t see there being a career out of it, I guarantee there’s a way to make one.”