Earlier this year at the 2019 Bisbee Black and Blue Billfish Tournament, Bill Boyce, a friend, noted angler, photographer and TV personality, introduced me to his friends on the team, Fishin’ Blues – Taj Mahal; his daughter Deva Mahal; Stephanie Choate, and her husband, E.J. Oppenheimer and Captain Mark Rayor, owner of the boat they were fishing on, the Vaquera.
During dinner, I discovered that Choate serves on the board of the conservation organization Wild Oceans, which has evolved over the past 45 years from the National Coalition for Marine Conservation under the direction of her father, Tim Choate, chairman.
Coincidentally, Yvonne and I had served as Interim Directors for NCMC-Pacific Region in the early ’80s, with the goal of recruiting an executive director to replace ourselves within 18 months. We searched, interviewed, and recommended our replacement, Carl Nettleton, who served until 1987.
Throughout the evening, Stephanie and I swapped endless fishing stories. It soon became apparent that she had accomplished a remarkable list of feats in the big game sportfishing arena that few women or men had matched. I realized as we talked that she would be a great candidate for our first “BD Fishing Chick of 2020.”
When Stephanie was seven, her father opened Fins N’ Feathers Lodge in Guatemala, where Pacific Fins is currently located.
When schedules permitted, Tim encouraged her to explore the sea of sailfish found off the west coast of Guatemala with him, and that’s where she learned to catch sails without assistance.
Her first fish was a milestone for them both, and the fish that followed underscored her tenacity and skill. She thrived on the competitiveness.
The numbers of sailfish she caught were incredible, and school holidays were always an adventure. She eventually managed to convince some of her girlfriends and their fathers to join them in the Father/Son Tournament he would host.
She and her father won the competition, and it is still her favorite trophy of the many that crowd her trophy case.
While attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Stephanie continued to return home on her school breaks and fish with her father.
It seemed as though every time they went fishing, magic would happen, from catching more than 10 sailfish in a day, to catching her first swordfish weighing 300+ pounds on a spinning rod, or to the time she won the first money tournament they entered together. Each time they shared something special! Those accomplishments created a strong bond that grew more formidable over the years.
Her passion for fishing motivated her dad to introduce her to the tournament circuit – leading to five years of non-stop fishing adventures.
They began with the International Light Tackle Tournament Association – angler-based tournaments with no monetary prizes. She noted that her father’s generation appreciated the importance of camaraderie and used the events to build personal relationships as well as relationships that would benefit the sport.
Stephanie was one of few women competing in the different venues of Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala. She met and fished with Nora Schofield, a pioneer in women’s sport fishing in Costa Rica. Schofield had schooled a few men on the art of catching fish over several decades. A true fishing legend, she became one of Stephanie’s heroes. Watching her catch a marlin at 85 years of age while wearing a neck brace and being assisted to the corner of the boat by her caretaker, yet NEVER allowing anyone to touch her rod was a sight Stephanie still vividly recalls.
Realizing that the more experience she had, the better she would become, she and her father fished tournaments in the Dominican Republic, Cat Cay Bahamas, St. Thomas, and anywhere they could charter a good enough boat with a good enough captain to keep up with the private yachts.
In 2013, she entered her first tournament without her father – the Blue Marlin World Cup championship.
A year later, in 2014, Choate won it – the Blue Marlin World Cup Championship – one of the biggest billfish tournaments in the world with a 656-pound blue marlin caught off Kona, Hawaii. She became only the second female World Cup winner, joining Sue Vermillion of Kona, who won the event in 1994 aboard the Kona charter boat Pacific Blue with a 654-pound marlin – weighing only two pounds less. This marked the beginning of an extraordinary year of fishing beyond her wildest dreams.
2014 highlights included:
• Learned to bait and switch in Cape Verde
• Cut a mate out of a bad wrap in the Azores on a 650+ blue marlin
• Filmed with Bill Boyce in Alaska catching salmon and halibut
• Caught a 1,018-pound (on 10/18) black marlin off the coast of Mozambique
At just 27 years old, she had only dreamed of catching a grander marlin in her lifetime.
Choate and friend, Andy Moyes traveled to South Africa in October to fish with Kevin Hodgson on his boat “Big Bob” off Mozambique, Africa.
“It dawned on us,” Choate recalled, “It was Oct. 18 or 10/18. The marlin weighed 1,018, and there was a triple eclipse that day.”
• She began her Billfish Royal Slam in Port Steven’s, Australia, with her first striped marlin. (In 2016, Choate achieved her goal and completed her Billfish Royal Slam – capturing nine of the world’s billfish species in just over a year.”)
Due to Tropical Cyclone Olwyn, the Gamex Tournament hosted by Exmouth Game Fishing Club was canceled. Although the tournament had decreased in size, they rescheduled it and renamed it “Happy Endings,” and Choate won the Tournament that year in Exmouth, Australia.
A massive “thank you” was sent out to the Exmouth Game Fishing Club as well as to all the supporting members and anglers for their ability to put together such a wonderful, “last-minute” tournament – the Happy Endings Tournament).
“It was well-run, good times, lots of boats, lots of laughs and lots of fish. Most importantly, it was a pleasure to fish with our clients, Tim Choate, Steph Choate, and Laurie Wright, all the three of you! We learnt a heap! We look forward to fishing with you again in the future, and we hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as we did. Our team managed to tag 24 billfish in eight days of tournament fishing. It was a great effort, and we’re stoked!” Captain Eddy Lawler observed.
• Road tripped down the East Coast to learn how to catch a white marlin in Ocean City, Virginia Beach, and Oregon inlet.
• Gilbert Keech Heavy Tackle Award
The Gilbert Keech Heavy Tackle (established in 2000) represents endowments to the IGFA from the Ocean City Light Tackle Club. The purpose of the Keech Award is to acknowledge the outstanding achievements of anglers and manufacturers in the fields of heavy and light tackle angling, respectively.
In addition to her tournament wins and historic record catches, Choate has released giant bluefin tuna, and in 2016, Choate completed her Billfish Royal Slam – capturing nine of the world’s billfish species in just over a year.
In 2016, Choate was able to win the Big Blue Challenge in the World Cup with not the heaviest fish, but the second-largest fish while being in the Calcutta. Miss Choate became only the second female World Cup winner.
Choate won the Bermuda triple crown and the Blue Marlin World Cup Big Blue Challenge.
Since it’s the first event in the Bermuda Triple Crown and runs concurrently with the World Cup Blue Marlin Tournament, the Bermuda Billfish Blast always draws an experienced fleet of big game anglers and crews from all over the world. That year’s event saw 30 teams with 158 anglers vying for the chance to kick off the Triple Crown with a win or at least a good showing for the events yet to come.
That year’s luck fell on Team Real Addiction with Capt. Cragin Curtis and angler Stephanie, who caught a 625-pound blue after a one-hour, 20-minute fight on the first day of fishing.
But it just kept getting better for this team as the three-day tournament progressed. On day one, she caught the big blue and a white; on day two, they added two blues and a white winning the day two release jackpot, and on day three, she finished strong with two more blues and a white marlin, winning another daily release jackpot! This incredible performance amounted to record-setting 3,225-points, sealing the victory for Real Addiction in the Bermuda Billfish Blast. The 625-pound blue held on to win the World Cup Big Blue Challenge Optional Jackpot for a collective $400,000 payday!
Few anglers have achieved in their lifetimes what Stephanie Osgood Choate has done in the past years.
She enjoys fishing on team Miss Britt with Captain Ray Rosher, a full-time offshore guide since 1980. He and his wife, Charmain, have spent many years competing in blue water tournaments in South Florida and several other countries.
He and Choate have fished together for many years and found fantastic synchronicity and respect for each other.
According to Rosher, “Stephanie is truly a unique angler. I have had the privilege of fishing with her in many places around the world; she is always engaged and maintains a positive attitude even during tough fishing days. That is such an inspiring attitude for the entire team!”
Stephanie acknowledged, “Wild Oceans has been a huge part of my life, and I’m so proud of the work we have done. Our programs emphasize conserving the ocean’s top predators – the great billfish, swordfish, tuna, and shark that are the lions, tigers, and wolves of the sea – while preserving healthy ocean food webs and critical habitats essential to the survival of all fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.”
“A lot of people think it’s ironic that I would “record” fish and purposely harvest a fish yet still be in conservation. The very few singular fish that I’ve been lucky enough to take could never compare to the mass destruction of fish populations due to over-fishing and outdated commercial fishing gear. Record fishing brings awareness to the sport and brings money into the industry allocated for conservation. Unregulated fisheries and outdated fishing gear are the real threat that I wish more people could see in the big picture, but unfortunately, we are all quick to judge what shows up on the internet. I encourage everyone in the fishing industry to investigate Wild Oceans and be a part of the solution if we still want the same fishing opportunities for our children in the future,” she ended.
Although Stephanie isn’t fishing as often as she would like while living in Oklahoma, she continues to travel to fish with EJ and her dad while spreading the word for Wild Oceans and conservation in any capacity she can while focusing on encouraging the younger generation.