Back in August I was home in Texas listening to a hunting and fishing show on the radio. This wasn’t by choice. It was 6 a.m. and my dad was driving me to the airport to fly back to Los Angeles, so it was his choice. He turned up the volume and said, half serious, “You’ll like this one. It’s a good show.” I was sleepy and skeptical, but I listened anyway.
The show was a bunch of dudes talking about fishing. I gathered that there was a problem with flounder. All that testosterone coming through the AM radio got me wondering how many women were into competitive fishing. Let’s be honest: when you think of sport fishing, you think of bass fishing, and when you think of bass fishing you think of dudes on TV wearing camo and droning on about lures. I wanted to know about the women. When I got home I started Googling, and that’s how I found Christiana Bradley.
Bradley was a single mom living in Virginia and working in the IT field when she first got into fishing. When she was 20 years old her brother needed a partner in a local fishing tournament so he asked her and she agreed, thinking it would just be a fun, one-time thing. Thanks to Bradley, they ended up winning their first two tournaments, and she never looked back. She made history this spring when she placed fourth in Lake Douglas, which is the best finish ever made by a woman in a co-ed Bassmaster event. She took the time to talk about her passion for fishing, what it’s like being one of the few women in the sport, and how she messes with the dudes to gain their respect.
Were you skeptical when your brother asked you to compete in a bass fishing tournament? What was your first reaction?
It was, “Hell yeah! Definitely.” We won that first year and I guess he liked my competitive nature or whatever. We fished the next year together and we won, like, $3,000, which was a lot of money for me back then. From then on I was fishing tournaments. I just did what I could do, small tournaments here and there.
When did you decide to really go for it and enter bigger events?
It was 2004 and my now husband and I went to the Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburg, and at the Expo they had a kiosk for this new women’s tournament that was backed by ESPN that sounded pretty cool. We were talking to the ladies at the booth, and I had considered doing national women’s tournaments before but they were all in Oklahoma and Texas. I couldn’t justify the expense as a single mom. My fiancé and I discussed it, and I was going to just try one and see. He went with me and I pretty much had an awesome time doing it. That’s when I decided to go for it, because I don’t like to do anything halfway. I had a full-time job but I was able to use paid vacations to go compete. The first year I got a check for coming in 12th place, with was pretty sweet.
I read that there are more women excelling at the sport, but The Women’s Bassmaster tour was cancelled in 2010 because they couldn’t find a sponsor. Did you and the other women competing come up against any resistance from the men in the sport? What was that dynamic like?
Every step of the way we felt like we were not getting the prime opportunity to show that women could do it as well as men. It was difficult for us, but places like ESPN were trying to really help us succeed. It was just an old-school mentality. The real resistance was when the women’s tournament ended and I started competing against the guys. I got a real sense that the majority of the guys ignored me and just pretended I didn’t exist. It hindered my confidence a bit. The guys hung out and helped each other and networked and I didn’t have any of that. It took me some time to gain respect, which I feel like I have these last two years being able to compete with them and hang with them.
What about the camaraderie among the women? Is it friendly competition, or no?
A lot of the women who have been doing this for years seem a little guarded and they don’t make friends easily. I’m cool with being a loner but I met my best friend through this and we’ve become tight. Over time we started seeing more camaraderie. Now we want to see each other doing well.
You made history this spring when you placed fourth in Lake Douglas, which is the best finish ever made by a woman in a co-ed Bassmaster event. That must have felt pretty good.
I tell you what it was the most important point in my career so far. It sounds cheesy to say that. I gained so much respect in that one event from my male competitors.
Have any women approached you and told you they’re getting into the sport because of you? Do you hear from fans at all?
I’ve had a lot of women tell me they decided to pursue it because of people like me and that it inspires them. When I walk on stage sometimes there are a handful of women clapping and supporting me and that is awesome—they are encouraged by me and they also encourage me.
What are your best bass fishing moments so far?
Two things. One was when my husband proposed to me. We were just fishing for fun and doing nothing, and I didn’t expect it. That was the most memorable thing on the water. Another epic moment was when I was sitting on the stage at this last tournament where I finished fourth place. They have this thing called the “hot seat.” I was in 11th place going into the third day. By the end I sat in the hot seat with six or seven anglers and it meant that I had done so much better than how I started out. Chris Lane, one of the best anglers in the world [Note: he’s an elite pro who has made over a million bucks off bass fishing], came over to me and shook my hand and said “great job.” That to me was an epic moment. I know that sounds trivial but that was the best.
Doesn’t sound trivial at all, it sounds awesome. Can you talk a little bit about your gear?
I have a 20' Bass Cat boat with a 250-hp mercury outboard, which runs 80mph. This helps me get to my fishing spots first. Time is of the essence in tournaments. I usually have between four and 12 fishing rods on the deck of my boat. The rods and reels vary in size and features to accommodate various fishing techniques. I always hope to narrow down to two or three techniques before the tournament starts. As far as what I wear, I have a North Face waterproof suit rated for subzero temperatures that gets a lot of use! We fish regardless of the conditions, so you need quality cold and rain gear. I also wear a buff, which is like a stretchy tubular scarf that covers my face and neck up to my eyes, and sun gloves and a long sleeve shirt (even when it's over 100 degrees) to protect me from sun and wind damage. No sunblock lasts more than 20 minutes when you're on the water.
I figured out that an “angler” is a fisherman, but what are some bass fishing terms we should know? I feel like every sport has its lingo that people outside the sport would scratch their heads at.
My sister always makes fun of me. She’s like this Barbie doll and she makes fun of me because I say, “I love flipping pads.” She’s always like, “What the hell is flipping pads?”
What the hell is “flipping pads”?
It’s a technique where you’re taking your lure and popping it close to the boat into a patch of lily pads. Sometimes my plan for the day is just to go flip pads.
Good to know. By the way, does anyone say “bass fisherwoman”? Does “bass fisherman” ever bother you?
No, I’ve never heard fisherwoman. It would sound kind of weird.
I guess that’s true. What are some perceptions about bass fishing that you think most people get wrong?
People outside the fishing industry will sometimes ask, “Isn’t fishing all about luck?” It’s interesting the questions you get.
The perception is that it’s not work. That it’s just about getting a six-pack of beer and sitting around. It’s very demanding physically, and you have to be extremely strong mentally, and you also have to be mechanically inclined. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to change a tire on the side of the road or resolve electrical issues. And if you don’t have confidence, forget it. It’s definitely a mind game. If you go to your spot and you don’t get a bite you can get screwed over mentally really quick so you have to be able to adapt. It’s not like we’re just kicking back in a chair with our bobber in the water. We’re moving.
If you hadn't gotten into bass fishing, what else do you think you would be doing with that extra time? Did you have any other passions before this?
I was really into photography. I probably would have pursued that. I’ve always wanted to find a way to become self sufficient so I didn't have to have a full-time job. I would have probably started a business of some kind, like freelance photographer or something along those lines.
What other challenges do you face out on the boat or at tournaments? What are some obstacles that outsiders might not think about?
Peeing. One hundred percent of the time I get paired with a guy for tournaments. It's usually a stranger. Most of them wonder how I will pee. Almost none of them bring it up. Sometimes I mess with them while we're waiting to launch and I tell them I go in the livewell [Note: that’s basically a temporary “motel” for the fish to live in on the boat]. It's a good way to break the ice. If I think the guy might not appreciate that joke, I tell them something cliché, like that I will need them to remove the hooks from my fish because I don't like to touch them or something. When I first meet them, I ask them if they’re upset they got the girl. Invariably they say no, but sometimes I can tell that on some level they are. After I run to the first spot they usually comment on how well I drive or how fast the boat is. After the first hour or so it’s usually obvious that they know I’m just like one of the guys when it comes to fishing. It’s cool to watch that unfold.
Sometimes people who are in a sport or are pursuing any kind of passion become consumed by it. They're thinking about it all the time—while they're driving, in the shower, in their dreams. Does that happen to you? Do you have dreams about bass flying through the air?
That absolutely happens to me. I have caught myself setting the hook on a fish in my sleep. I am completely consumed by it. I have to drag myself off the water at the end of the day.
Last weekend Bradley entered a regional tournament. Out of 200 qualifying boats, she was the only woman out on the water. She finished in 4th place—the best finish for a female boater in a BassMaster weekend series regional championship.
Photos courtesy Christiana Bradley.
Dina Gachman is a Texan adrift in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Forbes, the LA Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Marketplace on NPR. She's on Twitter @TheElf26.