Lucy in the Bow with Largemouths

You don't become one of the most winning women in fishing tournament history by acting like one of the guys.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Compared to some of the wide bodies on the professional bass circuit, Lucy Mize doesn't offer much billboard space for the money. In fact, if the 5-foot 3-inch Arkansas angler ever fell overboard without a personal flotation device during competition, the weight of waterlogged patches-by the likes of Citgo, Ranger, Strike King, Mercury, Owner, Raymarine, Quantum, MotorGuide, and Stren-would probably drag her under.

It's easy to be taken in by her diminutive size and impish sense of humor. She once coaxed fishing writer Paul Canada into the rod storage box on her boat during a tournament and showed up at the dock with him shouting, "Lucy! Let me out!" She deadpanned that he'd gotten on her nerves once too often and paid the price. She was so convincing that no other writers would go out with her for the rest of the tournament.

But underneath, Lucy Mize is a natural-born competitor. At 40, she is the highest-placing woman angler in BASS tournament history. She is a three-time Bass-N-Gal national champion and three-time Bass-N-Gal Angler of the Year (honors that netted her a total of six bass boats, worth about $150,000), and has multiple top-30 finishes in national tournaments. Her goal is to be the first woman to qualify for the BASS Masters Classic. Given her druthers, she'd fish with men instead of women. "For one thing, when you're the only woman in the tournament, your partner doesn't have any trouble finding you. For another-and I probably shouldn't say this-men don't spend much time talking about whose butt's gotten bigger since the last tournament."

Jay Yelas, a tournament angler who has known Lucy for years, says, "Lucy's the complete package: She's got charisma, a real talent for knowing where the fish are and what they'll bite, and a hell of a competitive instinct. I've fished with her in tournaments where she'll just bear down and not miss a cast all day. You don't find that kind of mental toughness in many anglers, man or woman."

Women on the Water
Lucy Mize and a few other women notwithstanding, professional bass fishing remains an overwhelmingly male pursuit. She says that the first thing every male angler (and fishing writer) wants to know is how a woman goes to the bathroom on a bass boat. Having fished with her for two days, I can tell you firsthand. The male angler continues fishing-and looking-off the front of the boat while she retreats to the cockpit, opens a life vest to form a little privacy fence in front of her knees, then hangs over the side of the boat while holding on to the seat back and the windshield. She says her husband, Jimmy, has boated some of his biggest fish at this moment. It's gotten to the point that if they're out together and he's not catching fish, he urges, "Drink, Lucy, drink."

The aphorism that women anglers feed to outdoor writers is that the fish don't care about the sex of the angler on the other end of the line. But you can bet that sponsors, who keep a weather eye on market studies, care big time. They know that the latest survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 2.5 million women fish for bass. They know that the National Sporting Goods Association says fishing is one of the fastest-growing sports among women, and that bass fishing, like NASCAR, markets itself as a family pastime. They know that Lucy Mize, a woman who mixes bona fide fishing skills with shrewd business sense and a 100-watt personality, is money in the bank-no matter how small her tournament shirt.

Work Hard, Fish Hard
Lucy got ambition early in life, growing up on a chicken farm in Lockesburg, Arkansas. "I was unplanned, an ¿¿¿uh-oh' child," she says. "My mother was 39 when I was born, and my oldest sister graduated from high school the same year. So it was mostly me and Mom and Daddy working the farm. My folks didn't believe in sleeping late. You got up at the crack of dawn and wt to work. If you wanted something, you had to find a way to get it."

The lesson and work ethic both stuck. In addition to fishing 150 days a year, Lucy has a full-time job running a tax-preparation business, is a volunteer firefighter and licensed fishing guide, and runs a cattle-and-hay farm with Jimmy and their children, Matt, 21, and Melinda, 19, in Ben Lomond, Arkansas.

Aside from going after bream in the farm pond, she didn't grow up fishing. That changed when she was a cheerleader in high school and spotted a handsome boy in the stands at a basketball game. She took the subtle approach, throwing a wadded-up paper Pepsi cup at his head to get his full attention. She was 15. Jimmy Mize, 6-foot-5, was 21. ("She lied and told me she was 17," Jimmy says over a family dinner at Pizza Hut. "I never!" she responds. "You are so full of it!") Their first date was a walk along a river to visit some friends who were camping out. By the end of the night, they were baiting trotlines and catching bullfrogs to eat. It wasn't long before Jimmy was introducing her to bass fishing.

"He handed me a baitcasting reel, gave me a quick lesson, and I threw out a floating crankbait," she says. A backlash ensued. "Untangle it," Jimmy explained. In the meantime, a 5-pound bass came up and smashed the bait. Lucy missed the fish but caught the fishing bug.

"The family joke is that Jimmy created a monster that day," she says. Topwaters remain her favorite lure.

She and Jimmy got married the year she turned 18. Jimmy had always fished tournaments. And it wasn't long before he began telling his wife that she was good enough to compete as a pro. Lucy first entered the now-defunct Bass-N-Gal circuit in 1985. She didn't do well initially, but he wouldn't let her get discouraged. "Stick with it," Jimmy told her. "You can do this."

She did. She won one Bass-N-Gal Classic on Lake Fork when a storm brought snow, 35-mile-per-hour winds and 4-foot swells. She managed to catch a single fish that day, an 8.1-pounder that was good enough to put her in the lead for keeps. She won another tournament on Georgia's Lake Seminole right after a hurricane swept through the area and temperatures plummeted from 80 to 23 degrees overnight. She got a reputation for being able to tough out bad weather and for being lucky. But after winning three titles, people decided there might be something other than luck involved.

At first she was shy about approaching sponsors. But she steeled herself, sent out her resume, and struck up some relationships. "Sponsorships are how you make your living in this business. The time factor is really not that demanding. Sponsors want someone who's well groomed and outgoing, but not boisterous. You can be the best angler in the world, but if you're not presentable, they're not going to want you. Or you can be a sorry fisherman and a good promoter and make a mint."

Jimmy, no slouch on the tournament trail himself, qualified for the BASS Masters Classic in 1998. But he makes too good a living at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill where he has worked for more than 20 years to throw over his job and fish full-time, at least until he decides to retire. So does he resent his wife's ability to go out and make a living at bass fishing while he's punching a clock? "Well, she's bought me a bass boat and a tractor off her tournament winnings. The money she brings in paid enough bills to let me start fishing my own tournaments. Heck, I'm proud she's doing it."

Silver Hearts and Loose Hooks
Lucy and I are fishing Millwood Lake, a 29,000-acre impoundment near Texarkana on a hot June day. I'm casting a white spinnerbait into weeds fronting a jungle of lily pads and nailing 2- and 3-pound bass every 20 minutes or so. Lucy is tossing a white Strike King Mr. Wiggly jerkbait. She casts it way back into the pads and teases it across them, dropping it into holes. "What you do when the lure's out of the water on that pad is just as important as when it's in the water," she says. "The bass hunt it by the noise it gives off up there, so you want to always be working it."

The thing is, I'm catching fish and she's not. Finally I can't stand it. "Lucy," I say. "What gives? Why are you sticking with that bait?" She casts out again, absolutely unperturbed, and twitches it.

"Three reasons," she says. "One, we already know we can catch 'em on a spinnerbait. Two, I figure the more fish you catch, the nicer you'll write me up in your story." She turns and gives me a killer grin. "And three, I'm stubborn. I want to see one bass come blow up on this thing before I switch lures."

Ten minutes later, a 3-pounder obliges, smashing the tar out of Mr. Wiggly. Lucy decides she's going to switch to a Carolina rig with a green pumpkinseed lizard. Only she can't find the bead that goes between sinker and swivel. She searches through the dozens of Plano boxes in various lockers before the lightbulb suddenly goes on. She drags her purse-a very ladylike number with silver hearts all over it-up from a compartment and begins rummaging through it. Out come bullet sinkers, jig skirts, loose No. 2/0 offset hooks, a tube of fishing glue, shear pins for a trolling motor, toothpicks to peg worm weights, and a packet of red glass beads.

"Aha," she says. "All the really important stuff I keep in my purse so I won't lose it. And I never worry about pickpockets. Anybody sticks a hand down there looking for money is liable to get hurt."

Lucy stows the purse, rigs up, and casts out.

"C'mon, fish," she says. it into holes. "What you do when the lure's out of the water on that pad is just as important as when it's in the water," she says. "The bass hunt it by the noise it gives off up there, so you want to always be working it."

The thing is, I'm catching fish and she's not. Finally I can't stand it. "Lucy," I say. "What gives? Why are you sticking with that bait?" She casts out again, absolutely unperturbed, and twitches it.

"Three reasons," she says. "One, we already know we can catch 'em on a spinnerbait. Two, I figure the more fish you catch, the nicer you'll write me up in your story." She turns and gives me a killer grin. "And three, I'm stubborn. I want to see one bass come blow up on this thing before I switch lures."

Ten minutes later, a 3-pounder obliges, smashing the tar out of Mr. Wiggly. Lucy decides she's going to switch to a Carolina rig with a green pumpkinseed lizard. Only she can't find the bead that goes between sinker and swivel. She searches through the dozens of Plano boxes in various lockers before the lightbulb suddenly goes on. She drags her purse-a very ladylike number with silver hearts all over it-up from a compartment and begins rummaging through it. Out come bullet sinkers, jig skirts, loose No. 2/0 offset hooks, a tube of fishing glue, shear pins for a trolling motor, toothpicks to peg worm weights, and a packet of red glass beads.

"Aha," she says. "All the really important stuff I keep in my purse so I won't lose it. And I never worry about pickpockets. Anybody sticks a hand down there looking for money is liable to get hurt."

Lucy stows the purse, rigs up, and casts out.

"C'mon, fish," she says.