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Fishing rods stretch into the Carolina blue sky like telescopic radio antennas as the 25-foot charter boat bobs in the gentle waves of Bogue Sound. Suddenly, one of the rods

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Fishing rods stretch into the Carolina blue sky like telescopic radio antennas as the 25-foot charter boat bobs in the gentle waves of Bogue Sound. Suddenly, one of the rods

Fishing rods stretch into the Carolina blue sky like telescopic radio antennas as the 25-foot charter boat bobs in the gentle waves of Bogue Sound. Suddenly, one of the rods bends against the breeze, its line as taut as a violin string. “Fish on!” Lesleigh Mausi yells as her teammate Tiana Ives Davis snatches the rod from its holder and begins moving the line, playing the Spanish mackerel at the other end just enough to give it a little hope. As the fish tries to swim away, Davis tightens her grip and slowly cranks the reel, lifting her rod higher with each tug, pulling the mackerel closer and closer to the boat.

“It’s like this delicate dance with the fish,” Gia Peebles, the team’s president, explains. “It’s, Who has the most will? If he’s running, you have to let him run, and when he’s tired, you reel him in.”

After several minutes of patience and determination, Davis swings her rod toward the stern and pulls the mackerel up onto the deck. As the fish flops around in desperation, she grabs it below its head and holds tight, blood trickling down her hands as she removes the hook from its mouth.

It’s the first catch of the day for the Ebony Anglers, an all-Black, all-female competitive fishing team made up of Peebles, Mausi, and Davis, as well as Bobbiette Glover and Glenda Turner. The Anglers, ranging in age from late 30s to early 50s, travel from their homes in the Triangle area to fishing spots like Morehead City as often as they can to practice and prepare for tournaments. The women are a rarity in an outdoor sport that’s long been the domain of mostly white men, and they’re working to change that image and to expose more people of color to the nautical lifestyle.

• • •

About an hour earlier, the Anglers had set out on the Intracoastal Waterway, cutting a striking silhouette with their Afro puffs, braids, Nubian knots, and curly tresses. They joined a battalion of other boats on the water, each keeping its distance from the others in what looked like the early stages of the board game Battleship. While country music drifted from a nearby craft, Mausi played the Nappy Roots’ hip-hop song “Good Day” on her phone, and all five sang along: “We’re gonna have a good day/And all my homies gonna ride today/And all these mommies look fly today/And all we wanna do is get by today …”

The Ebony Anglers formed in 2020 after Peebles and her husband, William, visited Morehead City during the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. That year, they watched as tournament boats backed into Big Rock Landing, anglers climbing out with their catches and waving to the spectators, who cheered and waved back. Peebles noticed that some of the anglers disembarking from the boats were women, but that none were Black women.

The Anglers travel from their homes in the Triangle area to fishing spots like Morehead City as often as they can to practice and prepare for tournaments. photograph by Charles Harris

An idea was born. Peebles began peppering her husband with questions about how to compete, and she made a mental checklist. She already had access to a boat — William owns a 26-foot Tidewater — so all she needed was a team. She pitched the idea first to Mausi, and they recruited Glover, Turner, and Davis. It wasn’t a hard sell. All of the women are competitive, and most had fished at some point in their lives with their fathers, uncles, or husbands. Besides, this was during the early part of the pandemic, when everybody’s social lives had been sidelined. They figured, Why not go fishing? “I’m always up for a new adventure,” Turner says.

Adventure is an understatement. Between juggling families and businesses back home, the women spent most of 2020 learning to become a team of competitive anglers. They researched tournaments, the types of fish they’d be pursuing, and the waters where they would compete. During their practices, they fought 10-foot swells, motion sickness, and fish that could weigh upward of 200 pounds. They were warriors. As Mausi says, “Life begins beyond the comfort zone — and all of this was beyond our comfort zone. We had to learn something brand new. Our lives have taken a completely different turn.”

Third-generation Capt. David Stone works the Morehead City waterfront, helming charter boats for private fishing groups as well as teams like the Ebony Anglers. photograph by Charles Harris

Part of building a successful team is hiring the right captain. When practicing for tournaments, the women use charter boats and rely on their captains to find the best spots for the fish they want to catch, and to provide the bait and equipment. When fishing out of Morehead City, the Anglers often hire Capt. David Stone, who’s at the helm today. He enjoys working with the Anglers because of their dedication. In the relatively short time that he’s been taking them out, he says, the Anglers have become serious about fishing, constantly prepping and improving their skills. They now compete in about four tournaments a year.

“They’ve come a long way,” Captain Stone says as he navigates the craft. “They’ve become excellent anglers when it comes to fighting the fish — knowing when they can reel and how they shouldn’t reel.”

The women also attend seminars on fishing, hold weekly virtual meetings, and share videos and articles with each other. “There’s a lot of things involved to be successful in fishing,” Peebles says. “You try to mitigate the factors. The more experience you have, the more successful you are.”

Time for a fish fry! The Anglers (from left: Mausi, Turner, Davis, Glover, and Peebles) lay out the day’s catch — 19 Spanish mackerel and bluefish, each weighing in at about one or two pounds. photograph by Charles Harris

A couple of years ago, while competing in the Keli Wagner Lady Angler Tournament, the women caught mahi-mahi and also snagged blackfin tuna for the first time. For the tournament’s costume contest, they wore boxing outfits and chose the theme “winner.” Turner came up with the idea for the theme to celebrate Davis, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent treatment that year. Tournament proceeds went to a local cancer center. “There was such a jubilant energy in the air, and it truly revealed where our faith as a team lies,” Mausi says. “We believe in the strength of each other.”

That strength was on full display during the Anglers’ first major competition, the 2020 Spanish Mackerel & Dolphin Fishing Tournament in Morehead City. That day, it took 45 minutes for the women to reel in their 48-pound prizewinning king mackerel. And even that fish gave a relatively small fight compared to the several hours it can take to reel in a marlin, which weigh an average of 200 to 400 pounds. “One beauty of fishing is that every day is different,” Peebles says.

• • •

During today’s outing, the women haven’t encountered any overly large or rambunctious fish, but their sense of teamwork shows as they bring in more than a dozen one- to two-pound Spanish mackerel and bluefish, and pack them into the boat’s cooler. One is the mackerel that Davis pulled in. With their catches, the women hope to inspire others to pursue fishing. After all, the Anglers didn’t start out knowing how to tussle with big, child-size fish. Their previous experiences involved smaller catches on lakes and ponds. Most of the women hadn’t fished since they were kids.

To that end, one of the Anglers’ biggest goals as a team is to teach children to enjoy the sport. Which is why they started Black Girls Fish and Black Boys Boat, a mentoring and leadership program aimed at exposing young people to the nautical life and the various career opportunities that it involves, from fishing to becoming boat captains. This year, through a partnership with the National Park Foundation, the Ebony Anglers will launch three camps for kids. “This partnership,” Glover says, “will enable us to reach more individuals from minority communities and share the joys of fishing, boating, and environmental stewardship.”

In 2020, the Anglers took first place in the King Mackerel division of the Carteret Community College Foundation’s Spanish Mackerel & Dolphin Fishing Tournament, reeling in this 48-pound trophy. Photography courtesy of EBONY ANGLERS

Captain Stone loves the flavor that the Anglers have brought to fishing. “It’s just awesome to see. This has been predominantly a male-dominated sport,” he says. “I enjoy fishing with them. They’re intense, and they get into it.”

In 2022, the Anglers picked up Wrangler as a sponsor, and the sportswear brand Columbia has sponsored events for their youth foundations. They’ve also received correspondences from people across the country. Some women have asked to join the Anglers, and others have started their own teams.

Local Realtor Linda Rike first heard about the Ebony Anglers in May 2021, when the women appeared together on the Today show. Rike sponsors both the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year, and its companion, the Keli Wagner Lady Angler contest. Now, she also backs the Anglers. “It just fit,” Rike says. “It was one of those things. They’re just nice, wonderful, friendly, warm people who are fishing.”

• • •

Back on the sound, Captain Stone has been trawling around Cape Lookout for the past couple of hours, searching for hot spots. He decelerates to five knots, trying to trick the fish into going for the slow-moving bait. The women chat about upcoming school plays and other family events, catching up on each other’s lives. The fish, meanwhile, seem to be onto the captain’s trickery and have stopped biting.

The Ebony Anglers don’t mind. Circling the island escorted by fish and birds has become meditative for them. After a while, they just sit quietly, lost in thought, staring into the horizon, where the blues of the ocean and sky merge. Captain Stone picks up speed and heads back to shore. The scent of salt water permeates the air. Dolphins and fish leap ahead of the boat while gulls caw and circle above.

Surrounded by so much natural beauty and serenity, it’s easy to understand why these women are drawn to the fishing life. Soon, they’ll be ashore, returning calls, checking emails, and easing back into their busy lives in the Triangle. But right now, in this moment on the water, they’re engrossed in the eternity of a good day.

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This story was published on May 29, 2023

Tonya Jameson

Tonya Jameson is a former Charlotte Observer reporter and columnist. She’s currently the senior manager of policy and community advocacy for the organization Leading on Opportunity.