Waltzing with Sailfish

By Stephanie Vatalaro

Aug 28, 2015

I wouldn’t call myself an avid angler, but I come from a long line of fishermen.

I wouldn’t call myself an avid angler, but I come from a long line of fishermen. In my family, fishing is a rite of passage. My legacy began on Lake Erie. I reeled in walleye there as a youngster and continued angling in the Florida Keys, where I grew up exploring the pristine waters and grass flats with my dad, a flats fishing guide.

Despite our differences, we always had a good time fishing together. But being a captain’s daughter comes with some pressure, too. I never want to let Dad down by missing the hook set, snapping my line or creating a bird’s nest. I suppose some of it’s just in my DNA. In 2002, I traveled with my parents to Quepos, Costa Rica, to catch Pacific sailfish. I was in the midst of a divorce, and this trip was meant to be a refreshing break. It turned out to be a new challenge. The first day, I caught two sailfish — good-sized ones — but halfway through reeling in each one, I had to sit in the boat’s fighting chair to complete the catch.


The captain and crew, however, had given me grief for using the chair. “Oh, c’mon,” they teased, “real anglers don’t need the fighting chair!” Typically, you pull up on the rod and lower it down as you reel in the slack - something I'd practiced my whole life. But I’d never fished for anything as big as me before, and my muscles clearly couldn’t keep up. Back muscles burning and aching with pain, I didn’t see any other option. Isn’t that what the fighting chair is for, after all?

Over dinner that night, however, my dad’s good friend (also a fishing captain) gave me what turned out to be winning advice that would keep me out of the chair: Walk backward instead of pulling up on the rod, and then walk forward while reeling in the slack, all the while keeping my body upright. It would be like a waltz, of sorts.


So when my alarm clock went off at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, I rolled out of bed, threw on my fishing shirt and met my parents and their friends for hot coffee, gallo pinto and fried plantains before boarding the 46-foot sportfisher that would take us 25 miles offshore. Intense heat and humidity filled the air, but the beauty of the setting overshadowed it, and I enjoyed watching the mountains disappear on the horizon as we rolled out to sea. Ticked off and determined, I was ready to try my new technique. I have to admit, it felt ridiculous to waltz with a fish but it worked. Standing up — armed with only a fishing belt and determination — I danced with a beautiful 120-pound Pacific sailfish.

At times, I thought the fish would yank me into the water. It took every bit of balance, strength and bottled-up emotion I had to pull it in. But as the mate grabbed the bill, unhooked the fish and released it to fight another day, I felt like were both getting a second chance. My renewed excitement for fishing eventually landed me a job recruiting newcomers to the sport. I now work to get people out on the help them understand that sometimes fishing about fishing at all. Often, it’s about connecting with your family and friends, being in nature and recharging. And sometimes it can be about even more.

Credit: USA TODAY Hunt & Fish magazine

Stephanie Vatalaro
Stephanie Vatalaro
Stephanie Vatalaro is vice president of communications for the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation and its Take Me Fishing and Vamos A Pescar campaigns where she works to recruit newcomers to recreational fishing and boating and increase awareness of aquatic conservation. Stephanie grew up in the Florida Keys as the daughter of a flats fishing guide. Outside of work, you can find her fishing and boating with her family on the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia.