WIMAUMA — Judy Israel never intended to be a pioneer for women in the business world or the pro bass fishing tour.
But as those roles developed during her life, she was more than prepared to carry the torch for women carving a niche in male-dominated domains. That included taking all the slings and arrows that accompanied being a lone female fighting society's stereotypes.
Israel ran her own security and alarm business in the 1970s. While attending a convention in New York to buy equipment, where she was the only woman, Israel was told, 'We don't talk to secretaries,' by several male buyers. Undaunted, she forged a successful business for nine years before her son and son-in-law took it over.
Flash forward to the mid 1990s, when Israel was paired with a male angler at her second professional bass fishing tournament. When the man refused to fish with Israel, she told the director and the man was promptly expelled from the tournament.
The story is more improbable when one considers Israel was a 50-year-old grandmother living in the Bronx, N.Y., with no thought about what was jumping in the lake. After a career in elementary education, she had done well running the security business. She and her husband, Abbie, were contemplating retirement.
Little did she know that a business trip her husband took to Florida would change the course of her life.
With time on his hands, Abbie went bass fishing with a guide on Lake Okeechobee in 1980, which Israel calls the bass fishing capital of the United States.
"He enjoyed it so much — the peacefulness, the nature — and finally on vacation in Florida one year I tried it and I loved everything about it," said Israel, who fished for flounder in the Hamptons with her father while growing up.
The Israels retired to Clewiston, which sits on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, in the mid 1990s and she soon joined the Wal-Mart FLW Pro Bass Fishing Tour. The tour is named after Forrest L. Woods, the founder of Ranger boats.
"The only reason you retire to Clewiston is to bass fish or work for U.S. Sugar," Israel said.
Israel couldn't learn enough about her new avocation, reading about equipment, spawning patterns of fish, preferred bait and water conditions — anything to give her an edge. Then there were the countless hours spent on the water perfecting her casting.
"I didn't know there were so many things to learn about fishing," Israel said. "All these things I learned on the job during tournaments. The first tournament in 1996, I was so nervous. The only thing I could do was put a worm at the end of the hook. I could feel the fish tugging at my line, but I couldn't set the hook. I froze and didn't catch any fish."
She relaxed the next day and caught enough fish to cash a check. She's been reeling them in since.
Israel is the leading female money winner in tour history, earning more than $100,000. She ranks as the second woman ever to earn a top-10 finish on the FLW Tour and the first woman to earn a victory.
She finished eighth in the 2005 FLW Tour Co-angler of the Year points standings and second in 2006.
Proving her consistency, Israel has produced at least one top-10 tournament finish in each season since 1999.
Israel said the only thing that separates her from the men is casting distance. To counter that, she uses a longer pole that provides more whip.
Fellow angler Mike Surman has known Israel since they met at the Clewiston marina 15 years ago. Israel, he said, constantly picked his brain about bass fishing. But he still had doubts about her succeeding on tour.
"She was a grandmother and started late," said Surman, who won the first FLW tournament in 1996 and has earned more than $750,000 in regional and national tournaments. "Most good bass fishermen learned since the time they were a kid and by being on the water a lot. I didn't feel she'd have enough time on the water to succeed. But she has the determination of any great athlete. She wanted to be one of the great bass fishermen. She wanted to know every little detail about why they were or weren't biting."
For Israel, it's also about out-thinking the fish — a passion she said is as strong as ever at age 63.
"If I go out fishing 12 hours today, I want to go out 14 tomorrow," Israel said on a sunny Saturday morning fishing on Lake Manatee. "Here, it's me against the fish. If I don't do it right, I don't catch the fish."
She speaks locally and travels the country on behalf of her sponsor, BP, talking to Boys & Girls Clubs of America teaching youngsters how to fish.
"It gives them the love of the environment and the love of fishing," said Israel, who moved to Wimauma nine months ago.
With only a handful of women on the tour among 400 anglers, Israel is still used to swimming against the tide. However, the sport has also given her a platform to encourage women to achieve whatever they desire.
"I'm so proud to help women get involved in bass fishing," Israel said. "I tell my granddaughter, Alex, who's 15, and other young women that there's nothing holding them back today. The opportunities are there to pursue whatever they want."