Sunday, February 25, 2018

Bradenton high school senior Chasten Whitfield inspires young anglers

MADEIRA BEACH — The kids lined up single file, snow cones in hand, a procession of sweaty, excited grade schoolers watching Chasten Whitfield throw a cast net.

With her large white and pink boat as a backdrop, Whitfield beamed while chatting with the kids, posing for photos and tossing the mesh net onto the grass, over and over.

On this Saturday morning, more than 100 kids ages 3 to 15 had assembled along the seawall at R.O.C. Park, near the Madeira Beach Causeway, to compete in the second annual FishKids tournament.

For some at the low-stakes competition, Whitfield was the main attraction. She and her fishing team set up a tent on the park grass, then spent the morning hanging out with kids, demonstrating casting technique and how to tie knots.

"As a young angler herself, she's very inspirational to other kids," said Paul Fleming, the tournament founder. "To have her at an event that is solely designed for the purpose of teaching kids fishing, she's a no-brainer to have out here."

A 17-year-old senior at Manatee High in Bradenton, Whitfield competes in local fishing tournaments, makes TV appearances and maintains an active presence across several social media accounts.

Minus the sponsors and TV features, she seems like a typical teenager. She talks about social media obsessively and recounts drama at school. Her favorite subject is marine science. Plenty of other teens in the Tampa Bay area like Whitfield have big dreams about becoming professional fishermen.

What is less typical about Whitfield is the time she spends on the water with kids who have major diseases and illnesses.

The tradition started last year, when Whitfield went fishing with a then-5-year-old boy named Easton. From his wheelchair, Easton, who has spina bifida, reeled in snapper after snapper. Whitfield was immediately hooked.

"He ended up catching, I don't even know, like 17 snapper," said Kapi Whitfield, Chasten's mom. "And the first snapper he caught, we was doing doughnuts (in his wheelchair). When I saw the video of it, I just bawled like a baby."

Whitfield views fishing as an escape of sorts: She goes on her boat to think and de-stress. When Whitfield brings kids with her, she said, the objective is similar.

"That day, that four hours, or however long we're fishing, their issue is completely gone," Whitfield said. "They're normal, they're having fun, they're smiling, they're catching a bunch of fish.''

On this Saturday, many of the kids waiting to meet Whitfield were young girls who want to compete in tournaments, too. Some, including 9-year-old Cali Benson, watch Whitfield's YouTube videos of her fishing expeditions and tournaments. Others follow her on Instagram, where she posts daily to her more than 30,000 followers.

"Everyone in the fishing industry really pretty much knows Chasten," Fleming said. "The way she markets herself through Facebook and through the fishing community, I think pretty much every local angler here knows of her."

Whitfield said she no longer faces as much prejudice as she once did for being a girl in a male-dominated sport. But her path from the first fishing tournament in middle school, when she placed first in the ladies division of the local fire charity competition, has forced her to reckon with lingering gender bias.

It began after that first tournament, when Whitfield's classmates teased her for her fishing ambitions.

"They were saying, 'Oh, you're never going to make it in the fishing world, girls can't fish. You can't drive a boat, you can't touch a fish,' " she said.

That mocking evaporated as she kept placing in tournaments and became a household name among the local fishing community. But comments from older men still bother her, she said.

"I've been told, 'I love it when girls fish in their underwear,' while I was wearing a bathing suit," she said. "So I fish with long-sleeve shirts and shorts all the time."

That she still faces adversity for being a girl in a male-dominated sports frustrates Whitfield, who said she wants to be known for what she does, not what she looks like.

"It's kind of sad that some people think, it's a girl fishing, she must be half naked," Whitfield said. "No, we can actually fish with our clothes on. The fish don't know what we're wearing."

Kapi, Chasten's mom, said focusing on gender misses the point.

"It doesn't matter, you can be an NFL linebacker, and if you don't know how to finesse that fish, it'll keep fighting you," Kapi said. "It's not about whether it's fishing for girls or fishing for boys. It's technique. Anyone can catch a fish."

To illustrate her point, Kapi recalled when Chasten, at 15, reeled in a 178-pound tarpon, the world record for a girl at that age. But the record didn't count: Though she measured the fish's length and width and sent in photos to the International Game Fish Association, the catch wasn't official because Chasten released the tarpon without weighing it on a scale. (Weight can be calculated using the fish's measurements.)

Though not technically a professional fisherman yet — Whitfield can't get her captain's license until she's 18 — she hopes to one day host her own fishing show. As for her next move, she's "been looking at" Savannah College of Art and Design, which last year started separate men's and women's fishing teams.

Whitfield also has a backup plan.

"If all the fish disappear, I'm thinking about teaching," she said. "Maybe being like an elementary school teacher or something."

Kapi said she's trying to talk her daughter into teaching, but she is "not winning." Perhaps the best way to predict Whitfield's future, then, is to look at the quote on the front door of her house: "Work is for people who don't know how to fish."


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