MADEIRA BEACH — The teenage boys didn't know what to do. They had hooked a monster catfish under the John's Pass Bridge, fought it to the beach, but then they had second thoughts about handling it once they saw the razor-sharp spines.
"I said, 'Give me that thing,' " Kristen Lollis recalled. "I grabbed it by the tail, ripped the hook out of its mouth and told them it's just a sailcat."
Lollis was only 6 or 7 years old at the time, but the incident taught her that girls can fish just as well as boys, sometimes even better.
"My father still loves telling that story," the 32-year-old mom from Pinellas Park said. "And my little girl is the same way."
Lollis, and her 7-year-old daughter, Kiana, known around the docks as "Scooter," are dedicated anglers.
"My father taught me how to fish, and I am teaching her how to fish," Lollis said. "It is how we spend our time together."
Lollis can't remember how old she was when she started fishing beneath the old John's Pass Bridge with her father.
"It seems like I was always there … running along those catwalks," she said. "That is what we did every night during the summer."
Lollis' husband, Eddie, works most evenings, so she grabs her girl and heads to the beach, where they catch bait and then fish for tarpon and snook until the sun sets.
"She is just a little mini-me," Lollis said. "We both have our own custom-made fishing poles, and on weekends, Scooter helps me at the bait shop where I work part time."
Lollis considers herself lucky because she has a father and a husband who both like to fish.
"I am a firm believer in that a woman can throw a cast net just as well as any man; we just look much cuter doing it," she joked. "But if you need a little help getting going, a group like the Old Salts is great place to get started."
The Old Salt Fishing Foundation counts hundreds of women among its membership, and it was one of the first groups in Florida to host a tournament just for women. Men can run the boat in the annual Old Salt Ladies Tournament, now in its 25th year, but only women can fight the fish.
"This is one of our biggest tournaments of the year," club president Tom Verdensky said. "It is also one of our most competitive."
Over the years, the Old Salt Fishing Foundation has developed a reputation as one of the most well-organized fishing clubs in Florida. The group traces its roots to 1971, when the Gulf Oceanographic Development Foundation began researching the Loop Current and deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
A variety of fishing expeditions were organized to investigate the current that begins off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and as a result, a descriptive name was given to the effort — Operation Loop Development (O.L.D.) and the Suncoast Angler's Loop Tournament (S.A.L.T.) — cementing a partnership between recreational anglers and the scientific community that continues to this day.
That original event, the Old Salt Loop Tournament, is still held each year, along with other crowd pleasers, such as the spring and fall King of the Beach tournaments, and of course, the legendary Ladies Tournament.
Lollis said she'd love to fish this year's event in her new boat, Hookin' Ain't Easy, but the Old Salts rely on volunteers to keep the tournaments going.
"Bet you Scooter could win it," she said. "She's got that little girl good luck. Maybe next year we'll all fish it … me, my mom, grandmom and Scooter. That would be something … four generations in one boat."
Until then, Lollis hopes more women will take their kids fishing.
"Get them outside, get them dirty," she said. "Pretty soon they'll be bleeding saltwater. And once it is in your veins, it is there forever."