Don't let the bikini fool you, Dr. Julie Ball means business when it comes to game fishing.
by Marty LeGrand
photographs by Tamzin B. Smith
Like most anglers, Dr. Julie Ball fishes for the joy of it. Unlike the rest of us, however, she's got a room full of trophies, plaques and certificates, plus a popular website and her own sexy fishing calendar. So on a sunny Friday last June when the Virginia Beach dentist set out with two buddies, she had in mind more than just a few hours of idle fishing. She meant business.
She had spooled her rods with line rated by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), exacting keeper of sportfishing's sacred records. The boat's captain, Rudy Lavasseur, was a master at sight-casting to big cobia, a tasty species reminiscent of sharks in both appearance and decidedly shark-like bad manners. Ball had chased them for
years, only to have potential record catches break off on buoys or bridge pilings. This time would be different.
About 30 minutes into their trip, perched in the tower of his 24-foot Triton, Lavasseur spotted a large cobia sunning itself. "Julie, this one is your record!" he shouted. Light-tackle fishing is one of Ball's strengths. Even so, this fight was a corker: 74 pounds of irate cobia tethered on 20-pound-test monofilament better suited to something smaller and less bronco-like.
The cobia ate her eel and headed for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Lavasseur pursued, heading it off. Using her spinning rod as a fragile leash, Ball guided the fish toward the boat, but as Lavasseur and angler Jason Legg prepared to gaff it, it sounded. Down, up. Up, down. Nearly two muscle-weary hours later, Ball finally reeled in the cobia, and, along with it, an IGFA world record--her 13th to date. It was her fifth citation-eligible catch in the 2010 Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament (she ended the year with 11; "a slow year," she says) and validated her status as one of the region's elite saltwater anglers.
She cradled the trophy cobia on her lap while the crew took documenting photos (one of which illustrates the month of July in this year's "Sportfishing with Dr. Julie Ball" wall calendar). To fans of "Dr. Julie," as she's known in cyberspace, the portraits are familiar: a gape-mouthed brute of a fish in the arms of a beaming, often bikini-wearing Ball.
A self-avowed "girly-girl" whose mom, a lifelong angler, taught her to fish, Ball has used inquisitiveness, uncommon focus and self-marketing to reach the upper echelons of a mainly male sport.
It was anything but bikini weather when I met Ball on another (mostly) sunny Friday six months later. It was not quite 8 a.m. The temperature was 28 degrees in a misty backwater of the Elizabeth River, where Captain David Hester was preparing to launch his 24-foot charterboat. Bundled like the rest of us in multiple layers of clothing, Ball held Hester's coffee cup while he stowed our gear and started an ice-glazed engine.
She seemed intent. Five foot six, with a round, youthful face and a girlishly high voice, the former Coast Guard and Navy dentist became a media celebrity after bursting onto the Tidewater sportfishing scene 15 years ago. She absorbed angling know-how and put it to impressive use in the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament, a yearlong tally of the Commonwealth's biggest catches. Now 43, she's an authority figure (an IGFA representative for the lower Bay) and a mentor who's already sizing up angling's next generation for potential torchbearers. Not that she's ready to retire her fighting belt.
Fifty-two weeks a year she writes an inshore-offshore fishing report for her website (www.drjball.com) and media outlets, including the Virginia Marine Resources Commission's online Saltwater Review. She blogs for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. Outdoors columnists chronicle her records. And she's gained national notoriety via websites like saltwatersportsman.com and outdoorlife.com, which post her instructional articles and accounts of her fishing exploits complete with photos revealing both fin and skin.
On angling message boards, she's the object of ardent male banter. "Julie . . . Julie . . . Julie . . . my kingdom for just one Julie!" posted one of the smitten. Her peers, meanwhile, focus on her fishing acumen. She's become a role model for women and young anglers, a reputation Ball has parlayed into a side career as a public speaker, private tutor and "pro staff" member for her sponsors.
She views herself as "goal-oriented" rather than competitive. (A relative once said of her, "Julie was born with direction.") A Floridian, she grew up in Pensacola, in a military family that loved to fish, and went to dental school at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her advanced angling education didn't begin until she moved here in 1993.
Though boatless at the time, Ball and her then husband joined the Virginia Beach Anglers Club. During a couples outing with a local charter captain and his wife, she caught a 15-pound black drum. Puny by citation standards, to her the fish was Hemingway-esque. It was a transformative moment.
Ball started piling up citation plaques. In 1996, her third Chesapeake season, she became the first woman to earn Expert Angler status (six different citation species in a year's time) in Virginia. She's repeated the feat annually ever since, qualifying her for the tournament's top billing, Master Angler, again the first of her gender so honored. This is a rare distinction awarded to those who accumulate 25 citations in at least five species (the challenge: only one citation per species per year counts), Master Anglers advance to higher levels in increments of 25 citations. Having smashed the glass ceiling, Ball is raising the roof, becoming the first angler--male or female--to reach Master levels VI and, last year, VII, by accumulating over 175 citations. (Only two species have eluded her: pompano and bigeye tuna.)
She's toppled world records too, including IGFA women's light-tackle honors for tautog, spadefish, black sea bass and cobia. She once held the all-tackle world record for an 18-pound 11-ounce blueline tilefish she caught "deep dropping" offshore. She's received the International Women's Fishing Association's prestigious Ginny Sherwood Award so often--three years running--that by IWFA rules she's no longer eligible.
Now in civilian dental practice, Ball brightens smiles and plugs cavities Monday through Thursday, leaving Fridays and weekends free for fishing. Her boat, a tournament-style 31-foot Cape Horn--"basically a tank," she says--pushes blue water as well as it handles the Bay. It was being overhauled late last year, however, so she asked Hester, a member of the angling intelligentsia she debriefs for her weekly reports, to take us out. He is her speckled trout guru, this stocky native North Carolinian, a surgeon's assistant from Virginia Beach whom Ball met at a fishing seminar. "He is one of the best speck anglers," Ball says. "That's what I do, learn from the best!"
In a wool cap, goggles and a balaclava, Hester looked ready for ice fishing as we got under way. Ball, hatless, stood beside him, her trademark ponytail gathered on the back of her head. An occasional model for her sponsors' gear, she wore stretchy thermal pants tucked into ankle boots, a waterproof pullover and her favorite sunglasses. Ball is a stickler for demonstrating that women can be both feminine and serious about fishing. She doesn't do tomboy.
She began fishing as a toddler, accompanying her mother and two younger siblings to piers around Pensacola. By grade school, she could filet dinner. As a teenager, she visited beaches--to surf-fish, not to sunbathe. Although she doesn't have kids of her own, she worries about a generation more hooked on Wii than weekend fishing with mom and dad.
"I just don't think it's healthy," she told me as we headed for our first stop. "Kids are smart. But if they don't appreciate what's around them they're not gonna want to preserve it in the future." When her buddy Jason Legg brought his 6-year-old son along on a cobia trip last summer, Ball made sure the youngster (who caught a 17-pounder) felt welcome. "It just reminds me that that's what it's all about," she said.
Hester slowed the boat beneath the raucous high-rise bridge carrying I-64 over the Elizabeth River. There's a power plant nearby that discharges into an inlet locals call the Hot Ditch, prime speck territory this time of year. The river, however, wasn't even tepid. We moved on.
As the traffic noise receded, smoke stacks and steel cranes along the shore gave way to peaceful pine forest. A bald eagle rose slowly and flapped away as we made for a small woodsy cove. It held two boats, a skiff with two bait fishermen and a forlorn beached sailboat. "I know there's fish in here," Hester said, "but I don't think they're gonna bite until it warms up a few degrees." A party place in summer, the tannin-stained cove, its water the color of root beer, was eerily quiet.
Ball told me she used to walk a mile down here to fish from shore. "I had my little cart and I'd pull it all the way down and I didn't care. I was really happy." Often she worried friends by lingering until dusk. "One time I was packing up because it was getting dark and all of a sudden I heard something. I looked and I thought there was somebody there." The intruder turned out to be a heron. "Scared me to death," she said.
Stealthy shorebirds aside, Ball is not easily intimidated--certainly not by gender obstacles. As a military dentist she served aboard two aircraft carriers (the Nimitz and the Harry S. Truman) and a sub tender. As a nouveau Bay angler, she earned the respect of male colleagues despite stumbling initially.
"In the very beginning I had a lot of problems. First of all I didn't have any credibility," she said. "You have to build a reputation. You have to prove yourself. Being a woman made it a lot harder. People just don't think women know how to fish." With a sigh, she recited perceived female fishing deficiencies: "They're not tough; don't come out when it's cold or it's rainy; can't handle a boat; they don't know how to tie a knot. The harder thing was getting past that and proving that I could do it too."
Seeking experience and sportfishing cred, she served as a mate aboard charterboats, worked in a tackle shop and befriended prominent anglers, who offered counsel and a hand up. "Once I earned respect and made a name for myself, it was easier for people to take me seriously," she said. "Now it's not a problem."
Her mentors included the late James Wright, a record-setting angler whom she succeeded (with his blessing) as IGFA representative. "I was really honored," she said, viewing the post as an opportunity to encourage fellow anglers. Sometimes under peculiar circumstances. She once documented a record-breaking--albeit slightly desiccated--catfish a week after its demise because the angler couldn't locate an IGFA-approved scale in all of Richmond.
Ball had distaff mentors too, including two female fishing legends, the late Gene DuVal of Virginia and Marsha Bierman of Florida, a world-renowned billfish angler whom Ball chanced to meet at a banquet. The two sat together, talking fishing and the perils of celebrity. "She taught me not to sell myself short," Ball said.
Ball's arsenal of angling inspiration and marketing includes what her website touts as "America's most anticipated lady sportfishing calendar." She dismisses the notion it's a swimsuit calendar. "It's whatever I'm fishing in," she says of her attire. "One of my buddies talked me into it. All of a sudden it really took off."
The images reflect the range of her inshore and offshore catches: tilefish, tautog (a specialty), spadefish, black drum, flounder, amberjack, bluefish, sea bass, sheepshead and this year's cover fish, cobia. In addition to her light-tackle record, Ball caught an 82-pound cobia last year, fighting it on a stripped drag to boot.
And rockfish? She's ambivalent about the Bay's most popular game fish. "I like catching stripers, but to be honest with you, just to go out and catch stripers in general. . . . " She paused. "People are offended if I say [rockfish] are stupid, but they are."
While Ball patiently fielded questions, Hester flicked jerk baits. By noon, the trout began to bite. "Julie, this is a good one here!" he said, handing her a quivering lightweight Loomis rod. She played the fish and reeled it in. Once Hester had carefully removed his "secret" lure, the 20-incher was photographed and released.
"It's awesome in here today. We're gonna whack 'em!" he said. He nodded toward the baitfishing bobber twins. "Guys in that boat are wondering where I got these fishing lures. I call 'em trout crack!" As we explored the cove, another boat joined the action. One of its occupants shouted a friendly greeting. "What are you doing out here, Miss Julie?"
"I'm trying to catch some fish. You know how that goes," she said. "Got some live bait out there?" Engine noise drowned out his reply.
"I have no idea who that is," she confided. "Happens all the time."
I asked about the overly familiar male commentary she receives online. "You mean the sexy stuff?" she said. "It's just something you kind of get used to. I joined the men's club. I'm around men all the time. There are so many other things you could get bothered by." She considers the does-the-doctor-make-house-calls-nudge-nudge-wink-wink jokes complimentary. "They're not negative about what I do. If they are," she said, "I usually just ignore it." (Female fans sometimes come to her defense. "U boys need to get a damn life!" one replied to message board suggestions that the big fish in Ball's photo galleries were obscuring her physical assets.)
She's not patient with message boarders who impugn her integrity. She was cyber-slammed after denying an IGFA junior record on a technicality (she had to, she says) and has had her ethics questioned. Ball admits to some poor judgment and misplaced personal trust--exposing her in one instance to an ethics inquiry (which cleared her)--but denies any wrongdoing. She blames envy, not sexism, for the sniping. "I was in the spotlight a lot," she said. "I didn't pay any attention to it. Then I realized I couldn't . . . how do I put it? . . . somehow I was held to a higher standard. David is finding the same thing [as a charter captain]," she said of Hester. "We can't screw up."
Overall, feedback is positive, sometimes touchingly so. A new father called her an inspiration for the infant daughter he hopes will one day be his fishing companion. And if anyone knows the power of parental influence it's Ball, whose first mentor was her mother. "I'm a mini me of my mom. She's awesome," Ball told me. Sharon Sheely, a retired real estate agent, lives in Pensacola. Mother and daughter remain exceptionally close, talking at minimum several times a week and fishing together whenever Sheely and her husband (Ball's stepfather) travel to Virginia. On one outing aboard Ball's boat, Sheely told me, she caught a 9-pound tautog then watched her daughter hook a 15-pounder on undersized tackle. "It's like she was using a feather for a reel and rod," said Sheely.
Seven years ago, Sheely was present when Ball caught the biggest tautog ever landed by a woman: 22 pounds, 9 ounces. Replicated in fiberglass, Bubba (as a friend dubbed the fish) holds an honored spot in her home office, which Ball dryly calls her "I-Love-Me Room." When she gives tautog seminars at angling clubs and fishing shows, Bubba is show-and-tell.
Ball may terrorize tautogs, but these trout . . . not so much. Hester was pulling in more. "Hey, I've just got the mojo today," he needled. "What can I say?" Ball consoled herself with a handful of dental no-no's, Sour Patch Kids, her favorite snack (along with Gummi Bears).
The record cobia last summer had been a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing 2010, she said. She was adjusting to a new job. Her divorce was finalized. "My boyfriend and I just broke up," she said of her relationship with a local head boat captain. She sold her house in favor of a condo she shares with her cat, Minxy. Amid the personal turmoil, she cut back on fishing. (Things would get bizarrely worse. On her boat's first post-overhaul fishing trip Dec. 31, the starboard engine malfunctioned while Ball and crew fished an offshore wreck. They pulled it up and discovered it lacked a key component--the prop.)
In the cove, the specks stopped biting by mid-afternoon, so we headed back. Ball posed in the cockpit with the catch of the day, a beautiful 7-pound trout whose belly shone as pearly white as its captor's polished nails. Not a Bubba, but certainly citation-worthy. When Dr. Julie goes fishing that's what happens; (sorry . . . can't help this) the dentist does build up plaques.
"Sportfishing with Dr. Julie Ball" calendars can be ordered on her website (www.drjball.com) beginning in November for the ensuing year. Captain David Hester's Fishy Business Charters (757-816-6375) targets several species, including rockfish.