Long before fishing became fashionable with women, Barb Witherell was reeling in redfish in the bayous of her native Louisiana. Now a boat captain and fishing guide in South Carolina's lakes Marion and Moultrie, she's still playing in a field dominated by good ol' boys.
Nicknamed "Mouse" for her 4-foot, 11 ¾-inch stature, Witherell is the only full-time female fishing guide in Santee Cooper country. She turned her passion for fishing into a career in 1998 back when most anglers were men.
"I used to be a parts clerk at a motorcycle shop, so I've been in a man's world a long time," she said. "The other guides were skeptical, but the customers didn't have a problem with me being a woman."
When you're hauling in 10 to 25 fish a day-as many as 50 in the fall season-who's going to complain?
Her Santee Cajun Guide Service was doing so well, her husband Boudreaux joined the business in 2006. Between the two of them, they book about 240 trips a year. To date, they've only been skunked seven times.
"The fishing is great here," Witherell said. "It's the best catfish fishery in the country."
Known for its big fish, the Santee Cooper lake system is home to a wide variety of freshwater species, including stripers, crappie, largemouth bass, pickerel and bream. But it's the blue, flathead, white and channel catfish that draw so many fishermen to the reservoirs.
A typical catch in the spring weighs in between 15 and 20 pounds. In the winter, the fish get up to 40 pounds. For many anglers, the lakes provide the chance to haul in the largest freshwater fish they'll ever hook.
Lured by Santee Cooper's reputation, the Witherells began vacationing in the area in 1984. They moved to Lake Marion permanently 12 years later.
Mouse was just 2 years old when her grandfather first took her fishing in his pirogue in the bayous of Dry Prong.
"He would sit me on a coffee can between his legs," she said.
While her sisters were preoccupied with their hairdos and makeup, Mouse was helping her dad shrimp and catch catfish in hoop nets. When she started dating Boudreaux, the two were always doing something outdoors. They spent their honeymoon fishing and camping in Toledo Bend, La.
"There was a time in my life I worked in an office and wore business suits, heels and makeup," Witherell said. "I didn't like it much. I'd much rather be on the water."
Today, she holds a US Coast Guard master captain's license. Her office is a 25-foot pontoon boat equipped with an aluminum roof and removable enclosure she calls a "mouse house." The fabric and clear vinyl walls make it more comfortable to fish in the winter. The front deck holds 12 fishing rods, a bait tank and a 125-quart cooler. On the back deck is a portable restroom.
When she's running her own trip, she does everything but reel in the fish. In addition to driving the boat, she prepares the rods, cuts up the bait fish, baits the hooks, casts the rods, nets the catch and even cleans and filets the fish at no extra charge.
"Ten years ago, it was all macho guys who wanted to catch monster fish," said Witherell, a mother of three and grandmother of nine. "Now, we get a lot more families. It's more about having fun catching fish then reeling in a trophy."