The frothiest Battle of the Sexes this year was not staged for network television or fought in a federal court. It came, with fishing hooks bared, on a lake in northern Florida. At stake was something sacred to the South: bass fishing.
"It was a serious skirmish. People have been very angry with each other," says Barbara Wachter, a Tallahassee angler and president of the Talquin Hookers, a women's fishing club that started hollering last month when the Tallahassee Bass Association, an all-male club, voted to bar women from next spring's annual bass fishing tournament on Talquin Lake.
The organizers of the 6-year-old tournament, which offers as top prize a $3,000 boat and trailer, said the decision was prompted by a concern for privacy on the small bass boats because they have no toilets. There was also the matter of jealous wives to consider.
"We had men come up to officials at registration (last spring) and say that if they drew a woman for the next day, they wouldn't even show up," said association vice president Bobby Broome, who told the Associated Press that participation in last year's tournament dropped to 154 anglers from 186 the year before. He blamed that drop on the 14 women who competed.
"The men say the problem is bathrooms and wives, but I think it just made some of the men mad to get beaten by a woman," countered Wachter, 46, who owns a fishing camp on the Talquin and competes in the women's professional bass-fishing circuit.
Skirmishes between men and women over right of way in the great outdoors is hardly new. Look closely at the next prehistoric cave drawing you come across. The woman cooking the beast just slain by her noble hunter is probably frowning.
"Nothing can compare with the pitiful life of the hunter's widow. It's a sad story," writes Carol Lewis in the Covington Virginian newspaper. "We wives have to resort to dabbing beef jerky behind our ears, applying camouflage cream to our cheeks and sticking a couple of feathers in our hair to get even the slightest glance our way."
The wife's lament is a long standing tradition in outdoor literature.
"It's an all-out war: Decent, loving wives versus turkeys, grouse, squirrels and the rest of Bambi's friends," continues Lewis. "But just remember, Daniel Boone's wife suffered the same abuse. Of course, no one remembers her name."
Proof that the conflict cuts across social classes was visible in headlines such as "Rain Soaked Princess Blows Her Top" which were smeared across Britain's less conservative newspapers this fall. Princess Diana of Wales was apparently miffed that Prince Charles spent nearly every day of their recent vacation in the Scottish Highlands hunting deer.
"There has been terrible friction between the two of them. Diana was cooped up when all she wanted to do was get back to her friends in London," the Daily Express quoted a worker at the Balmoral estate as saying.
There have always been women who refused to let sexual stereotypes keep them from hunting and fishing. In recent years their numbers have increased dramatically.
There are now women working as captains of commercial skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay. Women like 33-year-old Jane Harding are working as goose guides on Maryland's Eastern Shore. There is money to be made and pleasure to be had in the woods and on the water, and women like Wachter see no reason to forfeit their share.
"I really didn't want to cause any trouble, I just wanted to fish," says Wachter, who was afraid if she and her club members let the Tallahassee men bar them from the tournament, it might encourage the same action at other tournaments where women have just begun competing during the last decade.
"It's important for us to fish with the men because they have been doing it so much longer and are so much more advanced than us," says Wachter, who was taught to fish by her husband. He still supports her efforts, as do most of the fishermen she has talked to, says Wachter.
This month the association reversed itself. Next spring women will be allowed to compete, but men who do not want to share a boat with women will be paired with male partners. No one is totally pleased with the compromise, but Wachter says that is to be expected.