For 37 years, the U.S. Atlantic Tuna Tournament has been a barrel-chested affair for fast boats, strong men and giant tuna. This year, however, a small woman and a large lawsuit hooked most of the headlines at the prestigious Rhode Island fishing competition.

In fact, when Charlie the Tuna met the Civil Rights Act this month, the biggest trophy was bagged before tournament anglers could wet a line.

The protagonist in this fish story is Deborah Houston, 29, of Warwick, R.I. Athletically, Houston says, she is "your basic everyday wimp."

Houston, a secretary, and her hus-band Stephen, who works as a fork-lift mechanic, spent $670 to register their boat and themselves in the three-day tournament held each year in the waters off Block Island. The Houstons planned their vacation around the event.

But the contest organizers rejected Deborah Houston's applica-tion. They said the tournament had been limited to men since it began in 1938 and the majority of the 42 fish-ing clubs that sponsor the tourna-ment voted to maintain that policy just last fall.

"We've been having an all-male tournament for the last 37 years," Harold Schaefer, a tournament of-ficial, told the Providence Journal. "They said let's keep it the way it is and that was it."

Schaefer was named in a sex-dis-crimination lawsuit filed by Charles Rogers, a Providence attorney and Deborah Houston's uncle.

"We named him just to give him some gas pains," said Rogers, who asked for $200,000 in punitive and compensatory damages for his niece and also sought a court order to halt the tournament.

On the day the case was to be heard in Rhode Island Superior Court, however, an attorney for the tournament announced that Hous-ton and any other eligible female members of a sponsoring club would be allowed to participate.

"We never realized that maybe women wanted to fish," said Pat De-Luca, a vice president of the tour-nament. But another official contra-dicted that statement when he told reporters that a woman had unsuc-cessfully attempted to enter the tournament a few years ago.

"I'm glad they came to their senses," said Houston, who immedi-ately dropped her suit. Rogers was asked if the decision by tournament officials to surrender had anything to do with the fact that a female judge was scheduled to hear the case. He just chuckled.

"I'm going to have to let you draw your own conclusion."

The Houston case was just the latest battle of the sexes to be fought in the sporting arena. Earlier this month, women golfers at the Robin Dale Country Club in Prince George's County won the right to tee off on weekends before 11 a.m. The club had previously set aside those hours for male members.

The argument that women do not have the strength or endurance to fight trophy-sized fish, besides being condescending, has been proven patently absurd. Two weeks ago at a fishing tournament in Ocean City, Md., a Catonsville woman, Helen Allen, boated a 389-pound white marlin.

If any more evidence was needed, Houston supplied it last week. While out fishing the day before the tour-nament began, Houston caught a giant tuna that weighed close to 600 pounds.

"It was like trying to reel in a transit bus while it was moving," said Houston, after fighting the fish for six hours. Houston said she was less intimidated by the fish than the fishermen she had to face when she finally registered for the tournament.

"I was petrified. My knees were shaking when I walked through the door," she said. When the decision to allow women anglers was announced at the captain's meeting, there were boos and hisses from some old-timers, Houston said. But there were just as many cheers.

As a result of the publicity, a group of women from New York also registered for the tournament, and that, said Houston, "made it all worthwhile."

Houston has been deep-sea fishing only for a few years. She became interested because her husband was disappearing too many weekends without her.

"He just kept coming home and telling me these fish stories," she said. "It was a do-or-die situation. You either learn to like it or the boat leaves without you. I learned to love it . . . Just like the fish, I came around to the bait."

What appealed to Houston were the same things that appealed to her husband, who supported her efforts to fish the tournament.

"It's a delicate and tricky art," she said. "One minute you're sitting there bored silly and the next minute the blood is just rushing through your veins. It is some kind of adrenaline flow."

Neither of the Houstons caught a tuna during the tournament. But they were not terribly disappointed. When asked what could have been fun about three days of not catching fish, Houston responded like an old salt.

"When you go out tuna fishing, you always come back with a lot of good fishing stories," she said. "When you start talking about the fish that got away out there, you're talking some fish."