A feel for where the fish are

Posted: Monday, June 16, 2003

Toni Wisner's boat is full of equipment to help her find fish for her charter boat customers: a global positioning system, radar, a video depth-sounder, two VHF radios and a CB radio. But sometimes, she said, the surest way for her to find fish is to use her female intuition.

"When I first came up here, in Glacier Bay, I hit some incredible spots that nobody had experimented with," Wisner said, standing on the boat she has captained in Alaska and Washington since 1996. "Sometimes you just have feelings about certain places.

"I think female intuition helps me out sometimes in fishing. It just seems like we're more intuitive."

Another woman's intuition, that of Wisner's mother, led her into the charter fishing business in the first place.

"My mom told me when I was about 8 years old that I should work on a charter boat someday," said Wisner, who is now 41. She first began working on a boat when she was 17, after spending two summers hanging out on the docks by her Chinook, Wash., home.

No boat captain wanted to hire a teenage girl with no boating experience as a deck hand, she said. But when a friend of Wisner's got sick and had to quit her job as a deck hand, Wisner had her lucky break.

"She asked me to take her place," Wisner said. "I went out there and I immediately got seasick. I begged the captain not to fire me, and I was sick for two weeks."

Wisner overcame her seasickness and spent the next 10 years on the sea, working as a deck hand or fishing in Washington and Alaska. Towards the end of the 1980s, she decided to try for her captain's license.

"Some of the guys weren't too cool about women running boats (in Washington)," she said. "They hired (women) as deck hands, but if you were their equal they didn't go for that."

One boat owner who didn't share this attitude was Warren Walker, who owned the HiTime in Washington.

"He told me that if I ever got my license, he wanted me to captain his boat," she said.

With Walker's encouragement, Wisner got her license. But she wanted to drive bigger boats. So in 1990, she took a job running tour boats in Glacier Bay. After three years at Glacier Bay, she worked for two years at the Anchor Point Lodge on Shelter Island.

In 1996, she moved to Juneau full time and began working as Walker's business partner and captain on the HiTime. At the end of 2001, Walker retired, and Wisner took over ownership of the boat and the business.

Wisner takes up to six passengers on half-, full- or multi-day fishing or site-seeing trips on the HiTime. As far as she knows, she is the only woman leading charter fishing trips out of Auke Bay, and one of very few in northern Southeast Alaska.

She hasn't run into the same prejudices in Alaska that she perceived in Washington, she said.

"There's a lot of camaraderie," she said. "We're competitive, but we do work really well together. ... I love these guys. I know if I had a problem out there they'd all be out there, and I'd do the same for them."

Wisner's customers don't seem to have a problem with her being a woman, either.

"I'm sure there's plenty of them that have passed me up over the Internet," she said.

Her Web site, www.hitime.com, introduces her and her 16-year-old niece, Brianna Beller, as the sole crew of the boat.

Sometimes, the fact that the HiTime is captained by a woman serves to Wisner's advantage.

"I think some guys prefer to have their wives and families go out with me because they think I'm nice," she said. "That's before they see me fishing."

When she started captaining the ship, a mother, her sister and her daughter chose to go on a whale-watching trip with Wisner specifically because she's a woman.

"She wanted her daughter to see that women can drive boats," Wisner said.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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