One day, Melinda Mize hopes to be fishing in the Bassmaster Classic. Until then, she'll settle for being the first woman to win a Weekend Series event after taking home the title in her backyard on Millwood Lake in southwest Arkansas.
"It was an incredible day — I caught fish doing five different things on five different baits," Mize said. "It was my first individual win, so that was a big highlight for me. It is kind of like a stepping stone. You have to go into every tournament thinking you can win, but until you do, you never really know."
With women like Kim Bain-Moore and Pam Martin-Wells making names for themselves in what, until recently, has been a largely male-dominated sport, Mize hopes that her victory will help continue to bridge that gender divide.
"It's awesome because I hope women look at fishing as an equal sport," Mize said. "I want women to go out there and have the confidence that they are not any different on the water. Every time I go fishing, I don't look at the fact that I'm a woman. The fish don't know if you are a man or woman — it's about how hard you work and how much you put into it."
Mize worked hard for this one. Her five-fish limit of 13.26 pounds was nearly 3 pounds better than her closest competitor and she easily walked away with her first piece of Weekend Series hardware.
She entered the event with a plan, and pulled it off to near perfection. On Millwood, there is a three-fish limit for largemouth, but if an angler can catch a few spotted bass, they can round out a five-fish stringer and give them an edge in the standings. But the day didn't start well.
"I lost a huge spot right off the bat," Mize said. "I remember thinking back to Greers Ferry [the previous event], when I lost two fish that would have won it for me, and it really got in my head. I told my partner, we're going to be thankful for what we have and have a good time. We laughed, we had a blast fishing and that was my goal for the day."
Her carefree attitude was tested again that morning when she hooked a fish on a Carolina rig only to have her reel pop off her rod when she set the hook.
"My mom always told me that when everything lined up, you were meant to win," Mize said. "I have had that happen before, twice, and it cost me. So I was thinking, 'Oh dear God, please don't let the fish come off.' It is really hard to keep your head straight when something like that happens."
Mize began doing the only thing she could, which was hand-lining the fish into the boat. Working against her was the fact that it was a big fish and it was pulling hard. Then, the fish made a hard run straight at the boat, wrapping her around the trolling motor.
"I knew it was in the trolling motor and it came up and jumped on the other side of boat," Mize said. "When the fish wraps up in there, 99.9 percent of the time you are definitely not going to get him in. I had my partner net the fish off the side of the trolling motor and it was over 3 pounds. I was shaking so bad I had to sit down for a minute, but catching that fish helped settle me down and I was able to catch three more keeper largemouth shortly afterwards."
It was a day that was meant to be. When much of the field struggled to find keeper bites, Mize was catching them throughout.
One of her best producing areas was a place she shared in the morning with her brother Matt, who finished the event in fourth place. He had an earlier boat draw and got to the spot first, but after fishing for an hour, pulled off to let Melinda fish it too.
"He pulled off that stretch and let me catch some there, and I ended up catching a largemouth over 4 pounds," Mize said. "We talked a lot of smack the night before and we knew we would both be starting in the same area. Over hamburgers Sunday after the tournament he had the whole, 'if he hadn't pulled off, I wouldn't have won' attitude.
"We are huge rivals, but I support him more than anything. I'm his biggest fan, but I don't tell him that too much so it doesn't go to his head."
Millwood has been the stomping ground for the whole Mize family. Melinda, from nearby Ben Lomond, Ark., has been fishing there since she was little. Her father, Jimmy, a former Elite Series angler, and her mother, Lucy, a Women's Bassmaster Tour angler, played a big part in her love for the outdoors.
"Not only have they taught me almost everything I know, but they are also my biggest supporters," Mize said. "They are a wealth of knowledge. I was riding around with my dad the day before the tournament and it was like he has a picture in his head of how the lake was 30 years ago and it was absolutely incredible to hear what he still remembered. Being able to have them as mentors and role models in the sport has been key."
At 27 years old, Mize has plenty of time to accomplish her fishing goals, but she doesn't like waiting for things to happen. After finishing her service with the National Guard, Mize began working as a manager of the firearms and archery section at Gander Mountain and plans on going back to school.
"I'm going back to school this fall to finish my MBA," Mize said. "I wanted something steady and consistent so I could focus on fishing and not have to worry about sponsors. Fish, knowing I had a paycheck coming. Luckily my time in the Guard helped pay for the rest of my schooling. It's going to be hard managing fishing, school and work this fall."
On top of all that, Mize looks to be in great position to qualify for the Weekend Series regional tournament on Lay Lake in October. She currently sits in fourth place in the points in Arkansas, but a zero at Lake Dardanelle in March has put her well behind in her quest to win the division with one tournament left.
"Someone is going to have to stumble, but it is a double points event, so there is a chance I can win the points," Mize said. "That goal is not out of my mind — I know I'm not beaten yet. The opportunity is still there."
Her love for Coosa River spotted bass makes her one to watch at Lay Lake and she has a top-10 finish in the WBT on nearby Neely Henry. If she finishes among the top 50 anglers at the regional, she will advance to the National Championship on Lake Guntersville.
"What's really funny about that is that I've really wanted to take a vacation to Guntersville this year," Mize said. "I've been saving up all my vacation time."
One angler at the National Championship wins a spot in the Bassmaster Classic, a dream Mize has had since she was a kid.
"My dream is to one day qualify for the Bassmaster Classic," Mize said. "It's still possible this year, but I have my work cut out for me. I've had goals since I was a little girl to do well fishing and I hope this is just the first step of many to accomplish some of my lifelong goals."