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The girl’s got guts

Special to The Times

IANNA GILBERT has just finished recounting a successful fishing trip when her father delivers news that yet another tackle company has decided to sponsor her. Avet Reels, he announces, will be sending several reels.

“They’re purple,” he says.

Ianna’s face lights up.

“Purple?” she hollers, bouncing in a chair in their Chula Vista living room. “Cool!”

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Most anglers who battle the biggest, baddest fish in the Pacific wouldn’t get too excited about purple reels. But most rising stars in the world of competitive sportfishing aren’t 11 years old. Nor are they cheerleaders, nor do they collect dolls, both of which Ianna does.

In the largely male-dominated world of sportfishing, Ianna Gilbert is a rarity: With long dark hair, round cheeks and a wide smile, she can outfish many men.

In her age group, 11 and under, she holds seven world records with the International Game Fish Assn., including one for the largest white sea bass. An eighth record, for a 10-pound, 3-ounce bonito, is still being considered by the association, which in April named her a top Smallfry angler.

Ianna started early, landing her first record-setting fish, a 13-pound albacore, at age 8. Last year alone she made it into the record books twice, once for a 29-pound albacore and again for landing an 8-pound, 11-ounce lingcod.

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But even these records pale beside the 250-pound thresher shark she reeled in last spring, which would have been her record-making debut in the junior girls division, if her harness had not broken. No wonder companies are lining up to outfit her with gear.

Tony has adorned their living room wall with Ianna’s awards, newspaper clippings and photos. He has a 36-pound yellowtail she caught -- another record setter -- mounted. And he’s happy to be known around San Diego landings simply as “Ianna’s father.”

“I can fish pretty good, but I’ve had to work at it,” says Tony, who has fished for more than 20 years. “I believe Ianna has something special. She has a gift.”

If so, it’s a gift that has been nurtured for most of her life. She got her first taste of fishing when she was 2 years old and her family made trips to Otay Reservoir near Chula Vista.

“We’d stick her playpen on the shore,” Tony says. “When she was old enough, we’d cast a rod out there, and if it started going, she’d get it and reel it in.”

After her parents split in the mid-1990s, Ianna moved in with her father. When she was 5, he gave her a rod and took her out on a fishing boat for the first time. That day she hooked the first fish she can remember. Reeling it in, she was captivated by the mystery of it all.

“I wanted to discover what was on the other end,” she says.

Since then, she and Tony have taken about 50 or 60 fishing trips together every year. He had long before explained a tuna-fishing tradition to Ianna: To ensure good luck, an angler who catches a new species for the first time must eat the fish’s heart -- raw. So when a deckhand gave Ianna the albacore’s bloody, silver-dollar-size heart shortly after she reeled in the fish, she didn’t hesitate.

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“I ate it,” she says matter-of-factly. “Then I drank soda.”

Since then, Ianna has eaten at least eight or nine hearts and caught, by Tony’s estimate, at least 2,000 fish.

Tony injured his ankle in late 2003 while working as a heavy equipment operator, requiring three surgeries and straining their finances. When word of Ianna’s Smallfry award got out, members of the San Diego fishing community raised $1,700 to fly the pair to Florida in April to collect it.

Despite Ianna’s successes, she still encounters skeptics.

Tony sometimes overhears fishermen complaining when he and Ianna arrive at a landing. They assume Ianna is too young to fish, but they often come around. On one overnight trip when many experienced anglers were skunked, Ianna landed a bluefin tuna, five albacore and three yellowtail.

“Afterward,” Tony recalls, “guys were saying, ‘Is it OK if I take a picture with your daughter? I’d like to show my wife because she thinks my 14-year-old son is still too young to come on these trips.’ ”

J.D. McGriff, captain of the Fisherman III, a 65-foot fishing boat based in Point Loma, understands the skepticism. But Ianna has always impressed him.

He recalls a half-day trip to the kelp beds off Point Loma a couple of summers ago when Ianna hooked a calico bass that tangled her line in kelp. He expected her to tire of the fight and hand her rod over to her father. She didn’t.

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She furrowed her brow in concentration -- as she often does when she’s up against a challenging fish -- and patiently coaxed the bass in.

“She was relentless,” McGriff says.

She’s often so single-minded, Tony says, that she won’t take help. “She’ll say, ‘Don’t touch my rod, don’t touch my line, I know what I’m doing,’ ” he says. “And she does know what she’s doing.”

But little prepared Ianna for the challenge she faced off San Diego in March. She and Tony went out on a friend’s 22-foot boat in search of a record-breaking thresher shark. It didn’t take Ianna long to hook one. Tony strapped a harness onto her just as the shark bolted, taking hundreds of feet of line.

Ianna clutched her rod. Blisters formed. By the second hour, she was tiring and near tears. Each time she reeled in a foot of line, the shark took two. Tony suggested she give up.

“This one’s mine,” she insisted.

When the shark dove deep in the third hour, Ianna’s harness, which was too big for her small frame, rode up over her shoulders. It forced her rod onto the boat’s railing, a violation of IGFA rules that would cost her the world record. In the end, the shark died on the line and Ianna and the group hauled it in.

Back at their home, neither Tony nor Ianna sounded disappointed. When the shark story spread, a gear manufacturer sent Ianna a harness that fit.

Meanwhile, Ianna and Tony look forward to the final days of summer before school starts.

Among the trips they’ve lined up is another outing in search of a record-setting thresher. And this time, Ianna will go in style, with a harness that fits -- and a purple reel.


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