Looking through the yearbook at Atlantic High School’s senior class of 2009, Savannah Zanosky is one of the last people you’d expect to want to be a fishing guide.
This wisp of blue eyes and shy smiles is another one of those books you can’t judge by its cover. And fishing-guide dreams are the beginning of her surprises.
“Ever since I was little,” Savannah said, “I always knew I was one of the only girls that wanted to be a fishing guide.
“I would read the fishing reports and there were never girls in there and I would go offshore fishing and there were never girls helping, and even at my school, none of the other girls fished. My girlfriends were like, ‘Ew, you like to fish?’ “
But with a slow economy, and being fresh out of high school, Savannah decided guiding wasn’t an immediately realistic way to support herself.
Who’s gonna hire a girl who looks like a cheerleader to be their guide?
Guiding is a cult-of-personality service industry filled with reputations about as girly as dead fish guts under fingernails.
So while we were all home enjoying Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, this spritely 19-year-old from Port Orange was at Camp Lejeune, S.C., face down in the mud, crawling under barbed wire while live ammo was shot over her head.
She joined the United States Marine Corps. Once she leaves the military she’ll be a fishing guide, she said.
She’s back at Paris Island now for “more intense weapons training,” said her mom, Sheri. But after graduating boot camp Jan. 8, Savannah came home for 10 days.
During her break, Capt. Kent Gibbens treated our young Marine and her mom to a guided trip and shared some pointers from his 35-plus years of experience in the business.
It was ridiculously cold, terrible fishing conditions, but Savannah caught a 27-inch redfish.
“She’s always done stuff like that,” said her dad, John. “She just has that feel.”
John had Savannah throwing a cast net by age 9. He used to put her on his shoulders, wade into the Indian River Lagoon and set her on a duck blind by Haulover Canal so they could be close while they fished.
When her dad was away on long hauls as a truck driver, Sheri took her fishing. They went every weekend, holiday and free evening Sheri could find.
“I remember when I was little going, ‘Oh my God! Are we going fishing again?’ ” Savannah said.
But by high school, Savannah was leaving slumber parties to rig poles at home, trading girl time to beat the sunrise to her fishing holes.
And when other teenage girls started getting phone calls about movie dates, Sheri said, “We had guys calling the house saying there’s snook under the bridge.”
Today, not even a drill sergeant screaming a hole through her skull on a five-mile run can knock the fish-on-the-brain out of Savannah Zanosky.
“At boot camp when we’re running through the marsh I’m always looking at the water thinking about fishing it and where the fish would be,” she said.
During Savannah’s trip with Capt. Gibbens, he walked her through the licenses and permits a guide needs and went over the ins and outs of the business.
Gibbens, who was in the Navy, told Savannah there are aspects of military life that apply to guiding. Stuff like, “rising early and continually having all your ducks in a row,” he said.
He told her about a business based out of Wyoming, Reel-Women, that is a very successful all-female guiding business.
Capt. Jennifer Cornell, who has been a Reel-Women guide since the mid 90s, said it’s “definitely” tougher to make it as guide for a woman than a man.
But there’s an upside to that. Cornell said they have clients who say after fishing with a woman captain, they’ll never go with anyone but a female guide again.
“We find that a lot of people feel more comfortable fishing with a woman guide because, for whatever reason, they don’t feel like they have to compete with us,” Cornell said.
“We’re in the spotlight,” she said of women guides. “So we can’t afford to make mistakes. We have to be a step above.”
Savannah is well on her way down the “step above” path.
In the Marines, Savannah qualified as a sharpshooter with an M-16 in her marksmanship tests. And out of 140 girls during her boot camp’s swimming exercises, she was one of only seven recipients of the highest qualification level.
It didn’t hurt that she used to surf. She quit surfing, she said, “Because fishing was always a better option.”
Fishing with Capt. Gibbens, Savannah watched the grassy shorelines of the Tomoka Basin float by, put a cast a foot off the bank, and said the thing she’s scared of most being in the Marines is leaving Florida.
“Maybe I’ll get to go fishing off duty in Guam,” she said.
Capt. Gibbens told Savannah he’s seen so many men fail in the male-dominated fishing business, “To be a guide, you’ll have a hell of a time.”
She said, “That inspires me. That just makes me want to do it even more.”