CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As a youngster, perched on a Yadkin County creek bank, she dropped her first fishing line into the gentle waters of a country stream, just for the fun of it.
No matter that the fish she brought in were tiny.
On her honeymoon, 31 years ago, she and her husband went fishing for bass in Florida's St. John's River, just for the fun of it.
Today, Betty Haire, 51, of Charlotte, is still fishing, but for more than the fun of it. The little girl who was happy to catch a 6-inch bream has become one of the nation's top female anglers, reeling in career winnings of more than $150,000 since turning pro 11 years ago.
Haire is casting about in what is seen as a man's sport, although that is changing. This spring, the Army Corps of Engineers threatened to withdraw permits for the men's tournaments in corps waters unless women were allowed in. Some have entered, making it among the few pro sports where men and women compete against each other.
Haire is content to stay on the women's circuit, where she ranks in the top five in career earnings.
"I have no desire to compete with men," she says. "I love fishing the women's circuit. I have no quarrel with the women who want to do that. Good luck to them. I hope they do well. I'm hoping eventually women's fishing will get the same money as men's fishing."
Men's tournaments frequently offer more than four times the prize money of women's competitions. The previously all-male Bassmasters tournament, for instance, has a total purse of $175,000, compared with the Bass 'n' Gal total of $40,000. The men's tournaments also have higher entry fees: $700 against TC Bass 'n' Gal's $150 and Lady Bass' $200.
Major men's tournaments draw 250 to 300 competitors; women's tournaments draw 125 to 150. In the past decade, both have seen substantial growth.
Haire has reason to hope for better prize money. Her sport is gaining recognition, including more TV coverage this year.
"Women's bass fishing is relative new," she says. "The men have been doing it for ages, but we're growing and we're getting more recognition."
Like the men, pro female anglers have sponsors. Haire has six: Mercury Outboards, Astro Boats, Bagley Bait, Bagley Silver Thread Line, GNB batteries and Abu Garcia rods and reels.
"When you say women bass fishing, people used to conjure up an image of a big burly truck driver. We're not that at all. We have some of the most beautiful young ladies you've ever met. And real gentle grandmothers."
For Haire, the lure of professional fishing is part joy of competition, part challenge of finding the elusive bass, part pleasure in the beauty of nature.
"It just something I like to do," she says. "I've never really understood why. Sometimes you go out and freeze to death; other times, you go out and it's so hot you can't breathe. And you'll say, 'Why am I doing this?' But the next morning, you'll get up and not think of anything but doing it again."
This devotion has pushed Haire to fourth in career winnings on the Bass 'n' Gal circuit; in her best year, 1988, she had $33,000 in winnings. "I'm seeing a great difference now in the competition," she says. "The younger girls coming on are, I think . . . more versatile than I am."
While some women scout tournament waters with tape recorder and notebook days before the competition starts, Haire relies on her years of experience, her knowledge of bass habits and a well-founded intuition about where they're swimming.
Her husband, Odell Haire, also an accomplished angler, has supported her as teacher, coach and driver. At tournaments, he joins a cadre of husbands known as the "bank gang," who wait on shore for the day's catch and weigh-ins.
Haire has won three national qualifying tournaments and three classics tournaments (open only to 30 qualifiers). She holds a national Bass 'n' Gal record for two-day tournaments (47 pounds, 2 ounces total); last month, her one-day tournament record total (26 pounds, 10 ounces) was broken by a woman angler with a catch 3 ounces heavier. Her biggest single catch was an 11-pound, 14-ounce bass hooked while fishing for fun in Florida about five years ago.
But Haire doesn't land them all.
"I lost a big one in Alabama a few years ago," she recalls. "I was leading the tournament, and I had one, 11 pounds, maybe more. But it got off [the hook]. Had I landed that fish, I would have won the tournament, plus been Angler of the Year. That one fish cost me $40,000. That one fish."
Haire has walls in their West Charlotte home lined with trophies, plaques and pictures -- but only four mounted fish. She returns the fish to the water after weighing them. During tournaments, anglers are required to keep fish alive so they can be put back.
And landing a fish is harder than you'd think.