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Catching Dianne Harbaugh On the Fly

There’s a woman living in Islamorada who is likely the envy of sportsmen of all ages and interests. 

Islamorada resident Dianne Harbaugh bucks most “feminine” trends. As a teen, she learned archery, fishing, hunting, scuba diving, water and snow skiing, racing boats and snowmobiles before most girls her age had their driver’s license.

Born and raised in southern Michigan, Harbaugh tinkered in her dad’s sporting goods store as a kid. She did possess her driver’s license at age 17, and earned another that permitted her to operate small single-engine aircraft. She’d already piloted a Luscombe two-seat taildragger solo, and purchased her own Cessna 120 at age 18. Equally undaunted by cars, she also installed a new clutch when it was necessary.

Family vacations were rustic — spent camping, exploring and fishing — but they reached far-flung destinations in a four-seat Cessna 182. Harbaugh said she’s thrilled to have traveled to all 50 United States as well as the Arctic Circle, Cost Rica, Canada, France, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos.

Before moving to the Florida Keys, Harbaugh and her husband (and captain) Billy spent a brief stint in Hawaii. She flew air tours over the Big Island’s Kona coast and Billy charter-fished for marlin.

However, she doesn’t fly planes anymore. 

“Now I fly-fish,” Harbaugh said.

In Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, she became the world’s first woman to land a blue marlin on fly. After 4.5 hours fighting the 93-pound fish on a [Billy] Pate Marlin fly reel with a 20-pound tippet, Harbaugh said the fish spooled her. At the time, in the mid-1990s, the world record was 110 pounds and only seven men in the world could relate to the experience.

Despite her achievement pre-dating the International Game Fish Association’s official saltwater record-keeping for female anglers, Harbaugh went on to land a dozen official IGFA records for catches including cobia on fly, permit on fly and gag grouper on conventional tackle.

“I fly-fish until I want to catch something,” she laughed. “If I want to catch something, I use bait. My favorite fish is the one that bites.”

A 5-foot-4-inch mini-tornado of energy, Harbaugh is not boastful about her accomplishments. Her levelheaded pragmatism, Miss Fix-It mechanical abilities and penchant for people have been common threads weaving together 30-plus-years working at Islamorada’s Caribee Boat Sales. And she does not sell boats.

It’s only the fourth job of her life, including her teen years at the family store. After Harbaugh and her husband arrived in the Keys in 1986, she persisted for 10 consecutive days trying to convince the men at Bud N’ Mary’s Marina to hire her as a forklift driver until they acquiesced. Within a year she was driving Caribee’s forklift and again working with her hands — her passion — tinkering on engines.

Now, at 58, Harbaugh manages the store and parts department, but also repairs fiberglass and tunes boat engines. Her customers, like a cult of followers, call in from all over the country. She has even helped fix an engine over the phone for a customer from North Carolina.

“I love my job, which I know is really rare,” she said. “I love customer service, fueling boats, helping people face to face, fixing people’s problems.”

Harbaugh also is a stalwart supporter of Florida Keys fishing, organizing several annual tournaments in the Islamorada area. Her personal wins include ladies’ sailfish tournaments, and the International Women’s Fishing Association’s Okeechobee bass and Islamorada backcountry tournaments.

She still enjoys fun fishing, deep drop and fly fishing with Billy. Founder of the area’s pet care service, The Critter Sitter, she also walks dogs before and after work.

New adventures are always on the Harbaughs’ radar.

This year the couple, together since high school, completed a repeat trip to Alaska — this time to Nome for a glimpse of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, and musk ox.

“I live in paradise and I know it,” Harbaugh said. “I embrace it, love it and appreciate where I live — every day. That is so important.”

Dianne with husband Billy, a Florida Keys charter boat captain.

Dianne with husband Billy, a Florida Keys charter boat captain.

Dianne and Billy fish recreationally together in the Keys during their down time. The 5-foot-4-inch Harbaugh landed this nice sized grouper.

Dianne and Billy fish recreationally together in the Keys during their down time. The 5-foot-4-inch Harbaugh landed this nice sized grouper.

As a teen, she learned archery, fishing, hunting, scuba diving, water and snow skiing, racing boats and snowmobiles before most girls her age had their driver’s license.

As a teen, she learned archery, fishing, hunting, scuba diving, water and snow skiing, racing boats and snowmobiles before most girls her age had their driver’s license.

The couple recently returned to Nome, AK, to spot (real) musk ox.

The couple recently returned to Nome, AK, to spot (real) musk ox.

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