Lelani Bright (@beautifullifemember on Instagram) was born in South Africa, growing up in Pretoria and Durban.
When I asked if her name was Hawai’ian, she schooled me.
“Lelani is actually a very Afrikaans name,” she says. “It also means ‘just cried’ in Zulu.”
She moved to the United States in 1997, and landed in the Florida Keys, settling on Key West.
“I only spoke Afrikaans, at the time,” Lelani says. “So, I learned English from Hooked on Phonics. But I still go back to South Africa every year for two months or so.”
Lelani has loved the water for, essentially, her entire life. She surfs, dives, snorkels, spearfishes, and “just about anything on or in the water.”
“My mom put a snorkel mask on me in the bathtub when I was one and taught me to snorkel,” she says. “Later, she would show me waterproof books in the ocean, while I wore my mask — I learned to read that way. We’d vacation on Mauritius, an island east of Madagascar, and I would spend the whole time in the water. I was just a total water baby.”
Fishing is a big part of her love for the water — especially offshore fishing.
“I feel like fishing is honorable hunting. You’re not just sitting there with a gun and a bullet, waiting for something to come along,” Lelani says. “You have to know what the winds and tides are doing, what fish are running and what they’re eating. You have to know how to maneuver the boat. It’s very deliberate and calculated, and that’s one of the reasons that I love the sport.”
The only piece of equipment Lelani insists on having with her is her Hookerstix rod.
“My buddy Jason Smith makes these custom rods in colors and styles that are particularly geared toward lady anglers,” she says. “They’re awesome.”
Regardless of the gear she uses, self-sufficiency and sustainability are crucial to Lelani.
“There’s also something about going out and catching a fish and knowing exactly where tonight’s meal came from and that I caught it myself,” she says. “Every day out on the water is different, they’re never the same. All fish are beautiful and there is always something to learn about them.”
One of her most memorable fishing experiences was when she hooked a blue marlin south of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.
“I was on this eighty-two-foot Hatteras called Aquaholic,” Lelani says. “But I was in the fighting chair, and I had this creature that was bigger and heavier than me on the end of my line. I saw its fin and saw it come out of the water. It was a bright and sunny day. I didn’t bring it to the boat, but it was just the day, the boat I was on, the people I was with and this beautiful animal basically surfing waves with us. It was surreal — just beautiful — and the experience of being at the mercy of this creature was something that felt magical to me.”
Make no mistake — Lelani enjoys catching fish, as well.
“Another time, I was fishing off of Galveston — we were out two days. Just me and five other people bouncing around on a boat,” she says. “I caught my first yellowfin [tuna]. I also caught several lionfish around the structure of an oil rig. It was a beautiful experience.”
“Fishing, for me, is something that I will enjoy all my life,” she says. “Like tennis, it’s something that I will be able to enjoy when I am old. I also love the community — the people I meet when I fish, the friends I make. The fishing community is like a family, and I am always learning about new species, new gear, and new techniques.”
But being on the water is not just about the fishing for Lelani. It’s clearly a happy place for her.
“When you’re in the water, you’re away from anything that’s been touched by man — sure, you may see some garbage or other things — but you’re in this serene world, seeing the fish and animals in their habitat, doing their thing. There’s just something spiritual about that,” she says.
“When I’m in the water, I feel like I’m one with nature — like I’m closer to God. I love the serenity. You put your ears in the water and you can’t hear anything except that snap, crackle and pop. You know what I mean?”