Water Sports

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New Waters: Competitive Fishing Event Owners Need to Understand Role of Women in Sport’s Growth

10 Jan, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Fishing, long the bastion of men (and boys) is seeing the growth of an additional demographic: women. And event owners should be ready because the tide isn’t coming in – it’s here.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, women are the single fastest-growing demographic in fly-fishing, one of the most male-dominated outdoor sports.

And this, the article notes, has presented a host of challenges, including finding proper gear, navigating the pitfalls of social media and even developing an awareness for self-defense skills in the outdoors. It also means overcoming perceptions that women – who have traditionally been pictured in waders and bikini tops – are serious fishermen who are contributing to the economy of the sport.

It’s not just fly fishing, either. Bass fishing, long considered the home of tournaments (and maybe testosterone) has seen women, including the famed Janet Parker, making a name for themselves on the top level of the Bassmasters tour.

Some organizations have made a concerted effort to involve more women in their events. The Women Ice Angler Project on Lake Mille Lacs in Wisconsin, for example, was specifically designed to bring that population to ice fishing. Organizations like New Hampshire Fish and Game have organized events designed to introduce women to the discipline of deep-sea fishing. There are also plenty of branded events, such as Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing, designed to attract that clientele.

Still, plenty of obstacles remain. Google “women fishing” and you’ll continue to see plenty of images of (and links to images of) calendar-style shots – meaning those befitting the toolshed rather than the walls of fishing organizations.

And that’s a shame, according to the New York Times article, which notes,

Industry leaders say women are the only growing demographic in the sport, which is why they are so crucial to cultivate. Women make up about 31 percent of the 6.5 million Americans who fly-fish, according to the most recent study by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. In 2016, more than two million women participated in the sport, an increase of about 142,000 from the previous year.

A new initiative, begun over the summer and led by the equipment and apparel company Orvis, in partnership with Simms, Costa and Yeti, has among its objectives the goal of an even gender split in fly-fishing by 2020. Next spring, the program will expand to offer outreach events to educate women on gear choices, selection and function; plan classes to build skills and confidence on the water; and arrange mentoring opportunities for future female guides, shop employees and industry leaders.

In some ways, helping women overcome the commercial barriers to fishing – all-male shop employees, clothing designed mainly for men and so on – is only part of the problem. Events, some say, need to welcome women, create divisions and bring them into the sport better.

Some events are already up and running and are on the hunt for sports destinations with not only good fishing but a welcoming clientele. The Women’s Pro Bass Tour offers events including the Lady Bass Classic, Caddo Lake, Logan Martin and the Kentucky Lake-Wildcard, Kayak Open Tournament and the Lake Bull Shoals Classic.

Another women-specific group is the International Women’s Fishing Association, established in 1955 to promote the emerging demographic. The IWFA offers tournaments, as well as what it terms “fundaments,” a chance to gather members to enjoy fishing and camaraderie. Some locations of past events have been Vero, Palm Beach, Boca Grande and Islamorada, Florida, as well as Idaho, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Overall, it is difficult to find statistics citing exact figures of women in fishing. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Gazette,

U.S. Fish and Wildlife data, collected in part by Florida research firm Southwick Associates, shows that in 2001, 26.1 percent of freshwater anglers and 9.2 percent of hunters were female. In 2011, women comprised nearly 27 percent of all inland anglers and 11 percent of hunters.

While the increase seems incremental on a national scale, it signals a significant rise in the actual numbers of female hunters and anglers, according to researchers. In Pennsylvania, the number of hunting licenses for women and girls increased from 67,165 in the entire 2009-10 season to 90,778 for the first half of the 2014-15 hunting season that began last June, with more expected to be issued in the remainder of the season, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Among anglers, a decrease of more than 25,300 fishing licenses issued to men between 2010 and 2014 was almost exactly offset by an increase of more than 25,500 fishing licenses issued to women in the same period, according to data from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

In a 2011 U.S. Census Report (the most recent information on this activity), it was noted that although more men than women fished in 2011, a substantial number of women, 8.9 million, fished.  

Rob Southwick, in charge of statistics for the American Sportfishing Association, noted. “women represented 27% of the nation’s anglers that year. From fishing license sales data from a sampling of states, we know the number of women anglers has been growing each year. Currently, women anglers represent 35% of all licenses sold annually. We expect a newer total number to be released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in February. The overall number of anglers has been growing each year, but the rate of growth is greater among women.”

There’s no question the tide is turning. The question is whether event organizers will be ready.

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