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Women on the Water

I spent a few days (June 16-17) "guiding" at the Wisconsin women's fly fishing clinics, always a highlight of the summer fishing season. For our efforts, the women participants always thank us profusely, though we do it because it is one of the most enjoyable fishing events of the season. For those not familiar with the program, us "guides" (you do NOT have to be a guide to volunteer - I am not) take the intermediate (more on that term later) women anglers fishing three times over the two days of the clinic. And as the Wisconsin Women of the Water Skills Clinic - intermediate (WOWSC-i) implies, it is for anglers to further develop their skills. In a normal year, the beginner clinic follows WOWSC-i and many of the intermediate women anglers serve as "river buddies" for the beginners. It is really a nicely setup and run event and fun to be part of.


This post will be in two parts - the first a bit of a dive into the future of angling and women in the sport, the second about the clinics and why you should take part as a participant or mentor and should encourage others to do so as well. Maybe you live somewhere other than Wisconsin and want to do something similar in your area.


Women on the Water


If I really wanted to draw some eyeballs - I would make some sexist, misogynistic comment - that does seem to be the way of the internet - but I prefer not to do that. Orvis and others are pushing 50/50 on the Water and I have my doubts that it is 1) likely to happen and 2) much more than a marketing campaign. That said, it is an admirable goal and we shall see what happens. To be sure, the fastest growing group of fly anglers are women and that is great to see. No need for misogyny - fly fishing is a great pursuit and we should all be doing what we can can to encourage more fly anglers.

Driftless sunset
The evening sunset looking up Seas Valley from the West Fork Sports Club campground.

When I say that 50/50 on the water is unlikely to happen, that is my gut feeling but it is supported by some research as well. There are few, if any, 'blood sport' outdoor pursuits where male and female numbers are similar. In fact, fly fishing may already be an outlier in that female numbers are higher than other hunting and fishing pursuits. And while many may not think of fly fishing as a blood sport, one look around the internet should tell you it is - or at least it can be. The thought is that fly fishing as a 'gentler' introduction to the blood sports as fly anglers have largely eliminated the blood part of it. I can not provide a whole lot of insight into why people think this is the case - I would love to hear others thoughts on that.


Like fly fishing, the largest gains in new anglers and hunters is from women entering the sports. Media sources that have done much more research than me - like the NY Times, FlyLords magazine, and others. Certainly, their journey has not been seemless (Trouble Waters - The Women Fighting Sexism in the Fly Fishing Industry).


The skeptic in me, which to be honest is an awful lot of me, says that outdoor companies support of women's initiatives is not altruistic but a matter of smart business - but so be it. It is the same for many of the state resource agencies programs to encourage more women to hunt and fish as their budgets are based on the number of licenses that they sell. I get that I am sounding more than a little pessimistic which is not really my intention as I think there are great reasons - aside from money - to encourage women to fly fish or to pursue any outdoor activity.

The pandemic has altered all the numbers (I have written two posts, 2020 and 2021, on the topic as I find the changes interesting) but hunting and fishing license sales have declined and the average age of participants has increased which is why the Council to Advance Hunting and Shooing Sports and others are calling this decline significant. The quote below from their report, The Future of Hunting and Fishing, sums up this concern.

Today, there are 400,000 fewer hunters and anglers than in 1991. The US has grown by 76 million people in the same timeframe. In 1991, 1 in 6.3 people would have been a hunter and/or an angler; in 2016 that figure drops to only 1 in 8.2 people. This represents a significant change in the US complexion, and results in fewer people contributing to wildlife conservation, with more people benefiting from it.

The problem with recruitment to hunting and fishing is that it is difficult to get into the sports without mentors which are most typically family members. I know my journey into fly fishing was greatly aided by my dad's uncle (more in a post on mentors) with whom I tied my first flies, obtained and built my first fly rods, and generally learned a lot about the sport. Not everyone has that built in advantage and getting into fly fishing or really any fishing or hunting without a mentor is quite daunting. That is really the role that the WOWSC-i 'guides'. So when I say that there are ulterior motives to get more people involved in fishing, not everyone has them.


Will we see 50/50 on the water? I have my doubts but I do think we will grow closer to that number and I think things like WOWSC-i, BOW (Becoming an Outdoors Woman), and other programs will help get us closer. It is a admirable goal and I would love to see more women - really just more people - on the water. The future of the sport and protection for streams may depend upon it. But that's a post for another day...


A bit about WOWSC-i 2021


Like almost every women's clinic I've been part of, weather was an issue. First it was not enough rain so the streams were low and warm, then we got some rain and the streams muddied up. And it was hot - like go enjoy the air conditioning and a beer or two in the Rockton Bar and Norwegian Hollow Hideway hot (yeah, like I need an excuse to do that...). A typical WOWSC-i.

Noon temperature reading on the West Fork.
Thermometer reading on the West Fork AFTER going through a few riffles - it was 79*F above the riffles. Way too warm to fish.

But it was all good as it always is. The clinics are for the women to learn about fly fishing through a mentor that has some experience. But as much as anything, it is about them gaining confidence to do it themselves and to help other women learn to fly fish. Dealing with weather is part of fly fishing - and judging from the number of other anglers I saw trying to fish the West Fork of the Kickapoo when the stream temperatures were WAY too warm, not everyone knows the importance of coldwater or where to find find cold water (seriously folks, carry and use a thermometer!). It is a chance for the women to ask about what fly to use, to try different techniques, and to maybe to catch a few fish. And plenty of fish were caught.

A Driftless Brook Trout
One of the WOWSC-i anglers with a Driftless Brook Trout

WOWSC-i is about the drawing of the numbers that match 'guides' up with women for the morning or afternoon fishing sessions. About getting to know a few new people and see how different experienced anglers fish. About learning to tie a new knot or different anglers' preferences in leader length and tippet size. It is really a lot about many things that those of us that have a lot of experience take a bit for granted.

The West Fork of the Kickapoo after a rain - a bit high, dirty, and still too warm.

And as much as anything it is about sitting around the campfire, the lunch or dinner table, or the Rockton Bar and getting to know other people. One of my favorite parts of WOWSC-i is that I have gotten to know a lot of people - from the other 'guides' whose names I may have been familiar with but now I know to the dozen or so women I have mentored over the years. I have received Christmas cards and invitations to meet their families and go fishing. I have ran into them on stream or in the Driftless Angler in Viroqua. We have shared experiences - maybe the most unique of them was this year when we had to call 911 and created quite the Vernon County police presence but that is a story for a campfire some evening. I will say I never gave a ton of thought to the potential dangers of fishing alone and it is something I do quite regularly but this experience was a bit of an eye opener for me.


To be completely honest, I do not exactly know what the rest of the clinics are like. We do our thing - take participants fishing a few times over two days - and the rest is handled by the experienced women that run the clinics. I can honestly say I do not think I have ever heard a participant complain about the experience. The weather is sometimes trying - and sometimes downright awful - but a good time is had by all. It is, in my experience, something that needs to be celebrated and pushed to as many places as possible. If 50/50 on the Water is to be achieved, this is how it is done - not by a marketing campaign - but people getting out fishing together and sharing the knowledge, experience, and providing a safe place to learn - and to make mistakes. That's the future, or at least I hope it is.


After WOWSC-i


This, I think, is the fun part. I have received Christmas cards and letters of thanks from women I have "guided". I have been invited to meet families and go fishing with them as they returned to the Driftless after the clinics. This is the power of the clinics and fishing. It puts people together. In my experiences over the years, the clinics are about building skills, confidence, and relationships. Some of that has to do with fly fishing but much of it does not.


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