Reel women: Female anglers working their way up in Utah

Thursday , August 07, 2014 - 10:35 AM

The first thing I noticed about Lisa Swift was the two fly rods sticking out of the sunroof of her car. One was bright pink with neon green line. She also wore a pink neckerchief, had pink painted nails and pink lined her quick-dry capris. 

She had come recommended to me by some Utah Division of Wildlife biologists in my pursuit to figure out why females lag in the sport of fishing, and in fly-fishing in particular. According to Utah DWR, only 23 percent of fishing licenses went to women last year. But if Swift is any indication, the sport holds plenty of appeal for ladies of all stripes. 

Swift, I’m told, spent a whopping 166 days fly-fishing in the last year. I’m also told she’s super fishy, which is a good thing.

“It’s a very layered hobby, you’re continually learning, it never stops,” she said. “If you’re missing the elements of adventure, exploration and discovering things, fly-fishing has it all.”

She was generous enough to share what’s she learned and give me a lesson. I’d never fly-fished before. I hadn’t even touched a fishing pole since I was 10.

We met in Wanship and walked to the bank of the Weber River. She shared insight on why certain women like herself are drawn to fishing.

“It’s not just catching fish, it’s the fish and their behavior, it’s the bugs, it’s the habitat, it’s the different rivers offering unique opportunities and fishing techniques,” she said. “The outdoor element, I think, really drives (us) outside.”

My biggest fear fly-fishing was that I’d hook myself while trying to cast. This only happened once, and it didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would.

When I asked Swift about common misconceptions about fly-fishing, she said it’s a lack of understanding about what the sport involves.

“Basically what they go off of is the movie ‘A River Runs Through It,’” she said. 

I’d never seen the film. I knew it starred Brad Pitt, but I figured that wasn’t her point.

“Maybe they’re just into different things, but I don’t want to go off any stereotypes,” Swift said. “Maybe they just don’t really know what fly-fishing is.”

An evolving industry

According to DWR information, women may be squarely in the minority among those fishing in Utah, but they’ve inched up a bit, gaining three percentage points since 2004.

As it happens, the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation and Outdoor Foundation released a Special Report on Fishing last month. It offers a broad perspective of what’s happening with fishing and women.

While females represent less than one-third of all fishers nationwide, more than 47 percent of the uninitiated interested in fishing are women. Last year, the number of Americans trying fishing for the first time also “skewed heavily female.”

Fly-fishing remains the most male-dominated form of fishing. Men make up more than 70 percent of participants in the sport. Still, fishing companies have become savvy to the market potential ladies hold.

At Orvis, one of the nation’s oldest fishing tackle retailers, Christine Penn began pushing female-specific products when she became its merchandise coordinator and analyst 3.5 years ago.

“We’ve been dabbling in women’s products actually for a long time, we just haven’t done it very well,” she said. “They were not designed by women for women. We just took a men’s shape and scaled it down.”

Last year, the company introduced its first female-specific waders with a dialed-in fit, to rave reviews. According to Penn, next season they’ll be introducing even more products, like fitted waders at an entry-level price point, lightweight boots and a feminine-styled jacket.

Other fishing brands have tackled female products, too. Patagonia introduced a new women’s line over the winter. Redington has offered women’s waders for a while, but in 2014 they offered three new models meant to offer a better range of fits.

“I think everyone’s finally just listening now,” Penn said. “Women are the fastest-growing segment in the outdoors, and for the fishing industry that finally clicked.”

Starting young

A week later, I got another fly-fishing lesson from DWR’s Ben Nadolski. As the Northern Region Assistant Aquatics Program Manager and an Aquatic Habitat Restoration Biologist, rivers are Nadolski’s forte.

He’s been fishing for 20 years, and became immersed in the sport after moving to Utah in 1997.

“I’ve always been impressed, especially as an out-of-state-person, by the variety of fishing in the area,” he said.

Nadolski said part of his job is encouraging people to embrace their local rivers because, as he explained, “there’s no ‘fishery’ without both fish and people.”

We met in downtown Ogden to fish on the Ogden River. In the last few years, he watched the same river transform from neglected stream to an urban Blue Ribbon Fishery as part of the Ogden River restoration project.

Over time, he’s seen an uptick in the amount of women on the river as well.

“More and more, especially with younger adult women, they seem to be picking it up in the avid sense,” he said.

When I asked him why some women might be intimidated by fishing, and especially fly-fishing, he again brought up “A River Runs Through It.”

“It’s so unrealistic, their casting looks like they’re doing these giant lasso moves,” he said.

What interested me most, however, were Nadolski’s efforts to foster a love of fishing in his young daughters, ages 3 and 4. He teaches them the basics of casting at the parks sloping gently to the river’s banks.

“Fly-fishing can be as easy or as hard as you want, it doesn’t need to be that complex,” he said. “I don’t call it a sport, I call it ‘meaningful experiences.’”

Whether or not his girls latch on to fishing, Nadolski said the most important thing is fostering a love for the outdoors.

“If they’re out here getting dirty, it means they’re not inside watching TV,” he told me while I tried untangling my line from a tree.

Parents as a catalyst

Having a mentor is an important entry point to any sport, and fishing is no exception. According to the 2014 Special Report on fishing, parents accounted for nearly 82 percent of young kids’ introduction to outdoor activities, and nearly 77 percent for teens. Most youth said they were motivated to get outside by spending time with friends and family.

Still, with fishing and young girls, parents seem to be falling short. Among the kids aged 6-17 considering trying fishing, 44 percent are female, but only 16 percent of young girls ages 6-12 fish, compared to 29 percent of young boys. That number drops to 11 percent for girls in their teens.

Tayler Marquart, 16, has developed a love of fishing with the help of her mother, Kelly. Her first time on the river, she caught a brown trout.

“I like the vibe you get on the river,” she said. “It’s always a fun time, I never get bored.”

She’s not sure what it’ll take to get more young girls into fishing, but she has some thoughts on why some of her peers might be turned off by the sport.

“A lot of people worry about how slimy the fish are, or how the hooks in their mouth hurt them,” she said.

Tayler’s mother offered advice and reassurance about her own concerns, and helped foster Tayler’s interest in another aspect of fishing — river conservation.

“I love going out, cleaning the river and planting willows,” Tayler said. “That’s probably my favorite part.”

Changing the conversation

Kelly Marquart happens to have a talent for getting people interested in fishing. She’s the president of the local Trout Unlimited Weber Basin Chapter, even though only around 10 percent of its members are women.

She told me she’s often keenly aware fishing remains a male-dominated sport. You only need to google “women and fishing” to see the machismo and sexism that runs rampant.

“I understand how women get frustrated … we’ve got to work together and be positive to get things to change,” she said. “I think things have come a long way in the last year or two.”

Marquart has worked to make the Weber Basin chapter inclusive and respectful of all anglers. For people interested in getting their feet wet with fishing, she said their monthly meetings are a great place to start. 

“There’s always someone willing to take you out and teach you, they like taking out rookies,” Marquart said. “There are so many good-hearted people.”

When I ask Marquart what she thinks are common misconceptions about fly-fishing, the notion that it’s a “man’s sport” first came up. I was relieved she doesn’t say anything about “A River Runs Through It.”

Still, I later decided to watch the movie since it’s readily available on Netflix. I had three impressions. The first was mild annoyance that it involved another story about another journalist with a mixed-up personal life. The second was that there wasn’t all that much fly-fishing, but when there was, the castings were indeed elaborate. The third was while the story heavily centered on women, even more so than fishing, it never showed both women and fishing.

The film is set in the 1920s, and I knew there had to be at least some women who fished back then. Marquart’s own grandmother got her into fishing. I would’ve liked to see someone like Marquart’s grandmother represented in the movie, who Marquart described as a 4-foot “firecracker” who always loved fishing. It’s those subtle changes in media and the way we talk about fishing that might encourage more women to join in.

For her part, Marquart is working on her own small change.

“It’s always ‘fly-fishermen,’ and I think it should just be ‘fly-fisher,’” she said. “Whoever it is, when they’re trying to attract people, they need to watch their wording. But I’ve seen little tiny changes, which I think are important. It shows they’re starting to recognize there are a lot of female anglers.”

For more information on the Weber Basin Anglers chapter of Trout Unlimited, visit their website

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