Luring More Women To Fishing In The Upper Great Lakes

Nov 6, 2018
Originally published on November 6, 2018 4:01 pm

The percentage of Americans who fish is in decline and that decline has had an impact on conservation projects, because hunting and fishing licenses help fund everything from habitat restoration to clean water programs.

So there are efforts to lure more anglers to the sport — and those efforts seem to be working, as more and more young women are taking up fishing.

Recently, a whole band of women spread out along the bank of the Two Hearted River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They were part of a steelhead fishing class put on by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources called Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW). The goal is to inspire women to fish.

Kristy Taylor was part of the class. She stood on the bank of the river on a cold, bleak morning.

Female anglers stand along the Two Hearted River, watching as a class instructor demonstrates casting.
Morgan Springer / Interlochen Public Radio

Instructor Katie Urban stood right by Taylor as she cast her line into the Two Hearted. "Whip it," Urban said, just before Taylor cast.

They were tracking a fish. It was swimming close to surface, leaving a swirl of water behind it as it moved slowly.

"You see it?" Urban asked. "Alright she's coming back to this side; she's going to that pocket."

The fish moved towards them, then disappeared and resurfaced farther down the river.

"Yes, go," Urban told Taylor.

They took off running, scrambling up the dunes, the dark-stained Two Hearted River like a ribbon of tar below them.

More younger women drawn to fishing

In 2016, about 14 percent of Americans fished, and most of them were men. But a recent study on the Upper Great Lakes indicates female participation is on the rise. It found that fishing license sales increased among female anglers by about 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2015. That's an additional 43,000 female anglers.

Richelle Winkler is the principal investigator on that study and an associate professor at Michigan Technological University. She says younger women in particular are getting involved.

"Young women today are about two times more likely than women born in 1960 to buy a fishing license," says Winkler.

Winkler and Ph.D student Erin Burkett based the findings on the number of fishing licenses sold in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.

Michelle Zellar, Michigan's BOW coordinator, confirms that more women are drawn to fishing.

"We have a waiting list for every program we do," she says.

Winkler says it's not clear yet why more women are fishing. She's looking into it, but for now, she has a hunch.

"I think it's part of a broader cultural pattern of the world opening up a bit to women's participation in activities that have traditionally been seen as more masculine," she says.

The men went out fishing and hunting and the women — we just never thought about it. - Ellen Rice, fishing student

Winkler says that's particularly true for women born after 1980.

Kristy Taylor was born in 1981; she's 37. She says she learned to fish when she was about five or six.

"My parents divorced when I was really young," says Taylor. "So whenever I would be with my dad, that was the activity he knew best. So he would take my sister and I both to go fishing."

But not all the new fisherwomen are young. Ellen Rice — another class participant — is 63 and fishing for the first time. She had a completely different experience growing up.

"The men went out fishing and hunting and the women — we just never thought about it," say Rice.

She says even if she'd tried to fish, she wouldn't have known how, and male anglers wouldn't have shown her.

Richelle Winkler of Michigan Tech says new anglers like Taylor and Rice, who purchase state fishing and hunting licenses, are essential for conservation.

"Habitat restoration programs that keep our water clean and that keep invasive species in check — all of those kinds of programs are funded by fishing license sales," says Winkler.

If more women keep fishing, Winkler says angler participation could stabilize. But she says that probably won't stop the decline in conservation money, because hunting participation is in serious decline with no signs of changing.

Taylor says fishing for her is about being in nature; it's also empowering.

"You're in charge of your pole," she says. "You're in charge of your bait. You're in charge of your casts. And when you catch a fish, it's then your doing."

Catching dinner?

When Kristy Taylor got to her new spot on the Two Hearted, a man at a campsite across the river spotted the fish she'd been chasing. He got out his fishing rod, lit a cigarette and cast for the fish.

"No," Taylor whispered.

The bait landed right on the fish, but the fish turned away.

"She's runnin' from him," said Urban. "Yeah, she doesn't like that."

Then the fish came right to the shore by Taylor, and she lightly tossed her bait sack filled with bright red coho salmon eggs in front of the fish. No interest there either.

In the end, Taylor didn't catch a fish. All she hooked was some dark, wet sticks.

"I've got salad to go with dinner," she joked.

Copyright 2019 Interlochen Public Radio. To see more, visit Interlochen Public Radio.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The polls say women are expected to make a difference in many key midterm elections. And our next story is also about women, poles and transforming an American institution. From Interlochen Public Radio, Morgan Springer reports.

MORGAN SPRINGER, BYLINE: Throughout the Great Lakes, fishing has always been a big deal. Each year, it brings about $7 billion to the region. But while the number of men who fish is declining in the upper Great Lakes, young women are taking up the sport in greater numbers. That's according to Michigan Tech professor Richelle Winkler who conducted a recent study and found not only does gender matter but age does, too.

RICHELLE WINKLER: Young women today are about two times more likely than women born in about 1960 to buy a fishing license.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can go upriver, down river and pick your spot.

SPRINGER: It's a cold, gray morning, and it's drizzling as 11 women spread out along the Two Hearted River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. These women are taking a class on steelhead fishing. This isn't fly fishing. This isn't catch and release. They're trying to catch one and keep it. Kristy Taylor casts her line. It's got a small bait bag on the hook filled with bright red salmon eggs. Right now, Taylor's tracking a fish with instructor Katie Urban.

KATIE URBAN: You see it? All right. She's coming back to this side. She’s going to that pocket. Go down this way.

SPRINGER: The fish swims close to the surface, leaving a swirl of water behind it as it moves away from the bait, then disappears heading toward the mouth of the river and Lake Superior.

KRISTY TAYLOR: Oh, she’s all the way up there.

URBAN: Yes, go.

SPRINGER: Taylor and Urban take off running through the dunes, the dark-stained Two Hearted River below them. Winkler says it's not clear yet why more women are fishing these days, but she has a hunch.

WINKLER: So I think it's part of a broader cultural pattern of the world opening up a bit to women's participation in activities that have traditionally been seen as more masculine.

SPRINGER: She says that's particularly true for women born after 1980 - women like Kristy Taylor who's 37 and says she learned to fish as a child.

TAYLOR: My parents divorced when I was really young. So whenever we would be with my dad, that was the activity he knew best. So he would take my sister and I both to go fishing.

SPRINGER: But not all these women are in their 30s. Ellen Rice is 63. And today, she is fishing for the first time.

ELLEN RICE: The men went out fishing and hunting. And the women - we just never thought about it.

SPRINGER: Did it feel like it wasn't available to you?

RICE: Right. I wouldn't have known how to do it or no man would ever take me out.

SPRINGER: As Taylor arrives at a new spot to fish, she spots a man sitting at a campfire across the river. He gets up, grabs his fishing rod and casts for the fish they've been chasing.

RICE: Oh, my God. He's going for your fish.

SPRINGER: The bait lands right by the fish.

URBAN: Yeah, she's running from him.

SPRINGER: Now the fish swims right to the shore by Taylor.

RICE: She's right in front of you. I mean, drop it.

SPRINGER: Taylor drops the bait, but the fish still does not bite.

TAYLOR: Oh, he's right there.

SPRINGER: Kristy Taylor says, for her, fishing is all about being in nature. And she finds it empowering.

TAYLOR: You're in charge of your pole. You're in charge of your bait. You're in charge of your cast. And when you catch a fish, it's then your doing.

SPRINGER: Taylor's line starts to drag.

URBAN: Keep that tension if you think you’ve got one.

SPRINGER: She starts to reel it in.

URBAN: Aw.

TAYLOR: I got one. It’s the biggest catch I’ve had all day (laughter).

SPRINGER: But it's not a fish. It's a long, wet stick snagged by her hook.

For NPR News, I'm Morgan Springer on Michigan's Two Hearted River.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYNN PATRICK'S "MEETING CHAVEZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.