Sportfishing Women Throughout History

Couple posing with huge fish

Call it a sea change in the culture of the old salts. The sport of fishing is changing, and women are leading the way.

There's a long history of female anglers who pioneered the way for today's women anglers--even if they didn't get the headlines in papers and magazines.

Since the start of modern sportfishing in the early 20th Century, these women participated side-by-side men in international tournaments and big game angling, chasing and landing world records, not to mention catching fish for family dinners. Two of the most prominent female American anglers in the 1920s through the '50s were Sara Farrington and Helen Lerner.

Farrington fished around the world with her famous angling husband Kip Farrington. She appeared in ads of the day and films about big game angling. She also wrote a book about her adventures, Women Can Fish (1951). Helen Lerner was the wife of International Game Fish Association (IGFA) founder Michael Lerner, and an accomplished angler. She was the first woman to catch a bluefin tuna off the continent of Europe and the first woman to catch a swordfish off Nova Scotia, among other notable firsts.

In fact, women have been making amazing catches since the IGFA's records started. In 1954, Mrs. Charles Hughes landed a 1,525-pound black marlin in Cabo Blanco, Peru on a PENN Senator 14/0. In 1968, Carolyn Steiner landed a 199-pound Pacific sailfish in Pinas Bay, Panama on a PENN Senator 10/0. In 1982, Kay Mulholland took a 980-pound black marlin in Queensland, Australia on a PENN International 30.

Accomplished as they were, these women were still trying to make headway in a man's sport, for the most part on men's terms.

"The perception of women in fishing has traditionally been that they are guided by men, whether a relative or friend," said Julie Hebert, publications chair for the International Women's Fishing Association (IWFA).​

Julie Hebert posing with huge fish

"I do believe that in recent history, the IWFA was the start of women saying that we want to have our own tournaments, we want to be out on the water, not just playing bridge," Hebert said, herself a lifelong angler now living in Louisiana.

Founded in 1955 by three women--Kay Rybovich, Ginny Sherwood and Denny Crowninshield--the IWFA ran its own tournaments in the U.S. and abroad, fielded teams for traditionally male-dominated tournaments and established a scholarship fund for female students studying the marine sciences. All of its programs are still going strong today.

"I have seen more and more women on boats fishing and behind the wheel in recent years," says Hebert, "because fishing is changing. It's no longer just guys and father-son trips. It's the whole family fishing together. My own two boys," she adds, "grew up fishing on our family boat with myself and my husband."

"because fishing is changing. It's no longer just guys and father-son trips. It's the whole family fishing together. My own two boys," she adds, "grew up fishing on our family boat with myself and my husband."

Hebert is right. While women are still not as numerous as men in the ranks of anglers, their numbers are growing in the U.S. According to recent figures from the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) about 67 percent of anglers in the U.S. are male and 33 percent are female. However, 47 percent of first-time fishing participants are female. That's a powerful indicator of women's increasing presence on the scene. In fact, female anglers represent a large--some say the largest--growing market within the fishing industry.

These days, no one can speak to being a woman involved in fishing better than the dynamic Leiza Fitzgerald of Coastal Conservation Association Florida (CCA).

Fitzgerald runs CCA's popular summer-long STAR competition in Florida waters which encourages anglers to catch tagged redfish and win big prizes including trucks, boats and scholarships.

"I'm not sure it was resistance that I met in fishing," Fitzgerald says, "but rather I think it was skepticism: How could a woman be a good angler? How in the world could she outfish me? Even these days, at the docks or at boat ramps, I am always being told how to do it, how to back the boat in or how to rig my baits. Once I whip that boat into the second boat ramp lane, on the first try, slide the boat off the trailer and get it tied to the dock, all on my own, I get asked another question: 'You know your stuff, don’t you?'

"Society has evolved in regards to women and their roles and so has the sport of fishing," Fitzgerald says. "But yes, there is still the attitude out there that women do not know how to fish, maybe less prevalent than it was 10 years ago, but still there."

In Fitzgerald's opinion, there are still a few barriers to women participating more in fishing.

"I feel that accessibility has been one of the barriers," she says. "Purchasing a boat is something that was rare for a woman in the past, but the kayak and paddle boards have provided women a great means to get on the water and fish at a reasonable expense. Also boat rental is another way women can gain access to the water, but they need to get some help in feeling comfortable in taking the boat out on their own and catching fish."

Fitzgerald sees fishing companies moving towards enticing women to use their products and developing products that women will use, but not recruiting new women anglers.

"I feel that for the most part they misrepresent a female angler," she says. "They choose lady anglers that may not be a true representation of who female anglers can identify with. They only have the superficial image in mind when having them represent their products. I am hoping that with the change in society and more male anglers looking for the 'reel deal' when it comes to a woman who fishes that manufacturers will also want that in those ladies who represent their products."

Betty Bauman posing with large fish

Another woman who takes a hands-on approach to empowering women to fish is Betty Bauman, who founded Ladies, Let's Go Fishing in 1997. Her organization holds weekend-long, how-to seminars for women, capped by a day of charter boat fishing. Bauman believes that initial, basic instruction in fishing builds confidence, better prepares women to keep fishing and also brings their friends and family to the sport. Her programs have graduated more than 8,000 women from more than 42 states in the U.S. and she's always adding new programs to fit her clients' developing interests.

Fishing companies are responding to what their new customers want. You've seen the changes if you've shopped for clothes, gear or boats in the last few years. Clothiers are developing entire new lines of fishing clothes for women and tackle companies are offering additional colors for their gear. Outfitters and resorts are tailoring adventure trips and accomodations for women with families and for themselves on their own, and women are starting their own adventure travel outfitting firms to cater to their customers. Even boat builders are taking women's interests into consideration when designing boats. After all, as women's economic clout and earning power has grown, so has their say in how they spend their own and their families' money.

It's not simply a matter of numbers. Women now hold highly influential positions in fishing from the local to the international level, not only running their own boats as anglers and captains, but running tournaments, companies, fishery management agencies and advocacy groups.

In fact, women anglers like Hebert, Fitzgerald and Bauman have helped to shift the sport's culture. Where fishing was once seen to be an old salt's game practiced mainly by rough guys indifferent to anyone's opinion, it's now enjoying growth as a healthy way of life that includes outdoor time, family involvement, healthy food and good conservation practices. It's no longer predominantly an old boys' network steeped in secrets, but it's become the mark of a good angler to share techniques and fishing knowledge. There's also plenty of information available on how to fish, thanks to the Internet.

With these kinds of subtle shifts, the sport's culture is changing from one of exclusivity to openess, exactly what the women of the IWFA were after way back in 1955.

Another of the profound catalysts of the shift is coming from social media. With their social media accounts, women anglers are able to portray themselves in the public eye as the independent anglers they are, capable of handling all the aspects of rigging, fishing and traveling to enjoy the fishing life. The leading female social media figures involved in fishing, such as Florida's Chasten Whitfield, completely control their actions and their images, which is exactly what their audience wants--not the babes in bikini holding fish pics of the old days. These are the women who are shaping the public's perception of anglers today.

These days, while you're still more likely to see boys in your neighborhood with rods on their bikes pedalling to the local stream or pond or beach to fish, the girls they meet there might be fishing, too. Those girls won't be seen as outcasts either, but accepted for their love of fishing. It's about time.

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