If you’re a woman in the marine industry, particularly one who likes to fish, chances are you know who Betty Bauman is.
She launched the Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing program in the 1990s so women could get hands-on offshore experience during weekend events. She loved the sport, but realized it could be intimidating for novices. The CEO has since seen 8,000 women graduate from her school. Her nonprofit has been featured in national media venues, including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, “Inside Edition,” “The Today Show” and “Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.”
Bauman began her marine-industry career as a public relations manager for Wellcraft. Previously, she had done events for cookware and cosmetics companies, but Bauman says Wellcraft was “the most enjoyable job I ever had because it doesn’t get any better than loving boats and being in the boat industry.”
She entered the industry when “Miami Vice” was popular on TV, and star Don Johnson would attend dealer meetings. “We sold a tremendous amount of Scarabs due to that television show,” Bauman says.
After a stint at AquaSport and Donzi, she launched her own business, doing public relations for offshore fishing tournaments. “I decided to focus on the fishing segment of the industry because that segment seemed to stay steady versus the other segments that would fluctuate — and plus I like to fish.”
We chatted with Bauman to learn more about her program, ask her what it will take to draw more women into fishing and boating, learn about her efforts around conservation and get her take on Hurricane Irma, which has been affecting her since it struck in September.
Q: What led you from marketing fishing tournaments to Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing?
A: I was focused on doing fishing tournaments, doing their marketing and their magazines. Because of that I went to the trade shows. One year at ICAST, the president of the American Sportfishing Association at the time, Mike Hayden, spoke about the future of fishing and how the fishing industry needs growth. [He said] women were an untapped market and talked about why women are only approximately a third of the market.
That’s when the light came on. My mental answer to that was, women need some hands-on experience and knowledge before they’re going to go on a boat and go fishing. And a lot of them get invited to fish and have no knowledge of the sport, and then they don’t know what to do. In the heat of the moment there’s not enough time to explain. So I said, well, if women had a chance to learn, practice hands-on, network to meet other aspiring anglers and then get a chance to actually fish, that might move the needle to convert a non- or infrequent angler to an active participant who will support the fishing and boating markets. Women represent an immediate return. So that’s when I came up with the idea of Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing.
I approached the state of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife [Conservation] Commission with the concept because I knew it was going to be an expensive program to launch, and they liked it and lent their support. In 1997 we had our first event; it was a big success with 80 people in Fort Lauderdale. The FWC wanted me to take it around the state, so I became mobile. In the meantime, I had to get sponsors and amass all the equipment and funding it takes to run a program like this. At that time I took it to other cities in the state and still do that today, even without the FWC — we lost their support a couple of years ago. It’s been difficult to make it ever since, but we have.
Q: Everybody I know who likes to fish is a guy. Do you find women saying that they want experience, but don’t know other women anglers and worry it would be awkward to be a married woman on a boat with a man?
A: You are absolutely right. There’s a lot of women who want to fish and don’t have anybody to fish with. And for women, fishing from a boat is not a solitary sport. You need a team. You need someone to drive the boat, somebody to be rigging up lures and people to fight the fish. Most women, they may go out on their boats and cast lines, but typically they want other people to be with them. Sometimes you need someone to gaff the fish. It’s tough to be the angler and the one at the gaff.
There are some difficult social implications that affect women who want to fish. Say you have a married couple, and the wife isn’t going, and he invites another lady — that sometimes causes uncomfortable feelings. And that makes it more difficult for women to have these fishing opportunities. But that’s the way life is. So these women seek out other women to fish with. And what happens is, there aren’t enough experienced women out there to know what tackle to bring, how to put it together, how to find the fish, how to be prepared and then what to do with the fish.
Q: On the boats I’m fishing, someone else is usually doing the rigging, tying the knots, finding the fish — and I’m left fighting and reeling. It’s great, but I don’t learn as much as I’d like. There’s a lot online, but it’s not the same as being with someone who has experience.
A: That’s why women come to Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing — because they meet other women there. That’s why we place emphasis on social networking at our events. Because they meet other women there, many become lifelong friends and it changes their lives. The thing about women is, women are social and a lot of them do things in groups, by evidence of how many women it takes to go to the restroom. One lady converted angler means many more to come because she will convert all her friends, teach them what she knows so that they can all go out.
Q: Part of Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing is focused on conservation. You talk a lot about catch and release, but I assume not all fish are released because, you know, they’re delicious. What do you recommend?
A: We have an excellent platform and a captive audience to teach conservation. You talk about catch and release: We not only talk about it, but we show them how. I bring de-hookers, lip grippers, and they can practice how to get the hook out without harming the fish. We teach them [that] if they have to touch the fish to do it with wet hands and not a towel because fish have slime on them, and that slime protects them from bacteria in the water. If you disturb that slime, then that fish has less protection against that bacteria and less chance of survival.
We not only teach conservation. We tell them why they should practice it. We say limit your take; don’t take your limit. Don’t fill your freezer full of fish. It’s better to leave them in the water, and then you’ll have a good excuse to go fishing again. We teach them not to put their anchor on top of a coral reef because of the years it takes for them to repair. We talk about the importance of seagrasses and to not tear them up with propellers because that is the developing grounds for the fish. Don’t put trash in the water, and why? Because a plastic bag looks like a jellyfish. If a turtle ingests that plastic bag, it’s going to die.
The last thing we teach is that with their purchases of tackle, there’s an excise tax that goes to sportfish restoration. And money from their licenses goes to the state. Without those funds, there would not be enough funding for conservation.
Q: Hunters and anglers interact with species in a more intimate way than many people ever will. They understand migratory patterns, seasonal patterns. They can identify when species seem healthy or unhealthy, abundant or scarce.
A: They’re on the front lines, and as far as what to release and whatnot, the FWC and all the states have regulations based on when fish spawn, when we should let them alone and when we should catch them. They want us to catch fish and they want us to keep fish. But there are fish that need protection, and other fish that may be legal to keep, but we explain why they shouldn’t. Fish like sailfish, tarpon — there are protected species that should be released. Fish that grow fast, like mahi-mahi, if they want to take a few of those, that’s fine.
Q: These hurricanes have affected so many people so profoundly. How did they affect you?
A: First we had Harvey, and Irma was looming, and the preparations were stressful, to say the least. Immediately you couldn’t get gas, you couldn’t get water; even if you had a generator, you couldn’t get gas for it. We had a coconut telegraph system working, where if a gas station opened somebody would text us and we’d get in our car, wait for a couple hours, and sometimes they would run out of gas before you’d get to the pump.
The same thing happened with plywood. There were people that didn’t have enough shutters, and this was forecast as a Cat 4 or 5, so the lines for plywood were hundreds of people long. I didn’t eat for two days because I was standing in line. I may have had a couple granola bars. People were hot and tired. When I waited in line, I was there for three hours and they ran out of plywood 75 people ahead of me; there was some aggression and they had to call the police. I walked back to my car in tears. Because, you know, when’s the next shipment? Well, we don’t know. Thank God for Facebook. That’s how I found some supplies and shutters — people with extra supplies would put it on Facebook. I would hook up my U-Haul and drive immediately to their house to pick it up.
People got hurt doing preparations. I had an insured roof that flooded everything. During the hurricane, we just got whipped by winds the whole day. Trees were falling, power went out and so did our communication to the outside world. We had no idea where the hurricane went after it hit us, who it devastated. You couldn’t even get cellphone service, so we were totally in the dark.
Businesswise, September is the month that I make plans for the following year and secure my sponsors. Well, it didn’t happen. I had Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing in St. Augustine scheduled for the same weekend Irma hit. It was all I could do to get that rescheduled. Then I had my one in the Keys, and registrations just stopped coming. People are picking up the pieces of their lives and their homes and not thinking about recreation. They’re in survival mode.
I know a lot of people who lost all their tackle, and it’s not insured. But the good side of it is those who did have insurance and lost their boats are going to be back in the market. People are just now starting to fish. We went to the Keys for Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing [Oct. 20-22] and there was hardly anyone out there. Normally you pass tons of boats, and when you catch something they come running because they see you catching. It’s not like that.
I know a lot of people couldn’t get their boats out of the canals in the Keys because there were sunken boats in the way. I know a friend of mine had a hot tub floating down the canal. He had to go down and retrieve it. Other people had canals that drafted 4 feet that are now only 2 feet. It’s going to be a big problem. They all have big boats; they can’t get their boats in and out. People are still dealing with insurance. I just finally got my claim together last week for my personal house. Because I’ve just been too busy with keeping Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing continuing throughout all this.
Q: It’s hard in the Keys because they need tourists to come back, but at the same time, so many residents are still taking care of basic needs. So many are homeless.
A: They’re not going to be fishing or boating right now. All the rents have gone up in the Keys. There’s a big shortage of housing; a lot of the big resorts have let employees go, and all these people don’t have jobs. These are people who might normally be fishing and boating. I went to a tackle shop, and the owners were living in their store because they didn’t have a home.
I know other people that are lucky enough to live in FEMA housing. But even just dealing with FEMA — you have no idea how many hours I spent with FEMA. Finally, I drove down to the Keys to meet someone in person. It’s just a complicated process. If you answer one question wrong, boom, you’re denied, and then they won’t let you go back and fix it.
Things will be better. There are people worse off than I am. I have a lot of stress because by now, I have all my fliers for next year, I have facilities and sponsors, and I’m just beginning to be able to focus on that. Now a lot of the sponsors have set their budgets, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. For me it’s going to be maybe a year.
Q: Are Floridians worried about debris and boats in the water, and new channels and inlets? I know that after Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast, that was a big issue in New Jersey.
A: Oh yeah. I mean, Navionics is probably going to have to make new charts. You know the sandbar there in Islamorada? It’s almost gone. That’s where everybody takes their boats on the weekends. People dove Alligator Reef [4 nautical miles East of Indian Key] after the hurricane. All that sand that was there before it went all down the coral rock into people’s homes, up and over the highway, and all their stuff wound up in the bay.
Chokoloskee, in the Florida Everglades, I’m dying to go back there. There it’s treacherous on a normal day. If you’re not on plane, there’s passages you can’t make. The tides are such that you can’t return the same way you came. Any kind of debris is enough to take the skeg off your boat. There could be logs in there. People’s docks. The channels are going to be different. A lot of the markers are down. That’s a favorite recreational fishery. People come from all over the state to fish that area.
I had a Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing there in December (of 2016). We stay in mobile homes to keep costs down, and there are no mobile homes to stay in. They’re gone. It made me postpone and redo one event, and of course we lost participation, too. I saw hurricane damage all the way from Fort Lauderdale to St. Augustine. And then I had a sportfishing summit in Clearwater, and I saw damage clear across — all the way up Alligator Alley, toward Bonita Springs. Even concrete walls that go alongside the highway crashed. As you get toward Sarasota and Clearwater, it didn’t seem to be so bad.
Q: Shifting to environmental issues, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges and threats for boaters and anglers?
A: I think Florida is the No. 1 state for boating and fishing. The algae blooms affect a tremendous amount of the population in the fisheries. There are plans to improve the water flow … but it’ll take quite some time for that to happen. It’s going to have some negative economic impacts on the fishing and boating industry. In the Great Lakes you have the invasive species that affect the fish.
I don’t want to keep going back to the hurricane, but the canals — we went fishing [in late October], and the boat captain came back with the bait and said, ‘Since the hurricane, as soon as I get into the canal, my baits die. I just spent two hours catching these, and without these baits, these ladies are not going to catch fish.’ So, there’s something toxic in the canals from all the debris.
The Everglades, they have the saline issues from water flow. That changes the amount of salt in the water, and it also affects the sustainability of the marine species.
Q: Can you talk about the symbiotic relationship between fishing and boating?
A: As a single female, I had my own boat when I worked at Wellcraft, but I didn’t know how to fish. I didn’t know how to tie the knots. I just used square knots, and somehow I still caught fish. But then I got invited to fish a dolphin [mahi-mahi)] tournament on a boat with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was my first introduction to offshore fishing. I found it terribly exciting. I saw how it was done, and I wanted to learn more and have more opportunities to do it.
Q: Your first offshore experience was fishing a dolphin tournament with the Pittsburgh Steelers?
A: (Laughing). Yeah, I’m still friends with one of the guys, Gary Dunn. He bought the OV [Oceanview Inn and Pub] in the Keys. And I fished with Mike Webster. Mike has since passed away.
But the question was about the relationship of boating to fishing. The more I fished, the more I realized I didn’t want to be trapped on the shore because a boat can help you find the fish. There’s something about fishing that takes you away from your everyday stress because you’re focused on something positive and it’s exciting. You go through a lot of emotions, you know? You go from being upset because you lost a fish to feeling like a hero because you caught something you’ve never caught before. If you want to have fun fishing, you need a boat.
There are a lot of people who boat. It’s fun to go to the sandbars and take your kids and the floats. But when you’re fishing as a family, you become a team and you’re interacting. It gets the kids away from their cellphones and electronic games. Fishing takes boating to another level. You can come back and talk about what the beautiful sunset was like, but when you come back with a picture of the biggest mahi you’ve ever caught, that’s something you’ll tell people forever. And you probably won’t take those pictures off your phone because you make a lot of friends and business contacts when you can talk about fishing.
Q: It was a risk to leave your public-relations job and launch Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing. What was that like?
A: I’m a bit of a pioneer. When I first went to boat shows and tried to get support, some people laughed at me. Why should we put our efforts into the women’s fishing market when our target is men? I had some convincing to do, and back then there weren’t a lot of statistics on women. There’s been more focus on women from the fishing industry over the last several years. It was a risk. It was a trial. I didn’t know if the concept would be embraced or not, and the response was overwhelming.
I knew I’d found something. I knew there had to be a million ladies out there just like me that wanted to practice knots and learn equipment, learn the difference between a spinning and conventional reel, how to hold them, which reel goes on the top, which reel goes on the bottom, so people didn’t snicker at me when I got on a boat. And the industry came around. There were some people who embraced it right away and said this is a way to develop the women’s side of the market. Because not only do we affect the ladies who take the class, we affect women who see our media campaigns. Even if they aren’t taking a class, we are making a statement that this is a sport that women can enjoy and excel in.
Q: You’ve gotten 8,000 women on the water fishing, right? Do you find they continue?
A: Yes, 8,000 graduates. One thing I’ve got to say is when you’re offering hands-on opportunities, you’re limited by your venue side. We have to rent halls, and you’re limited by the amount of capable captains who will take the day off the water to work with these ladies when they can be earning $1,000. We may do 40 in one class, up to 160 in one class. It’s kind of like filling a bucket a drop at a time.
I can’t say 100 percent continue fishing, but I hear from them. I get pictures of them with ladies they met. They’re fishing in the Bahamas, they’re buying tackle — that’s why we do a fundraiser, so they can start the tackle collection — then they realize a couple fishing rods aren’t going to cut it. I have ladies take the class and become captains and guides. We connect a lot of people with opportunities.
Q: You’ve gotten a ton of national press.
A: Yes, I’ve sought it out, and it’s very valuable. Part of it has to do with my P.R. background. I don’t think small. I think nationally or globally. I do work on them, and sometimes one news article can garner the attention of a national TV conglomerate. The other thing is that we are organic. We are a story people want to hear. It’s not just fishing. It’s women tackling sports that are predominantly male. It’s women reaching outside the box to try something new. And the women in our target audience matches the target audience of these media.
Q: Does the marine industry still make too many assumptions about women? For example, assuming that the woman isn’t the person spearheading fishing, or that she won’t care about understanding and running boats?
A: They’re making a mistake if they don’t address the female sector because the women typically control the family expenditures when it comes to recreational fishing. They may not make all the technical decisions, but they are the ones that typically have power to say yes or no to the purchase of a boat or expensive tackle.
Q: Being on an all-woman fishing boat last summer, one of the biggest topics of conversation was gear made for women by women, because everyone was so tired of buying a men’s size small.
A: Well, the tackle industry thinks if they have a pink rod, that’s for the women. Not necessarily so. The trends I do see that are working with women is lighter tackle, more reliable equipment, equipment that’s easy to use, equipment with directions. You go to a tackle store, you see all these lures on the wall and it’s bewildering. If they had a picture of fish you catch with them, it would be easier for consumers who are learning. Things in a grocery store come with directions. Why doesn’t tackle? A fold-up flier in there, or a link online.
Q: How can we attract and retain more a more diverse group of boating and fishing enthusiasts?
A: I think one way is to promote the lifestyle of boating and the joys people can experience in boating. Our biggest market still is the baby boomers, and we’re finding it’s the grandmothers that are teaching the kids how to fish, and aunts and uncles because the parents are busy working and don’t have the time. That’s the low-hanging fruit.
Another reason why there may not be more women is the lack of mentorship. It’s hard to learn if you’re not on boats. So women seek out other people who are more experienced to get mentored. I tell women that if they wear clothing with fish on them, they’ll meet people who like to fish because someone will make a comment on it and start a conversation. We teach them terminology so they can go into a tackle shop and not feel intimidated. But we still have people who will get asked if their husband is here or have owners talk to the man and not the woman. It happens with boat retailers, too. There are people who see the light and realize how important the women’s market is to the sport.
There are some good sites out there for people who are getting started — Discover Boating, Take Me Fishing, Vamos a Pescar — those are good. We’ve found that to really convert non- and infrequent anglers into avid anglers and boaters requires personal contact and hands-on experience. That’s why we have captains sitting at tables, so they’re free to ask questions about fishing and boating that they may feel too intimidated to ask.
Q: What are some of the barriers to boating?
A: There are some access issues with overcrowded launch ramps and launching intimidation. Most women want to have someone with them if they’re trailering their boats. At many of our events we show trailer backing where we can, so they can learn it. Getting your boat in the water is a little bit scary. These guys pull in, back up, there goes the boat and then they’re gone. And if people are waiting in line behind you, people are backed up, saying, ‘Oh great, there’s a lady.’
Q: That seems like a barrier for anyone who hasn’t grown up doing it. Boating is a big investment to make if those barriers exist. How can new people get confident enough to make a purchase?
A: My example of that is Freedom Boat Club, which has come on to sponsor us. Joining a boat club is good way to get into boating. They have events for women, social events that ladies can go to, and they have some boat-handling instruction. Some of the boat dealers are doing things like that too. MarineMax has Women on the Water. I think those programs and hands-on opportunities also move the needle for women. On the downside, it’s time-consuming to have these events.
I think boat clubs are easier for people who don’t have the experience. The boat’s already in the water. It’s ready to go. They don’t have to worry about insurance and costs of ownership and maintenance.
We stress to ladies they need to learn how to drive a boat. In the worst case, if there’s one other person and something happens to that person, they should know what to do. We’ve been doing this for a lot of years, and there are a lot of people saying they want new participants and that they want to focus on women. Right now we are looking for some funding that’s necessary to continue the program. The ladies do pay, and that’s good because they have a vested interest — people are finding the free programs don’t work so well. We have an audience that’s committed, but if the industry wants more anglers and more revenue, they need to support causes that are not just casual encounters like ours; they are total-immersion-based weekends. Their support defrays what the ladies contribute and makes it affordable for more people. We offer the ladies a lot of bang for their buck. Most of them are surprised by how impactful it can be.
Q: How much does a weekend getaway typically cost?
A: It depends on the cost of our hall, the cost of our boat and fuel. We’ve had to cut back a lot. They can range anywhere from $49 to $149, and then they tip on top of that. In the Keys we can pay anywhere from $50 to $250, and we pay much more for hall rentals because they’d rather rent to weddings and we tie up the hall for a couple of days.
Q: So depending on location, between $100 and $400? That’s far less than it costs to charter a fishing boat for a half a day on the Cape, before tipping.
A: Some boats in the Keys charge some $1,400 a day. But that’s what cements the deal, getting them out on the boat fishing. It’s like learning a language. And then if you go to that country and speak the language, you have a better chance of retaining what you learned. So we have them go fishing as soon as they’ve learned. We had a lady from Ohio who came out to the Keys and released a sailfish her first day ever fishing. Some of us in South Florida, it’s four or five years before we’re able to catch a sailfish. I still get emails from her.
We had the four ladies from the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation in a recent class. It was actually pretty rough. Their boat went out, but we had two boats that wouldn’t even go out. One girl wasn’t feeling so well. The captain from a boat that didn’t go out was on his skiff, so he came to pick her up and took her calm-water fishing. She released a bonnethead shark. Then I met them back at the dock and she had a rod and reel with a fish chunk on it, and she caught about a 4-foot nurse shark from the dock. She’d never been offshore fishing before, and I said, ‘Now you have a fish story to relate to your customers and clients.’ You connect with people on another level when you’re sharing fishing stories.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.