Jeannie Penney, a longtime fishing and conservation advocate on Alaska’s Kenai River, wanted to include more women in the sport. She and her husband, Bob, had been supporters of the Kenai River Classic, an annual Kenai River Sportfishing Association tournament that has raised millions of dollars for habitat restoration, fisheries education, research and management of the river.
The event, which drew about 100 participants Aug. 22-24 this year, had been growing in popularity among legislators and sponsors, but Penney wished more women would participate. She knew there were plenty of passionate female anglers in Alaska, so she started the Kenai River Women’s Classic.
“Everyone thought it was kind of cute that women wanted to have their thing,” Kristin Mellinger, who co-chairs the Women’s Classic, said to about 75 women gathered at the Penneys’ house the night before the 11th annual event. “Look at us now.”
For decades, women were banned from competing in bass tournaments alongside male anglers, according to Mental Floss. In 2005, an organization sponsored the first women’s pro tour featuring 88 female anglers. In 2008, the first female angler qualified for the Bassmaster Classic.
From gear to marketing materials, the fishing industry still largely focuses on men, but that’s starting to change, as studies show women are one of the largest groups of new anglers. Companies are suddenly beginning to realize they’re leaving money on the table by ignoring this large base of untapped anglers, since women hold between $5 trillion and $15 trillion in purchasing power, according to a 2013 Nielsen report.
Women Lead Growth
Women helped drive an 8.2 percent increase in fishing participation during the last five years and accounted for 45 percent of last year’s new participants, says Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation president Frank Peterson. But they often don’t feel welcome, according to a 2017 study, which means the industry has to do a better job including them, Peterson says.
And women are more likely to share their passion with other women and children, the way Jeannie Penney did when she launched the Women’s Classic. RBFF research shows more kids fish with their moms than with their dads, which contradicts the notion that fishing is a boys’ club. The research prompted RBFF to launch the Women Making Waves campaign, which features women fishing and boating, and a series of fishing workshops designed for women and girls.
Orvis began promoting parity in fly-fishing last year with its 50/50 On the Water campaign, which includes the creation of women-centric classes, gear and travel experiences. “A major problem faced by female fly fishers is finding gear and apparel designed for a woman’s body,” says the company. “Orvis addresses this issue with a complete line that won’t make you look like you’ve raided your brother’s closet.”
This fosters an opportunity to bring in a huge group of new women anglers, says Linda Leary, who has fished the Women’s Classic every year but one.
Disrupting the Market
Women are already fishing, so catering to them makes good business sense, says Leary, who founded FisheWear in 2015 to help fill the void in women’s fishing attire and accessories. “A lot of the clothing out there only fits guys, and it’s not something you can go from fishing to dinner wear,” Leary says. “Why can’t you wear something underneath so you can take the outer layer off and go to dinner or run errands?”
The idea came to her during a nearly 30-year tenure at Anchorage, Alaska-based trucking company Carlile Transportation Systems, where she served as president for five years and often took clients fishing. Leary, who grew up fly-fishing with her dad in Maine, saw that mostly men participated. She wanted to know why and encourage more women to join.
That’s when she noticed that many women weren’t physically comfortable wearing the men’s gear that was available. So she left Carlile and formed FisheWear, which produces functional gear with bright, ocean-inspired designs. “It’s been a little bit of a disrupter in the market, and that’s been kind of fun,” Leary says. “A lot of companies want to have a women’s line. It draws people into their shops.”
FisheWear’s designs caught the eye of executives at Orvis and lined up with the company’s push to get more women fly-fishing. They asked FisheWear to collaborate on the Orvis + Fishe Sling Pack designed for fly-fishing. “The first batch we had sold out within a month,” Leary says.
Finding other female anglers
The fish motifs on FisheWear apparel are about more than just style, says Betty Bauman, founder and CEO of Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing. “I tell women that if they wear clothing with fish on them, they’ll meet people who like to fish or who want to fish because someone will make a comment on it and start a conversation,” Bauman says.
But growing the female fishing base means offering them even more opportunities to learn, says Peterson. That’s what prompted Leary to buy Women’s Flyfishing in early 2018. The Anchorage-based company has offered classes and guided fishing for 30 years. “I really think there’s this untapped market for female executives in all walks of life that want to use fishing as a tool to relax and spend time with clients or colleagues,” Leary says.
Most of those participating in the Women’s Classic have been fishing for years. Many say they make it an annual event because it’s a unique opportunity to network with other women while they fish together. One boat during the Kenai River Classic held MSI Communications president Laurie Fagnani, co-chair of the Women’s Classic, and Melissa Boudoux, communications manager for Yamaha Marine, one of the event’s main sponsors. The guide was Kasey Loomis, who runs Eric Loomis Fishing with her husband.
Boudoux had been fishing only once before, so she appreciated Loomis’ patience while she learned the ropes. When Boudoux boated her first silver — the first fish she’d ever caught — Loomis shared her excitement. “It was just exhilarating,” Boudoux says. “Not only are you in this beautiful area — it was my first time in Alaska — but we were sitting out there a couple hours. To feel that tug, I finally knew what everyone was talking about. Learning how to reel it in and being able to hold the fish afterward, knowing I could take it home with me, was awesome.”
Boudoux texted a picture of her catch to her kids, who had also caught their first fish with one of her colleagues as she watched. Now she understood their excitement. “I screamed so loud, ‘I finally caught a silver!’” Boudoux says. “I was always intimidated to go fishing because I didn’t know how to do it.”
That excitement is one of the reasons Loomis loves guiding. “I get people who have fished all over the world and people who have never held a pole,” Loomis says. “With the experienced angler, my job is easy. They know what to do, and it’s fun to sit back, run the boat and net the fish when it’s time. And with the novice angler, you get to share a first fish memory and talk them through what the fish is doing.”
It’s especially exciting when she sees them hook a king salmon, she says. “The power these fish have is incredible, and I usually get more excited than the one holding the pole,” Loomis says. “That’s one of the main reasons I am still guiding after 12 years.”
Those moments are even more thrilling when she has them with her two daughters. “My oldest daughter, at 6 years old, was able to fight her first silver to the boat all by herself, from getting the rod out of the rod holder to getting the fish in the net,” Loomis says. “It was an awesome moment. Then when she got to help net her sister’s fish, netting was all she wanted to do. It didn’t matter if there was a fish on her pole — she would run to the bow and grab the net. I love it — that’s a true guide there.”
Boudoux’s first catch was such a powerful moment that when she returned to Georgia, she committed herself to learning more about fishing. She also wants to start a program with Yamaha to offer classes to novices. “I can’t be the only single mom out there who wants to take her kids fishing but didn’t know how to do it,” Boudoux says.
It speaks to the power of fishing. A plan developed more than a decade ago to welcome anglers in Alaska could translate to hundreds more new women anglers almost 4,500 miles away.
Jeannie Penney would be proud.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue.