The fishermen came from all over the continent this week, over 100 in all. They came from Texas and Indiana; from Ohio and Ontario; from Alabama and Florida. In monsoon-like conditions, the anglers squared off on Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga in a kayak bass fishing tournament pitting the best against the best. Kristine Fischer was among them.

“I’m the only girl fishing the Open,” Fischer says, her voice breaking in and out from spotty coverage in the Appalachian foothills. The 31 year-old Nebraska native was in the midst of pre-fishing for the event. After three days of practice, and another three days of competition, she’d ultimately place 43rd out of 106 boats. That’s a respectable finish in what Fischer says was her worst tournament in years.

“A lot of people tell me I fish good for a girl,” Fischer says.”I find that to be frustrating. It isn’t necessarily received as a compliment. I don’t want to be seen as one of the best lady anglers. I want to be seen as one of the best anglers, period.”

While she might be alone in the tournament field, Fischer isn’t alone in that sentiment. She is on the leading edge of a women’s angling surge. Recent industry research from the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF) shows that 45 percent of all new anglers are women. We’re not talking ICAST booth babes with a snapper on Instagram—we’re talking serious anglers who can head to your local fruit jar tournament and smoke the field. And—according to the RBFF—we’re also talking casual moms and sisters who are teaching their children and brothers how to fish.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, women have been growing in the sport of fishing,” says RBFF Vice President of Communications Stephanie Vatalaro. “A really large number of newcomers to the sport are women, 45 percent. But they are dropping out at a high rate, too. We dug into the research, and only one in five women sees themselves in the sport. What that means is when they open a fishing magazine, or go into a tackle shop, they don’t see themselves. They don’t see other women, and they don’t feel like they belong.”

Retailers and manufacturers missing the boat

That research is echoed by boots on the ground. Traditions Media Director of Fish and Marine Communications Dena Vick has been fishing for nearly her entire life. Vick says that until recently, women’s fishing gear was on life support.

“Ten to 15 years ago, I’m not going to say women’s fishing apparel didn’t exist, but if it did, finding it was so hard that I might as well say it didn’t really exist. About eight years ago, that started to change. I could get the gear I needed, but it was still men’s clothing in a small or medium size. If I couldn’t find that, I was wearing athletic clothes or just my regular clothes. Now, it’s different. Companies are beginning to pay attention, but you’re still not going to find what you need very often in stores.”

According to Vick, big box retailers still fall into the trap of fashion over function. Meaning they are more apt to set the store with attractive clothing that isn’t as functional for fishing—performance-style yoga pants with no pockets.

According to Vick, smaller retailers and online outlets are carrying the banner for hardcore lady anglers who need the same level of performance apparel that their male counterparts do. “Smaller retailers sometimes have quality women’s items. They’ll at least order them for you. But you still have to order almost everything online.”

With no fitting room, that process often leaves Vick ordering two or three sizes of a product online before finding the right fit. “I have to plan three weeks out if I am going on a specific fishing trip, because the gear isn’t available in stores. If not, I’m wearing yoga clothes.”

Frank Peterson has been the President and CEO of RBFF since 2007. Together with Vatalaro, he oversees the RBFF’s arm, and the joint effort between the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) and RBFF to increase the number of participants in sportfishing to 60 million anglers by 2022. The former strategist for Mobil Oil has spent more than a decade trying to grow the sport of fishing, and he recognizes the incredible significance that women have in the future of the sport.

“What has traditionally been a male dominated sport where guys teach other guys to fish, where dads teach their sons, is shifting. More women are fishing for the first time, and more women are also taking out their sons and daughters at a higher rate than the men are.”

That transition in mentorship is crucial, Peterson says, because 83 percent of people who are fishing today learned before the age of 12. Ninety-four percent learned before they were 18. “Who is engaging more youth in the sport today?” Peterson asks and answers. “Women.”

Peterson says the current population of anglers is getting older and that we’re all fortunate the baby boomers are still out on the water. And, he adds, we need to focus on activating lady anglers. To do so, TakeMeFishing launched a full-fledged marketing campaign at this year’s Miami Boat Show. “We’re doing a top down and bottom up campaign through TV, print, and social media. We want to approach the grassroots and the media to break down stereotypes and let women know they are welcome and to showcase real stories of real women fishing.”

Back at Lake Chickamauga, as if on cue, Kristine Fischer posts a monster bass to her Instagram page, along with a short story.

It’s a good fish for any angler.

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There are some tournaments where everything clicks, and others where it everything falls apart. Chickamauga served me up a helping of the latter. After a very successful prefishing, I went to my first spot on the lake to get a “quick limit” only to find it to be completely blown out. I loaded up and heading to my big fish spot, and stuck a 19.5” fish on the trap quick, only to lose two other fish boatside on a spinner bait. Day two threw everyone another curve ball as the lake was up over 8’. My spot was a hard to get to slough and my fish were in less than 2’ all week. It took me a few hours to find shallow water but when I did they were there. After losing two 5lbers and 5 other bites on the jackhammer, I finally brought one of those fish to the kayak. Ended up 43/106 anglers. Tough pill to swallow but lessons learned and on to the National Championship on Caddo in March. Just goes to show we all have our days where we can’t make it happen. 🤙

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