Sinking Stereotypes: How Women are

ROVA Magazine, August 4th, 2019

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Adventure 14 cover


The sun was just starting to glow on the horizon along Fort Myers, Florida when 55 boats slid out into the ocean to hunt for the elusive king tarpon.

A giant silver creature that can weigh more than 100 pounds, tarpon isn’t an easy fish to bag. It leaps from the water when hooked, forcing anglers to “bow to the king” in order to not break their line. The battle can last 45 minutes, a back-breaking fight against man (or woman) and beast.

Sharon LaBree, a Bradenton, Fla., native, didn’t usually target tarpon, but as an avid angler since she was 2 years old, she was familiar enough with fishing to take on the challenge.

“Fishing has always been a way for me to relax and connect with nature,” she said. “The feeling of peace and relaxation and gratitude I feel every time I am on the water is spiritual for me. I just retired in March and am starting a charter business to share my love of the water with others.”

At the 8th Annual Ding Darling & Doc Ford Tarpon Tournament, LaBree captained the first all-woman team to go in a toe-to-toe search of the silver king tarpon on the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

Anglers from all over the world assemble annually along the Gulf Coast in search of the elusive trophy fish, as part of the tournament benefiting conservation education at J.N “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. Considered the “Tarpon Capital of the World,” tarpon has been pursued by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, and Al Capone --- with such a long line of men fighting for fishing glory, it’s time for women to reel in a victory.

“In its first year in 2012, there were 11 female participants. In 2019, we had 33 female participants, up from 24 in 2018,” said Birgie Miller, executive director of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Sanctuary.

“This year, we had our first all-female team with Sharon LaBree as the captain, and Sage Indendi was the female angler winner with one tarpon.” As the fastest-growing demographic in fishing, women are sinking stereotypes in the male-dominated sport of competitive and recreational fishing. More women are trying fishing, outpacing the men, and nationally, an effort is being made to attract women to the water. The challenge, however, is keeping them there.

WOMEN MAKING WAVES More and more women are taking up fishing, and Captain Debbie Hanson, a women’s sport fishing advocate and freshwater guide living in Estero, Florida, is among those working to empower more women to grab a rod.

Founder of, Hanson created a website that included information about fishing and an online community for women anglers new and experienced She also hosts seminars and classes for women who are interested.

“I think part of the reason we are the fastest growing demographic is that the sport is becoming more supportive of women out on the water. Women are realizing they can do it too and that it’s not just a man’s sport,” she said.

Hanson said that female-geared fishing events, seminars and outings are dispelling the myth that fishing is a “boys’ club.” Women are coming together to learn and to enjoy the camaraderie of other women. But, challenges still exist when it comes to luring ladies to the sport.

“I think overcoming the fear of learning - ‘I’ll look silly’ or ‘What if I make a mistake’ - is a big challenge,” she said. “Some women are afraid of making mistakes, but if they are out with other women, they find it less intimidating and are more open to asking questions.”

As a freshwater guide, Bowman said she’s seen more women charter boats as a “girls’ day out” activity.

“I think when women are with women, they enjoy the overall experience. They enjoy the learning process and they are not just focused on the end result. They enjoy spending time with other women anglers,” she said.

Still, the challenge of reaching those women remains.

“The key to attracting more women to the sport is continuing to make them feel like they are supported and welcome and to give them opportunities,” she said. National organizations are taking notice. In 2016, The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation announced its 60 in 60 goal to increase yearly angler participation to 60 million in 60 months. As part of that goal, RBFF launched launched Making Waves in 2018, an initiative designed to empower women and girls to cast off labels and rock the boat – with fishing rod in hand.

The organization launched the program to try to remove perceived barriers to the sport, increase the representation of women in fishing and introduce a series of angling workshops specifically designed for women and girls.

“A few years ago, we saw this trend that 45 percent of new anglers were female, but only 19 percent saw themselves visually represented in fishing,” said Rachel Piacenza, director of marketing for RBFF. “The representation was not as welcoming to a diverse population who wanted to fish, so we launched the women ‘Making Waves’ campaign.”

The Making Waves campaign compliments RBFF’s Take Me Fishing initiative that is focused as a multicultural family audience. All of the imagery on the Making Waves site and social media includes women as a way to show females that fishing is for them as well.

“We want to remove the barriers and the belief that fishing is hard or only for the guys,” Piacenza said. “We have had a lot of anecdotal feedback so far, and it seems women are excited, empowered and energized about fishing and ready to introduce and inspire little girls out there to be a part of fishing too.”

RBFFand its partner, Fishing’s Future, introduced fishing events specifically for women and girls across the country, and more and more companies are also targeting women as customers.

“There are companies who are starting to provide fishing apparel for women now, which is nice. I actually purchase men’s shorts that have the pockets and functionality I like for a day of fishing,” said LaBree. “I do not see anything holding women back from fishing. Just do it!”

FISHING BY THE NUMBERS Fishing participation is on the rise. In 2016, the number of people fishing increased by 1.5 million participants, reaching the highest participation rate since 2012.

The “2017 Special Report on Fishing” by the Outdoor Industry Association showed despite the growth, casting a line is still seen by many as being a sport for males. Almost 34% of males thought that a fishing participant would look like them, while only 19.3% of females thought the same. Out of 49.1 million Americans who went fishing in 2018, 34% were women. That means that 16 million women anglers cast their lines at least once last year. The flip side is that 42% of women who tried fishing for the first time never came back to it.

The American Sportfishing Association’s “Sport Fishing in America” report said that each year, more than 49 million people hit the waters in hopes of reeling in a fish. The number of anglers in America outnumber the population of every U.S. state and recreational fishing is the nation’s second most popular outdoor activity after jogging.

Fishing enthusiasts are also an economic powerhouse, according to the report. In 2016, the average angler spent $1,392, or $130 per trip. That $130 per trip adds up quickly, totaling $49.8 billion in annual retail sales.

Add in dollars spent on other items like bait, sunscreen, snacks and drinks, and 35.8 million fishing enthusiasts are baiting the economy like few other sportsmen do.

Of the entire outdoor recreation economy’s 2.2 percent of the gross domestic product, fishing and boating provide the greatest contribution to the outdoor sector.

It’s no wonder every state is trying to bait anglers, especially women.

WHERE TO GET HOOKED North America has no shortage of places to drop a hook. Although coastal states like Florida, Maine and California are popular sites for saltwater and freshwater fishing, America’s midwest is also luring in anglers.

In June, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell announced the launch of the Oklahoma Fishing Trail, a new tourism initiative designed to increase revenue for Oklahoma.

“Our goal is to become a top 10 tourism state, and the No. 1 fishing state in the nation,” said Pinnell, who is also the state’s Secretary of Tourism and Branding. “Fishing is big business, and the Oklahoma Fishing Trail initiative will promote our state’s unique fishing opportunities — arguably the most diverse fishing in the country — increase tourism, and generate additional tax revenue for the state.”

The Oklahoma Fishing Trail highlights 38 lakes around the state, plus an additional list of 20 Central Oklahoma fishing experiences that are part of the Wildlife Department’s Close to Home Fishing Program at

Surrounded by the Great Lakes, Michigan is stocked with lakes, bays, rivers and other bodies of water lure in anglers from around the world. Salmon and steelhead from the Great Lakes are the most popular fish along the inland islands of the Great Lakes.

Michigan also has a program called “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” that introduces women to outdoor skills necessary to enjoy activities shooting and hunting, fishing and eco-sports, such as kayaking, camping or orienteering.

Montana, long famous for its fly-fishing, introduced the “Montana Women’s Fly Fishing School,” which offers a no-pressure three-day course in fishing, learning, and exploring some of the best waters in the state.

The Florida FIsh and Wildlife Commission is also eyeing women in fishing with the Adult and Women's Saltwater Fishing Clinics designed to introduce women to saltwater fishing and educate participants on how to be responsible, ethical stewards of Florida's marine resources. Fort Myers and Sanibel Island in Florida is known as the tarpon fishing capital of the world, so it’s a popular area to try to bag one of these giants.The area also boasts of 12 RV parks with easy access to wildlife refuges, miles of sandy beaches and easy fishing spots.

No matter which state you find yourself in, it’s likely to have some sort of program for anglers of all stripes, so it’s easier than ever to drop a line and bait a hook.

The RBFF’s website at includes an interactive map showing places to boat and fish throughout the nation and how to apply for fishing licenses in each state.

“The tide is starting to turn. Women are saying, ‘Yes, I can fish. I’m out here and I’m ready to inspire others,’” said Piancenza. “We’ve always been out there as women fishing, but until recently, we’ve not had much representation in the industry, in catalogs and in fishing shows. That’s all changing.”