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Women's fishing clubs recast sport's image

Two groups in Florida are helping change the demographic of a sport that has been dominated by men.

MELISSA NELSON, Associated Press
Published June 25, 2006

PENSACOLA

Pink rubber boots are necessary to avoid fish guts while reeling in red snapper and grouper, but are also a fashion statement and a good way to disguise unmanicured toes.

Lengthy fishing trips should start with mimosas.

Real "fisherwomen" needn't worry about baiting their own hooks - that's what deck hands are for.

These are some of the unwritten rules of the Fishin' Chix, an elite club of Pensacola women who took to the seas after Hurricane Ivan tore through their upscale neighborhood almost two years ago.

Founder Claudia Espenscheid, a former financial adviser for Merrill Lynch and PaineWebber, has since launched her own plan to expose more women to what she calls "Armani-style fishing."

She considers herself the Martha Stewart of fishing, "without the whole prison thing," and aims to revolutionize the sport by catering to women with sophisticated tastes.

She has done her research - pointing out that 29 percent of Florida women already fish. The American Sportfishing Association estimates nearly one-third of recreational fishing in the United States is done by women.

"It's my mission to inspire and fashionably attire women to get hooked on fishing," said Espenscheid, who is working on a line of pink fishing nets, lures, hats, boots and other items she hopes to market to sporting retailers.

The 40-year-old mother of two rarely fished before Hurricane Ivan hit her home on Pensacola Bay in October 2004. The Category 4 storm destroyed the family's boat dock, but Espenscheid found an escape casting a fishing net from the shore.

"I would be standing out there in my waders. It was my way of dealing with the stress, enjoying the beauty of where we live and blocking out all the stress of what we were dealing with."

Neighbors like Tracy Dalton saw her and began fishing themselves.

"Claudia had a vision," said Dalton, who attended a recent Fishin' Chix party at the home of another friend.

Dalton became so enamored of the sport that she featured a photograph of her family fishing on their last Christmas card.

Experts say the Pensacola group, which has about 50 members, is just one example of the sport's growing popularity among women.

Outdoor marketers have found it makes good business sense to reach out to women, said Monica Pelletier, spokeswoman for the national Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.

"The thinking used to be that the man is the one who goes fishing and he's going to decide whether to take the family along, but really it's the woman who decides where to take the family. She determines the activities," Pelletier said.

But Pelletier, whose organization represents boating and fishing retailers nationwide, said only a handful of small retailers and charter companies cater exclusively to women.

Betty Bauman of Fort Lauderdale began Ladies, Let's Go Fishing 10 years ago. The company offers seminars and chartered fishing trips for 300 to 400 women each year.

"We show them how to catch a fish twice their size with minimal effort. A woman's muscles are in her hips and her legs. We don't have the arm's strength to reel the fish in the way men do," Bauman said.

"A lot of women want to have a sport that is exciting and that they can be good at, that builds their confidence and gives them quality time with their family and friends."

Bass Pro Shops, the nation's largest outdoor retailer, is among Bauman's corporate sponsors. Women are a growing market for the fishing gear and apparel sold at Bass Pro's 33 stores, said Bass Pro spokesman Larry Whiteley.

"We offer a lot of women's technical clothing. In equipment, I don't know about that much that is designed specifically for women," he said.

The Fishin' Chix hoped to find pink rods and reels to match their pink rubber boots. After much searching, they located neon pink fishing lures online to give as Christmas gifts last year.

"You want to fish, but you want to look cute while you're doing it," Espenscheid said.

Although the official purpose of the monthly Fishin' Chix meetings is to plan fishing trips, the events are largely social. The March meeting included an open bar and catered appetizers served around an indoor pool. At one meeting, a skin care expert gave tips on the best products to protect the face from the sun while fishing. Another meeting was held at a kitchen store and a chef demonstrated how to prepare fish recipes.

The group makes an effort to include even those women who are the most timid about fishing.

"For all you people who don't like to fish or who are afraid you will get sick on a boat, you can fish from the shore," Espenscheid said at a recent meeting held to discuss a fishing fundraiser for an area children's hospice.

But honorary Fishin' Chix Capt. Wes Rozier says people shouldn't be deceived by appearances - some of the women have become excellent anglers.

They returned from a recent trip with speckled trout, snapper and redfish. Shrieks and cheers accompanied each catch. They became so excited, they even started a fishing cheer - "F-i, f-i-s-h, f-i-s-h-i-n-g, fishing, fishing!"

As Rozier patiently baited hooks and gave instructions, he said many of his female charter clients return with a better catch than his male clients because the women aren't embarrassed about listening to his advice.

"The ladies are quick to turn to me and say 'What am I doing wrong?' " he said.

And Rozier said a day out on the boat with a group of women or an evening at a women's fishing meeting can be a lot more fun than spending time with a group of men.

"All of the other fishing captains here, they envy me and want to get a part of this business. They tell me that I've landed the mucho grande of fish with these women," he said.

If You Go

FISHIN' CHIX: www.fishinchix.com or (850) 916-4444. Women's fishing club based in Gulf Breeze, offering lessons, events, charter trips. Annual membership dues, $100, plus trip expenses.

LADIES, LET'S GO FISHING: www.ladiesletsgofishing.com or (954) 475-9068. Based in Fort Lauderdale, with learn-to-fish seminars held around the country. Prices range from $95 for a weekend seminar in Colorado (not including accommodations) to $2,895, per person, double-occupancy, for a four-day Alaska trip.

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