The roots of angling in literature can be found in the Bible, in the story about Simon Peter fishing at night with a few buddies on the Sea of Galilee, and being skunked.
Centuries later, in 1653, Izaak Walton published a genre follow-up, “The Compleat Angler,” which, like Simon Peter’s biblical tale, is dominated by men — so much so that even Walton’s fish are assigned male pronouns.
Lo now these many years afterward, with the advantage of hindsight, perhaps if women had been invited on some of those early angling adventures, fishing, the sport, wouldn’t be in the pickle it is today, with license sales in Minnesota and elsewhere declining even as the nation’s overall population swells.
Minnesota, for example, issued 7.5% fewer fishing licenses last year than it did 10 years ago, even though the state gained some 400,000 residents in that period.
Minnesota men and women dropped out of fishing in roughly the same proportions in that span, according to Department of Natural Resources records, suggesting that whatever social, demographic or other changes prompted the overall decline, they were gender neutral.
But if a participation falloff among anglers is true, how can it also be true that the state’s two major women-specific angling groups are growing by veritable leaps and bounds?
Membership rolls of WAM — Women Anglers of Minnesota — prove the point.
In the past two years, the group has jumped from about 150 enrollees to more than 700 today.
Similarly, Fly Fishing Women of Minnesota (FFWM) has tripled its size in the past three years and today counts more than 150 women among its ranks.
“WAM is a significant part of my life,” said Kristen Merwin, 43, the group’s president. “It’s huge. Many of our members have made lifelong friends because of WAM.”
No other Minnesota angler-recruitment programs, including those sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources, have been as successful as WAM and FFWM in introducing women to the joys of fishing and ultimately recruiting them into the angling fold — this, despite the fact that fishing, like hunting and most other traditional outdoor activities, is male dominated.
A review of recruiting methods employed by WAM and FFWM show similarities, chief among which are atmospheres that are welcoming, nonjudgmental and encouraging. The groups’ members enjoy — even relish — the opportunity to explore their fishing interests without having to ask husbands or boyfriends for instruction.
“WAM provides a very open, safe and encouraging environment, which is important to women,” Merwin said.
Twin Cities resident Patty Johnson discovered WAM by accident in January 2017 when she and two women friends attended a women’s ice fishing class at a northern Minnesota resort.
“The event, it turned out, was sponsored by WAM,” said Johnson, 51. “Neither my girlfriends nor I had ice fished before, and there we were, in subzero weather, learning about depth-finders, augers, everything. And we caught fish through the ice!”
An eager learner, Johnson won 2017 WAM Rookie of the Year honors, and in the years since has been “slowly building her [fishing] arsenal.”
“I got my own boat last fall, and just last week for the first time I put it in the water,” she said. “A fellow WAM member came with me to help. Loading the boat, I found, is still a challenge. But I’m learning.”
FFWM vice chair Corie Berrigan believes removing barriers that keep women from trying fishing is important. Her club, she said, has waders and fly rods that new members can borrow so they don’t have to buy equipment while determining if fly fishing is for them.
“We have a lot of clinics in spring, along with fishing events on nearby rivers,” Berrigan, 56, said. “That way our members have the rest of the summer to use their newly acquired knowledge.”
Berrigan grew up hunting and fishing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She and other of the club’s experienced fly anglers make it a point to teach newcomers the basics of casting and fly-tying.
“Members new to the club want to learn about fly fishing,” she said. “But many also are coming for the camaraderie.”
Erin Murray, 33, found WAM five years ago after she and her significant other split.
“He was the one with all of the gear,” she said. “When we went our separate ways, I lost that outlet for fishing. I did fish a couple of times after that with men friends, but I was afraid to ask questions.”
When she subsequently fished with girlfriends, she said, “It felt different.”
“So I googled ‘women fishing clubs in Minnesota’ and WAM came up,” she said. “I went to one of their fishing events and was put on a pontoon boat with four women I didn’t know and in a cabin with three women I didn’t know. I had a great time, and about six months later I was on the board of directors.”
WAM holds its biggest fishing tournament of each year on the first Saturday in June. The site this year is Woman Lake near Hackensack, Minn.
“It’s a competition, but everyone wants everyone to catch fish,” Merwin said. “It’s another chance to learn.”
Which, after a fashion, is what Jesus suggested when he commanded Simon Peter and his friends back onto the Sea of Galilee to fish again.
And what Izaak Walton believed when he famously penned in “The Compleat Angler”:
“As no man (OK, insert, ‘or woman’ here) is born an artist, so no man (ditto) is born an angler.”