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fishing

Gone Fishing

Women Anglers of Minnesota is putting women in the captain’s chair
By Katie Dohman

Pat Hauslein has fond childhood memories of fishing for muskies with her father. “I have the dearest picture of me at about 5 years old, wearing one of those old orange life vests. My dad and I are sitting in the back of the old wooden boat and he’s letting me steer.”

While Pat drifted away from the sport as she grew up, she came back to fishing when she moved to Minnesota 27 years ago to teach science at St. Cloud State University, located about 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

“I decided, ‘I’m in Minnesota now, I have to become a fisherperson if I’m going to live here,’” she says.

Pat found the Women Anglers of Minnesota (WAM), an intergenerational group aimed at bringing women together to fish, improve their angling skills, and connect with each other. The tenor of the group immediately resonated with Pat, who has since become WAM’s membership co-director. “We have that culture that says, ‘I’ll teach you,’ not ‘I’ll do it for you,’” she says. “I think that sets the tone so that women come in knowing it’s a safe place to ask questions.”

“We have that culture that says, ‘I’ll teach you,’ not ‘I’ll do it for you.’”-Pat Hauslein

Growing A Movement

WAM members pay an annual $25 fee, which grants them access to quarterly educational meetings, a private community Facebook page, WAM socials, fishing trips, and in-person and virtual tournaments, as well as discounts on equipment from brand sponsors. Many events are geared toward adult women, though girls are welcome at the family events and WAM hosts virtual kids-only tournaments.

While WAM has been around since 1977, the group has seen impressive growth in the past couple years. Between 2017 and 2018, membership exploded from about 150 to 700 members, attracting women and girls from ages 12 to 82. And while most live in Minnesota, WAM has members from surrounding states, plus some from as far as Canada and Texas. And this year, the group was inducted into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame—a female first.

Kristen Merwin, WAM’s president, attributes the expansion and success in part to brand sponsorships that have made it easier for many women to start fishing. Companies are recognizing the promise and the buying power of women anglers and are capitalizing on the opportunity by providing WAM equipment discounts and free instruction, such as classes on how to load and unload a boat. WAM has also received donations of ice fishing equipment.

Women Empowering Women

Though WAM has received attention for its recent growth, women’s affinity for fishing is nothing new, Pat says. “I [don’t] believe something switched on with women anglers, that all of a sudden there was a genetic mutation. They’ve always been there.” The community aspect of WAM is particularly appealing to women, many of whom may be more likely to find someone to teach them to fish than to learn by themselves, she says.

“Women have always gone out fishing, but been more in the passenger seat,” Kristen adds. “We get a lot of members who maybe have gone through a significant life change, like a divorce or breakup, and their partner takes the equipment. Or maybe they grew up fishing with Dad, but got away from it in adulthood, and want to teach their kids. They’re coming back to it in a more assertive fashion. They want to learn.”

Susan Peters, a newer member, often fishes with her husband. Because he travels for work weekly, she wanted a safe way to connect with other anglers to fish with when he’s gone. Multiple members echo similar sentiments, some saying they first looked into public fishing groups on Facebook, but those didn’t feel as safe.

“I love that it is just women-focused,” Susan says. “We don’t have to pretend we know everything about fishing. We’re free to say, ‘I don’t know how to tie a knot,’ and WAM will do classes on tying a knot.”

“I love that it is just women-focused.” -Susan Peters

The organization strives for “no barriers,” meaning that if you don’t have a fishing pole, someone will lend you one. No boat? Someone will take you on theirs.

WAM’s private Facebook group is a haven of encouragement and reinforcement. Posts sometimes share details about a personal best catch, but more often than not, they’re about mastering equipment, especially navigating a boat trailer and launch. As soon as a member posts her victory, positive comments stream in. For WAM members, one angler’s win is their win, too.

In addition, members thrive off the examples they set for each other. Kristen says women often join thinking they won’t do certain fishing tasks themselves, ever. “But it changes quickly when they see women around them and doing it with ease and well, it spreads like wildfire. They think, ‘Why can’t I, if she can?’ It really motivates them to give it a shot,” she says.

Providing Unmated Rewards

While Susan hasn’t been in WAM long, she’s already felt the senses of camaraderie and accomplishment the organization touts.

At her first “hard-water” (ice fishing) tournament last winter on Mille Lacs Lake, she was paired with WAM member Leah Bergantzel, whom she didn’t know.

“I had the best partner,” Susan says. “We had never met, but we have this friendship now. And we won.”

Well, sort of won. They placed fifth of five.

“It was the lowest placement you could get, and you would have thought they won Publisher’s Clearing House,” Kristen says, laughing. At the awards ceremony at the end of the tournament, “they came running like ‘The Price is Right,’ screaming and hollering. They were so excited that they actually left the whole event and never picked up their money, just the plaque. I called them later and [Susan] said, ‘We get money too?!’ That’s what keeps us going.”

Want to learn more about WAM? Visit the group’s website: www.womenanglersmn.com.

Katie Dohman has the great pleasure of writing about people living interesting lives around the globe from her perch in West St. Paul, Minnesota.