Could 2020 be a breakthrough year for getting more female anglers on the bank? While it remains a major challenge and opportunity for the sport, the signs are encouraging. Dom Garnett caught up with Helen Nicholson-Herpe, to hear about her success in getting more women and girls on board at Crowborough & District Anglers Association, along with ways that clubs, fisheries and the sport in general can help.
Helen Nicholson-Herpe is passionate about getting more women fishing!
Does angling still have an issue when it comes to female participation? The world we live in can be quite a blokey one. We all know that women can catch fish just as well as men, but from dated male banter to a lack of facilities, it can be a daunting world for females to find a way in.
Could this be angling’s single biggest missed opportunity? You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know that women make up half the population. Those who try fishing often love it, too. You only have to talk to the Get Fishing team and Angling Trust coaches and volunteers all around the country to hear that uptake has been steadily improving; and yet we still have a long way to go.
“We’ve seen a noticeable uplift in female participation” says Dean Asplin, a Partnership Development Manager for the Angling Trust’s Get Fishing campaign. “The fact that our coaching days and events are all fun, safe and family friendly has definitely helped. Mums, daughters and sisters are having a go with the family and those who take to it often enrol in more sessions.”
Angling Trust Ambassador Marina Gibson, who is a supporter of the Orvis endorsed 50/50 campaign to level up the sexes in angling, has also seen an uplift in her own coaching sessions. “Interestingly, I’ve been looking at my guided and instructor days last year and the numbers were close to 50/50 between male and female anglers. It’s been a similar ratio with those visiting the school, too.”
There are also big variations in across the country, it must also be said – however the clubs and fisheries getting the biggest gains are those listening to the females themselves. This is where the likes of Helen Nicholson-Herpe come in. Serving as Women’s Match Secretary at her club, Crowborough DAA in East Sussex have been reaping the rewards of a growing female section. Helen wasn’t shy about sharing advice nor indeed pulling any punches when it came to discussing the current angling world with us!
From accidental angler to bankside regular
A keen angler for six years now, Helen has already boosted her club’s female membership to over 30 anglers of all ages. But while she just loves to give others a helping hand to get into the sport, her own journey is part inspiration, part pure accident.
“My husband wanted to get back into fishing, but has a disability and so, perhaps begrudgingly, I suggested I could help. At first I didn’t fish at all. It was winter and I was getting quite cold and bored – ok, begrudging. One day I just fancied giving it a go, took the plunge and was lucky enough to catch fairly quickly. There’s nothing like that ‘oh my goodness, I’ve caught a fish’ feeling! I was hooked from that moment. I ordered a rod and reel on eBay and have been an angler ever since.”
Helen has since been instrumental in setting up her club’s Ladies Match Group as well as getting more female anglers to join. But it wasn’t always plain-sailing and she quickly realised why the sport could seem rather daunting to a newcomer.
“It’s still primarily a men’s sport, and the atmosphere is very blokey!” she says. “It’s a bit like being in a pub – all the women and all the men tend to group up. They share the same jokes and even go to the loo together! Most club committees are still predominantly male, too. It can feel quite alien, unless you can make it more welcoming.”
From experiences on the bank, Helen also brings a fresh, revealing perspective. “Sometimes, especially if you’re alone, you’ve got nobody to chat to or you’re a little bit scared you’ll look silly. However, if you take the plunge, it can be a really friendly sport.”
As a man, the closest experience I can relate to is going to yoga sessions, a process which has done wonders for my back but initially left me with a similar sort of ‘fish out of water’ syndrome. The two things you immediately notice are that you’re usually the only male present, while everyone else seems disturbingly much better at it than you are, as you struggle to bend yourself into a series of humiliating shapes!
Yoga classes aren’t laced with male banter either, however, and attitudes within angling can sometimes be an added barrier. Occasionally, Helen has experienced some fairly cringeworthy comments and attitudes, too. “It aggravates me that some people will assume you can’t fish as well because you’re female,” says Helen. “Some men will literally walk right past you without asking how it’s fishing, and talk to other blokes instead.”
While we’re on the subject of labels and stereotypes, she’s Helen is also adamant that we don’t produce silly tags for each other. “I cannot stand the term ‘Wangler’ for a woman angler” she says. “Just no! I am an angler, just like you. If I can be a wo-man I can be a fisher-man.”
Luckily most anglers are friendly and approachable, but there’s a simple message here: we are all ambassadors for fishing. We are all anglers, who enjoy the sport for the same reasons, regardless of our gender or background, and it’s up to all of us to make the sport welcoming and inclusive.
Striking back for the ladies…
Despite initially feeling like a bit of an outsider, Helen has found a huge amount of enjoyment and success in her fishing. Joining a friendly club has helped, while she has also encouraged others to do the same, starting a ladies match group and encouraging mums and families to have a go.
The competitions have been a particular hit, demonstrating the power of friendliness and company to make women feel welcome. “The match group is lovely” she says. “It’s very habit forming, once you get into it, and we now have dedicated regulars. It’s always sociable and we have this funny, not remotely serious rivalry!”
She catches more than her share against the men, too, and takes great pleasure in doing so. “A lot of men can’t take being beaten by a woman” she chuckles. “I’m sometimes tempted to fish the mixed matches just to annoy them!” This doesn’t apply to Dave, however, one of her best fishing pals at the club. “We take the mickey out of each other relentlessly – but to be fair, he can take it even when I’m catching left, right and centre!”
Family days and coaching sessions have been another big win for the club. Any club can benefit from free support from the Get Fishing team, of course, who are active all over the country. Get Fishing is funded by the Environment Agency and uses fishing licence money to get thousands of newcomers on the bank every year. Get Fishing will help promote your events on www.getfishing.org.uk, provide help and guidance, and sometimes funding and an Environment Agency fishing licence “waiver” so that beginners at your events don’t need a fishing licence on the day.
Any club fishery, coach or even non-angling organisation is welcome to make contact with Dean Asplin (South of England) or James Roche (North of England).. In recent years Get Fishing has been a key supporter of Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign and has successfully positioned angling among other sports like cricket, baseball and hockey on the BBC and This Girl Can websites, making it far easier for women and girls to choose angling earlier.
“We have open days every year and lots of mums come with the kids,” says Helen, who is a regular volunteer. “We get some mums who aren’t so sure, or even think it’s a bit cruel, but you can bet by end of day they’re fishing too . I always like to shake the pot a little and give them the chance to fish – and they often beat their husbands!”
In fact, she finds the whole arena of family sessions an amusing perspective on gender stereotypes. “A lot of the newcomers don’t like maggots and worms. The mums will be open about this, but by the end of the sessions they’re fine with it. Meanwhile, it’s as if the dads have to pretend to be tough; you can see they’re cringing inside, but feel they have to show everyone they’re not scared.”
Besides family events, another successful exercise has been the introduction of special “Ladies only” have a go at fishing days. It might be 2020, but the sexes do still seek safety in company, it clearly seems. “You’ll seldom get one woman turning up alone” Helen says. “It’s always either with the kids or a friend.”
Other lessons in ladies’ success
Speaking candidly about the angling world, you find yourself chuckling as often as nodding in agreement with Helen. It’s a completely different view on a world that I’m so familiar with. Well, apart from the lack of suitable fishing attire- an issue I’m always bothered by as an oversized person with size 14 feet.
“Being able to buy waders and decent clothes would be a start!” she says. “I’m 5’2” and it’s a pain- as you probably know at the other end of the scale! I once had to buy a fishing coat- and even the smallest men’s size was massive. It would be great to have more clothing to fit women and different sized people.”
Other matters include feeling safe, having decent facilities and overcoming differences in attitude between the sexes. Some branches of the sport, such as fly fishing and even whole countries, seem to do better than others, it must be said. But is it realistic to try and get a much better balance of the sexes?
“There’s still that hunter gatherer thing” says Helen. “Men have more of an instinct to hunt.” Males are perhaps more ruthless and eager to become specialists or experts, she suggests, citing the crazy array of tackle and ton of kit often carried by specimen anglers. There are definitely different incentives at stake.
“I’m often happy just to sit back and take it all in,” she says. “I love nature and photography. I enjoy just being there.”
A healthier future for women in angling?
Following my conversation with Helen, there are almost too many valid points and question marks to relay in a single blog post. But it strikes me that if we are serious about getting more females on the bank, we should be asking women themselves rather than assuming we know the answers. My own perspective has certainly been broadened following our conversation.
The signs are certainly looking healthier than they were, but we can surely do much more. Furthermore, if angling is to survive in decades to come and address falling numbers, this could be absolutely crucial. So how can we all help, and what can clubs and organisations do?
Aside from having a welcoming atmosphere, the clubs that are succeeding are those who officially recognise and cater for female anglers. Whether it’s getting women on traditionally all male club committees, or setting up events for women or special awards, there is a lot more that can be done. Family friendly events have been a particular success in recent years, showing that the social side of the sport it vital with women; as Helen points out, female participants appreciate company and seldom attend any event alone.
The Get Fishing team are especially eager to do more and learn from recent successes. “Anecdotally, the signs are good” Angling Promotion Manager Will Smith tells me. “My colleagues have told me they see more women and girls coming to Get Fishing events and by quality assuring that events are fun, safe and friendly, and becoming part of wider campaigns that encourage female participation, we are doing our best to make sure that this continues.” Part of the current challenge to do just this is a lack of figures in areas such as licence sales to women, which Will is keenly aware of.
“Although there are no ‘official figures’ on the number of female anglers, we now have enough data from the events we run and fund to do some analysis in this area.” he says. “Using the figures from our annual events would help generate evidence to make a stronger case for additional funding for fishing as a way to help women access exercise and activity for example, albeit in a non-conventional way! We know that fishing is a brilliant way to be active, outdoors and has very real physical and mental health and wellbeing outcomes. You only need to speak to the women at Ladies Carp Team England, look at projects like This Girl Can, or read our stories on the Get Fishing Site (www.getfishing.org/tgc-stories).
There is no quick fix then, but this is a massive opportunity for angling that we neglect at our own cost. Not just in terms of numbers of licences and club memberships, I would suggest, but in making the whole sport more welcoming, and evolving angling into a more progressive pastime with a healthier public image. It’s up to all of us.
Could you use a helping hand to get more new anglers involved at your club or fishery? From advice on coaching qualifications to support with promoting your next event, the Angling Trust’s Get Fishing Team can help! See www.getfishing.org.uk for further information and current event listings, or get in touch with one of our team today: