"All women are b**ches and liars." Those were the exact words out of an older man’s mouth a few years ago when my partner and I were fishing on a famous Lake Ontario steelhead river. When this man first approached us, thanks to our completely gender-neutral appearance, he just seemed a little jealous that we had been out-fishing him and he wanted us out of “his space,” but when he figured out we were women, he began blurting out a rant about how horrible women were, including his own mother. This one-way conversation suddenly had nothing to do with fishing and had everything to do with hating women. While we didn’t feel physically threatened by him, he certainly made a spectacle and revealed himself as an unfriendly presence on the river.
In another instance, or rather several, I’ve had rocks thrown at me from a bridge above a very productive piece of water that I frequented in New England. Kids will be kids, but I never would have fished there again if it weren’t the home of many monster trout. Just a couple miles downstream from that bridge was a dam that we also fished a lot. One day while walking out on the ledge, we found two handguns in the water that looked to have been thrown over in hopes of them disappearing. Did I feel “safe” fishing in this part of town? Never. My head was always on a swivel, always looking and listening, but the fish were worth the risk.
Nine times out of ten, however, I’d say that the river itself is more of a danger than anything else associated with fishing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are about 3,500 non-boating, drowning deaths per year in the U.S. This equates to roughly 10 per day. Approximately 57% of those deaths occur in natural water settings such as lakes, rivers and oceans. Additionally, 57% of non-fatal drowning occurs in natural waters. High water, ever-changing dam levels, rocky bottoms and unseen holes are all real dangers on the water.
Daily Water Conditions
Go to waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt to track the conditions near you.
Cubic Feet Per Second
One cubic foot of water is about the size of a basketball. The daily water charts track CFS. The number shown represents how many basketballs of water are flowing by you every second. Don’t forget to check the conditions upstream of where you plan to fish.
Let’s face it, there are countless things out there acting against us. We live in a fear-mongering nation and there are crazy people and unpredictable animals everywhere. Fortunately there is one place that many of us find peace and tranquility- on the river- and even more fortunately, statistics show that women are safer on the water than they are in their own homes (great reason to fish more). I have my own experiences, thoughts and opinions on the topic of safety, but I wanted to find out what my fellow female anglers thought about safety on the water. I set up a short survey to delve into the topic, ultimately hoping to find out if women generally feel safe while fishing and what, if any, are the barriers to feeling comfortable and independent on the water.
The results were interesting for sure.
First, a little background information about the survey participants. Seventy-eight women responded over a two-week survey period. Most respondents currently label themselves as fly fishers, but many have experience with spin/bait gear as well. Ages ranged from 19 to 75 and the average age was 52. There are a LOT of mature women out there fly fishing! I hope I’m still able to wet a line into my 70’s. There was a wide range of fishing experience among respondents as well, ranging from 1 year experience to lifetimes of fishing, 66 years being the longest. The average number of years experience was 21 years fishing.
According to the World Health Organization, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide.
Now to the meat of the survey- when asked if they had ever felt unsafe while fishing, the group was nearly split, with 53% saying yes they have felt unsafe and 42% responding with no. For me, a response like this shows that safety is a real concern for women in the fishing community, especially when more than half of the respondents also said that they fish alone at least some of the time.
The next question of interest asked about the perceived barriers to women feeling comfortable and being independent on the river. Of the choices given, the number one answer was fear of falling/injury. Very close behind were fear of attack by other humans and general inexperience in fishing. There was no strong correlation to age or years of experience for this question. Very interesting results came from the question regarding what tools women bring fishing, either for personal protection or general outdoor use. Almost all respondents carry a pocketknife, which is a very useful tool in many situations, but surprisingly, nearly 30% of respondents carry a concealed weapon while fishing. The majority of those that said they pack heat are over the age of 50. Some form of pepper spray, for animals and/or humans, was the third most popular answer.
So, what does all this data mean? I think, as an educator, it gives me a good idea of topics that may not be covered as thoroughly in fishing clinics and workshops.
Many times we focus strictly on teaching about fly fishing- knots, casting, rods, waders, reading water … the list goes on, but despite all that knowledge, more than half of female fishers still feel unsafe on the water for one reason or another. One goal of all fishing workshops directed toward women is to give women the knowledge and skills to be independent. Maybe we should be including lessons on dealing with intimidation by other anglers, or the five best non-fishing tools to have in your gear bag.
In the meantime, I empower all of you to take safety into your own hands and be prepared on the water. In my case, I am a minimalist fly fisher. I am not a very big person so I like to carry as little as possible. I am, however, always prepared for many contingencies and would rather sacrifice that extra box of flies, that I probably won’t use anyway, for something more useful. I never head out on a fishing trip, or any trip for that matter, without drinking water and at least a small snack. Two other requirements in my fishing bag are a small first aid kit- Band-aids, alcohol pads, tampon (for broken fingers or bloody noses) and Benadryl tabs in case of bee stings- and a light of some sort, either a headlamp or small flashlight. I store all of these in sealed plastic bags and they don’t take up much space. I also carry an emergency whistle that works when wet. A knife is also an extremely helpful tool.
Although many respondents listed a cell phone as an essential in their arsenal, I would caution that they are only helpful when they have battery power and satellites available, which in many cases don’t exist in the places we fish. They also don’t function when wet. In lieu of a cell phone, I always tell someone where I am going and approximately when I should be back, especially if I am going alone. I usually say “if you don’t hear from me by midnight…” because inevitably, river time eats up reality and I’m often out later than I planned.
When it comes to the river, a wading staff can save your life. The collapsible ones that float are nice, but a wading staff can also be as simple as a perfectly sized piece of driftwood. The number one thing is that it is sturdy. Also, always wear a wading belt. This will prevent your waders from filling with water in case you fall in. Another tool that is helpful before you even leave home is the USGS river flow data. When my partner and I lived in New England, these charts meant everything. If the chart showed the river was above a certain CFS (cubic feet per second) we knew it was not safe to wade and we chose smaller water or stayed home until it came down. Not all rivers have devices that measure CFS, but many of the popular fishing rivers across the U.S. do.
Finally, a note on personal protection. Personally, I haven’t found myself in any situations where I felt in imminent danger from either people or animals, but many survey respondents shared stories of harassment from people on shore, grizzly bear attacks and even rape. While I don’t advocate for any particular personal protection device, as people should carry what they are comfortable with, I do advocate for carrying something. A knife is a great tool, but will only work in close quarters. Carrying it openly in plain site may help with the “don’t even think about it” message. Pepper spray/bear spray is versatile and works from greater distances. I carry this when I’m doing forestry work in black bear territory. When it comes to carrying firearms (concealed or not), I’ve heard many say that if you choose to carry, you must be prepared to take another life (animal or human). In other words, don’t carry a deadly firearm unless you are willing to use it, otherwise it is useless and may even be used against you.
Also, make sure you are fully aware of your State’s rules and regs regarding firearms and have your concealed pistol license on your person if you are in fact carrying. Most importantly, practice using whatever tool you’ve chosen to protect yourself. In case of a “last resort” situation, a fly rod whipped at someone or something works great too, as we learned in the middle of a pasture in Wisconsin, after dark, with a young spooky bull.
Thank you to all those who participated in the survey and shared stories. As minorities in the fishing community, I think this is valuable information to know. If you’re someone who is confident on the river, share your experience or be a river buddy to someone who is less confident. If you feel unsafe on the river for any reason, don’t let it be a barrier to you getting out - figure out what those barriers are and find a way to overcome them, either by teaching a friend to fly fish so you have someone to go with or learning a new skill that will make you more confident and independent. The women’s fly fishing community is growing and we are all here to help each other. Be safe and tight lines!