Women embrace freshwater angling in Aotearoa New Zealand

Freshwater angling is witnessing a palpable change in New Zealand that amplifies women's voices and presence on our stunning lakes and riverbanks.
Freshwater angling is witnessing a palpable change in New Zealand – one that amplifies the voices and presence of women on our stunning lakes and riverbanks. Amidst New Zealand’s breathtaking landscapes and internationally renowned waters, a new chapter is unfolding—an exciting tale of empowerment, and participation which reflects the diverse ways women are entering and experiencing freshwater fishing. What is it that pulls them to the water’s edge? What prevents them from accessing that space? 
By sharing our stories, challenges and solutions more women will get to enjoy the physical, mental and social benefits of freshwater angling. Acknowledging these experiences brings a greater understanding of how women find their way in this awesome pursuit, and with that how they contribute to the betterment of freshwater angling for all New Zealanders.  
Leigh Johnson – Dabbled now Dedicated
As a child, Leigh was intrigued by fly fishing but she didn’t fly fishing until her 30s, encouraged by a work colleague. She shares, “I bought a rod and expensive custom-made neoprene waders (a necessity because the men’s sizes didn’t fit). I don’t think I ever caught a fish on that fly rod. Now, when I’m asked about my freshwater fishing experience, I say I’ve fished on and off for 30 years. Mostly off!” But she cherished how time on the water was good for her body, mind and soul. Once retired, Leigh and her husband joined the Kapiti Fly Fishing Club – where she is now an integral part of the club’s leadership, specifically women’s development. Leigh admits, “I’m envious of women who have learned to fish as children. They have skills that will take me years to acquire”. Noticing the lack of women (two of 60 members) Leigh initiated Kapiti Women on The Fly, with the sole purpose to get more female club members. Since then Women on The Fly NZ has grown organically due to the enthusiasm and encouragement from members of the Kapiti and Taupo Fishing Clubs,  and support from Wellington Fish & Game and the New Zealand Women’s Fly Fishing Team, (the NZ Fly Ferns). 
Renee Heemi – (Ngati Kahungunu) Spinning and Slaying it
Despite no childhood fishing background, an outing with a family member and a spinning rod 10 years ago, left Renee with a passion for freshwater fishing. Self-taught at mid-life, Renee has been known to spend all day exploring the river, until a worried family member would seek her out of the dark to encourage her home. (She is one of a small group of women happy to brave the elements solo.) This is her ”break out time” – from the stress of juggling family and self-employment. Though she wanted to learn fly fishing for some time, Renee could not find a woman to teach her.  “To be honest, the men I asked were not very helpful.” Finding a group of like-minded women keen to get out on the water has been pivotal in Renee’s pathway to expand her repertoire of skills. Since attending the inaugural Women on the Fly workshop held in Upper Hutt in November 2022 Renee has added a fly rod to her collection of 25 spinning rods.
Rachel McNaeCompeting and Carving Space
Following her older brother and father along central North Island river paths since she could walk, Rachel, Captain of the NZ Fly Ferns, had the advantage of learning to fish from an early age.  She shares, “It was an apprenticeship of observation, and trial and error”. Growing up in the Bay of Islands opposite a trout hatchery helped fuel the passion as did winter holidays in Hatepe, launching homemade flies into the Hinemaia Stream. Four years ago competition fishing entered Rachel’s life and she was selected to compete at the 2020 Commonwealth Championships, at which the New Zealand Silver Flies earned the bronze medal. Being one of two women involved, she reflects on the challenges she had to overcome. “It was lonely and a steep learning curve. I thought, how can I get more women into this?” Creating training workshops and online groups, Rachel’s mentoring has generated a surge in the number of women competing in regional championships. “It’s so good to see a sisterhood of passionate anglers, there for different reasons – including the mental health benefits, learning and high performance aspects.  Working at the individual level has its rewards through the growing number of smiles on the riverbank. However, she emphasises how working at the strategic level as a board member of Sport Fly Fishing New Zealand has created pathways for more women. Sport Fly Fishing New Zealand is sending their first all-female team to the FIPS Mouche Ladies World Championships in Canada in September. 

Where are the women?

Historically deemed a male dominated pursuit, women’s freshwater angling activity remains statistically low. Fish & Game statistics report amongst the 2022/23 licence holders 13% are issued to women (source). However, there remains some confusion regarding how family licences are counted in this data, which may mean in reality the number of women anglers is far lower than this.  How many women do you meet on the river or lake?  One in 20, 10, 5, none?  Do you ever wonder why there aren’t more women anglers on our rivers and lakes? Or asked, why don’t I see more women at my local fishing club?  The reality is most clubs have only a handful of female members.  However, recent efforts in some regions have seen female club membership increase by over 300% in the past 3 years. 
Breaking down the barriers
Women bring a richness of experience, growth to club memberships, and much needed diversity to freshwater angling. Research tells us female-led initiatives are key to turning around the numbers, and once there is a critical mass of women involved in freshwater angling there is a flow on effect into angling club numbers and more formally organised events.  
However, in order for this to happen, it is important to acknowledge what attracts women to freshwater fishing and most importantly, address the barriers women encounter. Recent research completed by the University of Waikato exploring women’s leadership in fly fishing and University of Otago’s ongoing study into the experiences of female licence holders, along with anecdotal evidence highlights critical things to consider.  
Access to knowledge and learning how women like to learn
We both know female anglers with a generation of fathers who did not teach them how to fish. Maybe the men wanted to keep their fishing time all to themselves, or they didn’t perceive that angling was a suitable recreational activity for their daughters.  Is this generational “tail” a reason why many fishing clubs have a predominantly older male membership? Understanding the ways women like to learn and having suitable mentors to grow their foundational knowledge is essential.
A culture shift
To truly embrace women as an integral part of the freshwater landscape, it is essential to welcome them without any preconceived biases and to actively disengage stereotypes that undermine their presence and achievements. For example, greeting a female angler in a shop with “buying a gift for your hubby today then?” is not inclusive and welcoming.
Closer to home, women have shared their experience of joining a fishing club but then choosing not to renew their annual subscription when they found the culture wasn’t conducive. Looking at how fishing clubs’ culture, rituals, language, and practices can discourage women is a starting point. Finding out what women want and expect from a club is a good next step. 
Physical barriers
While there are still challenges in accessing equipment, particularly boots and waders, it is encouraging to witness an expanding selection of gear designed by and for women. Other physical barriers include the difficulties faced when attending trips away because there isn’t suitable co-ed accommodation. A favourite anecdote is about the woman who resigned from a large fishing club because she was not permitted to join a weekend trip away.  Later she rejoined, playing a major role in lifting female membership to more than 50%.
Personal safety  
Fishing alone as a woman can feel unsafe, both when encountering male anglers in remote locations, or in challenging conditions where physical size and strength impacts their ability to wade or fish safely. Modern safety technology, GPS, PLBs can help with this.
Perceived freedoms
Another barrier is the guilt some women feel for spending time and money on themselves, instead of prioritising their families. This isn’t only a female issue, but many mothers share with us how they would love to fish more but time and guilt holds them back. 

Find your way into freshwater angling

Whether it is heading down to the local creek in search of hungry eels, on the wharf hauling in catfish, stalking drain edges for carp, soft baiting, harling or trolling the lakes, whitebaiting, or fly fishing and spin fishing rivers for salmon or trout, the opportunities are endless.
Spin fishing is commonly seen as a technique that is relatively easier to learn. However, mastering spin fishing is an impressive skill set in its own right. It can be less expensive and brings excellent results. Fly fishing is great for those desiring a more technical pursuit. We can all sit in different camps on the various freshwater tactics, however, let’s agree that the feel of your first fish on line is a thrill that we’ll never forget.  To get yourself, or a woman you know, involved:
Join a club
There are many fishing clubs throughout New Zealand looking to diversify and grow their membership. Clubs also offer activities beyond fishing, for example participating in local conservation efforts and fly tying. As more women join, club cultures may evolve enticing even more female members.
Hire a Guide
Learn from the best by hiring a professional guide to learn the foundational skills which will set you up for success.
Give it a go
Buy an inexpensive rod and reel combo and licence.  Freshwater angling does not need to be expensive. To find out where to fish, NZ Fish & Game have a list of “Park and Cast” locations. Discover what it feels like to be on and in the water. Learn to skipper a boat. Get your hands on a kayak. Roam the lake edges and river paths. Read books, watch YouTube, make friends with the local tackle shop staff and bombard them with questions on where to go, what to use.
Get the family involved
Join in by getting out on a family member or friend’s boat, or take the children to one of the many fish-out days held by local clubs, or Fish & Game.  Create fabulous memories by getting out a topo map to search for exciting wilderness adventures. 
Competition fishing
For women who want a more competitive element in freshwater fishing, keep an eye out for local and regional competitions. These offer opportunities to fish new water with a group of like minded anglers.  For example, Sport Fly Fishing New Zealand members host and attend regional, national and international events on lakes and rivers. At great way to see the world! With an increasing number of female competitors, at some of these events over half the field have been women. 
Social Media and online forums
What’s happening here in New Zealand is part of much bigger movements of community-building through women-led events and social media communities. Check out United Women on the Fly (www.uwotf.com) and the Orvis 50/50 campaign (an industry-wide initiative to increase gender parity in fly fishing).
Join the Women on The Fly NZ
Find other women to fish with you, learn from other’s experiences and be part of an inspiring online community. To stay informed about meet-ups and workshops leave your details at www.womenonthefly.nz or social channels @WomenonTheFlyNZ.  When Women on The Fly participants shared the reasons why they fish, the common response is the love of water, learning a new skill, the technical elements of managing rods, reels, line and lures and flies, and the friendships made with other female anglers. The bonus – catching fish.

Concluding thoughts

The presence of women on our rivers and lakes is not new. Women have fished to provide for their families, for pleasure, recreation, and sport.  However, the signs show us that a powerful movement is upon us that challenges stereotypes and reshapes the perception of what it means to be a freshwater angler. This movement is gaining momentum, fueling a community of passionate female anglers who have found solace, sisterhood, adventure, and personal growth in our stunning rivers and lakes. With the support of local clubs, female-led initiatives, and through a shared vision, women are increasingly taking their place on the riverbanks, defying expectations and forging their own path. Now is the time for New Zealand women to experience what it’s like to be part of a movement that is changing the nature of freshwater angling here and worldwide. 
Leigh Johnson and Rachel McNae
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