It was about 11 a.m. when I had to re-bait for the first time. Looking at my first flimsy bait job, the slimy peach clam dangling off my hook, I realized I could do with a few pointers.
I had missed the 7:30 a.m. beginning part of the lesson when the students learned to tie their rods to the boat. I also didn’t know how to “lock” my line.
Too proud or perhaps too embarrassed to ask for help at this point (my neighbors had already started catching haddock, pollock and ferocious dogfish), I tried to re-bait my hook without these skills. I balanced the rod with my knees and reached for the big bucket of bait.
But when I let go of the rod, leaving it balancing between my knees, the flavorless bait (the old one, still attached to the hook — salt water had cleansed it of the delicious juice and scent that attract fish) sank into the sea.
I panicked. I grabbed the line with my left hand (not part of fishing protocol), and while I stopped the bait from hitting the water and sinking 180 feet to the ocean floor, my entire reel became tangled in the process.
Now my fishing line was tangled, my line was not locked, I still hadn’t changed my bait, and I looked pretty silly. I supposed it was my punishment for having been late for the intro lesson.
Luckily, the instructors at Becoming an Outdoors-Woman take kindly to beginners. It was my first deep sea fishing trip and the first workshop I had taken through BOW. Most of the women on this fishing trip were in the same boat (pun intended) — they’d never been fishing before, and they, too, were looking to learn the basics without feeling stupid.
Why do this?
BOW is a program of workshops that teaches women outdoor skills usually associated with hunting and fishing, and also includes kayaking, canoeing, hiking, four-wheeling and survival skills. It was born out of a study at the University of Wisconsin looking into reasons why more women don’t participate in these activities. The study found women preferred learning these skills in non-competitive atmospheres with other women, according to the New Hampshire BOW website (nhbow.com).
While BOW is a national program, New Hampshire’s BOW is put together through combined efforts of New Hampshire Fish and Game and the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation. “Between these two organizations, we’ve been able to put together this really strong program,” said Laura Ryder, a NH BOW program coordinator who was a Fish and Game employee at the time.
“Even though we live in a state where you’re able to access these things … [the] majority of women who take part in BOW are between the ages of 35 and 55, and when they were younger, they didn’t always have access to learn these skills,” Ryder said. “For adults, it can be intimidating if you’re interested in doing something where you don’t really know where to begin. This program helps you get over the bump.”
No stupid questions
“First mate” John Sanfilipo, clad in orange fishing pants and a Yellow Bird fishing boat shirt, came over and said, “That’s all right, we’ll fix it,” in an Italian accent. He showed me how to untangle the line and how to lock it. He then demonstrated how to bait the hook, twisting the clam “once, twice, three times,” to ensure the bait doesn’t go free with a clever fish. It was a simple lesson, but not condescending.
The atmosphere on a BOW boat is far different than that on a typical fishing boat. There are no stupid questions, no showoffs, no levels, no “drunk, puking men,” joked one woman on board.
“It’s a totally different atmosphere in a women’s group — they’re asking questions, learning new skills. You’re not intimidated at all,” said Jess Tichko, a Let’s Go Fishing instructor and BOW fanatic. Let’s Go Fishing is an educational program offered through the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
“There’s a certain connection within these groups, as you learn new skills and meet new people, exchanging stories and experiences.”
The Yellow Bird boat full of 30 women, 26 miles from the Hampton coast, was the perfect place to learn how to fish.
New Hampshire began its BOW program in 1994 at the Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in Holderness, on the shores of Squam Lake. There were certain requirements — there needed to be water, there needed to be housing and wide open spaces for shooting ranges and archery, and so on.
“We reviewed seven or eight places in the state, but this one fit the bill,” Ryder said.
That first year, they could only accept 100 people for the Fall BOW weekend. It was filled to capacity, Ryder said.
Now in its 18th year, BOW still has to turn women away, even though it has so many more programs than it did in the beginning. The best bet is to keep tabs on the website (nhbow.com) or join the mailing list and sign up as soon as workshops open, Ryder said. Interest has been generated largely through word of mouth; a 2010 feature segment on the TV show Chronicle didn’t hurt, either.
Many other states took to BOW as well, but support has dwindled in some places due to loss of funding, Ryder said. In New Hampshire, BOW remains strong. The organization offers scholarships for participants who wish to take part but don’t have the funds. Not only is there the Fall BOW weekend (this year, Sept. 7-9) but there’s also a Winter BOW, fly-fishing workshops, trapping workshops and overnight hiking workshops, and this spring BOW had its second-ever deep sea fishing workshop.
This year, there were 135 spots for the outdoor weekend, and about 180 applied, Ryder said. There is a “repeat” policy — you can only repeat so many times, and if you are a repeat you get put at the bottom of the list unless you are bringing a new recruit with you.
What it’s like to catch a fish
I eventually came to enjoy the smell of saltwater and fresh bait being replaced every 10 minutes. When Capt. Rick LaPierre told us to tie our rod to the boat, I looked forward to sitting and watching the other fishing charters pass by, the whales’ tails flapping and the basking sharks swimming along. (This happened twice. While it was exciting beyond belief to see 25-foot sharks this close up, I pulled my line in. BOW hadn’t quite changed my fear of sharks just yet.)
The only thing more satisfying than riding aboard the Yellow Bird was reeling up a fat, floppy haddock for the first time. Kristine Smith, who led the BOW adventure on June 10, felt it was of utmost importance that every woman aboard achieved this euphoria, so she offered some help.
“Who hasn’t caught a fish yet?” Smith shouted to the 30 women on board. She waved “Lady Luck” in the air. This was the first time that her jet-black fishing rod, ribboned with green and pink, had been at sea, but it had already hauled in more fish than any other on the boat — hence the new name.
“Come grab my rod, feel what it’s like!” she said, encouraging women on board to try the implement, which was pieced together by her husband as a gift. Its feather-light weight made it easier to recognize the weight of a fish on the lure 180 feet below. In fishing, especially deep fishing, it can be difficult to decipher whether the tugging at your line is a fish, or whether the current, anchor and ocean are playing tricks on you.
All the instructors in NH BOW are volunteers — biologists, teachers, hunting instructors, Let’s Go Fishing instructors and more. This in itself says a lot about the program, said Shirley Johnson, who is on the BOW planning board.
“These volunteers are so wonderful and helpful — we’ve been so lucky. They want you to get as much out of these experiences as you can,” Johnson said.
“I love to teach, to show people how to do what I love to do. It’s well worth it, to see women doing something new, something that they’ve never done before on their own,” Smith said.
Smith also began with BOW, but at the time of her application she was unable to afford the $330 weekend. She’s now an instructor for Let’s Go Fishing, but she didn’t take up the sport until she won one of the eight (give or take) scholarships BOW offers each year. She also won a muzzle-loader.
BOW has given her many opportunities, she said, and she loves helping women learn these activities that she now shares with her young daughter whenever she can.
A sense of adventure
Joyce Chisholm, a 42-year-old mom in Concord, had never even learned to light a match before she “became an outdoors woman.”
Tipped off by her stepmother, Johnson, in February 2011, she decided to try out the winter BOW class.
“I was not a girly girl, but I’d never done anything like that. When I finally made my own fire, I was amazed. I felt like I could do anything. I took more classes — I caught a fish by hand, took a survival class ... I grew up in a family full of male hunters, and I just never thought that I could do that,” Chisholm said.
She’s taken her BOW knowledge and run with it. Now, she and her husband are able to spend more time together enjoying the natural splendor of New Hampshire, taking hunter safety courses, tackling all of the 4,000-foot-high mountains in the state. They also take their kids out hiking. They’re surprised at her newfound knowledge and love of the outdoors — “They sort of look at me like, ‘Who are you?!’” she said, laughing.
“It’s about taking that leap. It’s fun, exciting, and challenging, but I think that we all need to be challenged,” Chisholm said.
Johnson, has seen a definite change in Chisholm. A 67-year-old who loves to hunt (bears and turkey, especially), she loves that she has a new partner whenever she wants to go out turkey hunting.
Jess Tichko of Canterbury is another who was empowered by BOW. Unlike Chisholm, Tichko had a bit of fishing experience as a retired Fish and Game employee. For her, one of the biggest rewards came after the workshops.
“We took this game dressing class, and it was absolutely great — there were people in the class who’d never even seen a dead animal before, and we dressed a deer and a bear,” she said. “My husband and I went deer hunting afterward. We separated in the woods, and I shot a buck for the first time by myself,” she said. When her husband didn’t hear her whistle, she didn’t worry — she took the animal, gutted it herself and carried it to the truck. No problem.
Betty Lowell of Jaffrey, a participant in BOW’s deep sea fishing program, fell in love with BOW after taking the winter ice fishing class. She liked it so much that she signed up for summer fishing, too.
“I love the camaraderie between the women,” Lowell said. “I’m turning 70 soon, but I find that I just become more and more adventurous as I get older,” she said.
Camaraderie and accomplishment
At 57, Lyn Vignola of Hudson describes herself as your average “middle-aged, menopausal mama.”
It was a local newspaper ad that drew her attention to BOW. She read about the women’s intermediate fly fishing weekend in the White Mountains.
“Historically, fly fishing has been a male-dominated activity. The thought of making a fool of myself in a male-dominant learning environment would only affirm to the men, and to myself, why I might want to amend my bucket list to something besides fly fishing,” Vignola said. But to learn with a bunch of other women with the same lack of experience, well, that sounded more appealing. She sent a “pleading” email to BOW to consider accepting a newbie to shadow the group.
“I didn’t expect to participate, just to silently observe, see ‘what it was all about,’ so that I might consider taking the beginner class in the future,” Vignola said. “Not only was I warmly accepted, but I was also introduced to fish and bug identification, water safety, gear and gadgets, and fishing ethics,” she said. Before she knew it, Vignola had slipped into a pair of waders and was casting from a beautiful North Country lake and several pristine mountain trout steams.
She was “hooked.”
Many women enjoy BOW because they’re able to learn the basics without, to put it bluntly, feeling stupid. Finding that they can do things like start fires and dress deer provides a real sense of empowerment.
It’s also a great way to make friends. Lyn has connected with a variety of women since she began taking these classes. She, Vichka and another BOW participant, Arlene Miller, connected while out fly fishing and will travel all over the state to fish together.
“I’m not a social butterfly. While many of the women I work with like showing off their artwork or their shellac manicure, I like showing off the beauty of the elk hair caddis fly I made this weekend. They like to get together to explore the new shopping outlet in New Hampshire; I like to get together with newfound fishionista friends or instructors to explore a new pond to kayak or fish,” Vignola said.
For others, going back to nature enables a sense of peace or even healing. Vignola hopes that one of her best friends is accepted into NH BOW Squam Lake weekend. Her friend has had a rough few years, and she thinks that a weekend outdoors will help the healing.
“Of course it’s rewarding to see the light bulb turn on when women discover that they can do this. But to see firsthand how it enhances the lives of those other women, with physical losses, with damaged souls, to see them smile, to make them laugh, to make them forget for a moment — that’s the magic!” Vignola said.
“That’s something, alright,” Smith said, looking at my bent fishing rod. I felt something heavy at the end of my line, but I’d been tricked before. Was this a fish? Or perhaps a piece of seaweed? An overweight clam? Was my hook caught up in someone else’s fishing lines?
I began to reel it in anyway.
It took a while.
As the object came closer to the surface, I could tell it wasn’t one of the dogfish I had caught (or should we say fought) earlier. When there’s a dogfish at the end of your line, you can feel it fight. Dogfish were everywhere that day — they look like baby sharks. This was something different.
I kept reeling, reeling. My left forearm began to burn, tense from holding the rod so tightly. Finally, I saw something. A dark shadow formed where my line and the water intersected. As I reeled more, it grew bigger, more defined. The fat haddock broke the surface of the water, and I pulled him up to the boat and yelled for help. I hadn’t learned how to pull the hook out of its mouth yet. At just over 18 inches, this guy was a keeper.
My first mate, Meghan LaPierre, threw him into the fish bucket under the boat benches, and I baited another slimy clam on to my hook and re-cast. I offered to give the fish to my fishing neighbor and new friend, Kim Tuttle.
I don’t really like to eat fish, but catching them is sort of addicting.
All of us felt a sense of accomplishment that day, and I’m confident that my mates, like me, felt the sunny day at sea had a big impact on them. Although I was exhausted after eight hours, I felt relaxed and at peace at the end of the trip. And these days out in New Hampshire’s waters or New Hampshire’s wilderness seem to set a tone for the rest of the week.
“In New Hampshire, there are just so many wonderful opportunities for women to learn new skills and pass them forward. After the BOW weekend, I had such a natural high for the rest of the week — we all did!” Tichko said.