Becoming an Outdoors Woman Workshops Teach Women to Hunt and Fish

With some tweaks, the colorful minnow and feathered lures would make pretty cute earrings, I thought, or great Christmas tree ornaments.

Spread across a table, the lures were bright and arresting — and would be to crappies, muskies and smallmouth bass as well, as a half-dozen other female students and I learned from the biologist teaching our Advanced Fishing class. She said that many fish species see other spoon-shaped lures, called spinners, as a “shiny, fun thing that’s going to get my attention and I can’t resist it.”

A classmate exclaimed, “Spinners are my favorite!”

Advanced Fishing was my final class in the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program, a two-and-a-half-day workshop offered to women to promote interest and ease in the great outdoors. In this workshop, hosted by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and held in Davis, a town partly surrounded by the Monongahela National Forest, I learned not only how to lure a fish, prepare wild game, back a boat trailer down a ramp and shoot a handgun, but also the ins and outs of stream ecology.

While I love the great outdoors, I am not a hunter, an ecologist or an advanced angler — in fact, I had only fished in fresh water twice before the program. Once in 2014, for rainbow trout in Sun Valley, Idaho, and before that, on June 10, 1987, with my grandfather at East Fork Lake in Batavia Township, Ohio. I caught a bluegill that I brought home in a bucket. I remember these details because they are preserved in a letter 7-year-old me wrote my grandfather that we found tacked to the inside of his closet door after his death. (This testament to my first fish and my grandfather is now framed on my living room wall.)

Some 36 years later, after spending my adulthood in the country’s largest cities, I have surprised those who know me, and to some extent myself, by deciding to build what will be my first house on a five-acre parcel in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains. Exploring my new backyard by getting to know its people and attractions — and favorite pastimes — was my next step.

Becoming an Outdoors Woman, or BOW, workshops have been around since 1991, and West Virginia hosted its first one in 1997. Conceived during a conference in 1990 at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point on “Breaking Down Barriers to Participation of Women in Angling and Hunting,” they aim to close the gender gap by offering women a chance to learn outdoors activities from and alongside other women. Peggy Farrell, currently the director of the international BOW program and coordinator of workshops held in Wisconsin, said that one of the standout takeaways was that women wanted to learn how to fish and hunt; they just wanted to do it on their terms.

“If you’re going to take women out to the trap range to shoot clay pigeons, it’s not about who shoots the most, or prizes for the number of clay pigeons or anything; it’s about creating a noncompetitive environment,” Ms. Farrell said.

BOW workshops are currently offered in 35 states and six Canadian provinces, Ms. Farrell said. Most are run by state departments of natural resources or fish and wildlife, and are designed to cover their own costs via registration fees, which range from $150 to $500, depending on the location and caliber of accommodations. To use BOW’s branding, workshops must follow a two-and-a-half-day format with programming split into roughly equal thirds among fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities such as climbing and using a compass. I will admit feeling a twinge of relief when I didn’t get it into the popular You Got a Deer? class on field-dressing the carcass — the process of removing its internal organs. There were also sessions on birding, fly fishing, bow fishing, making jam and nature crafts, along with an overnight backpacking trip.

Ashley Anderson, a park activities coordinator at the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, planned the fall BOW workshop in Canaan Valley for 75 or so women, some who came from New Jersey, Missouri and elsewhere. As Ms. Anderson tells it, when she joined the department in 2019, shortly after her college graduation, she discovered some old paperwork related to past BOW workshops. She “begged” her higher-ups to take the program back from the state parks system, where it had fallen dormant. About a year ago it became a part of her portfolio.

“I love to fly fish, white-water raft, go backpacking — there’s not one thing I don’t like in the outdoors. So I thought: This is for me. I’m passionate about this. I want women to get out here, feel comfortable and do something they might be scared to do on their own,” Ms. Anderson said.

A woman in my trailer-backing class said she was there to learn from other women because when her husband tried to teach her, they ended up bickering. As I drove back from stream ecology class to our home base at the Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center, my passenger and I sang to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and agreed that it just isn’t the same when a man sings it. When I fired my first-ever handgun, a Glock 17, my bullet grazed the bull’s-eye, and a soft-spoken early-childhood educator from Maryland murmured, “It’s so empowering, right?”

It was.

It changes things to join other women to learn outdoor skills that are traditionally associated with men. My archery instructor — one of just three women who are natural resources officers in West Virginia — told our class that workshop weekends away were a welcome respite from mothering her young child. When we fired an AR-15, the conversation soberly and immediately turned to how it is a weapon often used in mass shootings. No one felt uncomfortable discussing the ick factor of using live fishing bait. An outdoors enthusiast from Kentucky told me at lunch how she uses a yoga strap to supplement her upper-body strength when she field-dresses a deer, and how to strategize about using the bathroom when you can’t leave a hunting blind.

Angela Jeppesen, 54, told me that she only felt comfortable taking the class on field-dressing because it was taught by a woman. “I’ve got a husband; I can have my husband go out there and explain things to me, but the thing about it is, you’ve leveled the playing field now here,” said Ms. Jeppesen, a Morgantown, W.Va., project manager for a home health care provider.

Back in my Advanced Fishing class, my chosen lure (a small gray and black minnow with a red underbelly) was beautiful, but it failed to do its job when we went out to the Blackwater River that day. I did not catch any trout. The river was swollen and choppy from recent rain and maybe the fish couldn’t see my lure through the murky water. I nevertheless enjoyed standing on the riverbank, casting and reeling as I sipped my latte. Even with no catch to show off, I sent some photos to my family text chain. My sister-in-law responded that my 3-year-old niece wants me to take her fishing.

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