Women Embrace FRESHWATER ANGLING In Aotearoa New Zealand

  • 21/11/2023

Women Embrace FRESHWATER ANGLING In Aotearoa New Zealand

By Leigh Johnson and Rachel McNae

Freshwater angling is witnessing a palpable change in New Zealand that amplifies women's voices and presence on our stunning lakes and riverbanks.

Amidst New Zealand's breath-taking landscapes and internationally renowned waters, a new chapters 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.


Dabbled now Dedicated

As a child, Leigh was intrigued by fly fishing, but she didn’t try it until in her 30s, encouraged by awork colleague. She says, “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 flyrod. 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 of getting 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 10years ago left Renee with a passion for freshwater fishing. Self-taught in 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 had 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 McNae
Competing 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, 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 the 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 that amongst the 2022/23 licence holders women are under-represented. 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 that most clubs have only a handful of female members. However, recent efforts in some regions have increased female club membership by over 300% in the past three 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 that 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, 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? It is essential to understand how women like to learn and have suitable mentors to grow their foundational knowledge.

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. A starting point is to examine how fishing clubs' culture, rituals, language, and practices can discourage women. 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 impact their ability to wade or fish safely. Modern safety technology, including GPS and 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 flyfishing 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, the mastery of 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 the line is a thrill that we’ll never forget. To get yourself, or a woman you know, involved:

  • Join a club-Many fishing clubs throughout New Zealand are 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 more female members.
  • Hire a Guide-Learn from the best by hiring a professional guide to learn the foundational skills to 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, Fish & Game have a list of “Park and Cast” locations on their website. 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, and what to use.
  • Join the Women on The Fly NZ-Find other women to fish with you, learn from others’ 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 was 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 was catching fish!
  • 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 by 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. What a great way to see the world! At some of these events, the number of female competitors has been on the rise to the point whereover half of the field is made up of women.
  • Social media and online forums - The happenings here in New Zealand are part of much bigger movements of community-building through women-led events and social media communities. Checkout United Women on The Fly (www.uwotf.org) and the Orvis 50/50 campaign (an industry-wide initiative to increase gender parity in fly fishing).

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, fuelling 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.

Kaiva Paaka: A fly fishing journey

By Jacob Lucas

Kaiva Erana Paaka (Ngapuhi, Ngati Pikiao) is a future gun of the fly fishing scene.

Growing up in Motueka, her path into fly fishing was inspired by her Kuia (great grandmother), Erana Waiomia, a legendary angler on the Ohau Canal in Rotorua, famous for her catches off the Te Takinga weir (Okere Gates) Erana also taught Kaiva’s father, Weesang Paaka, how to fly fish.

Weesang is an expert fly angler and a guru for the Motueka River. He’s also a teacher by trade, a top communicator and inherently patient, so Kaiva was in very good hands from the start.

When asking Kaiva about her reasons for getting into fly fishing, she says “My dad has been taking me fishing since I was about four years old. He used to carry me and my siblings on his back in a backpack, and we'd go fishing. I am really surprised he never slipped over or fell in the river with us on his back."

“He would hook a fish and would let us out to play it and land it. Now I'm old enough to have my own rod and hook and land my own fish.”

“It's fun, exciting and frustrating all at the same time.”

As any fly angler knows, learning to cast is one of the early challenges. According to Kaiva, practicing on the lawn is easy, but it's a different story on the river.

“There's so much more going on than just ‘casting’ while on the river; you've got wind, current, trees, slippery rocks, and thigh deep water to be mindful of, as well as the pressure of getting everything right. You need an accurate cast, the fish to eat your fly and the timing of the strike.”

“It’s frustrating when you miss the strike or you briefly hook the fish, then lose it!”

Kaiva has found playing fish easy, as she has been doing this with a fly rod since she was four years old.

“Dad thinks my timing of the strike is pretty good, as is stripping and keeping good contact with the line on the water.”

One of her favourite days was on the Motueka River last year when she had a 10-fish day with her dad, Weesang.

“That alone was cool, but there was one moment when Dad told me not to strike, as he thought it was a rock, but I did anyway, and it turned out it was a fish!

”The Motueka River is one of the country’s fishing jewels, and it’s commonly believed that if you can catch fish consistently on this river, you can catch them anywhere. Kaiva is already unravelling the mysteries of this river, so learning to fish on the Motueka will put her in good stead for any waterway in Aotearoa. It’s also pleasing to know that she deeply respects her local waterway.

“I love my river, so if I am not swimming in it, I'd like to be fishing it."

” Thankfully, Kaiva is in her early days of fly fishing, and it is exciting to see where it may eventually take her. Rest assured that many more special moments will be shared between father and daughter on their shared journey.

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