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Paul Smith: Women's group provides support, learning for female anglers [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel :: BC-OTD-SMITH-COLUMN:MW]

FREMONT, Wis. - Spring is high season on the Wolf River.

When the walleyes and white bass are running, anglers flock to central Wisconsin to take advantage of the action.

Bob and Rita Caryl, owners of Red Banks Resort in Fremont, Wis., have been witnesses to the annual ebb and flow of fishing-related business for the last 34 years.

But recently a new tradition has taken root amid the crush of anglers.

For a weekend each spring over the last several years, the cabins and campsites at Red Banks Resort have been filled to capacity by the members of a single angling organization.

While a sellout crowd in Wolf River country isn't unusual, this is: the anglers in this group are all female.

It's the annual spring gathering of Wisconsin Women Fish, an organization that strives to help females become more active in the sport.

Forty-five women participated in the 2017 event at Red Banks, held April 14-16.

The organization was founded in 2006 by Barb Carey of Oxford.

"I still get goose bumps when I think about how this group has evolved," said Carey, 57. "It's become a significant part of many lives."

Carey, a former police officer who has also worked as a nurse and farmer and is currently on the pro staffs of several fishing equipment manufacturers, formed the organization after pondering the dearth of female anglers she observed on most fishing outings.

"I organized a trip with another female angler and thought 'wouldn't it be fun if a group existed to help more women get out?' " Carey said.

The group's first outing in 2006 consisted of shore fishing. No one had a boat and no one cared, Carey said.

But the critical ingredients - camaraderie, goodwill and an appreciation for the outdoors - were present in abundance.

The group added more events and membership grew. This year WI Women Fish has 220 members in six states and Ontario.

They range in age range from 21 to 80; the average is about 50, Carey said.

"Fishing is such a great adventure," Carey said. "It takes you away from other parts of your life that might not be fun and opens you up to new experiences."

Carey said most of the members fished when they were young, then had families or jobs, now have time or money and are interested in fishing again.

The club provides the platform for them to rekindle their angling flames.

Others never fished but were interested in learning; the all-female club helped them overcome anxieties about trying.

Spend time at an outing and you quickly learn the "secret sauce" is expressed in one word: empowerment.

"It's so rewarding to gain confidence in yourself and learn new skills," said Christine Boche, 68. "You can see it spread through the club as members help other members."

Boche said it can be especially daunting for women to become proficient in traditional outdoor activities such as fishing and hunting.

The club environment helps erase barriers some women have to learning, Boche said.

"The boat doesn't know if a man or woman is driving it," Boche said. "This club provides a supportive learning environment that makes women feel very comfortable and allows them to push themselves."

Boche said she learned about WI Women Fish while on a trip to Mexico. After gathering some more information, she attended an event.

"I knew right away this was the organization I was looking for my whole life," Boche said.

Boche has gained experience and gear since joining the club. She now owns and operates a boat and motor capable of handling Great Lakes conditions.

"If someone told me five years ago that I'd be piloting my own boat on Green Bay, trolling for walleyes, I'd have told them they were crazy," Boche said.

The membership spans a wide range of demographics and includes police officers, those with physical disabilities, judges, those who have never been married and some who are grandmothers, many who are retired, some who are unemployed, a teacher of the year, a few who are battling mental illness.

Two mother-daughter pairs participated in this year's Wolf River event: Boche and Darlynn Becker, 49; and Ruth Halverson, 77, and Sparky Musolf, 43.

The organization has evolved to become a support group, too. After Theresa Zais, a member from Rochester, Minn., was diagnosed with lung cancer, the club raised more than $10,000 to help her with medical expenses and send her on a fishing trip to Florida.

Vicki Laux, 45, recalls being nervous before she attended her first club event three years ago.

"I didn't know if they'd like me or if I'd like them," Laux said. "I left saying 'these are my people.' "

Laux said she loves her husband to pieces but sometimes it's good for her to fish with other people.

By their own admission, most of the women were out of their comfort zone just coming to their first event.

But Carey schedules team-building activities to help participants get to know each other.

Last year at the Red Banks outing, the women were tasked with making Easter bonnets. One woman made a hat with a goldfish bowl and live minnows.

This year they made Easter baskets. Each participant had to obtain something from the tackle box of the others and add two items found in nature.

The challenges help provide a connection to the other club members and break the ice, Carey said.

"We all want to be a part of something, feel a sense of community, a sense of belonging," Carey said.

The group has established a private Facebook page for its members.

The women also have a Jo Curry Award in honor of a member who died of cancer. It is awarded to the club member who has demonstrated the greatest determination to overcome obstacles.

Bob Caryl has dozens of groups of varying sizes stay at Red Banks Resort each year.

None, he said, is as supportive of its fellow members as WI Women Fish.

"There is no competition between them whatsoever," Caryl said. "They all want to help each other out."

The white bass were biting well on Saturday of this year's event. A group of six club members joined Caryl on his pontoon boat and landed 43 chunky white bass and two bonus walleyes in a three-hour excursion on the river.

The women cleaned the fish for a group meal later that night.

While many organizations exist to help recruit women into outdoor activities, few provide the repeated exposure like WI Women Fish.

"This is an ongoing, frequent support system for women in fishing," Carey said. "It's so fun watching the progression as they gain confidence and skills."

The organization will hold 10 to 15 events this year, including its signature "Fish Camp," a weekend of fishing and seminars.

Last year, the group had 70 women attend its 10th-anniversary camp in Mercer.

Fishing forecasts can be as variable as the weather. But the future of the group is very bright.

"I used to say it's all about the fishing," Carey said. "Now, I know it's about a lot more."

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