More than three times as many men participate in hunting and fishing nationally as women. A Montana program that seeks to change that by teaching women outdoor skills turns 25 this year. Becoming an Outdoors-Woman kicked off the anniversary with a weekend-long workshop in Seeley Lake.
It’s a little after sunrise and a dozen women are walking out onto Placid Lake between the Mission and Swan mountains. The women are towing sleds filled with augers, buckets, fishing poles, and portable ice tents. For most of them, this is their first time ice fishing.
“I like that you can be pretty and ice fish at the same time,” one woman says as she compliments another's hat.
They’re the only ones on the frozen and snowy lake today. They pass around hand and toe warmers as the sun burns off the last curls of fog from the lake’s surface.
When the group reaches the middle of the lake, instructors are on hand to offer advice and encouraging words as the first nervous volunteer steps up to drill a hole through the 15-inch thick ice.
Ice fishing is just one of the classes offered during this weekend workshop in Seeley Lake. The organization running the classes, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Park’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, or “BOW” program, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Sara Smith is BOW’s coordinator. She says they teach "a variety of different skills. Today we’re doing avalanche awareness, ice fishing, sewing with fur. We do dutch oven cooking, kayaking, paddle-boarding, backpacking. Pretty much anything you can do outside we teach something about it."
BOW got its start at a college in Wisconsin in the early '90s and by 1993 a Montana chapter was formed. The classes aim to break down barriers that keep women from more traditionally male activities like hunting and fishing.
Smith says the instructional group outings can help women find a community as they learn and develop new skills.
Participants like Jocelyn Brown, a mother from Florence, often say they want to be more involved in outdoor activities, but don’t know how to get started.
Brown says she signed up for this workshop after her 15-year-old son gave her a fishing pole for Christmas and she didn’t know what to do with it.
"If as an adult you weren’t raised in Montana, it’s hard to know what to do or where to go," says Brown. "So this is so exciting. I can’t believe I caught two fish. I was joking, I said maybe it was the same fish.”
Brown is wearing a pink hat and can’t stop smiling after she pulls up two perch early on. She says she wants to return to the lake with her son and share what she’s learned.
Jim Vashro is a former fisheries employee at FWP. He’s been an instructor for BOW for almost all of its 25 years.
"What I see the most about BOW is they’re very supportive of each other and they cheer each other on and they’re happy to see each other be successful,” says Vashro.
Michelle Dunn, another participant, lives in nearby Potomac and has been ice fishing before.
"I’ve been out with my husband and all his buddies ice fishing," says Dunn. "I went several years, I never caught anything, but I just had a great time. And so when I first heard about this, and I came out with all these women, and the instructors are great, I caught a ton of fish. It was hilarious. I’m like, I’m not even going with you anymore, honey."
This year Dunn convinced two close friends to fly from California to attend the BOW workshop with her.
The women stay on the ice until noon and everyone manages to stay warm. Well, almost. Kelli Graves, one of the women who flew from Redding, California to be here, realizes her toe warmers are defective and wishes she had brought better boots.
But even with numb feet, she’s still enthusiastic.
“I am an ice angler and I’m definitely adding that to my resume on my, you know, Facebook page. Especially because I now have caught two fish," says Graves. "Successful ice angling vastly increases your enthusiasm for the sport."
Learn more about Becoming an Outdoors-Woman classes and workshops here.