Briget Shields was having a pretty good day on the Youghiogheny River. With the summer water low and clear, using a black ant on light tippet, she was the only one around picking off trout.
A guy walked up and asked what she was using. She told him she'd taken the tippet down to 6x.
"You're crazy," he said. "You shouldn't go that low."
Shields took that as an insult, but kept her cool.
"I said that's how I catch fish this time of year when the water's so clear," she said. "Sometimes -- I don't know -- they don't take me seriously."
They're making a serious mistake. Shields, of Squirrel Hill, is an accomplished angler, a fly-fishing instructor and first woman named to the board of directors of Penn's Woods West Trout Unlimited.
She'll teach women the art and science of fly fishing at one of two upcoming ladies-only workshops.
Nationwide, the percentage of female anglers is growing. Statistics suggest that women who fish tend to prefer fly fishing at a higher proportion than men.
All things being equal, people generally are not and product manufactures, outdoor travel agencies and fishing retailers are beginning to understand the physical and attitudinal differences between their traditional male customers and the growing number of female anglers.
With a lot of money at stake, quite a lot is known about the interests and preferences of female anglers. Among those doing the research is Southwick Associates, a Florida-based polling company paid to gather data for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, nonprofit environmental or conservation groups, the sportfishing industry and other groups.
Southwick found that from 2001 to 2011, the number of female freshwater anglers had grown nearly 1 percent, and that the ways in which women and men fish was markedly different. While about 70 percent of men target a specific fish species, 43 percent of women fish for "whatever bites." More so than men, women perceive fishing as a chance to commune with nature and socialize -- 86 percent said they fish to spend time on or near the water, and 84 percent view fishing as an opportunity to spend time with family and friends. And while 20 percent of male anglers favor fly fishing, 23 percent of women said they'd rather catch fish with flies.
In light of the new research, more fly-fishing products are now on the market tailored to the female form. Guided fishing trips offer a higher comfort level for feminine tastes, and an increasing number of fly-fishing workshops cater to the specific interests of woman.
Amidea Daniel of Lock Haven, Pa., a fly fishing instructor and coordinator of the state Fish and Boat Commission's Trout in the Classroom program, said men and women sometimes learn differently during co-ed casting instruction.
"In some cases, if I get a gentleman out there, he'll try to use his strength to punch it forward for a longer cast," said Daniel. "It seems to be a little bit easier to get women to do a nice finesse cast, maybe because they don't have that strength, so they don't even think to force it."
Daniel will lead a free ladies-only fly fishing class 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Feb. 15 at International Angler (5275 Steubenville Pike, Robinson, 412-788-8088).
Neither she nor Shields suggests that all women, or all men, behave the same on the water, or that the women's way is better. But the social dynamic of a fly-fishing workshop changes, they say, when women are involved.
"When I've done classes, a majority of women want to learn because their husbands or boyfriends do it, but they find it hard to learn from them," said Shields. "They want a woman to teach them."
On May 4, Shields will teach a day-long International Anglers Ladies Fly Fishing course at Yellow Creek Trout Club (details 412-788-8088). She'll coach breast cancer survivors Aug. 14-17 during a Casting for Recovery fly-fishing weekend on Spruce Creek and the Little Juniata River (details 724-538-4431).
With the absence of reel apparatus and the physics of line control, fly fishing can seem intimidating to beginners. Daniel said women, in particular, sometimes see it as a technological guy thing.
"There's nothing masculine about it," she said. "The nice thing about fly fishing -- and fishing in general -- is it can be as technical or as fun as you want it to be."
While some men are competitive in learning situations, Daniel said the ladies-only workshops can be more communal.
"They cheer together when someone does it right. They share kids stories. There's a chit-chatting comfort level -- the women can bond faster," she said. "In my workshop, I'll try to break down the veil a little bit. When they see how much I love doing this, and that another woman can do it, they join right in."