Becoming an Outdoors Woman
Over our heads there was only the clear blue sky and some puffy clouds, as our fishing instructor, Annette Sanders, explained the mysteries that govern an angler's luck.
"How many times have you heard someone wish you good luck before a fishing trip?" Sanders asked a small group of women who had gathered on wooden benches at the lakeside.
We laughed and most of us raised our hands.
"Luck," she told us, "has little to do with successful fishing. It is good thinking that catches fish. If you learn to think like the fish, instead of saying 'good luck,' you can say 'good thinking' from now on."
Good thinking and sharpened skills are at the core of every Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) workshop, whether the setting is the beautiful YMCA of the Ozarks near Potosi or Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery 40 miles northeast of St. Joseph.
Both outdoor skills workshops, sponsored by the Conservation Department, take place annually and provide a range of excursions for women to try, from jug fishing, muzzleloading and outdoor photography to quail hunts, animal sign reading and fly fishing.
"There is something at this workshop for every woman, no matter what the experience level," said Jackie Mitchell of Bland. "You're going to learn something new. The instructors are experts, and the camaraderie is just great."
At BOW workshops, it is easy to find camaraderie. There are grandmothers, such as Myra Albrecht who wants to share the outdoors with her grandchildren; women who want to go hunting with their husbands and women who love to fish, but can't get their husbands to go, much less teach them how.
There are mother-daughter teams, soon-to-be Boy and Girl Scout leaders and one 68-years-young woman named Jackie Cook, who annually celebrates her birthday with a special adventure.
Last year, she dove among the coral reefs of Belize, and the year before that she "had to do Athens alone" because her friend was ill.
She laughs and says that coming back for more BOW experiences is high on the list of possibilities.
Like many women attending BOW workshops, I have loved the outdoors since childhood. Fishing is my particular addiction, but I have significant gaps in my knowledge.
As a child, fishing the lakes and rivers of Missouri with my grandfather, I didn't need to know much more than how to bait my hook and cast it into the water. Put me in the right spot and I would catch fish, but as for me finding the right spot on my own, forget it. I had no clue.
And lures? Those mysterious doodads always caught my eye--and sometimes even my pocketbook--but somehow they'd never managed to catch fish.
At the BOW workshop, I found I was not alone. Most of the women had similar tales to tell. We had the interest and a few skills, but not enough knowledge to make our fishing and hunting excursions successful.
Darlene Faerber of Kansas is a perfect example of how BOW changes all that, empowering women so they can plan and enjoy the outdoor experiences of a lifetime.
"I had never even touched a gun before BOW, much less fired one," Faerber said. At the urging of her husband, she signed up for BOW and has been a regular ever since.
Now she is planning her next outdoor adventure, a hunting trip with her husband. There is a glow on her face as she tells of her latest triumph--three arrows shot into the heart of a deer target.
"Three," she says, holding up her fingers. The pride in her accomplishment is hard to hide.
BOW workshops began in 1991 following a conference in Wisconsin on breaking down barriers to the participation of women in outdoor sports.
Women know when they venture into the outdoors that they step on ground that is traditionally the territory of men. They cannot help but feel like trespassers in enemy territory--often wearing bright hunter orange, at that.
"The equipment is often sized for men," said Zoe Caywood, who shares her muzzleloading expertise wearing authentic American Indian dress of the fur-trading era. "That means it is often too big or too long for a woman to handle."
Husbands and boyfriends, though well-meaning, aren't always the best teachers when it comes to the outdoors. They're impatient with fumbling fingers and puzzled looks. They take their knowledge for granted and often expect a woman to know more than she does. After all, they learned this stuff when they were just kids.
"All too often women are thrown into a boat on their first trip, where they're expected to learn a whole new set of skills, all while contending with the unfamiliar motions of the water," Sanders said. "These are not ideal learning conditions."
At BOW workshops, on the other hand, you can make all the mistakes you need to make and practice as many times as you want before attempting the real thing, using equipment that's sized for you. No matter how stupid you might fear your questions are, you'll find answers that respect your intelligence from instructors who are deeply passionate about their fields.
"I've always enjoyed canoeing," said Virginia Bailey of Jefferson City, "but I didn't really understand what was happening in the back."
Now Bailey feels confident enough in her new skills and wants to take the back of the canoe for a change.
Ginny Wallace attended BOW workshops with the idea of accompanying her husband on a few deer hunting trips. Since then she has branched out into turkey hunting.
"It's something I do because I really like it," she said. "My husband thinks it's really neat, but his work schedule doesn't allow him to hunt during turkey season."
"I've been fishing a few times," said Carrie Newman of St. Charles, "but usually I was handed a pole that was already baited. I didn't really know what to do with it. I'm here because I love to fish and I want to be good at it," she said.
Another reason she came was for a relaxing weekend.
"I don't know about you, but most women spend a lot of time worrying about others. I really miss my family, but for this weekend I've set aside a lot of those worries. Here, the attention is focused on helping us accomplish our goals. It's a refreshing change."
I smile and nod because I, too, left a pack of my own worries somewhere on the highway behind me and, though I miss my family, the time spent here has become a solid gold memory. As I walked to my bunk after the auction and outdoor fashion show, time stood as still as the moon.
But all good things come to an end, and the next morning I awoke for my last session of the workshop, a quick trip through the fly-tying world. We got a little bit of history, a little bit of color and then a lot of hands-on work tying our own flies.
From the looks of things, I didn't think my fishing fly would ever come together. It looked like a cross between a strange alien creature and a miniature trash heap.
I heard, "Hey, am I doing this right?" from several corners of the room, and I knew I wasn't alone in my confusion. Three instructors worked the room, examining our handiwork and giving us individual pointers.
In just a few more twists and turns, I had tied my first-ever woolly bugger, a trophy that now resides in my ever-ready tackle box.
Across from me, my neighbor, Norma Carr, was finishing up her own woolly bugger. She liked it so much, she tied another and then another and, I presume, they too have found an appropriate place of honor in her fishing box.
We were all ready to try another fly after that. Our instructors had the perfect one in mind, a woolly worm-type fly called a crackleback.
This small jewel has an ostrich feather going down its back that looks like a vein--a vein that took nimble fingers and much patience to coax into just the right spot.
"Did I do it right?" I asked my instructor, Jerry Kemple, before I made the final cut of my thread, the one from which there could be no turning back.
"Hey, that's a good one," he exclaimed when he saw my handiwork. "Now that ought to catch fish."
His words were an echo of a dearly treasured memory, the voice of my own grandfather saying those same words after inspecting the worm my 8-year-old fingers had put on my hook.
"Now, cast it out there" he would say, his hand waving at the rippling waters, "cast it out there and wait. You'll get a bite, just wait and see."
I can almost hear him now