Fashion fishing: Pensacola woman luring others to upscale angling

Monday, May 15, 2006

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Pink rubber boots are necessary to avoid fish guts while reeling in red snapper and grouper, but are also a fashion statement and a good way to disguise unmanicured toes.

Lengthy fishing trips should start with mimosas.

Real "fisherwomen" needn't worry about baiting their hooks -- that's what deck hands are for.

These are some of the unwritten rules of The Fishing Chix, an elite club of Pensacola women who took to the seas after Hurricane Ivan tore through their upscale neighborhood almost two years ago.

Founder Claudia Espenscheid, a former financial adviser for Merrill Lynch and PaineWebber, has since launched her own plan to expose more women to what she calls "Armani-style fishing."

She aims to revolutionize the sport by catering to women with sophisticated tastes.

She's done her research -- pointing out that 29 percent of Florida women already fish. The American Sportfishing Association estimates nearly one third of recreational fishing in the United States is done by women.

"It's my mission to inspire and fashionably attire women to get hooked on fishing," said Espenscheid, who is working on a line of pink fishing nets, lures, hats, boots and other items she hopes to market to sporting retailers.

The 40-year-old mother of two rarely fished before Ivan hit her home on Pensacola Bay in October 2004. The Category 4 storm destroyed the family's boat dock, but Espenscheid found an escape casting a fishing net from the shore.

"I would be standing out there in my waders. It was my way of dealing with the stress, enjoying the beauty of where we live and blocking out all the stress of what we were dealing with."

Neighbors like Tracy Dalton saw her and began fishing themselves.

"Claudia had a vision," said Dalton, who attended a recent Fishing Chix party at the home of another friend.

Experts say the Pensacola group, which has about 50 members, is just one example of the sport's growing popularity among women.

Outdoor marketers have found it makes good business sense to reach out to women, said Monica Pelletier, spokeswoman for the national Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.

"The thinking used to be that the man is the one who goes fishing and he's going to decide whether to take the family along, but really it's the woman who decides where to take the family. She determines the activities," Pelletier said.

But Pelletier, whose organization represents boating and fishing retailers nationwide, said only handful of small retailers and charter companies cater exclusively to women.

The Fishing Chix hoped to find pink rods reels to match their pink rubber boots. After much searching, they located neon pink fishing lures online to give as Christmas gifts last year.

"You want to fish, but you want to look cute while you're doing it," Espenscheid said.

But honorary Fishing Chix Captain Wes Rozier says people shouldn't be deceived by appearances -- some of the women have become excellent anglers.

They returned from a recent trip with speckled trout, snapper and red fish. Shrieks and cheers accompanied each catch.

As Rozier patiently baited hooks and gave instructions, he said many of his female charter clients return with a better catch than his male clients because the women aren't embarrassed about listening to his advice.

And Rozier said a day out on the boat with a group of women or an evening at a women's fishing meeting can be a lot more fun than spending time with a group of men.

"All of the other fishing captains here, they envy me and want to get a part of this business. They tell me that I've landed the mucho grande of fish with these women," he said.

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