Move Over, Boys: Women Are Discovering the Joys of Fishing Along the Emerald Coast
Hurricane Ivan changed Claudia Espenscheid’s life forever. The strongest storm of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season destroyed her home in Gulf Breeze, and her family found itself homeless. She quickly pulled herself up by her bootstraps, heading straight to a local bait and tackle shop, where she bought her first rod and reel. Far from where she is now as president and CEO of Fishin’ Chix, her only goal at that time was to fish to feed her family.
Espenscheid had moments of immense desperation and fear after life as she had known it had been turned upside down and inside out.
“Standing in line for food, water and ice … the National Guard patrolling the neighborhood and protecting us from looters,” she recalls. “Wal-Mart was closed. The schools were closed. (I was fearful) that another disaster could be lurking around the corner to take out all of Pensacola, all of Florida. We were getting pounded by a relentless barrage of storms.”
At times Espenscheid felt the world was coming to an end and that she needed to learn some basic survival skills.
“I really didn’t have many (survivor skills), other than my credit card,” she says.
Espenscheid says she had never before faced a scenario in which something as simple as putting food on the table was in doubt. Fishing helped her feel empowered and confident that everything would be OK.
Fortunately, the family’s concern for food ended when they moved into her mother’s home in Pensacola while their home was being restored. Espenscheid could then focus on recovering from the trauma through fishing.
“The joy of immersing ourselves in the outdoors and in fishing with my girls was truly just taking off, helping us mend the emotional scars from the disaster,” says the single mother of two.
Espenscheid was born in Berlin of German parents. The family immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old and lived in Montgomery, Ala. Although she spoke only German at the time, she promptly adapted to her new surroundings.
“I quickly learned English and pretty much never stopped talking,” she laughs.
After attending college at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Espenscheid transferred to the University of Alabama, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in marketing with a minor in speech communication.
She held a job in consumer product goods with Quaker Oats, where “I was selling grits and oatmeal all over L.A. (Lower Alabama).”
Espenscheid moved to Pensacola in 1989 for a pharmaceutical sales job and earned a masters in business administration from the University of West Florida. Right up until Hurricane Ivan devastated that area, she worked as a financial adviser with Merrill Lynch.
“After Ivan, there was a lot of post-traumatic stress with all of us,” she says. “My clients were dealing with very difficult issues from the storm. It was hard to talk to people about investments at a time like that.”
At that moment, Espenscheid made a decision to change her life and career. After doing some research, including state fishing-license demographics, she saw that one-third of them were issued to women. Her real-life experiences learning about fishing equipment and fishing to provide for her family exposed her to a whole new world.
With her marketing background, Espenscheid thought more women would be interested in fishing — and that those already in it should have tournaments and products that focus on women. Espenscheid says that when she first started Fishin’ Chix, “it was refreshing.”
“In the financial business, you hear the word ‘no’ a lot of the time,” she says. “When I was starting up Fishin’ Chix, I heard ‘yes’ immediately and ‘Yeah, I want to do that, sounds like fun.’ It was the complete opposite of what I had been used to.”
Remembering those initial fishing trips with Fishin’ Chix puts another smile on Espenscheid’s face.
“They were fantastic because it was so amazing combining this newfound passion for fishing with the camaraderie of newfound friends,” she says.
Being new to the sport, Espenscheid had a lot to learn about fishing. So she made sure she learned from the pros. She met Capt. Wes Rozier, an experienced fishermen of the Emerald Coast, who not only has been a great teacher but also a passionate supporter of her organization.
You learn how to do things correctly from the start,” Espenscheid says about fishing with professionals such as Rozier. “And for me, there is much less frustration when I inevitably mess up by tangling the line, losing the fish or whatever, because within minutes they have me back on task.”
Today, after four years at the helm of Fishin’ Chix, which is based out of Gulf Breeze, Espenscheid has a women’s fishing organization that spans across 20 states and has almost 1,000 members.
“It’s a sisterhood,” she says. Although the core states are Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Fishin’ Chix members also come from Alaska, Kansas, Texas, Michigan, New York and the Carolinas. Founded here off the Gulf of Mexico, the focus is mainly saltwater fishing. Espenscheid says Fishin’ Chix is “for women, their daughters, family and friends.”
So what do her daughters — Katarina, 13, and Isabella, 11 — think of what she has done?
“They think Fishin’ Chix is awesome, and they love telling me that all their friends think I am the absolute coolest mom,” she says. Her girls enjoy traveling to tournaments and trade shows with their mother. Katarina, her teenager, just got a new camera and wants to eventually do all the company’s photography and manage retail sales. About her youngest, Isabella, “she just wants to win the tournament!” Espenscheid says.
The 2008 Fishin’ Chix Grand Champion winning prize was a sport fishing trip to Cebaco Bay, Panama, in Central America. The women who won the trip were the three winners of each of the 2008 Fishin’ Chix Events. There are seven species categories in each tournament and then a Grand Champion. These Grand Champions and Panama trip prize winners were the overall best from 2008’s Sandestin, Pensacola Beach and Gulf Shores, Ala., tourneys. Included in the prize package is the airfare, accommodations, meals and a once-in-a-lifetime fishing experience.
The party gets a chance to fish for black marlin, sailfish and dorado. This year’s trip included representatives from Sport Fishing magazine, who were covering the event for an upcoming feature story.
“The food is great and the people that run the tour are wonderful,” Espenscheid says. “It’s the ultimate girl’s fishing trip.”
The next big fishing event for Fishin’ Chix will be held at Harbor Docks in Destin on Saturday, Aug. 1. Regular and new sponsors are lining up, along with two charities important to Espenscheid: Covenant Hospice and Guy Harvey’s Ocean Foundation. This year’s Pink Boots Ladies Fishing Rodeo in Destin is expected to have more than 120 women anglers. Each angler pays a set price of $125, is a member of Fishin’ Chix, and either has her own boat or charters with other women. About half of the women use their own boat, and the rest are arranged on a charter.
“We are expecting a lot of mothers and daughters to come out for a great day of fishing and fun in Destin,” Espenscheid says.
The charities Fishin’ Chix support represent things near and dear to Espenscheid’s heart — children and fishing. She has been a board member of Covenant Hospice in Pensacola for the past six years, where she found out about an unfunded children’s program.
“When you think of hospice, you think ‘end of life,’” Espenscheid says. “People and the state of Florida didn’t realize children need hospice care too. I also wanted my own daughters to learn about charitable work, and this seemed like a good opportunity to get them involved.”
Through her business with Harvey, Espenscheid has also learned about his Ocean Foundation.
“We are just in the beginning of what I hope will be a great alliance with Guy Harvey’s Ocean Foundation,” she says. “Funds generated by this organization support research on the effects of overfishing, especially of sailfish, marlin and other endangered species.” She adds that 100 percent of the profits from Fishin’ Chix tournaments go to charity.
In addition to the great charity work done through Fishin’ Chix events, the two other parts of the business are membership and Fishin’ Chix Fashion. Not only has Espenscheid’s Web site been busy, but she has made a number of retail partnerships to cast more of her Fishin’ Chix ladies’ fishing attire to her base. Early on, she noticed that there wasn’t much out there for women who fished to wear.
“You could not find anything stylish in the stores that catered to the industry,” she says.
Espenscheid has branded the series of three tournaments along the Gulf Coast the “Pink Rubber Boots Ladies Fishing Rodeo Series.” The event posters and T-shirts include original artwork by world-renowned fishing artist Guy Harvey. Espenscheid writes her own copy for the Fishin’ Chix clothing and accessories. Along with the colorful pink Fishin’ Chix logo, you’ll see shirts that read “Reel Woman,” “Fishing Goddess” and “I’m the one that got away.”
When Espenscheid is asked for tips on favorite fishing sites and lure techniques, she responds with a smile, “I use the lucky pink Fishin’ Chix Lure.” A few years ago, a Pensacola artificial reef manufacturer made a special Fishin’ Chix pink reef in honor of her group.
“It was sunk just off Pensacola Beach, and I think that is a great place to fish,” she says.
Capt. Rozier, a seasoned fisherman whose family goes back 10 generations in Pensacola, has been involved with Fishin’ Chix for nearly five years.
“I realized that the women (who join these events) have a tremendous yearning to learn how to fish,” he says. “(The quality of the tournaments) is as good or better than anything I’ve seen in 25 years. I’ve been around women all my life. My wife and two daughters fish.”
Rozier’s daughter and wife have won in various species categories in Fishin’ Chix tournaments, which he says are all about fun, fellowship and, of course, fishing.
“I like to talk. And with the men’s events, it’s quiet and competitive,” he says. “But it’s even more of a pleasure to fish with women.”
Rozier explains that with women, it’s not about the size of the fish.
“It could be a 3-footer or a 12-foot fish — what matters to them is it’s a fish,” he says. “With women’s fishing, it’s a family thing.”
Three years ago, Capt. Cindy Jones, a fourth-generation Destin native, became a member of Fishin’ Chix. A licensed boat captain for 30 years, she received an unexpected gift in 2007. Her sister, Cathy Jones, also a licensed boat captain, was the Grand Champion of the Pensacola Beach Fishin’ Chix tournament. Cathy Jones gave her trip prize (also to Panama) to sister Cindy for her birthday.
“It was my 50th birthday, and what a great adventure I got,” she says. Cindy Jones had been on fishing trips to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska and Havana, Cuba. But this trip, she says, ranked among her favorites.
Cindy Jones, whose family owned East Pass Marina in Destin, now works mainly as a guide for fishing parties from Apalachicola to Destin.
“I work the deck, rig the bait and put the line out,” she says. She enjoys “coaching the reel” and meeting all the women eager to fish. Her daughter, Anna, she is proud to say, was, at 15 years old, a winner in the 2008 Fishin’ Chix tournament in Sandestin. Jones’ favorite fish to catch is speckled trout; for her sister, Cathy, it’s cobia.
As for Fishin’ Chix, Jones says, “I hope it’s around forever and ever.”
A few other fishing groups for women have spawned throughout the country. The Carolina Lady Anglers, Reel Women Fly Fishers in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing and Georgia Women’s Fly Fishing groups all are popular among women.
The International Women’s Fly Fishing association was established in the United States in 1996. In that same year, Casting for Recovery (CFR) was started. CFR is a charity supported by these groups that promotes mental, physical and spiritual healing for breast cancer survivors through small, relaxing, educational fishing retreats. CFR sponsored events have helped cancer survivors throughout the country, as well as in Canada, England, Scotland and Ireland.
Espenscheid sees the future of Fishin’ Chix and women in fishing becoming more popular each year.
“Currently, 29 percent of women hold fishing licenses nationally versus 71 percent of men,” she says. “And about 25 versus 75 percent here in Florida. That’s millions of women. My goal is to expose as many people to this exciting world. It’s a sisterhood and a family.”