Recreational fishing is one this country’s most cherished and profitable pastimes. According to the American Sportfishing Association, the country’s 40 million anglers generate almost $50 billion in retail sales. A 2009 Outdoor Recreation Participation by the Outdoor Foundation lists recreational fishing as the most popular outdoor activity in the United States in terms of participation rate. Nearly 48 million Americans aged 6 or older fish. In fact, the odds that a person in the US will go fishing in a year are 1 in 7.65.
These figures include females, but a remarkable gender gap still exists within the sport. The odds that a man will fish in a year (1 in 4.94) are almost three times greater than those for a woman (1 in 15.62). Despite this gender asymmetry, one of fishing’s most enduring figures is a woman: Dame Juliana Berners, a 15th century noblewoman whom many angling enthusiasts regard as the mother of fly-fishing.
Fish lore is as much a part of the sport of fly-fishing as the rod and reel. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the story of Dame Juliana Berners may itself be a bit of a tall tale. The 15th-century noblewoman is said to have written the first-ever published work on fishing in the English language. The essay, entitled Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, was published in 1496 as part of a reprinted edition of the Book of St. Albans, a revered collection of essays about hunting, hawking, and heraldry. However, historians have yet to verify Dame Juliana’s existence, let alone her involvement with the “Treatyse.” Nonetheless, her legend as fly-fishing’s elegant patroness abides today. She was even inducted into the International Game Fish Association’s Hall of Fame in 1998.
Fly-fishing is often celebrated as the most graceful form of recreational angling, and the odds a person who fishes will go fly fishing in a year are 1 in 9.94. Then there are the hardy souls (the odds are 1 in 17.38) who take to frozen surfaces of lakes and ponds to ice fish for walleye, perch, and trout. Ice fishing is hugely popular in the North Central US and so are the tournaments. In 2008, Brainerd, Minnesota hosted one of the world’s largest ice fishing tournaments, which attracted nearly 10,000 participants. In southerly coastal states like Florida, saltwater fishing is king. Of Florida’s nearly 2.7 million anglers, 72 percent are saltwater anglers. (The odds that an angler will go saltwater fishing in a year are1 in 29.71.)
Most sport fishing requires a significant amount of gear: rods, reels, lines, waders, tackle boxes, etc. But there are those, including noodlers and trout ticklers, who rely solely on their hands to catch their piscine prey. Noodlers are handfishers that literally use their hands as bait. These intrepid fishermen and women stick their mitts into catfish dens, wait for the fish to bite, and then pull the fish out. Noodlers are bold, but trout ticklers are the handfishing masters. An old and highly skilled art, trout tickling requires the fisherman to caress a trout’s belly, which, if done properly, lulls the trout into a trance-like state. This fisherman then grabs the entranced fish and tosses it ashore, giving a whole new meaning to catch and release.