How three Northern Ireland women got hooked on this sporting life
Fishing is traditionally a male-dominated preserve - but more women are getting involved in the sport. Linda Stewart talks to three female anglers who are making waves in their favourite outdoor activity.
‘I love getting out into nature — there’s just nothing quite like the thrill of the catch’
Pamela Martin (42), from Killyman, was a coarse angler who took up fly fishing two years ago and is a member of the Irish team that took silver in the World Cup last year. She is married to National Trust Springhill head gardener Warren (49) and has three children, Peter (7), Adam (5) and Rachel (4).
"Nobody else in my family was interested in fishing, but I remember going up to Portrush with my aunt and uncle at 10-years-old and fishing off the harbour, and ever since that I've really taken to it," Pamela says.
"I didn't do so much of it until I was in my 20s when I started off sea fishing and then moved into coarse fishing and fishing pike. But I had to give up when I was pregnant with Peter - I came away from it with the kids being born.
"However, I really missed it and wanted to get back into it in some form, so I contacted Angling NI, who put me in touch with Maddy and I ended up at Straid for a day of fly fishing. I haven't looked back since - I just loved it. I succeeded in getting into the Irish team this year and fished at Draycott in England."
Over the years, Pamela would have gone out alone or sometimes with friends.
"I went to Ballintoy before it was famous and I would have gone in the Causeway Lass and gone with Paul Graham to do deep sea fishing," she says. "I love getting out into nature - it's just the peace and quiet of it, and it's the thrill of the catch as well. There is nothing quite like it."
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But Pamela has loved joining up with Northern Ireland Reel Women and getting involved with the Irish Ladies Fishing Association.
"It's all like-minded women and we go out and have fun. It gets you away from everything - it's a stressbuster. Time stands still when you fish. You could lose a day very easily."
Pamela says her favorite fishing spot is Straid, Co Antrim - "they are so good to me there" - but she also enjoys going to wild loughs like Corrib.
And she says that even though it's a male-dominated sport, everyone has been welcoming.
"I've always been treated with total respect, although that's not to say I don't get teased! Everybody has been really respectful and encouraging.
"I find anglers are keen to share their knowledge and help and encourage you," she says.
"I think more women should give it a go. People seem to think it's a man's sport and they wouldn't like it, but they really should try it. They think it's boring, but it's not. It can be quite a workout at times, especially fly fishing, because you are constantly moving with it."
'It's not a male sport and it's not just a wee hobby ... I love going out and seeing all the wildlife'
Student nurse Catherine Poxon (21), from Bangor, Co Down, is in her final year at Aberdeen University and is joining Northern Ireland Reel Women. Her mum Shirley (59) works in local government, her dad Ian (65) is a retired engineer and her brother Andrew is a student at Durham.
"I actually got into it probably when I was about 11 or 12 when I started off sea fishing with my dad and brother. But Andy fell out of love with sea fishing so I started to go coarse fishing with my dad," she says.
"My dad grew up in Downpatrick so we used to fish at the Quoile a lot - that was our main place - and we would fish at Portavoe Reservoir.
"I've always been a girl that loves the outdoors and climbs mountains - anything outdoorsy. I couldn't be inside for long."
But she admits her friends do find it an unusual interest.
"None of my friends have really been that interested in fishing - they tend to view it as a male sport. They never really got involved until I got into fly fishing and then they thought I was even stranger - they'd be like, 'You've taken it to a new level!'
"I got into fly fishing with a guy called Robin Huddleston from Bangor, who passed away a couple of months ago from pancreatic cancer. We met through his fishing shop in Bangor - we used to go in and buy the odd thing and he became a good family friend. He gave me my first fly fishing rod."
Catherine says she tagged along with her dad when he went fishing at Loughinisland and now she is a member there.
"I'd never met any other women when I'd been out fishing until I met Maddy Kelly," she says.
"She was saying there was a whole organisation of just women anglers, which was amazing - and I don't feel weird any more! It's lovely getting to meet other women because is such a male-dominated sport."
It can even be difficult getting gear sized for women as most shops don't stock it.
"I've been looking for a pair of waders but no one stocks women's sizes and you have to buy them online," Catherine says.
She says that when she has been out on dates and she is asked about her interests, men are always surprised to hear that she likes fishing.
"I was talking to my friend and I was like, 'What am I going to do if I don't meet somebody who fishes?' People don't realise that women do actually fish - it's strange.
"It's not a male sport and it's not just a wee hobby. It's lovely to go out and see the wildlife like kingfishers.
"It's so peaceful - you can spend the whole time watching wildlife and everything. It's a lovely way to connect with nature.
"My dad has Parkinson's now. So I used to fish by myself quite a lot and now I kind of take him fishing - it's kind of a role reversal. I catch a fish, he kills it, I gut it and we both eat it!"
'More women are learning to fish ... they realise that they can do anything they want now'
Environmental sector worker Madeleine Kelly, from Hilltown, Co Down, but now living in Belfast, has been fly fishing for 30 years and this year will earn her 21st cap for Ireland with the Irish Ladies fly fishing team. Just last month she was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Irish Game Fair and Fine Food Festival at Shane's Castle for her work in promoting women's angling.
"I thought when I was a child that I would like to learn to fish," she says.
"But I didn't know anybody who fished - it was not a thing round our way. All I can think of is that I used to read my brother's comics and one of them must have mentioned fishing - I've no idea how I heard about it!"
However, it wasn't until adulthood that she had a go.
"I met a guy who was mad keen into fishing and he showed me how to fly fish," she says.
"My favourite style of angling is lough-style angling from a boat on a big lake in the west of Ireland. Lough Mask in Co Mayo is my favourite, and it was the first place I ever fished," she says.
"I've been back to Lough Mask many, many times since. It's 20,000 acres of pure bliss. It doesn't matter if you go out on Lough Mask and fish all day and don't catch anything - it's the experience of being on a vast open water."
The person who introduced her to fishing was her late partner Noel Lowry and that trip to Lough Mask was the first of many fishing trips.
"We just went fishing all over Ireland. To be honest, Ireland has such wonderful fishing that anglers can spend their whole life in Ireland and would never have to go anywhere else in the world to fish. Ireland has some of the best fishing in the world," she says.
But for many years, female anglers were few and far between.
"When I first started fishing, there weren't very many women. And there were many times when I was the only woman on the competition shore," Madeleine says.
"The biggest competition in Ireland is probably the World Cup on Lough Mask at the end of July and many's the time I was the only woman in that competition."
But she is beginning to notice many more women beginning to take an interest in the last few years, in part due to her own efforts in promoting the sport.
"I was going to various angling shows and fairs throughout Ireland, putting up photos and asking women if they were interested in learning how to fish and coming along to training days where women can learn how to fish," Madeleine says.
"The best thing I ever did was contact Albert Titterington who runs the Great Game Fairs - it must have been in the late Nineties or early 2000s - and I said to him, do you think I could put up a table and a display to try and get women into fishing?
"It's been brilliant these last three years - I'm not sure why it is that more women are interested in learning at the moment. You only have to look at social media and you can see that there are lots of women in America now who fish.
"What I find now is women come up to me at a show and I say, 'Are you interested in fishing?' and they say, 'I already fish' - that happens more and more.
"All I can say is that maybe women now realise that they can do anything they want."
What helps is that she hasn't encountered many barriers within the angling fraternity.
"For years I've been trying to recruit women into angling, and I've been going to shows and raising funds for it by selling raffle tickets at country and game fairs. And only twice have I had someone say to me, when I asked them to support women's fishing, they said, 'No, I don't think women should be fishing - get off back to the kitchen.' And I've given out thousands of leaflets to male anglers," she says.
Madeleine is the longest serving member with the Irish Ladies Flyfishing Association, having joined in 1993, and is the most capped member of the ILFA women's team at 21 caps.
She also sits on the Ulster Angling Federation, the Sport NI-recognised governing body for game angling and which was responsible for the now-defunct Angling NI project, a programme designed to get more people into angling. Madeleine is a volunteer at Straid Fishery Angling Hub, which is one of the angling hubs set up as a legacy of that programme.
"I'd love for a fairy godmother or godfather to swoop in with a cash injection to resurrect the Angling NI project to carry on promoting more people into angling in Northern Ireland," she says. "Loads of research has been done on the benefits of angling. The big one is that it helps to decrease stress and anxiety, but the other benefits include exercise in the fresh air and helping to improve balance and coordination.
"It would be such a worthwhile cause for someone to get behind."
If you're interested in learning to fly fish or would like to attend beginners' or intermediate days for women at Straid Fishery, please visit northernirelandreelwomen.com or if you live in the north west, contact Paula Canning at Duncrun Lakes Fishery near Limavady on 07835 604874. If you are an experienced angler and would like to try out for the Irish women's team, please visit irishladiesfly fishing.com