Like a lot of small-town Texas kids in the 1960s, I grew up in a family that was more likely to go hunting or fishing than to the movies or the mall.
Family weekends, holidays, and vacations usually revolved around destinations that included outdoors sports as an option.
We went to the family farm stock tank or a nearby lake for fishing. To milkweed fields on dove hunting weekends. To Rockport on the Texas Gulf Coast for the beach, crabbing, and surf fishing in the summer. Or, to Uvalde in South Texas for the extended family Thanksgiving or Christmas deer hunt, complete with wild turkey and dressing. One year, my dad added rattlesnake scampi to the table fare.
Typically, my dad drove this train, but my mother and I were excited whenever we got to go. That was what our family did. Still, my mother and I didn’t really participate that much except for fishing. Sometimes we were invited to shoot, but no one really taught us how to hunt.
Fast forward to adulthood. The family hunting and fishing traditions continued with my husband, mentored by my father. With a spouse as my portal, I really got into it. Then kaboom! A divorce uprooted lots of things, including canceling my passport to hunting and fishing.
That’s when I got to know the DIVAS, a group of women devoted to making sure women don’t need a man to go hunting or fishing.
My experience isn’t unique. Neither is it for other women who didn’t grow up in a hunting or fishing culture but want to participate. Fact is that today, women represent the fastest-growing demographic involved in these traditional Texas pastimes.
According to one private survey, 27 percent of people who purchase a Texas fishing license are women, as are 11 percent of Texas hunters. In 2016, of the 1.9 million hunting and fishing licenses sold, about 317,000 were purchased by women, according to figures provided by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD).
Judy Rhodes of Dallas is the godmother of outdoors women in Texas. She also is a force nationally and internationally. In 1999, Rhodes founded DIVA-WOW (Women Outdoors Worldwide): www.divawow.org
Then there is Heidi Outdoors Woman program at TPWD. went to college and met Rao of Houston, who is one of the regional coordinators for the TPWD’s program Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW): tpwd.texas.gov/education/bow
Though both Rhodes and Rao are basically in the same business — making outdoors sports accessible to women — they found their way down very different paths.
Rhodes grew up in a hunting household where she was encouraged to participate. “I’ve been shooting since I was four,” said the tall, blonde, flashy DIVA, who has hunted all over the world. “I realized we’d lost two generations of hunting and shooting in our country. I decided I wanted to make a difference.”
DIVA groups have organized all over Texas, particularly in the Dallas area, but also in Houston, the Hill Country, and West Texas.
Rao, an outdoorsy mother of four boys, got in the hunt from a different direction. “I came from a small, Midwestern town, and my family did not hunt or fish. Everybody else did.”
Still, it wasn't until she went to college and met guys in her dorm who hunted and fished that she was exposed to the sport and wanted to know more. "I was always interested and knew someday I'd find my portal."
Today, Rao is part of an education program that started in Texas in 1993. It is one of the many state initiatives that grew out of a Wisconsin project that focused on introducing women to outdoors sports and facilitating their participation. Now, there’s something similar in every state and Canadian province, says Rao.
Once introduced to the skills, women can network and participate through the Texas Outdoors-Women Network (TOWN), which has groups in Austin, Bastrop, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Rockport/Coastal Bend, San Antonio, and San Marcos: tpwd.texas.gov/education/bow/town
Although their paths were different, Rhodes’ and Rao’s goal is the same: to pave the way for women to learn outdoors sports skills and to help them participate with “like-minded women doing the same thing,” said Rao.
But traditional role expectations were and still are a barrier for many women, explains Rhodes. “Women were just supposed to cook the game,” she said.
“Historically, dads and grandpas have taught men and boys. They always took the boys,” said Rao. In that world, women who got into hunting or fishing usually did so as tagalongs or with a spouse. As adults, whether a woman marries into it, dates a guy who hunts or fishes, or just wants to learn, “they like to learn in a non-intimating environment.”
Often that means learning from another woman. Many women who get involved are single moms who do so because their kids are interested, and they don’t know how to teach them.
Of the outdoors sports, fishing is the fastest growing. Randy Spradlin, TPWD hunter educator for West Texas, reports that while more male and female Texans are buying fishing licenses, the total number of hunting licenses sold has declined.
Millennials, not just women, are particularly interested in fishing, said Spradlin, as part of that generation’s farm-to-table consciousness. Perhaps most significantly, in Texas it is much easier to access a public lake or beach for fishing than to access public hunting lands because around 95 percent of Texas is privately owned.
Moreover, public hunting lands near urban areas are often crowded, giving some hunters pause for safety reasons or fear there isn’t enough game to go around. Many Texas hunters shell out big dollars for hunting leases or pricey, guided day hunts. For many beginners or those not inclined to pay for these luxuries, that amounts to a cost barrier to hunting, as well.
GETTING THE GEAR
Given the increase in female participants in outdoors sports, there’s been a revolution in sporting apparel and equipment. For years, women had few options other than small sizes of men’s clothing or youth sizes for petite women. As more females got interested in the outdoors, manufacturers responded with “pink and shrink” — pink camouflage patterns and smaller sizes. But that’s no longer good enough.
Now, women are demanding clothing cut and sized to fit the female form and with all the high-tech attributes that men demand; i.e. light-weight, warm, and water-proof. Manufacturers are responding with clothing “made for women by women.” Guns and other equipment are like-wise being designed to be more comfortable and user friendly for women.
Sierra Bishop is the spokeswoman for one such apparel company, High Heel Huntress (www.highheelhuntress.com), founded in 2013 by a couple of women who wanted outdoors clothing that fits properly and looks stylish.
“Women shooters are the largest rising percentage of gun owners,” said Bishop. Her company is on to the growing numbers of women who fish, so it is designing fishing apparel, as well. One of their specialties is lightweight leggings in various camouflage prints and colors. “A lot more women are loving camo. Camo is the new black,” said Bishop.
Rao observes that women are practical as well as stylish. They want good-fitting camo that is quiet (doesn’t make noise when the wearer moves), just as men do. “But it doesn’t hurt if a lot of it is pretty.” Women really appreciate sporting apparel that fits, with buttons that are on the correct (left) side, she added.
Syren, Browning, and Blaser are among the manufacturers designing guns to fit women. Besides being lighter, shotguns and rifles made for women are adapted to the female build.
Today, just about everyone agrees that women are a growing force in outdoors sports. Rhodes says that studies have shown that if a dad teaches hunting to a daughter, she may not continue. “If a mom teaches a daughter, the girl will keep it up,” she said.
The bottom line, according to Rhodes: “For every woman introduced to the outdoors, she brings in 10.”
— By Dotty Griffith. Dotty Griffith spent most of her 34-year career with The Dallas Morning News as food editor and restaurant critic. She is the author of nine cookbooks, most about Texas-style cuisine.