Published August 22, 2009, 11:07 PM

A weekend for women: Catfish cooperate during Becoming an Outdoors Woman event on Red River

First-ever Becoming an Outdoors Woman catfish event in EGF draws participants, volunteers from both sides of the river
Sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the fishing weekend paired female participants with volunteer guides who served as hosts, teachers and mentors.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Growing up in Illinois, Renee Ligman had landed a few small catfish on a cane pole but nothing like the behemoths for which the Red River is famous.

That changed last weekend.

Ligman’s husband, Todd, recently transferred to Grand Forks Air Force Base from Scott AFB in Shiloh, Ill., and the family moved to East Grand Forks about a month ago. She hadn’t been here long when she saw a notice for an upcoming women’s-only catfishing event on the Red River in East Grand Forks.

Ligman says her husband encouraged her to sign up.

So, last weekend, Ligman spent two days on the Red River while her husband stayed home with their 6-month-old daughter, Kendyl. She caught catfish, alright — up to 18 pounds — right in city limits.

Now, she’s hooked. And if Ligman has her way, the family will have a new toy in its future.

“My husband gave me a choice — a boat or a camper,” a beaming Ligman said a few hours after releasing the biggest fish of her life. “My choice was made today.”

Inaugural event

Ligman was one of five women to participate in the first-ever Becoming an Outdoors Woman catfishing event on the Red River in East Grand Forks. Sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the fishing weekend paired female participants with volunteer guides who served as hosts, teachers and mentors.

Volunteering their services were catfish enthusiasts Mark Swenson of East Grand Forks, Pam and Karry Kyllo of East Grand Forks and Grand Forks fishing guide Brad Durick.

Judging by the smiles and the occasional shriek — holding an unruly catfish for a photo isn’t for the faint of heart, after all — everyone had a good time.

And that’s exactly the point.

According to Linda Bylander, the DNR’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman coordinator, Wisconsin was the first state to offer a BOW program in 1991 when Christine Thomas, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, decided to find out why women were so underrepresented in hunting and fishing.

Thomas found lack of equipment was one barrier. She also discovered that women need a supportive, non-intimidating environment to learn about the outdoors.

And so, Becoming an Outdoors Woman was born.

Today, 44 states offer BOW programs, including Minnesota and North Dakota. Minnesota launched its BOW program in 1994, and North Dakota recently wrapped up its 15th season of programming.

Minnesota offers two “sampler” workshops annually, Bylander said, larger events in which upwards of 60 female participants can choose from a variety of outdoors activities. The state also offers 40 smaller events during the year, such as the recent catfishing excursion in East Grand Forks and a spring sturgeon adventure on the Rainy River that’s become a perennial favorite.

“I think our heritage of hunting and fishing can support more and more programming,” Bylander said.

Both states

Last weekend’s catfishing event drew women from both sides of the river. And with volunteers that included Durick, the Grand Forks catfish guide, and Lynn Schlueter of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, there’s a chance Minnesota and North Dakota someday soon could partner on BOW events in border communities.

“Anything we can do to get more women involved,” said Nancy Boldt, BOW coordinator for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “I think if we advertise it over here, we could easily get some more ladies.”

The DNR’s Bylander agrees: “We could easily do something like that,” she said.

Boldt, who decided to attend the Red River event after hearing about it from Schlueter, had never caught a catfish before last weekend. Neither had friend and fishing partner Carol Parvey of Sarles, N.D.

That changed in a hurry.

Fishing with Durick, Boldt started the weekend by catching a 29-inch cat before the guide had all six lines in the water; Parvey followed up with a 35-inch fish barely a minute later.

Not a bad start.

“That was cool,” Boldt said. “I was worried about breaking the rod tip. That is just as exciting as catching northerns.”

Holding her first catfish for a photo — she’d vowed before the event that she wouldn’t touch a fish or a frog — the look on Parvey’s face suggested she didn’t quite know what to think about the 14 pounds of whiskered beauty she cradled in her arms like a baby.

And when the catfish gave an unexpected flop, Parvey let out a shriek that cut the silence of the morning like a knife.

Everyone got a good laugh out of that.

By day’s end, Boldt and Parvey had landed 18 catfish and lost five others.

“My whole goal was to catch one,” Boldt said.

Whoppers all around

All of the women landed big fish last weekend. Sandy Austin of Prior Lake, Minn., and Regina Harris of Cannon Falls, Minn., each boated 15-pound cats fishing with Swenson, the East Grand Forks angler.

“It was fun,” Austin said.

Time was, Austin wouldn’t have said that. When a friend talked Austin into attending her first BOW event in 1995, fishing was part of the program.

“I did not like fishing, and my girlfriend loved fishing,” she said.

And when the weekend was done?

“I still didn’t like fishing,” Austin said.

Eventually, though, her outlook changed; she had a great time last weekend on the Red River.

“I think I started understanding fishing better,” said Austin, who serves on the steering committee for Minnesota’s BOW program. “I’m not a person who sits still very well.”

Ligman, the East Grand Forks resident who now has her eyes on a new boat, said the biggest fish she’d ever caught before last weekend weighed “maybe 3-4 pounds.”

Fishing with the Kyllos, Ligman had barely finished reeling in her 18-pound catfish last Saturday afternoon when another rod buckled over in its holder.

She landed that fish, too, a 14-pound cat that made an equally good showing.

On all counts, the day had exceeded expectations.

“I can’t wait for tomorrow,” Ligman said.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to