Women on the Water: With Steelhead on the rise, female anglers take Idaho’s Salmon River
Missoulian: Written by ROB CHANEY
Photographed by TOM BAUER of the Missoulian
Posted: Thursday, March 4, 2020 7:45pm
SALMON, Idaho – Steph Bernt’s 4-year-old face tells you everything you need to know about the thrill of steelhead fishing.
But the photo of the little girl holding the huge fish shows a world very different from today. For one thing, Bernt is now 27 and a professional fishing guide. For another, when that picture was taken, Idaho steelhead fishing stank.
“I grew up in a time when there were no steelhead – there was no return on all this effort,” Bernt said.
Two decades later, Idaho braces for one of its best steelhead fishing seasons ever. The state has bumped up its daily limit from three fish per day to five on several rivers, including the Salmon where Bernt operates Aggipah River Trips.
She hopes to see another change take place in the fishing world – more women anglers. That’s even more challenging in steelhead waters, chasing a rainbow trout that thinks it’s a salmon with a deep-sea fighting nature to boot.
For boat client Beth Waterbury of Salmon, Idaho, it seems like a natural step.
“It’s socialization,” Waterbury said while Bernt broke out lunch supplies for a guided fishing party. “Women have just as much hunter-gatherer in them as men do. But with women, it doesn’t feel competitive. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.”
Waterbury was her mother’s fishing companion in childhood and has kept the habit her whole life. For women without that family starting point, she agreed the fisherman’s world can seem an intimidating place.
“Having a peer of the same gender helps,” she said. “They let down their defenses a little more when they’re with women.”
On an early-season Salmon River float, Bernt took Waterbury and fellow Salmon resident Mary Ann Oberhaus in pursuit of steelhead. The sunny day was barely warmer than the 40-degree water, but Bernt had rigged the driftboat with a propane heater in the bow. Her father Bill had a boatful of men (also equipped with a heater).
The marketing idea came to Bernt on just such a float, when couples would come and the men would gravitate to Bill’s boat while the women teamed up with her. The women left having a great time, but wondering why they’d never considered fishing on their own initiative.
“Look at us,” Oberhaus said during a lunch break. “I’m 71 and Beth’s 52. We’ve got pre-menopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal. I have a new T-shirt in mind. But we’ll have to wait until we’re back on the boat.”
“We’ve got to de-genderize this sport,” she said, turning serious. “It’s for camaraderie, for reflection, for getting centered and letting go. How can you be serious when you’re out on this water? I love the thrill of every cast – not knowing what’s going to happen. And the thrill of the catch, even if I don’t catch it.”
Advertising that thrill will take some imagination, Oberhaus said. A retired marketing professor, she suggested Bernt might not see much success in the typical outdoor sports venues of trade shows and Field and Stream magazines. Most marketing toward women in those places tends to come in the form of camouflage lingerie, she said.
Better places might be exotic travel magazines or sports venues like tennis and golf, where women already have an established presence, Waterbury and Oberhaus agreed.
Bernt took her own time coming around to fishing. Although she spent many childhood summer days napping on an army blanket in the back of her dad’s driftboat, fishing didn’t appeal. She much preferred the summer backcountry trips where she could master her whitewater guiding skills.
That started changing in the past couple of years, as Bernt took on more responsibility with the family business. Father Bill handed her an outfitter’s license for her 18th birthday in the middle of a weeklong backcountry tour. And she grew more fascinated by the intricacies of fishing.
“You’re on a river and it’s changing all the time, and you’re learning where the holes are and the ecosystem where some animal is living,” she said. “It’s like learning a language.”
That appreciation blossomed at the same time Idaho’s steelhead population did. The state has been releasing the same number of hatchery-raised fish annually for years, but lately the survival rate has shot up. Idaho Fish and Game biologists aren’t sure why, but they’re enjoying the success.
“I had much more experience guiding for trout,” Bernt said. “On a good day, you can catch 80 to 100 little cutthroat. With steelhead, it’s like 17 hours per fish on average. But in this last year, I was so into it. It seemed like there was a point to what we were doing.”
Steelhead have a strange, two-step migration when they return from the ocean to Idaho’s rivers. The result is two fishing seasons: The spring opportunity runs through March or April, while the fall season is Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 in most areas. That makes it a good shoulder-season business before and after the backcountry whitewater adventures.
“It’s a long way from mainstream,” Bernt said of her woman-to-woman marketing. “To look really young and be a woman is hard, but I’m getting at it.”
“Oh, my,” Oberhaus said. “I just thought of another T-shirt.”