Dennis Anderson
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Forty years ago when Sybil Smith and a handful of like-minded women formed Women Anglers of Minnesota (WAM), their intent was to provide learning opportunities for a subset of fishing enthusiasts who sometimes felt left out of the mainstream.

“It was hard to break into men’s fishing groups back then, and when we tried, we didn’t always feel welcome,” Smith said. “I remember at a sport show a guy said to me, ‘Why aren’t you home taking care of your kid?’

“Stealing a line I heard somewhere, I said, ‘Well, he’s 32 now and has his own key.’ ”

A lot has changed in the years since. Today, WAM (www.womenanglersmn.com) is a vibrant group that provides a wide range of walleye, bass, northern pike, panfish and other fishing opportunities to women of all ages. The organization’s membership is approaching 200 and includes mother-daughter-granddaughter fishing teams.

What’s more, when the Northwest Sportshow opens Thursday at the Minneapolis Convention Center, WAM members in the group’s show booth are unlikely to hear sexist comments about where they should and shouldn’t be.

Their place — as is quickly obvious to anyone who meets and greets this bunch — is on the water, as it is for hundreds of thousands of other Minnesotans.

“I grew up in Chicago,” Smith said. “My dad taught me how to fish when I was a girl. After college, I moved to Canada, then to Hibbing and eventually to the Twin Cities, where there were so many lakes I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

“Soon, so I could fish, I bought an old wooden boat with an old motor. It wasn’t much of a boat, but it was a boat.”

A social worker by education and training, Smith became so intrigued with Minnesota angling that in time she added another vocation to her résumé: fishing writer.

Smith has written books about how to fish Twin Cities-area lakes and Brainerd-area lakes, among others. Her latest effort, “Never go fishless from shore again,” will be published in a few months.

Like Smith, WAM’s current president, Kristen Merwin, 41, learned to catch sunnies, crappies and other fish as a kid. Growing up in Plymouth, she attended Wayzata High School and passed many of her earliest angling days with her dad on Lake Minnetonka.

“My dad was a walleye fisherman at heart, and that was, and is, my favorite kind of fishing, too,” Merwin said.

Her dad’s fishing instructions weren’t limited to tying knots and baiting hooks. When she turned 16 and got her driver’s license, she and her dad headed for the Ridgedale parking lot, where for hours she practiced backing the family boat and trailer.

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To learn to fish, and to go fishing, women often confront barriers men don’t.

One is opportunity: Women typically know relatively fewer people who fish than men do.

Cost is another issue. Outfitting oneself from scratch with a rod, reel, line and tackle — never mind a boat, motor and trailer — can be daunting, particularly for women on a budget, a group that can include single mothers.

WAM members help newcomers overcome these and other obstacles, Merwin said.

“There is a lot of support among women in our group for other women,” she said. “Because we love to fish, and want other women to experience what we’re experiencing, we’re excited to help, and especially excited when women new to the group catch fish.”

In June, more than 100 WAM members will participate in the group’s annual fishing tournament, which this year will be on Lake Osakis. The event will draw some women who don’t own boats.

“For these women, we provide pontoons with experienced female captains,” Merwin said. “We have three pontoons ready to go, so far, for this year’s tournament, and we’ll get more if necessary.”

Britane Peterson, 35, her sister, Michelle Rittenour, 36, and their mother, Sharon Rittenour, 60, all of Mora, will compete in the contest. Each has won trophies in past tournaments. (Britane’s 13-year-old daughter, Autumn, fishes in WAM’s youth events.)

“The three of us will compete aggressively with one another in the tournament,” Britane said. “But it’s not only about competition. It’s rewarding to hear stories from newcomers who have always wanted to fish but who didn’t have an avenue to do it. Sometimes, in fishing, it’s just easier to learn from a woman than it is from a man.”

Smith, the co-founder of WAM, agrees.

“Often I’ll give community-education classes in the metro about how to fish Twin Cities lakes,” she said. “Most people who attend are men.”

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com