Reel women Prairie Gal Fishing helps those drawn to the ice learn how to get more than a nibble when they drop in a line
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That didn’t take very long.
Ten minutes after dropping a line into a frozen-over body of water at FortWhyte Alive, a person who registered for a recent, Saturday morning, introductory ice-fishing class taught by Roselle Turenne, owner/operator of Prairie Gal Fishing, thinks she already has a bite.
“There’s only one way to know for sure,” calls out Turenne, who founded her frosty venture in early 2021, largely to teach women the ins and outs of the popular winter activity.
Sure enough, after reeling ’er in, the novice angler, who announced earlier that she’s originally from South Africa, “not exactly a major ice-fishing destination,” finds herself staring at a 15-centimetre-long yellow perch.
Turenne jokingly asks if she’d like to give the striped specimen a farewell smooch, before it’s released back into the water, through the same opening it came up through. That’s OK, she shoots back. She’ll settle for a quick photo with her finned trophy, instead.
A moment later, a second person in the five-person, insulated enclosure announces that she’s caught a fish, too. That causes Turenne, who also offers lessons in Gimli, where her custom-built shack presently sits atop ice-covered Lake Winnipeg, to smile from ear to ear.
“There are definitely days when the fish aren’t co-operating, which is why we call it fishing instead of catching,” she says, being careful not to kick over a container of frozen bait, which she supplies, along with everything else one needs, from jigs to augers to skimmers. “Except it’s definitely looking like today won’t be one of those days.”
Not even close, Turenne says, when asked if she grew up with a tackle box in one hand, and a jar of minnows in the other. Neither of her parents were remotely interested in the sport, so it wasn’t until she was 19, and working a summer job at a fishing lodge in Northwestern Ontario, that she cast a rod for the first time.
“I was a cabin girl, and because I worked split shifts, cleaning in the morning and helping prepare supper at night, I thought, why not use the afternoons to teach myself how to fish?” she says, seated in a hexagon-shaped cabin at FortWhyte Alive, where she’s traded in her baby blue fleece and parka for a grey, long-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with a Prairie Gal Fishing logo.
Turenne, a tourism management instructor at Red River College Polytechnic in her “real” life, fished on and off in the ensuing years, just never too seriously. That changed six years ago, when she and her wife acquired a seasonal lot outside of Kenora that came with a boat. Before too long, she was spending hours on the water, enjoying herself immensely whether she arrived back on shore empty-handed or not.
In the summer of 2018, right around the time she was writing a graduate research paper for a tourism course she was taking at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., she joined a group of friends to go fishing at Lake of the Woods. At some point, one of the four women in the boat began complaining — “OK, bitching,” Turenne says with a wink — about the treatment she’d received at a local sporting goods store the day before. She was shopping for gear, and some of the male staff there either ignored her completely, or spoke to her in a condescending manner, as if she didn’t know the first thing about baiting a hook.
“It turned out we’d all had similar experiences, and that’s when I had this eureka moment,” Turenne says. “I called my adviser the next day to say I wanted to change the subject of my paper to increasing the attractiveness of a destination, based on women fishing. Through that, I learned tons about the female fishing industry, and was given the opportunity to speak with some of the best anglers in North America, opening up this world I didn’t even know existed.”
“The gear is expensive to start out, and you’re not going to buy it if you don’t know what you need… Sensing there was an opportunity there, I put together a business plan, got my outfitter’s licence and all my equipment, and by January (2021), I was good to go.”–Roselle Turenne, Prairie Gal Fishing owner
That fall, Turenne was invited to discuss her thesis and personal interest in fishing, on an afternoon radio program. During a commercial break, she mentioned to the host that she’d recently bought a whack of ice-fishing gear that had been marked down for a Black Friday sale. Oh, did she ice-fish, too, the host asked, mentioning he did so regularly. Nope, came her answer. But she was eager to learn.
A few days later, there she was on the Red River, north of Lockport, ice-fishing with the radio personality and his four-year-old son, the latter of whom knew “a hundred times more” than she did. She went out as often as she could that winter and, once she started to get the hang of things, she began to think, what do people, especially women, do if they are curious about ice-fishing, but don’t have anybody to show them the ropes?
“Plus, the gear is expensive to start out, and you’re not going to buy it if you don’t know what you need,” she says. “Sensing there was an opportunity there, I put together a business plan, got my outfitter’s licence and all my equipment, and by January (2021), I was good to go, pretty much.”
Back on the water, err, ice, Rachel (last name withheld) says she learned about Prairie Gal Fishing a few weeks earlier, when she went online, to see if anybody in the city taught ice-fishing to beginners.
Her family has a cottage in Ontario, and she’s totally comfortable casting into a lake, but sitting on an overturned plastic bucket inside a tent, staring at a hole in the ice, waiting to see what pops through, is completely foreign to her, she says with a laugh.
“People have told me in the past, ‘Oh, my husband can take you ice-fishing,’ or, ‘You can come with us,’ but that’s not me learning how to do it, that’s just me going along,” she says, pausing to study a set of red and green blips on a provided sonar device, to determine if what Turenne told her to keep an eye on is a fish or a weed. “As soon as I saw the name Prairie Gal (Fishing), I had a feeling it was geared toward women. So yeah, I was very excited to learn there was somebody like (Roselle) doing this, and I signed up immediately.”
Like we mentioned earlier, Turenne also offers lessons in Gimli, via a custom-built, 110-square-foot fishing shack that, for the sake of convenience, comes with a loo. The enclosure is situated about 700 metres from shore, and is accessible by foot or vehicle, thanks to an ice road that is plowed on a regular basis.
“The first winter I did this, I was at Balsam Bay, but Gimli is so much easier,” she says. “The Lakeview (Resort) is really close by, and I’ve had lots of women come out for a girls’ weekend. They’ll do a day of fishing, then stay overnight at the hotel and hit the spa, the next day.”
“Gal” is part of her tag, but she teaches her share of men, as well. New Canadians, fathers who want to give it a go with their sons or daughters… even big, burly fellows who don’t want to be embarrassed when they go ice-fishing with their buddies; the reasons people seek her out run the gamut, she says.
Last weekend, for instance, she spent four hours with a pair of sisters who inherited their father’s ice-fishing equipment after he died, and wanted to learn how to use it, to honour his memory. (Guess it still worked; the three of them caught and released in the neighbourhood of 60 fish, that afternoon, she reports.)
“What I especially love about ice-fishing is you never stop learning,” she continues. “I have one person who’s been to the shack four times already this year. The same way some people take their clients to the golf course, he takes his to my shack. And why not? You’re literally trapped inside for hours, so if there’s business to discuss, it’s a perfect setting.”
Turenne hasn’t branched out to teaching fishing in the summer, but it is on her radar, likely when she’s retired. A more immediate goal is to make the word “fisherman” obsolete. It’s estimated that by 2035, 50 per cent of those who hold a fishing licence will be women, she says, so she doesn’t think getting people to use the word “angler” instead, is too big an ask.
Given how busy she must be, between teaching at Red River, and teaching on a river or lake, does she still find time to fish, for the pure joy of it?
“Oh, most definitely. When we’re at Gimli, for example, lots of people don’t need me hanging around (in the shack) after I’ve delivered the lesson, so I’ll say bye for now, and go fishing,” she says. “When I started all this, it was mainly to get more women into fishing. The other piece was for my own mental health… to get me through winter, especially during the pandemic, when everybody was like, ‘Will this snow and cold ever end?’
“Now (winter) seems to shoot right by, so I’m careful not to lose my own love of the sport, just because it’s become my business, too.”
For more information, go to prairiegalfishing.com.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.