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On a warm Saturday in April, Karen Gainey steers her Explorer into Camp Twin Echo, a Boy Scout camp just north of Ligonier. She's on hand to help a couple dozen Cub Scouts from Pack 817 of Penn Hills fish. On the shores of Lake Morgan, an ambitiously named large pond, Gainey sets up a staging area at a bench with rods, tackle and bait -- the sort that surely appeals to young boys: live minnows, wriggly earthworms and squirming maggots.
Once everybody has a line in the water, she strolls amid the pack dispensing admonishments, advice and encouragement: "Stop messin' with the salamanders"; "Now, reel your line up all the way to the bobber"; "Beautiful cast!" If she's not re-baiting a hook, she's untangling another line.
After half an hour, Gainey takes stock -- one boy is easily pulling in blue gills -- and she decides to change techniques. She helps the boys switch from bobbers to weighted lines. The kids enthusiastically cast these new rigs out -- then just as quickly reel 'em back in. "Don't reel it in! Let it lie there!" Gainey shakes her head. "That's the hardest thing to learn."
Gainey should know. She's a committed angler with decades of experience; a past tournament champion; a hands-on fishing teacher; the host of her own televised fishing show; a volunteer instructor for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission; and the fishing pro at the Northway Mall Dick's Sporting Goods. With her wide variety of outreach, Gainey may be the single greatest force for getting anglers out on Western Pennsylvania waterways.
And they'll have plenty of company this summer, when the Citgo Bassmaster Classic hits the three rivers July 23-31. The nationally televised tournament -- the so-called Super Bowl of professional bass fishing -- will bring thousands of fishing enthusiasts to Pittsburgh. Gainey will help staff the Fish and Boat Commission's booth at the event's expo at the convention center, making sure visitors leave duly impressed with the regional fishing opportunities. It'll be a heady summer for recreational anglers, but for Gainey, turning everybody into fishermen has been her lifelong mission.
"I've been obsessed with fishing since I was a little kid," explains Gainey. "If I thought I could have caught a fish in my bathtub, I'd have had a fishing pole in there too."
Gainey was born in Detroit, and raised in the city's suburbs. The family home was adjacent to a couple hundred acres of open land that kept the self-declared "tomboy from day one" occupied. Her father was an outdoors enthusiast, and took his eager daughter, the oldest of five kids, along on his fishing and bird-hunting ventures.
Like most kids she started out fishing for smaller pan fish, but family camping trips to Canada introduced Gainey to the larger sport fish, such as bass and pike. "Basically, I was a self-taught fisherman," she recalls. "If there was a technique that came out, or an article in a magazine, I had to try it." When she wasn't fishing, she bow-hunted for deer, tracked small game with a shotgun, and trained as an auto mechanic. "I was the first girl in my high school to take shop."
Gainey went to work in her father's gas station. She took over the station's glassed-in office, filled it up with fishing gear, and refashioned it as "Karen's Tackle Corner." Automobiles and lures proved a fortuitous combination, for Gainey soon found herself out on the road on the tournament circuit.
In the 1980s, fishing tournaments were still restricted by gender, and most of the venues on the women's national circuit were in the South. "From Michigan, it was at least 500 miles to a tournament," says Gainey. "And the women's tournaments didn't pay anywhere near what the men's did. If you won a tournament, they would give you a boat. If you wanted to sell that boat -- brand-new, never been in the water -- you might get 12 grand out of it. But if you came in fifth place, you might not even get a thousand dollars. And that didn't even cover expenses."
Still, from 1983 to 1987, Gainey found success on the circuit, taking fourth place in 1987's Tournament of Champions. Using contacts she'd gained running her tackle shop, in 1984 Gainey had also started a Michigan chapter of Bass 'N Gals, a women's competitive fishing organization founded in Texas in 1976.
Gainey grew disenchanted with some aspects of the tournament circuit. "My attitude was: This is not for a million dollars, this is for fun. There were some super-competitive people. And I was more into the camaraderie. I was more knowledgeable than any of the other women -- some of them hadn't bass fished, or they weren't familiar with artificial lures that you have to use in tournaments. So I spent a lot of my time teaching everybody else how to fish."
Fewer women than men fish, though Gainey believes the reasons are more social than practical. "It's not so much where you're gonna go potty," she says, with a dismissive headshake. Women were kept off the tournament circuit for years for such "differences."
"[W]omen aren't exposed to fishing growing up the way boys are," she says, "especially if the mother isn't an outdoors person. But I do programs with Girl Scout groups, and the girls are just as enthusiastic as the boys." And she notes, "The fish doesn't know who's on the other end of that line."
About five times a year, Gainey gives fishing primers to Women in the Outdoors, an offshoot of the National Wild Turkey Federations, a nonprofit outdoors group. "I only get about an hour to 90 minutes to introduce women to fishing, and these may be women who've never touched a fishing rod in their life. My approach is to get a line in the water as soon as possible -- and if possible, get 'em all to catch at least one fish. To get somebody to want to try this again, the tipping point is catching a fish."
A study analyzing Texas anglers commissioned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1996 found that while women enjoyed fishing, they were significantly more likely to fish in family groups than alone. They were more apt to be concerned about their lack of skills. The study also found that women were happier just to fish, regardless of what they caught, while men favored catching large, challenging or "trophy" fish. That all sounds familiar to Gainey: "I think that men are taught to be more competitive -- in anything, whether it's how far you can spit or how many fish you can catch. Fishing should be relaxing. It's probably one of the best ways to cut stress in your life. You can go out and sit somewhere or go out in a boat, and just relax and enjoy it."
If Gainey's first tenet is that everyone should be fishing, her second is that they should be fishing around Pittsburgh. "People do not realize that they have some of the best fishing opportunities in any state in the union," she enthuses. "There are more lakes with less boat traffic and fantastic fishing that are not being used. I can name 10 lakes within a two-hour drive of Pittsburgh that probably won't have three fishermen on them -- and maybe not even have one boat. And then, there's the rivers and streams.
"The Allegheny River has some of the best fishing around and most people don't even try. My husband's from here and he used to tell me stories about the old days when all you'd catch was carp and catfish. But when I moved here I couldn't believe it -- there have been 21 different species of fish caught just off the Point. People don't realize how good they really have it here."
Denny Tubbs, aquatics resources program specialist for the southwest division of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, concurs. "Traditionally, the rivers haven't been the healthiest -- and that's been handed down that way by our parents and grandparents. They just didn't go to the rivers, and that image has become ingrained."
In 1990, Gainey moved to Pittsburgh when her husband, Mike, found a job here. She credits Mike, currently the director of education for the International Academy of Design and Technology, for helping her discover the wide variety of instructional opportunities here. "I'm the talent, and he's the manager. He knows how to set up the proposals, and he does a lot of the promotion and planning."
Soon after relocating, Gainey spied an ad from the Community College of Allegheny looking for people to teach non-credit classes. Realizing that she'd been teaching people to fish most of her life, she and Mike put together a course plan for a freshwater fishing class that CCAC quickly accepted.
Twice a year, in February and September, Gainey teaches an eight-week, hands-on beginner's fishing class through CCAC. "You don't have to know anything about fishing. We start out with the basics -- 'This is a rod, this is reel.' We talk about the fish, the difference between lakes, rivers and streams -- and it's geared toward Western Pennsylvania. You don't have to own a fishing rod to take the class or to go on the field trip. I bring plenty of rods and reels."
Gainey's technique is straightforward: "I break it down into three things: KAG, my initials. You have to know what KIND of fish you're after, the AREA that the fish are holding in, and then, how to GET 'em -- what lure or technique to use. What, where and how. It's applying what you know to the situation."
Jennifer Findley, 41, of Sewickley, is working on it. A housewife with two teen-age daughters, she's the household's fishing enthusiast; her husband, she says, doesn't "get" fishing. Findley signed up for Gainey's beginner's class this spring. "I'd fly-fished before, but I'd never used different rods, or lures," she explains. "I felt like I walked into the class knowing absolutely nothing. I didn't even know what we fished for in Pennsylvania." The amount of material covered in the two-hour-plus classes impressed Findley. "Karen just loaded me up with information." She laughs, "I'm still trying to process it all. So many lures and jigs, and rigs and rods and reels; when do I use it, and where do I use it?"
But, she says, "Now I feel much more self-sufficient. I will be able to fish and putz around and not be afraid to make mistakes." She adds, "That's a great thing Karen teaches: How do you know it's going to work or not unless you try it? If it doesn't work, then just move on to a different place, try a different lure or whatever you need to do."
For Gainey, trying something new meant launching a television show. For the past 8 years, Karen's Fishing Corner has aired on Pittsburgh's public-access channel, PCTV (channel 21 for Comcast subscribers) at 9 p.m. on Fridays. (Some shows are archived online at chantvshow.tv/sportsoutdoor.htm.)
A chance encounter introduced her to public-access television. "I worked with a guy who was doing an exercise show on PCTV. I went on his show to talk about fishing, then he showed some exercises to get your arms and your legs ready to go fishing. When I got ready to leave, the people that ran the studio said, 'Why don't you do a fishing show?'
"I didn't know anything about television, but I went through the courses, got a producer and started putting on the shows." Gainey keeps an ambitious schedule, aiming for a dozen 30-minute shows a year. (Each show repeats four times a month.) "I still do my own editing. I want control of what goes up," she explains. Her husband and nephew, Justin Gainey, do 90 percent of the camera work.
A lot of learning occurred on the job. "We had some problems with things like filters," she recalls. "When you're out on the lake, it's too much sun, so you're getting that glare burn." Not to mention the unreliability of fish: "You could spend two weeks filming and not get enough fish for a half-hour show."
Taking a cue from professional TV producers, Gainey films in an accelerated schedule during the good weather, and is creative about content. "I did one show called 'Questions for Karen' where I went in the studio and filmed questions," she explains. "Then I pulled footage out of older shows and showed the answers." A poor fishing trip to Chautauqua Lake was salvaged in the cabin's kitchenette: "We shot a 'How to Cook Fish' show instead."
"The idea," she explains, "is to make an educational fishing show. I have a problem with these TV fishing shows where it's Joe and Charlie go to Costa Rica. You and I cannot afford to go to Costa Rica, but I can make this show: 'Hey we're going fishing at North Park and these are the rigs to use there. We're gonna tell you where the best spots are to fish, how to fish, what to do.' That's what we've been trying to do -- keep it local or keep it educational."
Teaching kids to fish requires a combination of technique and psychology. "Kids don't have a long attention span," explains Gainey, "so I often put a rod out in a holder with a bobber on it. We throw it out and I say, 'You're in charge of keeping an eye on that.' Maybe they take a walk, look at the ducks, do stuff to entertain themselves while waiting for the fish to bite. I don't get upset if they walk away.
"With real little kids, if they're playing somewhere and I see their bobber go, I'll reach over and set the hook -- and then I'll say, 'Hey, come on over. I think maybe you got a fish,' and let them reel it in. Now they wanna come and sit right there and hold that rod. Once you get 'em hooked, they wanna fish."
Several years ago, when the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission asked for volunteers to promote recreational fishing, Gainey was quick to sign up and get certified as a fishing instructor. Tubbs, of the Commission, says Gainey is his No. 1 volunteer for fishing outreach. "I'm one person," he explains. "I cover 10 counties and I'm the only staff education person in the region, so I rely on volunteers a lot. Karen is just a big asset to the Fish and Boat Commission and to me. In my region, I am trying to target the non-traditional anglers -- which would be females. Women and families are who Karen is really good with."
Gainey sees little impediment to recreational fishing. "I decided a long time ago that fishing was the one thing that any age and any physical ability could do." She organizes Special Day for Special Kids and works with The Loft, an adult day-care run by the Mercy Behavioral Center, outings where Gainey facilitates fishing for the severely handicapped. "People in wheelchairs can't really hold a fishing rod, but we'll get the rod strapped in for them. It's so exciting for them to catch a fish -- that's an accomplishment that they normally wouldn't have a chance to do."
Gainey also scoffs at any financial barriers to fishing. "You just have to want to try. You don't need to spend a lot of money or have a lot of equipment. For fishing around here, my four basic lures are a spoon, a Rapala floating minnow, a jig with a twister tail and a rubber worm." (Gainey notes sagely, "There have been more bass caught on rubber worms than all the other lures put together.") With experience, she notes, anglers can adjust these lures -- size, color, added bait -- depending on the situation. Throw in a tackle box, a net and a rod and reel -- for the casual fisherman, "$40 for a rod and reel is plenty" -- and you're set.
Gainey may be an expert, but that doesn't halt her own quest for knowledge. There's always something more you can learn. I've even learned from people who didn't know how to fish -- like some tackle set-up that you would never put together, but hey, it works."
Fishing keeps Gainey in touch with the outdoors in a way she views as wholly participatory. "Fishing is a sport that's always challenging you. Once you get past the I-want-to-catch-anything stage, then you've got to figure out why the fish aren't biting." And it's not always as simple as swapping out a lure. "You've got to pay attention to nature and looking at things like bug hatches, the barometer, the water conditions. Fishing is a mental activity."
Her schedule keeps her busy, but Gainey fishes as much as she can. She is undeterred by season, weather or time -- more than one of her anecdotes ends well after dark. "If they're biting, I'm staying: You're not going to get me off the water."
This summer, as in the previous three seasons, on Wednesdays, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., through October, anglers and interested bystanders can find Gainey down at the Point, where she lends her knowledge to the Tri-Anglers, a lunchtime fishing program sponsored by the nonprofit Venture Outdoors. Participants require a fishing license, available on site, and must also purchase a $5 season pass, but equipment and bait are provided.
Opening day for the Tri-Anglers on May 4 proves promising. After a week of gray weather, sunlight floods the Point. Despite the brisk wind nearly two dozen anglers turn up to stretch out along the Mon opposite the Duquesne Incline -- some sitting in fold-out chairs, others bouncing on their feet, eager to flex their dormant angling skills after the long winter.
Gainey and staff from Venture Outdoors are on hand with loaner rods, a table full of tackle and a bucket of minnows. A man in a wheelchair rolls up to the table to swap out some tackle; a retiree, his fishing license flapping from his ball cap, laughingly shows the assembled fishermen his catch: a slimy twig. Two men in business suits sign up, promising to return next week.
By 1 p.m., several impressive fish -- a couple sizeable smallmouth bass, a 20-inch smallmouth buffalo, mooneye and carp -- have already been reeled in. A lunchtime stroller peeks at the buffalo and carp biding their time in an aerated water-filled cooler till their release, and expresses surprise to find people fishing at the Point.
"They're biting!" Gainey exclaims. "Grab a pole."