Selling Juls

In the world of pro fishing, femininity goes a long way.

The Distillers, with the Bronx Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 9 p.m. Tuesday, September 23, 216-321-5588
Julia Davis-LaCourse: Breaking the gender barrier. - Walter  Novak
Julia Davis-LaCourse: Breaking the gender barrier.

Rick LaCourse looks like you'd expect a man who fishes for a living to look: bulbous nose, blond mustache, and sun-chapped lips. He has a grin as broad as his back and enough funny stories to outlast a pack of smokes and a pot of coffee.

But it's his wife who's getting the attention.

Julia Davis-LaCourse -- call her "Juls," everybody else does -- is tan and pretty, with brown hair scrunched up under a baseball cap. The 40-year-old could almost pass for a college student, except that her bright blue eyes crinkle when she smiles -- and she's almost always smiling when her husband tells stories.

But the main reason Juls is getting attention is that she's the first woman to compete full-time on the RCL Walleye Circuit, a pro fishing league. "She's kind of like the Annika Sorenstam of walleye fishing," says Rick, referring to the female golfer who competed against men at a PGA Tour event. "She's breaking into the man's world."

Of course, walleye fishing doesn't have the cachet of pro golf. The RCL Walleye Circuit is rarely shown on TV, and when it is, it's relegated to the Outdoor Life Network. Most competitors pay their own way to tournaments, and it's not unusual for pros to wind up $20,000 or $25,000 in the hole by the end of the year.

But Juls, she's among the lucky ones. Though she ranks 71st out of 288 anglers in the tour standings, she's able to make a good living at it -- something only about 20 others on the tour can say.

Juls didn't set out to shatter glass ceilings. She grew up in an outdoorsy Wisconsin family, and contented herself with a job as a color specialist for a magazine company, working on such ho-hum titles as Country, Country Extra, and Country Woman.

Then, in 1999, she met Rick in an internet chat room devoted to fishing. A six-year veteran of the walleye tour, he mentioned that his next tournament stop was at Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. He asked if she would pre-fish with him -- show him the rock humps she scouted growing up. "You try to get as much local knowledge as you can," he says. Juls agreed, and ended up learning "more in that one week of pre-fishing than I had learned in 10 years there," she says.

When Rick left town, she assumed she would never see him again, and returned to the drudgery of producing Country Woman. But a month later, she got a call. "You're fishing a tournament on Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota," Rick told her. He had already signed her up as his partner for the next co-angler event. He even offered to foot the bill.

It would turn out to be a good investment for both of them. They finished third -- high enough to qualify Juls for the co-angler side of the RCL Championship, where she finished 13th among 220 competitors. It also convinced her to dedicate her life to the sport. "I've loved fishing all my life, and I didn't know you could actually earn a living doing this until I met Rick," she says.

During her first season last year, she finished in the middle of the pack. But this year she moved up to 71st in the rankings. "So I'm going forward, not backward," she says. Her financial success has exceeded her ranking, largely because of her sex, as even she will concede. "I know it's a lot tougher for the men, as far as getting sponsors. I found it very easy for myself."

Sponsors are all-important in the world of pro fishing. Although the biggest walleye tournament offers a purse as high as $400,000, most anglers earn little more than beer money. Juls has cashed in only once so far, pulling in $5,400 at Devil's Lake in North Dakota, where she was the first female to make the cut in an RCL Walleye Circuit event.

Sponsorship deals -- she has 12 at last count, most of them from makers of fishing-related products -- bring Juls's earnings to nearly six figures. She's often asked to show off a fishing simulator at sports bars. "We spend more time doing promotions than we do fishing."

Her sponsors are quick to point out that they didn't give Juls a free ride simply because she's a woman. But it certainly helped. "It's a story," says Greg Leonard, director of public relations for Crown Royal, her biggest backer. "It's something that is not the status quo."

Most male anglers receive her as one of their own, she says, but "there's 2 or 3 percent who are jealous, who may have old-fashioned attitudes that they don't want to see women in the sport." Yet she remains magnanimous. "That's how they were raised," she says. "Can't hold it against them."

Besides, she too holds traditionalist views. Juls is happy to let Rick -- whom she married not long after moving to Port Clinton last year -- do the talking. He, in turn, is pleased to brag about his wife. Though he's been a consistent winner on the tour -- estimated career winnings: $400,000 -- he seems not the least concerned that his wife ranked higher in the standings this year.

Being a woman doesn't pose a disadvantage when it comes to catching walleye, says Dennis Braun, the owner of Sportsman's Outpost, a bait and tackle shop in Port Clinton. "With a walleye, a lot of it is more logic -- mind games."

In some ways, being a woman may even give Juls an edge. After all, fishing is a game of waiting, not strength or speed. And as Juls points out, "Women are known for having more patience."

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