Early April in the Midwest means a lot of things: Friday fish fries, consistent wind and rain and gloom, a few false fits and starts of warmer weather that come bearing sinus-obliterating pollen. It also means the start of smelting season.
Smelts are tiny fish, some species of which are common in the Great Lakes. Many Midwesterners enjoy them fried. And for one group of Chicago lesbians in the mid-1990s, building a queer community meant sitting around a barrel fire in the freezing, rainy April night, casting smelting nets and preparing seasoning and olive oil, awaiting a barrage of tiny fish.
They caught one fish on that first outing. The second year, they doubled it.
Sherry Pethers had always been an outdoorswoman, traveling as a child to northern Ontario, Canada, with her father and brother on wilderness fishing trips. Susan McCann grew up fishing with her family at her grandparents’ place on the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. With demanding jobs, geographical barriers (e.g. Susan living in the suburbs) and a scene that focused on specific bars in specific neighborhoods, it was difficult for them to find a like-minded community. After meeting at a lesbian book club at the Gerber/Hart Library, Sherry and Susan found they had a love for the outdoors in common and decided to launch a lesbian fishing club in Chicago. They took out an ad in the two gay newspapers, Outlines and Windy City Times:
“Fishing Club for lesbians now forming. Experienced anglers, beginners welcome. Especially looking for women who understand ‘A River Runs Through It.’ Planning outings around Chicago & trips to Wisc., Ky., Tenn. & Mich., in search of everything from Bluegills to Northern Pike.”
The ad received quite a response, and GALS, the Great Angling Lesbian Society, was born.
Operating throughout the mid-1990s, at its peak, the club boasted more than 40 members, lesbians of all ages from all parts of the city of Chicago and the suburbs. The gals of GALS met for everything from smelting on Lake Michigan to gear expos, to more ambitious outings like an annual weekend trip to a state park in Wisconsin, with some traveling beyond. The GALS newsletters and event communiqués, stored at the Gerber/Hart, weave together these funny fish tales: “Sue and Michelle went to Tennessee over the weekend. They held up the fishing club tradition of being skunked.”
Outside of the queer bar scene, which at the time was concentrated primarily in gay districts like Boystown and Andersonville on Chicago’s North Side, there were only a handful of other ways for the city’s women who love women to meet in the mid-1990s – mostly centered around team sports like softball and volleyball. There was even an active gay and lesbian swimming club called, funnily enough, the Chicago Smelts (an acronym for “Sensitive Men et Lesbians Together Swimming”), which still welcomes new members and practices at Gill Park, just north of the Boystown neighborhood. But spaces for queer women who shied away from team sports and didn’t like to drink were rare (and, frankly, still are). GALS filled a need.
“Fishing is a solitary and a group experience, and it’s something where women can join where you don’t have to have any athletic prowess,” GALS member Fran Nathanson told me. “It created a safe space for women to spend time outdoors. The more opportunities, the better.”
At the time of GALS’ inception, Sherry and Susan didn’t think of the club as any kind of statement of lesbians taking up space in the outdoors, just a recreational and social group. But looking back on it, Sherry says, having a space to enjoy the outdoors in community was significant, particularly to enjoy and learn an activity that was perceived to be male-dominated.
“A lot of times, when I was in college or in graduate school, I would go fishing alone,” she says. “That was my relaxation. But I didn’t know other women who I could go fishing with. I’d sometimes get harassed, and you’re in the middle of the woods, and it’s scary when a group of men come up to you and say things like, ‘What are you doing out here alone?’ I’m fishing, like you!”
When asked what the most ambitious GALS fishing expedition was, Sherry jokes that “every trip was ambitious,” ensuring the travel and activity logistics for a large group. Before social media existed, GALS communicated by setting up a voicemail network that any member could call, leave a message or listen to other messages, and invite another member to join them at a forest preserve or a state park for the weekend. (Although this system was largely effective, Sherry notes they did receive a few troll calls with crass jokes equating fish and genitalia.)
The greatest annual to-do was the Memorial Day camping trip, usually a rainy affair, held for the first two years at CK’s Outback, a lesbian-owned campground in Mauston, Wisconsin. Sherry recalls meeting Donna, a local, a retired librarian and her friends, who live off of a lake and allowed the group to fish. At night, the hosts would regale the GALS with stories about the bar scene in the 1950s, formenting powerful cross-generational friendships and necessary reminders that queer community exists everywhere; it’s possible to find your people in central Wisconsin, too.
Susan spent a lot of time on those trips baiting hooks and teaching people how to cast. “It’s so cool when someone catches the first fish of their life, that buzz of doing something they’ve never done before,” she says.
And there were many firsts for the GALS during those peak years, between 1994 and 1997. A February 1997 communiqué reveals a packed itinerary, including “ice fishing for the intrepid,” the annual smelting outing and a camping overnight. The newsletters read like campfire tales, peppered with member nicknames like “Trooper” and “Peaker,” and plenty of banter, especially about the couples – “Carolyn and Julene, wearing matching snowmobile suits, proved there is such a thing as being too much in love.” Some members received snarky “awards” in the bulletins, such as Susan’s “Watchdog Award” for snoring so loud, she kept the raccoons away.
In the pre-Tinder world, as GALS built a community, deep relationships formed. Sherry says there were three or four couples that formed out of the group. Susan recalls her partner, Marilyn, receiving the “Sugary Sweet Make Me Puke” Award for tucking love notes into Susan’s fishing boxes and camping gear. A GALS newsletter shares this heartwarming tale: “Maggie and Pat came extra late. Their excuse? They were out celebrating the one-year anniversary of their first date. At least they brought champagne to share. Remember, these two met (thanks to Fran) at last year’s smelting outing.”
Sherry’s voice in the GALS event invitations and communications is good-humored, informal and drips with sarcasm. Reading her correspondences feels like a boisterous friend giving you a slap on the back and introducing you to the rest of the pack. For a July 22nd, 1995 suburban potluck, she advises punctuality: “These GALS know how to chow, and we have no mercy on latecomers.” A paragraph-long pitch for paying membership dues is full of self-aware one-liners (“We’re saving up for a Jamaican vacation”) and reassurances that no one will “have their legs broken” if they didn’t pay.
Even amidst the jokes, affordability of group activities was a legitimate concern for the GALS founders, and they even offered to subsidize trips so members who were unable to pay could still be included. “At the time, a weekend at CK’s required around $40,” Susan says. “Even back then, people didn’t necessarily have $40. We didn’t want anyone not to come because they were working a minimum-wage job and barely making the rent.”
Sherry and Susan both describe GALS as “making something out of nothing,” and encourage the next generation of community-seeking queer folks to follow their lead in building around common interests. “If you can think it, and you’re interested in it, there are bound to be other women who are interested too,” Sherry says. “Just get the word out and be willing to work.”
The group faded by the late 1990s as its members moved on to different stages in their careers and relationships. In 2004, Sherry became the first out lesbian elected as a judge in Cook County, Illinois. She retired a few years ago, and she and Clair moved to Wisconsin to enjoy the outdoors full-time.
She still keeps in touch with Susan and Fran, as well as a few other members occasionally, including one with whom she and Clair exchange Christmas cards. She and Clair even traveled with two members, Julene and Carolyn (they of the matching snowmobile outfits), on a float plane fishing trip in northern Ontario. Julene, Sherry recalls, was one of the club’s most devoted, someone who would be on the water from sunup to sundown. “She loved to fish with leeches,” she says. “Yes, live leeches. Even I will not bait a hook with a leech.”
Susan has fallen out of touch with most of the group. A move to the suburbs and focus on her career kept her busy, and when her partner experienced a fall that left her with partial paralysis, she became a full-time caregiver as well. The two have since retired and moved to Michigan. But she’s still grateful for the time and experience she had with GALS, and advises the next generation to not be afraid to try and start that next great community-building idea that “makes something out of nothing.”
“Did it change a lot of people’s lives?” Susan asks. “Perhaps not. But I’m really glad that we tried it. It was a heck of a lot of fun and I got to see some people catch their first fish.”🌲
edited by carmen.