A Sea Change: From Financial Adviser to Fisherwoman

Hurricane Ivan was the catalyst for financial adviser Claudia Espenscheid to change her life — and turn her piscatory passion into a women’s fishing business.

By Joanne Kaufman
Photograph: iStock Photo

Not Another Fish Story

The sun was just peeking over the horizon. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, not a ripple on the Santa Rosa Sound, in Pensacola, Florida. Ordinarily quiet at six a.m., the beach was bedlam this past June 3, when 75 women ranging from 19 to 68 years old clambered onto the dock behind Flounder’s Chowder House.

Two dozen fishing boats (complete with captains) were in their slips, here a Pathfinder, there a Blazer Bay, a Ranger, a Yamaha, and a Mercury, each polished up and looking fine. Three by three, the women, all members of the now year-old angling club Fishin’ Chix, climbed briskly aboard their assigned craft. The captains gunned the motors and vroomed 100 yards out from the shore, waiting for the first annual Pink Rubber Boots Ladies Fishing Rodeo to begin.

Claudia Espenscheid, the 41-year-old founder of Fishin’ Chix (which also sells women’s fishing apparel and equipment and organizes regular angling excursions), was at her home a shell’s throw from the beach, dealing with some last-minute rodeo business when the shotgun popped. It was the signal of the start of the competition, an event arranged to aid a local hospice, and for Espenscheid, a former financial adviser, there could have been no sweeter sound.

The benefit she had been working on nonstop for the previous three months, the benefit everyone told her would take a year to organize, that everyone said would attract 20, perhaps 30, participants at most because women have zero interest in the sport, that everyone said would attract no sponsors because "These things take time, Claudia, don’t you understand?" was officially on, with more than 15 sponsors signed up. "When I have an idea and other people say it’s not doable," Espenscheid says, "my attitude is ‘Just wait and see, buddy.’"

Getting Hooked

In 2005, when Espenscheid, then pulling down a six-figure income at Merrill Lynch, agreed to go on a daylong fishing trip sponsored by a mutual fund wholesaler, she was not exactly bullish on the idea. "I was concerned that I was going to throw up, and, truthfully, I had written off fishing as a redneck activity," she recalls. Redneck or not, she loved it. "Going offshore in a big boat is about adventure. It’s not just about fishing," says Espenscheid — who, for the record, caught a 15-pound red snapper that day. She also caught the fishing bug, heading out to a local dock a few days each week after work to cast her net, and to cast about for a way to make this new passion a bigger part of both her personal and professional life.

Espenscheid conceived Fishin’ Chix not only as a club but also as a pool from which to draw potential clients. The idea was utterly consistent with Espenscheid’s MO. During her four years at Merrill Lynch, she would put together wine tastings and dinner parties at a downtown Pensacola art gallery to attract new business to the firm. Then, in fall 2004, Hurricane Ivan hurtled into town. Espenscheid’s office was destroyed, her neighborhood all but flattened. Her home, although still standing after the storm, sustained more than $400,000 in damage.

For months after the hurricane, Espenscheid and her family camped out at her mother’s house. "I had seen nature at its worst," she says. "I wanted to be involved with something that, to me, was nature at its best.

"I wanted," she adds simply, "an escape." She began to consider quitting her job. "I knew a lot of what I was feeling was post-traumatic stress," she says. "I can’t tell you it was one thing that made me want to leave, but I was struggling. I just felt life is too short."

Espenscheid talked to a good friend, who was also a client, who encouraged her to take a step back, then asked, "Can you picture yourself 10 or 15 years from now sitting at this desk and talking to people about investments?"

The answer was no. To be perfectly accurate, the answer was "Hell, no."

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