Maybe it was the morning light dancing along the river’s surface or the water softly lapping at my knees. Maybe it was the gentle breeze carrying the sweet pine smell through the valley or the tug on the line that allured me. Something in that early morning made me transfixed. Entranced. Mesmerized. Hypnotized. It was my first time fly fishing, and with every cast, I knew it would not be the last.
From that moment on, my fly boxes were bursting with stoneflies, copper johns, scuds, RS2s, and sex dungeons. My gear closet started to fill up with rods, reels, waders, leaders, tippet, and nets. The dining room table became a permanent fly tying station. Dust gradually accumulated on bike gloves, riding shoes, and skis and eventually, all gear from previous sports and hobbies became veiled under the fly fishing stockpile. Like a marmot diligently caching delicious grasses and flowers for the long winter, I was meticulously accumulating and storing all possible fly fishing elements for years to come. I became obsessed – fixated on the art of fly fishing.
Four years have sailed by since I first picked up the rod. Four years with moments of defeat and flashes of victory. My fable with fly fishing contains an overgrown path full of hurdles and obstacles. I’ve been snagged on failure and humiliated by disastrous knots; I’ve been sheepish with my disgraceful casts and humbled by nymphing; I’ve been setback by unfavorable weather conditions and defeated by the waters. Some days, with dissuasion and frustration, I put the rod down and go home with my tail between my legs. But like most relentless anglers, I’m cursed with the hypnotic spell. My refusal to deliver a fly is short-lived, and I always, unapologetically, return to the water with rod and reel in hand.
Not only have I had to overcome the steep learning curve associated with knot knowledge and casting muscle memory, but I’ve also had to surmount factors that make fly fishing an intimidating sport. Much of my childhood was spent spin fishing on lakes with my dad and uncles. I didn’t grow up fly fishing and knew nothing of the art until my college years. I didn’t know a dry fly from a nymph, leader from tippet, a six-weight from a four-weight.
My first time in a fly shop was unnerving. I recall it vividly. Five men clothed in long-sleeved flannels were gathered at the shop counter. Their faces were hidden under disheveled beards and shadowed by mesh-backed trucker hats. They were ardently talking about the pros and cons of using monofilament vs. fluorocarbon leaders. The spitting of Copenhagen in old Coke bottles intermittently broke the conversation. I had no inkling of what they were debating. I couldn’t speak the language nor could I understand the jargon. I stood 10 feet away from them, shyly staring at the vast array of flies. They were unaware of my existence, and due to my timid nature, I didn’t want to make my appearance well known. I stealthily backed away from the counter and slowly tip-toed my way out of the shop: vanished with no flies in hand. It would be weeks before I ventured into the store again.
Trying to seek a relatable role model, I sought out women who were also infatuated with the tug – a task that proved daunting. Through social media and fly fishing magazines, I discovered that the most prominent female figures were professionals whose expertise at casting flies and knowledge of reading water was far beyond my greenhorn capacity. I was intimidated, shy, and nervous when approaching other women in the field.
Because fly fishing is dominated by scraggly beards and virile, deep voices, I’ve frequently encountered men who assume that women don’t fly fish. They are unaccustomed to seeing women in waders or hands with pink nail polish tying flies. I’ve encountered men who fail to acknowledge women chucking flies – completely ignoring their presence, and I’ve also encountered men who are blatantly shocked when women catch larger fish than them. Often, such men stare for a while and then feel obligated to remark on the femininity.
This past summer, I, along with two of my best friends (Emily and Rica), traveled across western Wyoming. Our primary goal was collecting data to help us better understand the intricacies of mule deer migration for my graduate research. We spent countless days in the sun, camped every night, drove backcountry roads, walked miles across desolate terrain in search of mule deer sign, ended up in places no man has ever walked, and fished some remarkable remote water. We were the three musketeers on the western frontier.
After extensive days in the field, Emily often found solace in evening strolls through the sagebrush sea. During one of her walkabouts, she stumbled upon an abandoned fly rod on the side of the road. The rod was not of high quality, but was a rod nonetheless. Being the Good Samaritan she is, Emily needed to return the trout wand to its rightful owner. She approached a fly fishing guide near our camp who was noisily stowing gear in his drift boat.
“Excuse me,” Emily said as she tapped the man’s shoulder. “I found a fly rod on the road. Does it belong to you, or do you know somebody who might have lost a rod?”
The man briefly contemplated Emily’s question before responding. “Hmmmm ... maybe. Let me check it out.”
As soon as the words rolled off the man’s tongue, Emily regretted her question. Similar to our previous encounters in fly shops, the situation became suddenly awkward. But Emily presented the man with the rod, knowing that he was not the conductor who lost his invaluable baton. Seeing the quality of the rod, the guide remarked, “Nope. That’s not mine. But you should hold on to it so you can learn how to fly fish.”
Emily stared at him blankly. Her stomach was churning; her chest was on fire. This man had no clue that he was talking to a woman who can’t recall the first time she picked up a fly rod, because it happened so many years ago, and the time between then and now is saturated with fish stories. A woman who never stops talking about fly fishing, nor stops daydreaming of water. A woman who always travels with her rod, reel, and flies, even in the middle of the desert – a kick-ass angler, who is obsessed, infatuated, zealous, and fanatically crazed with trout. The poor man had no idea what water he waded into.
Despite her internal rage, Emily kept a cool face, and in a calm voice she replied, “I guess I can just add it to my collection.” She turned her back and walked away with a subtle sneer stretched across her face.
After Emily’s encounter, we sat around the campfire enveloped in the burning fragrance of Aspen and the bitter aroma of IPAs. We hooted and hollered when Emily re-enacted her encounter with fervor. Little did Rica and I know that we would experience a similar situation only days later when we would spend the weekend fishing some nearby lakes…
The bell on the shop door chimed, deliberately pronouncing our entrance. All conversations stopped. Every man in the fly shop turned his head and stared at the two women who just stepped onto their province. It was an uncomfortable and peculiar silence. The scene was reminiscent to a herd of mule deer inadvertently stumbling upon a pack of wolves in the deep wilderness: neither animal knowing whether they should fight or flee, conjure or escape.
The abrupt ringing of the phone finally broke the silence. The men resumed chatting about flies, flows, and fins. We swiftly walked over to the bin of flies that drew us to the shop – size 20 black chrominoids.
An older man approached us. “You ladies need any help finding something today?”
Rica softly smiled and replied, “No. We found what we need.”
He was surprised at our response. “Alright. Well … I like it when women know what they want.” With the smirk on his face, he turned away to resume his task of stocking flies.
Rica and I looked at each other with wide open eyes and raised eyebrows. Did that just happen? Our initial offense quickly eased into casual laughter. After all, we were women in a fly shop unwilling to take assistance, and the man was utterly dazed. At that realization, we smiled at each other, purchased the flies, and started to walk out. Before we left, I turned to smile at the men in the shop and waved goodbye. ¡Adios amigos! The bell on the door chimed, exuberantly pronouncing our exit. With flies in hand, we held our heads up high and proceeded to the water.
Since the late second century when man first started using artificial flies to lure trout, women have been the minority angler. As written in the history of fishing, the feminine presence has not occurred often, and men have become accustomed to such an absence. The gender imbalance has been ingrained in societal customs for centuries. So, can we blame individual men for their subtle remarks or awkward and naive ways in which they approach women in waders? Sometimes, yes. But not necessarily always. For it is the status quo – the prevailing condition of women immersed in fly fishing. This parallels other sports and pastimes. If a man were to walk into a yarn store alone, every woman in the shop would undoubtedly turn her head and stare at the person who just walked into their holy kingdom intricately constructed of alpaca and acrylic spun thread. He would be amid an unusual stillness created by the status quo persisting in the craft of threaded work.
But the status quo of the female angler is shifting. If media is a good illustration of the entire population, then more women are becoming immersed in the fly fishing realm. I’ve observed women in the pursuit of fish, tying flies on their own accord, or even building rods by themselves. I’ve observed women with diverse backgrounds in fly fishing – from beginners to experts. I’ve seen women of different angling interests – from those seeking permits in the Caribbean Sea to those enticing steelhead in the pacific Northwest; from those hunting cutthroats in high alpine tundra to those tricking tarpon in Central America.
Women of all ages, colors, cultures, and walks of life are picking up the rod and reel. The status quo will change with this new movement and novel era, and with time, men will become more habituated to femininity in the fly shops, to female guides on the water, and to groups of women fly fishing from their own boats with their own gear. An increase in women is just one crucial ingredient in the recipe of altering the status quo. Men also need to inspire the participation of women in fly fishing. They need to no longer ignore the timid girl at the counter.
I would not be where I am today without some key men who have encouraged me to continue fishing – including my boyfriend, local guides, and friends. This collective group of men have taught me the fundamentals of enticing trout – how to flawlessly present a fly, how to euro nymph, and how to double-haul. And although it was more difficult to find them, several moving women have contributed greatly to my fly fishing journey. I have now become more comfortable in waders and more confident in my casting abilities. With the support of men and the encouragement from other women, the gender imbalance will cease to exist and the lady’s angle will persevere.