By Hillary Hutcheson
The fly-fishing guide community is rarely accused of being balanced. Many guides live a life of extremes; a feast-or-famine work schedule with long months on the water without a break, followed by slothy periods of hibernation or an off-grid exit to tick varied fish species from the list.
They might affirm they are trying to eat healthier, drink more water, get ample sleep and exercise. But more than a few are quickly betrayed by the weathered jowls of dehydration, tired eyes, creaking joints, a bum back, and frustrated family members. Their bank accounts yo-yo like a 1980s fad diet, as their moods follow suit. They take the “work hard, play hard” mantra to heart, giving their all in all they do.
In some ways, Capt. Abbie Schuster fits the bill. She admittedly works too hard as owner/operator of Kismet Outfitters.
Schuster’s successful fly-fishing operation on Martha’s Vineyard demands her bell-to-bell attention as its head guide, reservationist, bookkeeper, marketer, and IT tech support. Growing up in a New England fishing family, Schuster learned to operate boats and tackle at a young age. After completing Sweetwater Guide School, she guided in Montana, Washington, and Alaska.
Today, she puts her body and wits through the wringer running her 23-foot Parker center console along tidal rips and massive standing waves en route to ideal fishing spots off Edgartown and Menemsha harbors, where she spent years gaining intellectual property. Like many guides, she welcomes the challenge of technical boating. She’s abundant in skill-supported confidence, jokes, stories, beer, tangled hair, and, yes, plaid shirts.
But emerging from the proverbial sea of beardplaid, Schuster is more balanced . . . at least, if balanced is as balanced does. “Well, I don’t actually think I’ll ever truly find that,” she says. “I’ve designed a life meant to make it easier to try, though. My job on the water is what I love and what I’m good at, but I’ve learned that I need to even it out with family, conservation, and wellness to thrive.”
This is where balance becomes literal. A certified vinyasa yoga instructor for more than five years, Schuster takes her guiding to dry land in the off-season to lead students through poses meant to improve flexibility, strength, energy, and many other health parameters. “And balance is at the top of that list,” she says. “I do have customers who fish with me and also take my yoga classes. And they say yoga helps them with stability on the boat and wading on uneven surfaces, and that it helps their casting posture and mobility.”
During her busy April-November fishing season on Martha’s Vineyard, Schuster carves out time to teach beach yoga twice a week before or after charters. Once the season is over, she relocates to Portland, Maine to guide area lakes and rivers and teach private and group yoga classes several days a week. “And I teach yoga at the local brewery,” she says, “which is a fun way to introduce people into the practice without forcing them into a yoga studio.”
When her mind is racing in a million different directions, or when she has a long to-do list that she can’t seem to whittle, the Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline allows her to clear her head so she can better focus on the tasks at hand. Schuster says, “Yoga makes me a better angler, a better business person, and I use it to treat painful scoliosis in my back.”
While Schuster strives for harmony in her own life, she says it’s hard to ignore the disequilibrium in the fly-fishing industry. She’s the only Vineyard captain who exclusively fly fishes. There are no spinning rods or plastic baits in her boat. She also is the minority when it comes to practicing catch-and-release of her fishery’s belle of the ball, striped bass. No one takes a fish home from her boat.
“I’ve lost clients who want to keep fish. I let them know up front that we are catch-and-release, and they seem cool with it, then they get on the boat and want to kill everything. That’s when I say thank you for coming, but it’s not a good fit.”
Most clients, however, are eager to protect the fishery, and quickly learn proper fish handling techniques. “Our boats are tall, so if you are taking a 40-pound fish out of the water, you are breaking their jaw,” says Schuster. “Keep them in the net, release them quickly . . . it’s still just as fun.”
Each spring, when they migrate north to New England from the deep waters of the North Carolina coast and Virginia, female striped bass can produce a million eggs for every 10 pounds of body weight. A 30-inch fish could be 20 years old and in the prime of her egg production. Harvesting them can have a detrimental impact on the fishery. “They travel so far and every year we’re hoping more education and responsible fishing regulations will lead to a stronger returning population,” Schuster says.
Schuster has turned her passion into purpose by incorporating resource protection education into her fishing classes and her role as an industry ambassador, and has met with U.S. senators and representatives in Washington, D.C. on behalf of fisheries conservation.
The pursuit of smaller striped bass, or “schoolies” migrating up the coast attracts hundreds of anglers every year to the world’s largest fly-only tournament, the Cheeky Schoolie Tournament. The annual Cape Cod tournament is also exclusively catch-and-release, and wade-only. Schuster shines here, too, with her Kismet Outfitters Women’s Meetup. It’s a kick-off gathering that includes casting practice, knot tying, and tournament strategies. Cheeky CEO Ted Upton says Schuster’s involvement has contributed to an increase in female participation. “Abbie is a role model to all anglers, and in particular, a champion of getting more women involved in fly fishing,” says Upton. “We could all learn a lot from her approach.”
Schuster says 60 to 70 percent of her current clients are men, and she sees a turning tide in their attitudes. Fewer men question her competence based on her gender, age, or appearance; hopefully, she says, because of a waning gender bias. She knows she can rely on her skill set and character to create solid word of mouth.
Ted Upton says anglers will seek out the best guides, and as a result they’ll find Abbie Schuster. “Fly fishing for striped bass can be tricky,” says Upton. “There’s the moon, tide, wind, current, food source, structure, light, seaweed, depth, fly choice, and on and on and on. It takes a truly dynamic guide to understand the habits of the fish we chase, particularly migratory fish. Abbie is a master of her environment and knows Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and the islands as well as anyone.”
Her women’s trips and events are constantly sold out, and she’s excited to contribute to evening the percentage with each woman she comes in contact with through her work. With an industry peer-driven vision of gender parity in fly-fishing participation and industry management roles, Schuster leads by example. “With more women involved, the sport is more dynamic, thoughtful, and fun,” she says. “To me, that’s balance.”
*Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips when she was a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. After a short career as a broadcast news anchor, she established the PR and marketing company Outside Media, and began hosting Trout TV. She now owns the fly shop Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her two daughters and a yellow Labrador named Jolene.