April 27, 2017
By Jonathan Wright
I'm going to come right out and say it: Women are naturally better fly fishers than men.
Angling with artificial flies has a very long history, starting with Dame Juliana Berners writing the first description of the sport over 500 years ago. In the last century, Joan Wulff held the world record for distance in fly casting for decades. More recently, anglers such as Cathy Beck and the Lange sisters in Montana have become respected names in the industry, and I have it on very good authority that April Vokey can handle the business end of a spey rod with consistently excellent results. But for the most part, the current culture of fly fishing has been formed either by the published academic opinions of desiccated old men, or lately, the Hi Def visions of the GoPro Bro-Brah's currently populating the high country of the West. This media environment has created many preconceptions that shape how people approach our sport. Women who have excelled in the craft have had to sidestep the influence of we men like sociological ninjas.
Think about the true nature of fly fishing -- the elements of reading the environment, and the delicate application of power -- and you'll eventually realize that women are better equipped from the get go, both physically and mentally. After a decade and a half of working as a guide with brand new, first time anglers I began to see this consistently, and not only had to acknowledge it to be a better host, but realized that I maybe had my perspective wrong in the first place.
For starters, there seems to be an openness in accepting new information.
I can't tell you how many times I've been out with a man and wife couple for a first day of instruction in river fishing, and after quickly absorbing what I had to initially offer, the woman angler starts to hook up well before the man does. The man then invariably reacts by attempting longer casts and deeper wading, which in early season usually results in his getting his ass handed to him, followed by a nice long break while we empty out waders, put on dry socks and rebuild leaders.
Wanting to avoid this kind of trouble before even stepping in the water, I always made a point of giving input on how to wade. Find your center, bend your knees, set your boot twice in the crevices, quiet your upper body and move from the hips. The analogy that wading was more a combination of Yoga and Tai-Chi -- as opposed to Football and Rodeo -- seemed to resonate with my female clients, who conservatively applied my advice and were soon happily navigating through rock gardens in fast water. Men usually have to learn the hard way that trying to wrestle the river is a bad idea. I think that women, being on the whole physically smaller and having less total strength than males, have had to learn to do things with less power their whole lives. Wading becomes a dance.
Casting too, has some parallels to this cognitive orientation. Timing is everything, and is totally subjective based on distance and conditions. Move your forward stroke too soon and you get tailing loops, too late and you lose energy -- not to mention your rig in the bushes. I don't know of any discipline that gives such immediate feedback regarding the value of the delicate application of power than casting a fly rod. I've always found that if I was getting tired and my presentation was falling apart, looking over my shoulder to see what my line was doing in the air behind me was a great way to recalibrate. Giving this as advice was not just in the interest of being a good instructor, it was self preservation. On full day trips, afternoon winds would kick up and make for more tangles if the clients weren't on top of their casting. Women who were in the zone would serenade the river and play their rods like violins, while their boyfriends were cracking bullwhips to try and get the fish to do their bidding. I learned that having forceps with scissors were an essential tool for working with all-male parties .
A third element comes into play here, and it's one that has implications for the future of the sport. Catch and Release as both a policy and a culture has allowed fisheries that were once on the brink of collapse to recover, and to grow larger fish in already healthy ecosystems. I believe that women have an innate orientation towards conservation and nurturing of the both the environment and the fish, and Catch and Release is a natural orientation for my female clients. There seems to be much less blood lust compared to men (with the exception of appreciating trout from a culinary perspective), and certainly the inclination to litter is completely absent, with women clients generally picking up trash in the river and asking if we can carry it out. A new female angler instinctively cradles a trout like a baby, where men want grab a fish by the jaw and hold it up like a trophy.
The women fly fishers cited as the beginning of this article (and many more I'm sure I've missed) have all embraced guiding at one time or another, and this was probably as much a pragmatism as a compulsion. But in general, the communities of guides that tend to work the more popular fisheries in this country are comprised to an overwhelming majority by men, and the testosterone is palpable. Catch rates become competitive, and some rules and boundaries get bent in the interest of that. While there have definitely been guides I admire and who have mentored me in my education as a fisherman, in general, I've never met a more concentrated population of lying sociopaths than in the guide world. A good woman guide can have her pick of trips and make some serious bank working with the women only groups who now regularly ask for female instructors, looking to be relieved of the relentless dude dynamic. Other than possibly in the physicality of the handling and rowing of drift boats, women guides are at no disadvantage to men, especially in the more crucially important areas of communication and attitude.
Ladies, the fly fishing world needs you! Please, encourage your friends to fish, support women's sporting organizations, and continue to provide the examples on the water that will make the sport a better and more sustainable place.