Why Women Fly Fish

Every woman has her story. Some are striving for independence. Others find solace and a sense of peace in the beautiful, quiet waters. Hemingway’s granddaughter, Lorian Hemingway, fished to get out of the shadow of Papa and escape her alcoholism. Others have simply found their place in nature and respite from the grind of everyday life. Standing in a clear stream, casting a fly rod, the line arcing gracefully overhead, is in itself a tremendous way to make a good day even better.

My first typical, male-misguided perception about women invading the environs of men-only fly fishing was that although there was something of a national movement, no meaningful revolution was happening. The good ol’ boy club was safe!

The other morning, though, I was killing time while driving back roads, gawking at the color of autumn leaves under a cloudless, cobalt sky; a perfection of nature playing out through the bug-spattered windshield of my tired old pick-up when I saw something interesting.

Standing in the pretty trout waters of Hickory Creek was a woman flawlessly casting a fly rod. Pulling over at a little turn-out, I watched her catch and release a very nice brown trout. A few minutes passed and I was beginning to feel a little bit creepy; invading her space – or any one’s privacy – ranks as a major crime with me.

I could have moved on but instead got out of the truck and, under the pretext of fishing, set up my fly rod even though I had no intention of fishing that morning. The woman, perhaps in her early fifties, got out of the stream and walked toward her car sporting Illinois plates and a dealer’s tag indicating a Chicago area dealership.

“Good morning!” Her tone was pleasant, appealing. We engaged in the usual chit chat, exchanging vague bits of information about ourselves, interspersed with typical angling interrogatory. She was a pediatrician, indeed from Chicago. What caught my eye first and foremost were the baggy, men’s-sized chest waders she was wearing; looking somewhat like a Hazmat worker rather than a serious angler.

Hesitating for a moment, I gambled, “Not much in the way of fishing apparel for women these days, is there?” Looking blankly at me, “Well … whad’ya mean?” I pointed at the rumpled pair of big waders piled on the gravel road next to her SUV.

“Oh, that!” she laughed, loading the last of her gear in the car. “Yeah, I guess women’s fly fishing stuff is finally catching up to the men’s, especially the waders. “But these,” pointing with her thumb back toward the car, “were my Dad’s.” Then, a bit wistfully, “I’m kind of fond of them.”

She hailed, “Bye!” Then she jumped in her car and drove off. I guess she headed  back to Chi Town, while I stood there wanting to know more … curious to know why she would drive all this way to stand in cold, moving water waving a stick, wearing her father’s baggy waders. I wanted to learn more.

flyfishingquoteI suspected a whole array of reasons was involved for her and other women beyond touching memories; maybe the reasons were deeply personal for some, pragmatic as hell for others and probably more existentially connected in some way to nature for most.

I wondered how women anglers compared to men anglers. Do they have boorish braggarts in their midst? How about obsessive trophy hunters or over-competitive jerks, stuck up elitists and rude people barging in the stretch of water you’re fishing without so much as a “howdy?”  Sadly, those inappropriate activities are all too common among us males. I may be biased, but I can’t help but feel that women are more evolved.

Maybe I was on to something … the essential difference between men and women encrypted, somehow, in a fly rod? That tongue-in-cheek thought made me laugh. Then, reality popped in my head.  It was time to go measure a small construction project that paid the bills. I headed the tired truck in the opposite direction of the woman in baggy waders, thinking that whatever her reasons were for fly fishing, she was damn good at it!

Why all the clamor concerning fly fishing, and what’s so special about it anyway? Compared to conventional forms of fishing – casting, spin fishing and drowning worms – fishing with a fly rod is more challenging, more demanding and sometimes daunting.

Yet, there’s something else. The grace and rhythm of the fly line arcing overhead seems to have a compelling appeal. Sometimes if a person is not careful, they find themselves in a frozen focus, called “assuming the position” but no one seems to mind, enjoying it a bit more than one might think. Standing in a cold, clear stream does something to the mind: It is soothing, peaceful and, on a good day, provokes a kind of meditation. Do the other forms of fishing? … a bit, but not so much.

Learning how to cast proficiently is kind of tough but not impossible. Learning the whole encyclopedic array of knowledge needed to fish moving waters with complex currents, learning the entomological aspect, tying proper knots – and on and on to an almost impossible nth degree of minutiae – is the never-ending task at hand.

In spite of all this, the question remains: Why and when did women begin to fly fish? Let me punch your time-travel ticket and we’ll journey back into another century where it all began, the year 1421!

Gentlemen, brace yourselves! The methods of fly fishing, the fly rod and even fly lines, made from horse tail fibers, were created by a woman, Dame Juliana Berners, back in the day, very long ago.

Her written work, Treatise of Fishing With An Angle was first published circa 1421, some 200 years before Izaak Walton published his enduring work, The Complete Angler.angle

It appears old Walton most likely practiced worm dunking on occasion while Dame Julianna created twelve fly patterns that remain a prototype measure even today. Her ideas on techniques and stream-side etiquette are modern-era canon.

So what motivated Dame Julianna to engage in her own creation with such passion and at the same time script a treatise so tedious and detailed that it would make a better pillow than a riveting book?

Here’s her reasoning on the subject (distilled to a boney essence that would make Doctor Oz utter a couple of “hosannas” while jumping for joy): Have “merry thought;” engage in work that is “not excessive” and partake in a “moderate diet, avoiding places of debauchery, eat nourishing foods and digestible ones.” Avoiding places of debauchery? … hmm.

Wrap all this up with a love of and participation in the sights, sounds and smells of nature while standing in a beautiful stream waving a stick called a fly rod and according to Dame Juliana, you enjoy the elixir of life … I wonder if Doctor Oz fly-fishes.

I could spend the remaining years of my life chasing after the intriguing answers as to why women fly fish, but a quicker resolution befalls me in the form of the first modern-day anthology compiled by a woman, about the lives of fishing women.

Holly Morris’s 1991 collection of 34 essays, Uncommon Waters, is one of the better books I’ve ever read on the fishing life, period.

I’ve read each story twice and while each woman details different events that brought her close to varied waters, they all had a common theme of deep personal introspection and an abiding love of the natural world from the aesthetic to an occasional dip into the existential.

One of the writers, Joan Salvato Wulff, put it this way: “The moving water of trout and salmon rivers, with all of the life found beneath their surfaces, touches me deeply. I am most keenly aware of being where I want to be when I’m wading a river, fly rod in hand.”

Further, she wrote: “Yes, this sport fits me – physically, mentally, psychologically. Why do I love trout? For the same reasons men do.”

Maybe women do it better.


Photos and text by Bob Johnston