Several weeks ago, my friend Erin traveled to Boise from Tucson to join me for a short backpacking trip in the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. On our way out, we saw the beginning of the 4th of July wildfire near Redfish Lake that started near Hell Roaring Creek. We pulled over to watch the helicopters dump water on the flames, but were shooed away by a forest ranger. As we continued on 75 toward Sun Valley, I looked out the window at the Salmon River at dusk, wishing I could be standing in it, flinging bugs around. I said to Erin, “Let’s stop and I’ll fish this stretch. I want a picture of myself fly fishing in front of a wildfire like a badass.”
We laughed at the idea, but we didn’t stop. Thinking back, I wish I’d at least posed for the photo op, because I feel like a poser as a female fly fisher anyway, so why not add a dramatic backdrop?
As a woman, in any outdoorsy venture especially, I feel the need to overdo it to be taken seriously. A man who doesn’t know which fly to use would probably just ask someone, and not feel stupid for not knowing—or at least he wouldn’t connect his ignorance with his gender. But to avoid asking and depending on men, I’ll make sure I read at least three fishing reports and note what I might need before I go. I turn over rocks, catch bugs, and match what I see. If I can’t figure it out, then I might ask, but I don’t want to be seen as lazy or cheating by asking first.
I feel like a poser because fly-fishing is still a man’s world. I know this because of hashtags on Instagram like #girlswhoactuallycatch, and comments on fish photos that focus more on the size and shape of the woman than the fish. I know this because some fly shops still assume I’m shopping for the husband or boyfriend I don’t have, but thankfully this is becoming the exception. Still, though, when I tug on waders and boots, click my pack around my waist, snug my ugly-but-practical straw hat on my head, and walk toward a river, I feel the stares, and as if onlookers are wondering, “Does she know what she’s doing, or is she just playing ugly dress-up?”
As an often-solo female angler, I get questions: “Are you joining your husband?” “Catch anything?” Or, the always well-meaning but annoying advice to a woman doing anything outdoors: “Be careful!” I find the appropriate answer to any of the above is an upbeat, “Nope!”
My answer is upbeat because I’m heading for my happy place, but curt because I don’t want to draw attention—I just want to fish and be taken as seriously as a man who’s doing the same thing. Men do get the “catch anything?” question, but no one questions a man for fishing alone, or advises him to be careful, unless he’s about to take a drift boat through class V rapids.
Like a lot of women, I was originally introduced to this hobby when I dated fly fishermen. I enjoyed it as an activity to do together, but when the relationships ended, usually the fishing outings did too. Because the boyfriends usually initiated the outings, knew where to go, which flies to use, what knots to tie, owned the boat and other gear, I never learned to fish on my own. I felt dependent on the experts and lacked the confidence to go alone, fearing I’d break my leader and forget the double surgeon, forget how to read the stream, fall down and forget what to do when water gets in my waders. I was good at finding reasons why I shouldn’t try. Yet all anglers get wind knots, hook our ears with bad casts, momentarily forget how to cast, get flies stuck in trees (and curse at said trees), slip and fall going down embankments, lose boxes of flies, lose nets, lose sunglasses, lose patience, get lost when the Forest Service road numbers don’t match the map’s numbers, and get scared when the current pushes us off-balance. These are not gender-specific problems; they are fly-fishing problems. I want to stop feeling like these problems mean I’m an imposter simply because I’m a woman.
Another reason I feel like a sham is because people think I fly fish to attract men, which is true to the extent that men fly fish to attract women. People fly fish for all sorts of reasons (and attracting a man is a perfectly good reason, although it isn’t mine) but most of us have found a kind of religion or meditation in it—for me, it’s equivalent to or better than the kind of therapy my insurance and I pay good money for. I am a 33-year-old single mother, so well-meaning people who care about me expect anything I do to be an attempt to attract men, because they assume I must want or need one to be safe or, worse, “complete.” I simply want the pleasure of enjoying a hobby I love. Besides, catching a man would be far easier than some of the trout I’ve been after. While a man might be unfairly teased about learning to cook to attract a woman, it doesn’t have the same implication of him being incomplete or unsafe.
I want to forget what people think, though, and just go ahead and pose as an angler, or better, just accept that I am one. The more that I and other women fish, the more we become simply part of the landscape, no matter how calm or fiery the backdrop. The next time I drive by a river and I want to fish it, I will—and I won’t second-guess what people will think of a woman fly-fishing in front of a wildfire, because it’s the cloud of caddis I care about, and whether the browns are taking emergers or dries, not whether onlookers assume I’m trying to look cool enough to be featured in the next issue of Outside.
About the Author, Meagan Newberry:
She is a mother, teacher, and avid reader, originally from the South, now happily residing in Boise, Idaho. She teaches reading and writing to community college students, and I sometimes poses as a fly fisher and a writer.
I would also like to add that she is an awesome human being and a killer fly fisher woman. Thanks to Meagan, for doing my first guest blog post! We can all relate to her piece in so many ways!