Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I'm Just a Girl...

    ...Who Loves to Fish :)

H: November 3, 2013: I've never given too much thought to being a woman who fly fishes. Perhaps a few times a year:
  • Definitely at the Somerset Fly Fishing Show where I still feel like a fish out of water among the throngs of camo and flannel clad men. Although that's changing as I make more friends and acquaintances in the ff world and as more and more women pick up this sport.
  • Often times when trying to buy new gear. Last year, I wanted some good studded boots for my first winter steelhead trip. Finding a store nearby that carried boots in my size (women's 7) even in men's equivalent sizes was impossible. And I was planning on sizing up for double socks, too. I had to order 2 different sizes (the manufacturer was out of stock of all women's boots in my size) and settled on the only men's model where my size was available. They're not ideal but they get the job done.
So, back to women and fly fishing. Several recent events have inspired me to give this more thought. First, my friend easterncaster was organizing a women's panel for the next Somerset Fly Fishing show as part of the FFF's continuing education program (Way to go, easterncaster!) I was looking forward to attending and even suggested making it our next club event for the Juliana's Anglers (my women's fly fishing club).

But then I learned that the FFF, in typical parochial fashion, decided to make this a closed-door event, only for FFF certified instructors. The reasoning: so instructors can receive something special from the FFF in recognition of their certified status (oh, btw, it's going to cost you extra $$ to attend ;). That's all fine and good. But by keeping this seminar closed to the public, the FFF missed a valuable opportunity to change it's current image as a stagnant, outdated, old boys' club. 

A women's panel could have been the perfect venue for showing the fly fishing community that the FFF supports the changing face of their sport and has the potential to evolve into a dynamic and more open organization. NOT! (apologies to easterncaster, Al Buhr, and a few other FFF friends). To my best knowledge, there have only ever been 3 females on the CBoG (Casting Board of Governors). There are 11 female MCIs (master casting instructors) out of a total of 241, along with approximately 50 CIs in the US out of 899 total! I'm relying predominately on the accuracy of the FFF online database for this information.

Another event that triggered this train of thought was a recent Juliana's Anglers' event—a book signing party for Julianas' alum, Sara Low, who published her first book earlier this year—A Guide's Guide to Fly-Fishing Mistakes. As I listened to her speak about how her book came to be, including how her editor insisted she change the sex of the people she wrote about anecdotedly in her book, I was simply flabbergasted! For heaven's sake, we live in the year 2013 in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!

The point was to convey fly fishing lessons learned through the stories she shared in her book. Whether the angler in question had one, or two (or even three) X chromosomes, does it honestly matter? Did the publisher think that a book containing stories with women fishing would turn off a male readership? Would dropping the s in "she"really increase book sales? For crying out loud, the book is written by a female fishing guide! I'm surprised they didn't ask Sara to adopt a male pseudonym ;). It's just ridiculous!

Then, a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of fishing with the indomitable Sam Decker, the only licensed female guide on the Upper Delaware river. It was a beautiful, crisp, and windy autumn day. Water levels were low and the fishing wasn't "on" but we shared an enjoyable day floating the Lower Main stem. I think we talked more than we actually fished ;). Well, she did most of the talking and I was an avid listener.

Fly fishing guide Sam Decker by her boat at Long Eddy put in on the Delaware River
Sam Decker and her lovely Mayfly boat. Long Eddy, Delaware River
I wanted to hear her story. How and why she decided to become a fly fishing guide. It's a demanding occupation whether you're male or female. Long days and evenings on the water, often times in harsh conditions. That this is her second career (she used to be a nurse) and that she's in her 60s is pretty damn impressive. She's been cheerfully at it for about 12 years now.

So why did she decide to become a fly fishing guide? That's simple enough... She loves (and I mean LOVES to fish! :). Everyone who knows her can attest to that. We ended up fishing together the following weekend and we're fishing again next week on the Salmon river. Meanwhile, she's fishing every chance she gets. She's been to Pulaski twice since I last saw her!

As for how, it was a long road full of obstacles, overcome by sheer determination, and a little help from a few good fly fishermen (Floyd Franke, Lee Hartman...). It was a real struggle to gain acceptance from the other male river guides. Some of her stories made me wince in disbelief.

At night, the guides would meet up at a local restaurant/bar to eat, drink, and swap stories from their day on the river. She decided her best course of action was to not socialize with them after hours. It had to be ALL about the FISHING, and fishing only. Who knows... Perhaps if she had hung out with them, she would more easily have been perceived as one of the boys... Or perhaps she would have just been the target of harassment and continued resentment? Anyway, she stuck it out, grudgingly earned their respect, and eventually made friends with them. Next time you see Sam on the river, ask her about the rattlesnake story ;).

As for my own personal experiences as a female angler, it's mostly been positive. Granted I'm not trying to break new ground or any records. I'm just out there fishing, enjoying my time on the river, and trying to learn as much as I can to become a better angler. Sure, I've been harassed a few times but never in a horribly offensive way. It's mostly been fly fishermen assuming I have little if any knowledge of the sport, sometimes patronizing, but generally, just trying to be helpful. And I've been fortunate to meet both great male and female anglers who've encouraged and helped me along the way.

What amazes me is that guys are still amazed when I tell them I fly fish or I run into other male anglers on the river and they say "Wow, it's great to see a woman on the river!" I know we're a minority, but come on! Fly fishing is a sport where being male or female has little bearing on success (except in gear selection ;). The playing field is level except that most women are, on average, years behind in experience (with the exception of Joan Wulff!) having been in the game for a shorter period of time.

I'll never forget that one time on the Farmington river when Josée and I took a coffee break. We picked up some coffees and drove to a different spot on the river. We were still dressed in our waders and with coffees in hand, walked down to the river to check out conditions. A couple of anglers were fishing upstream and several men were hanging out by the bank. They saw us and asked if we were taking coffees out to our husbands on the river. Seriously??? I nearly choked on my coffee. (Yeah, sure. We donned these waders so we could offer on-river beverage service for our spouses ;). Okay, these guys were old-timers (in their 70s perhaps?), so I cut them some slack. But honestly, they really need to get out of the house more...

I did a Google search to see what others have written about women and fly fishing. The top search return was a recent blog post at Fontinalis Rising, Chicks With Fly Rods. I've read it and some of the comments that were posted. As for my take on his post, I have to disagree with just about all of it. But I understand it's a rant, written emotionally in the heat of the moment, not completely thought out. Dude (Jason Tucker), you need to lighten up. If there is one thing I've learned in my 40+ years, it's never pass judgment on someone until you've walked in their shoes or at least attempted to imagine what it would be like.

In his post, he takes umbrage at a Facebook page suggestion he keeps receiving about a girl who fly fishes. He writes, "This gal is one out of a dozen or more that have come through my social media outlets in the last year that all seem to have the same message—'Look at me, I'm a girl who fly fishes.' They offer nothing else except perhaps lots of pictures of themselves posing with fish in smooching, pouting, or even suggestive poses."

First off, these are Facebook pages, meant for sharing pictures, thoughts, and personal stories, for better or for worse. I too have posted numerous pics of myself and my friends fishing and with fish we've caught. Why? Because they're snapshots of beautiful places and great/funny/silly memories we want to share with friends and other anglers who might appreciate them. Lord knows there are countless Facebook pages of fly fishermen who post the same.

Here's a picture of spey guru, Al Buhr, "smooching" a steelhead. Even if I didn't know him, I wouldn't assume he's trying to be be suggestive (look at those smoldering blue eyes ;). He's having fun! Showing his love for a beautiful fish. But if a woman were to post something similar, some men just might read it as suggestive.

Al Buhr kissing steelhead
Al Buhr showing some love for a beautiful steelhead.
A line from the movie G.I. Jane comes to mind. "Women aren't the problem... We (men) are". Gender bias is so ingrained in all of us, that unless you're specifically looking for it, it's only too easy to overlook. And yes, it works both ways. So, when a woman says, "I'm out to prove fly fishing is NOT just a man's sport... that gals who fly fish kick ass," cut her some slack. Unless you've experienced first hand being a minority in a sport/field dominated by the opposite gender (or aliens from Mars), I would be careful of judging too quickly. Minorities throughout history have had to prove themselves, constantly. Have you ever walked into a fly shop with your boyfriend/husband and been completely ignored when you ask a question about gear? I've heard this from my female fishing friends, way too many times.

He goes on to say his rant is nothing against women but only against their shameless self-promotion centered around the the fact that they are women who fly fish. I don't know exactly who Jason Tucker was initially referring to in his post. She might be a real angler, she might simply be an attention-seeker. But seeking attention is not limited to the female sex. As for my opinion on women who use their sex to garner attention. Sex sells and until men stop thinking with a certain body part, it will continue to sell and there will be women and men alike who continue to exploit this fact.

I find it ironic that he writes in one of his comments, "I'm happy to count April (Vokey) as a friend and I left her out of this discussion simply because she is operating on a professional level and doing her job, and I think she is a positive role model." Okay. If you were to ask both male and female anglers, "which fly fisher comes to mind when you think of shameless self-promotion based on their gender?" April Vokey would be at the top of the list. I'm guessing she was young and naive and needed a quick and easy strategy to promote her business. Since then, she's proven herself to be a serious angler and I believe she's doing positive things. But her initial approach has certainly not won her the respect of most anglers. Lots of hot-blooded, male fans, perhaps.

It's certainly a double-edged sword. Sure you will gain recognition (not for your angling skills) and it might be a quick foot in the door. But there's a price to be paid. If you want to be taken seriously, you will need to prove yourself constantly. And by your actions, you are helping to perpetuate gender stereotypes and prejudices. So, ask yourself: Is that the sort of role model I want to be?

Jason Tucker concludes his post by saying "...keep fishing, keep sharing your pictures and story. Just take the emphasis off your gender and go fishing..." Unfortunately, until the numbers of women and men in fly fishing become more equal and until we can overcome gender bias and established roles ingrained over centuries, we can't. Alright, enough of my own "rant" about this blog post. EVERYONE (men and women) continue to share your pics and stories and your especially your unique viewpoints on Facebook and the blogosphere... FISH HARD, FISH ON! HAVE FUN!

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