It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Anglers
A few weeks ago Tim Romano wrote a post on his FlyTalk blog titled Women In Fly Fishing. Tim and I had a brief exchange about the questions he posed in the piece:
“Ladies, are you the sole angler in your circle of friends?”
“Did your mom teach you how to fish?”
“If you don’t fish on a regular basis – why not?”
We agreed it might be an interesting twist if I wrote a response post….oooh, fabulous idea! Sort of like when Kitty Wells sang It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels in response to Hank Thompson’s Wild Side of Life. Overly confident, I was excited to whip up something insightful, sharp and witty.
Just one problem. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
What? I mean, I am a woman. And I fish. I obsess about fishing. I seem particularly well-poised to write about this. But am I a ‘woman in fly fishing’? To tell you the truth, I see myself more as someone who is stumbling through the dark, trying to figure it all out. When it comes to fishing, I’m a work-in-progress.
So let’s just start with Tim’s questions. Yes, I am the only angler in my close circle of girlfriends. Yes, my mom is an avid angler. The reason I don’t fish on a more regular basis? Uh…PTA meetings, homework, sleepovers, bills, clients. Oh, and running around with my friends – most of whom don’t fish.
People ask me all the time why I love to fly fish. Depending on my mood, I might ramble on about the scenery, the escape, the camaraderie, the challenge. The sport of it. The respect of the fish. Blah blah blah. Other times I just smile and shrug my shoulders.
Hell, I don’t know why I love to fly fish. Do you?
Most addicts have to work a 12-step program to understand why they’re hooked. I’m not willing to give up my fishing addiction anytime soon. So without the soul-searching, self-probing insight of rehab, I just continue to muse awkwardly about the myriad of things I love about it.
I can’t speak for all women anglers, but I think I fish for the same reasons a man does. I like big, fat, feisty fish that fight. Native fish with rich colors and lots of energy. I like searching for them in beautiful, clear, skinny water. I like a bent rod. A cool take. I like hungry, dumb fish – until I catch them, and then I want them to be smart and discerning. I like getting them to eat. Picking the right fly. Even better if it’s dry and small.
I don’t see a gender gap at the core of fly fishing. Hell, the fish don’t know I’m a girl. But there are palpable differences for women in the experiences that surround the sport. Most are so harmless, they really don’t bear mention. But just for kicks, what do ya say we take a look at a few?
For example, the Flora & Fauna lessons. When you are a woman fishing with a male guide you don’t know very well, he will almost always cover you up in the nature speeches. Now I love an osprey’s nest as much as the next guy, but I really just want to look for fish. And maybe gossip a little.
A friend of mine had the opportunity to guide Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Flathead last summer. Getting into the groove of the day, he offered some fun facts about the mountain range in the background. She responded politely but firmly, “I don’t have a lot of time to fish out here so I don’t need the nature tour. Let’s just find the fish and see what they’re eating.”
Right on Sandy! I like your style darlin.
I’ve met the most wonderful friends in Montana over the years. Men, women, guides, anglers, shop owners, café owners. Some fish. Some don’t. It’s a wonderful community and I am so lucky they welcome me with open arms year after year. And most of the anglers that pass through this summertime fishing town are happy, positive and kind. After all, they’re on vacation doing what they love.
Some of them are just tickled to death to stumble upon a female angler on the banks of the river. Apparently it’s even more exciting than finding an osprey’s nest. If I had a dime for the number of times I’ve heard, “Man I’d like to get you in the front of my boat!” Hardee-har-har. They’re just having fun, I can tell pretty quickly if they’re being nice or being an ass.
A few are flat-out incensed by my presence and ask, “What exactly are you doing here?” If I say I’m just out to fish, some just ignore me, like I’m not supposed to be crashing their boys trip by eating in the same restaurant. Others don’t believe me. They’ll start testing me with condescending questions that I know they know the answers to. “What kind of fish are in this river? What are you catching them on? A hopper? What’s a hopper? Do we get to eat these fish?”
The good news is I have no ego that drives me to respond to any of this banter. It is interesting that they go to such lengths to start a conversation with me, just to be rude. I suppose it’s the middle-aged-man’s version of pulling my pigtails in class. But I don’t care if they think I’m clueless, I’m not competitive. I pretty much thrive on a healthy mix of high standards and low expectations.
I do, however, get annoyed when they bring it to the river. I go out of my way to give other boats plenty of space. Plenty! But some guys see me rowing my mother and my daughter and think our water is fair game. They see three ponytails and have no problem cruising over to low-hole me, while my mother is casting to rising fish off the front of the boat. Now that pisses me off.
Of course I won’t say anything — another difference between men and women. I’m too scared they’d yell back at me.
It’s funny that men are so intrigued by a female angler. I meet a lot of women who fish! I have a few girlfriends in MT who are amazing anglers, some are guides. I love being on the water with them, very chill and lots of laughs. But there are other women who don’t want anything to do with female anglers. They would sooner gnaw off their arm than have a conversation with me about fishing. I think they just like the attention of being a girl in the boys’ club. So they only want to fish with the boys. Talk shop with the boys.
That attitude is insane to me. Never trust a woman who doesn’t have female friends.
But the mildly annoying people in the world of fishing are the exception, not the rule. Over the years, I have met incredible people and dear, dear friends. There is a passion and a generosity of spirit in this sport that transcends all else. I marvel at how much I’ve learned from anglers that hail from so many different places – people I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
After my divorce, fishing became a mirror of my quickly-changing life. At first it reflected a harsh blinding light, bouncing right off the water and straight into my eyes. I realized how much my ex-husband had handled on these fishing trips. I’d been doing this a long time but I didn’t have a clue. So I started asking more questions. Tying my own knots. Wading out in the water by myself.
I began wandering around the flyshop parking lot looking for an open spot in someone’s boat. Like I was in a ski lift line shouting, “Single!” That got me in a few pickles so I had to learn to row myself. I’m inherently quite lazy, so I’ve surprised myself at the lengths I will go to. I will get up early, stay on the water til dark, bring all the beer, sleep in a tent, drive near, drive far, trade in frequent flyer miles, tap out my vacation days, quit my job….anything it takes to fish.
To tell you the truth, very little about this sport has come naturally to me. I soak up information wherever I can. I eavesdrop in flyshops. I pay attention when guides compare notes about their day on the water. I scour your blogs and read your magazine articles. I am so incredibly grateful for each and every one of you who has reached out, welcomed me to the conversation, or even just allowed me to listen-in for a spell.
I’ve always had a ton of girlfriends who’ve been like sisters to me. But fly fishing has given me a whole mess of brothers! I love it. Brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins. Maudlin as it may sound, it’s become an extended family. Like a good ole honky tonk bar, you never know if you’re going to be greeted with a grunt or smile. But the beer is cold, the jukebox is on and the neon sign lures you in just the same.
I suppose that is why I love to fly fish. To be a part of this wonderful, diverse, dysfunctional, passionate family. I didn’t plan on delivering such a sappy response to Tim’s blogpost, but what can I say? I guess I’m just a girlie girl at heart. A girlie girl who loves to fish.
And on a good day…a girlie girl who can really stick ‘em.