When I left France to come to America after the second World War, my friends from school predicted that I would marry “The King of Chewing Gum.” The man I married many years later wanted to work at a service station that had a sign “Gone Fishing” and that’s how I found fly fishing and a whole new life.
Our circle of friends were all men; avid fly fishers with just a couple women who went along with their husbands and enjoyed this new sport.
A friend and I decided to start a “Women Fly Fishing” club. We sent out 22 invitations to the first meeting, hoping for six women to come. About 20 came. That was it! We needed a name, a place to meet, a charter and a set of rules and goals.
In 1983, Golden West Women Fly Fishers became a reality. We were one of the first women’s fly fishing clubs in the country, but not the first women to fly fish.
In old English books, there are pictures of women in long black dresses wearing hats, standing in the river, holding a fly rod. There have been women fly fishers long before we came along. In 1497, Dame Juliana Bernes’ book, “The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle” was published in England. She was a prioress of the nunnery of Sopwell, a lady of a noble family; celebrated for her learning and accomplishment. That was years before Sir Isaac Walton.
When I decided to learn to fly fish to keep up with my husband, I went to the Golden Gate Angling Casting Club (GGACC) in San Francisco. I wanted to surprise him and would not ask him to teach me. At the Casting Club some of the guys came over to help me. This seemed easy enough; I can do it too. I soon realized that it would take hours to learn to cast properly; quite a challenge. Somehow, eventually it all came together. From that moment on, I was hooked. It was more than 35 years ago that I began to venture into streams to fish. What I discovered was that very few women were out there.
Why weren’t more women fly fishing? To be outfitted as a fly fisher, it took courage, patience and humility. At that time, if a woman needed anything to go fishing, sometimes she could get her husband or boyfriend to give her waders, a vest, a rod and flies he no longer wanted. When she went into a fly shop to procure anything for herself, she often was ignored by the salesmen who were busy working with their male clients first. A woman often stood unseen. Then, when she finally tried on men’s small waders and small wading shoes, she did not feel comfortable, and I must say, it was not very attractive. Thirty five years ago, there were no female sizes… some of you remember that, don’t you?
Then “catch and release” became the mantra of the day and the sport seemed less bloody. Women, perhaps empowered by the feminist movement, took up new sports like fly fishing, hunting, surfing and even boxing. They felt that the once “macho sports” were no longer exclusively for men.
About 30 years ago, the ratio of women attending fly fishing schools used to be about 1 woman to 10 men. Gradually, it changed. Progress was being made.
With this came the acceptance, support and recognition of the entire fly fishing community. It seemed that overnight, fly shops couldn’t do enough for their female clientele. They even hired saleswomen! The industry took the hint and appropriate female clothing appeared. Even rods were made “for women.” We had arrived and we loved it!
When GWWF launched, there was, (to the best of my knowledge) only one other women’s fly fishing club in the country. I believe there are now over 60 clubs all over the US and new ones cropping up all the time. There are also many more clubs in the rest of the world; at least 10 in the UK, several in Scandinavia and Japan, just to name a few.
When I first went to fish in Argentina in 1971, I encountered only one other woman fly fisher. She was eager for female company on the river. There are now many women on the rivers and lakes; female guides, instructors and even a women’s fly fishing club starting in Buenos Aires.
The International Women Fly Fishers (IWFF) organization had its first festival in San Francisco in the 90’s. It was a magical encounter of women from all walks of life, age, talents and the connection was incredibly powerful. Joan Wulff said, “I have waited all my life for this to happen!” IWFF has now over 300 members from the US and abroad.
Who are the women who fly fish? They are all ages, from 3 to over 93 and still going strong. They are from all walks of life: from students and housewives whose husbands don’t fish, to executives in high-powered jobs, cosmetic company models, to celebrities. Even Mrs. Rosalyn Carter, wife of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, is a fly fisher; from struggling young women to those who are rich and famous.
They represent every type of personality. From competitive to casual, relaxed to eager to learn, their interests lie in their sport, outings and catching fish. Some love to travel to exotic places and explore. Others prefer staying fairly close to home.
For many women, being somewhere beautiful, casting the best we can, watching rising fish and occasionally having a fish strike our fly is the essence of the sport. For me, catching lots of fish, sharing the rivers with the bears, picking blueberries in the fields, smelling wild strawberries in the spring, watching the moose, the little red foxes on the shore and feeling the tired salmon by my legs … that is my fly fishing experience.
Today, there many well-known female fly fishing guides, instructors, lodge owners, shop owners, women who write wonderful fly fishing books and women employed in designing and creating for some of the major manufacturers.
During the fishing season we have many outings, which have been the bond that connects the members who participate. We have recently reached out to Veterans First Women who wanted to learn and go fly fishing, with casting sessions and a one-day outing for starters. It has been a great success and more outings and events are being planned. Every two years we have a wonderful GWWF fundraiser to raise funds to support all of our activities.
The important aspects of a women’s club such as the GWWF are: fly casting lessons, financial and physical support for many conservation groups and issues, a strong scholarship program for female graduates in fish-related fields and the promotion and support for several youngsters to attend a Fish Camp every summer.
It has been 33 wonderful years: actively engaged in the sport of fly fishing with other women who have had the courage to enter this male- dominated sport and finally being recognized and accepted by the fly fishing community and industry. GWWF members have also found lifetime friends to share in what has become our common passion.
Fishing with and for women is more than just catching fish: It is a lifestyle.