Rods are for fly fishing. Poles are for dancing.
13 things women should know before their first fly fishing trip.
The first time I learned about fly fishing, I was sipping a cocktail in a dark bougie bar in Des Moines, Iowa, with a man I was falling for. He shared stories from his more than 25 years of fly fishing in Montana…the persistent rhythm of the mighty Missouri River, bluebird skies, rugged mountains that surrender to sweeping plains; the artful fly-fishing cast, subtle loading of the rod, release, mend, strip, and startling set when a big brown trout eats your homemade fly.
I cried. Granted, my tears were mostly inspired by visions of soul-stirring wilderness and splendid isolation, but still, fly fishing was more than a mere sidebar.
Eventually this man took me to Montana to fly fish for the first time. When the plane touched down in Missoula, I cried again. Full of hope about the relationship, but also a whole lot of anxiety and uncertainty about the fly fishing. My usual curiosity was stunted by my utter lack of angling knowledge. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Most women I know like to embark on a new endeavor with some basic knowledge. And there’s a lot to know about fly fishing…a good deal of it has nothing to do with the actual fishing. I’m here to remove the mystery and enlighten first-time female fly fishers so they know what they don’t know when they show up for their first guided fly-fishing trip.
Here are 13 things I wish I had known before my maiden fly-fishing excursion and/or things that other women have asked me about when it comes to fly fishing. Disclaimer – There are many places and ways to fly fish. My perspective comes almost entirely from more than a decade of fishing from a drift boat on a river in Montana.
1. Old, white guys everywhere.
Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler,” published more than 350 years ago, was dominated by men and fish assigned only male pronouns. Today, the sport remains dominated by mature, affluent, white guys, indistinguishable from each other with their fishing hats, sunglasses, khaki pants, and well-groomed gray facial hair. Increasingly, though, there is a younger nature-loving, hippy-ish contingent. And women. I recently found a statistic reporting that 30 percent of fly-fishing enthusiasts are women…leading to more and more female fishing guides. I’m happy to report the sport is evolving, but just know that, as a woman, you will be in the minority on the river and in the bar, post-fishing.
2. Drift boats drift.
It’s aptly named a drift boat because it…uh…drifts. No motor. Just oars to quietly steer and control speed as you drift down river. Most boats seat three people – guide in the middle on the oars and two angling clients in front and back. There’s also room for a cooler, necessary gear, and not much else. Once you’ve drifted down river, miles from where you got in, then what? Not to worry. Your guide decided early that morning when and where you’d get out and arranged a shuttle to bring his or her “rig” to the takeout point.
3. Essential fishy fashion.
My daughter came to Montana from Minnesota for the first time one July a couple of years ago. It was hot, dry, and nary a cloud in the sky. After seeing so many anglers on the river covered like mummies from head to toe, she asked, “What’s with all the long sleeves in the middle of summer?” Montana sun exposure can turn you into a crispy critter quick so embrace the long sleeves. Other wardrobe and sun tips:
Be prepared to experience two, three or even four seasons all in one day.
Wear plenty of sunscreen but don’t put it on your forehead. You’ll sweat, it will seep into your eyes, and you’ll temporarily go blind.
Wear a hat.
Wear good sunglasses designed for water sports. These help you see fish in the water while protecting your eyes. Leave the fashion sunglasses at home.
In fact, leave all fashion at home. No one cares what you're wearing.
4. The never-ending beginning.
If you’ve booked a full day with a guide, you’re in for 7-9 hours of fishing, depending on weather, your guide, and your own preferences. The fly-fishing experience begins from the moment you meet your guide. In the parking lot where you put into the river, expect a lengthy preparation process that will drive you to pace the parking lot wondering why the guide didn’t do this stuff the night before. This stuff – preparing the boat, stringing up rods, tying multiple knots and flies, maybe smoking a cigarette, bull shitting with other guides and anglers doing the exact same thing, speculating about river conditions and weather, and lying about the flies used yesterday and the fish caught last week – will seemingly go on forever, relaxed and unhurried. But in fact, every guide is racing against the other guides to get on the river first without seeming like they’re in a race. Be patient and let the ritual unfold. It’s just the beginning.
5. Fundamental fishy behavior.
Generally, fish face upstream, against the current. I didn’t know this. I thought fish just swam around in chaos, here, there, and everywhere. Like in a fish tank. Turns out the tiny fish brain is quite intentional about its three fundamental purposes in life – swimming, eating, and, once a year, having fish sex. Don’t hesitate to ask your guide questions about fish behavior. If they don’t know the answer, they’ll make something up.
6. Bugs are not gross.
Fly fishing is all about the bugs – figuring out which bugs in which stage of development are prevalent on the river at any given time and, most importantly, being snarfed by the trout. Fly selection is both art and science. And a well-stocked fly box is both functional and beautiful with its flies of many colors and textures – a veritable fish food smorgasbord constructed from thread, feathers, fur, and bead eyes. Take a moment to admire the contents of this fish food pantry, then rely on your guide to make decisions about which fly/bug to use. Don’t be alarmed if you float through literal clouds of bugs – caddis, midges and mayflies – which are in various stages of lovemaking, birthing, and dying. They don’t bite.
7. Learn to squat.
If you’re fishing in Montana, you’re fishing in the wilderness. And if you haven’t spent much time in the wilderness, you have perhaps not learned how to pee somewhere other than in an actual toilet. At the boat ramp where you get in the river, there will be a vault toilet, with real walls, a real door and real toilet paper. Use this toilet whether you need to or not because you won’t see another one until you get off the river. Once you’re on the river, you will pee (and poop, if necessary) outside. Learn to squat. It’s a life-changing skill.
8. Rods, reels, and flies, oh, my!
Gear for any new sport can be overwhelming. Fly fishing is no exception. There are rods, reels, lines, tippet, leaders, hooks with barbs, hooks without barbs, infinite flies, bottles of gooey stuff to make flies float, countless tools, and gadgets. Don’t worry – your guide will handle the equipment. But when it comes to equipment vernacular, as a first timer, know these two things and you won’t look too stupid:
Never put the words fishing and pole together again. It’s a fly rod. Not a pole. Rod for fly fishing. Pole for dancing.
Remove the words lure and bait from your vocabulary. You’re fishing with flies…thus the sport’s name – fly fishing.
9. Your guide is always right.
Fishing guides become guides because they love fishing and they’ve fished a long time. They know a lot of fishy stuff. You, as a first timer, know absolutely nothing, even though you’ve seen “A River Runs Through It” 27 times, Googled fly fishing, and discussed the sport with a few male friends who think they’re experts because their Uncle Bob took them fly fishing once. Just do what your guide says. Be open to his or her instruction. You’ll learn something and probably catch a few fish.
10. Don't be helpful.
You’ll have many moments where you think, “I could definitely do X faster or more efficiently.” Resist the urge to bring your female process improvement skills to guiding. Do not try to control the situation or be helpful in any way. Guides get paid to do what they do. Respect their process. Accept how long it takes. You are out of your element. No one needs or wants your help. ‘Nuf said.
11. Lies, lies, lies.
During your day of fly fishing, you’ll be regaled with stories about the big brown donkey of a trout caught right there in that slow water underneath that Russian olive tree. Or the butterscotch giant that chased a sexy streamer off that bank by the red barn. These hyperbolic stories will be told with great specificity. Some will be true. Most will be lies. It’s okay. Eventually, you’ll understand, and you’ll lie, too.
12. Fly fishing is kinda hard.
It takes years to get good. But don’t let that deter you. I think women, in general, are better fly-fishing students than men because they listen, and they don’t approach learning a new skill with ego. Endeavor to enjoy the learning and the fishing. The catching will come.
13. Not fishing while fishing.
You’re not likely to spend 7-9 hours in uninterrupted cast, mend, set, repeat. Take breaks. Give your partner the front seat, settle into the back, put your feet up, sip your beverage of choice, and watch the world go by. Just be. In this place. In this moment. This, too, is fly fishing.
There's plenty more to know about fly fishing - like proper handling of a fish for a photo, fly fishing colloquialisms that make trout seem sexy...I could go on and on.
Regardless of what I didn't know then, that conversation about fly fishing over a cocktail in a dark bar in Des Moines, Iowa, changed my life. I married that man. We retired, sold all our belongings in the Midwest, and built a house a few steps from the Missouri River in Montana, where we enjoy soul-stirring wilderness and splendid isolation every single day. And we fly fish. It never gets old.