The allure of flying fishing capturing more and more women | Features

Lyle Ellerbee

A slew of lamps shone bright on vises clamped tight on long shank hooks as fly tyers crowded around a back table at Ecusta Brewing to wind thread and attach rubbery legs on the creation de jour: a Girdle Bug, a large spidery bug big trout find delectable — until it’s too late.

Every seat was spoken for — by women fly tyers. Tyers shut out of space sat on bar stools (and sipped craft beer) to oversee who was making what and how.

Welcome to Wednesday night women’s fly tying in Brevard.

The weekly sessions at Ecusta Brewing on the town’s east side are a seasonal ode to what can only be described as an explosion of interest in fly fishing by women. Indeed, participation by these women who tie flies — and cast those surreal bugs on Transylvania County streams — is the local embodiment of a national trend that represents the fastest growing segment — by far — of a multi-million dollar industry.

Pull up a chair

The Pisgah Area Women’s Fly Fishing Group has hosted the October through February winter series at Ecusta for nearly five years (COVID-19 crimped in-person gatherings but Zoom calls filled the gap until recently. Even then, 10 or more women dialed in each week.) The group formed to support and encourage women to venture to the sport, including the intricacies of tying their own flies. Tyers and non-tying onlookers get to know other area women who are already avid fly fishers or novices ready for the first dip of their boots in the cold waters of the fish-filled Davidson and French Broad rivers and other regional streams. (The almost 500 member group is very active on Facebook.)

Debbie Gillespie, the Wednesday night leader and a professional guide for seven years at Davidson River Outfitters, said tying is one attractant, but what draws women too is “they go with the intention to make friends and make connections to fish. I think a lot of people who come want other ladies to fish with and have a fishing companion.” Many attendees, she said, show up not to tie but find their interest piqued and end up fly fishing.

Gillespie ties many of her own flies and calls tying “pretty relaxing. It slows me down and makes me chill.”

‘Relaxing’ is one of several repetitive themes among the tyers.

Nicole Gorry, of Pisgah Forest, has fished only a few months but has become a Wednesday night regular.

“My New Year resolution was to fly fish and meet new people,” she said. “It’s relaxing and fun.”

Her friend Erica Zaveta, of Brevard, called the Wednesday night gigs “A super great, fun group of people. You’re not intimidated since fly tying is taught step-by-step.”

Tyers bring their own equipment or avail themselves of lights, vises and other materials supplied by Davidson River Outfitters and Headwaters Outfitters.

Gillespie sees another tangent among the group: tyers also tie for their husbands. “My guy clients say ‘my wife doesn’t fish but she would like to’,” she said, a positive sign that men will actively introduce their spouses to the sport.

Debunking the big myth

As noted above, another oft-repeated theme on Wednesday nights is less intimidation. That factor plus a supportive, non-competitive environment is a plus for most women.

To be sure, Gillespie said fly fishing has elements that can create reluctance among first timers.

“Wading can be intimidating and (the act of fly casting) is technical,” she said, owing to handling “small lines and flies. “But we offer an environment where women don’t have to be intimidated.”

A short 8-to 12-foot cast will put a fly in front of hungry trout. Long, elegant casts worthy of the 1992 hit film “A River Runs Through It”? Not by any means.

That men should rule the water also raises the eyebrows of some women. “Women are naturally better at fly fishing” than men, said Mary Bradford, of Rosman.

Where men might try to muscle lines or make a long cast for the sake of long cast, women have finer motor skills. Whippy rods and supple lines themselves reward a delicate toss.

“Women have more finesse, not just slamming it on the water,” says Steph Adams. Fly fishing is “not brute force.” As veteran anglers know, slamming lines and flies can spook wary fish.

Bradford and Adams should know. Both are experienced regulars on local streams. Bradford has fished for eight years and alternates between two and five weight rods, and Adams is often seen carefully handling big trout before she returns river monsters to the water.

Samantha “Sam” Miranda, who has tossed flies for three years and tied for two, added another touch fisherpeople of any stripe can relate to: it’s fun yet there’s “more of a sense of accomplishment to catch fish on your own fly.”

Closing gender gap

So fly fishing is no longer a men-only realm. Far from it. Women have stampeded through that door and flicked it aside.

Cases in point: Maxine McCormick, the women’s world champion fly caster, is a teenage girl from Indiana. She also outscored all but one entrant in the men’s division — her coach.

In what may be world record prices, salmon flies crafted by the late English tying master Megan Boyd have fetched upwards of $15,000 — per fly. Boyd’s steady clientele included Prince Charles.

Closer to home in Transylvania County, women account for an ever-larger percentage of fly fishing excursions at local shops. Gillespie estimates 40 percent of her clients are women, while Jessica Whitmire, of Headwaters Outfitters in Rosman, pegs her shop’s total closer to 50 percent. Both are higher than in years past.

Fly fishing industry national statistics reflect what is seen locally. The Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation (RBFF) reports a huge surge in women taking up fly fishing, enough to partially offset an overall decline in fishing participation. The RBFF said “in 2019, the gender gap in fishing participation continued to close.” It estimated 22 percent of women fly fishers were first timers just when overall fishing participation nationally is on the wane.

“The category’s participation grew the most,” the organization said.

Even a New York Times article cited RBFF statistics that women account for nearly one-third of fly fishers in the U.S. Of note: South Atlantic states, including North Carolina, boast the highest percentage of women fishing participants.

Industry paying attention

It’s no wonder the dramatic influx of women to the sport has drawn the attention of fly fishing apparel and gear makers, albeit somewhat late.

While Gillispie said “the industry is doing a better job of growing the sport,” gear makers relied on superficial elements in an initial less-than-comprehensive bid to attract the business of women.

“I was here doing ordering when companies missed the mark big time,” said Whitmire. “They made things in pink and teal blue and that’s not what women wanted. We want (clothing, waders, boots, etc.) that fit well.”

Since those first stumbles the industry has taken the women’s category seriously, according to Whitmire, by hiring women designers and more aggressive promotion of the sport to women.

“I think anytime you have an industry, women are going to demand change for the better,” she said.

The industry also mirrored what Brevardians see in the ‘welcoming’ tone of the Wednesday night sessions.

“We demanded it be more welcoming” to not just women, said Whitmire, but to people of color, the LGBT community and other underserved communities.

And now it’s time to fish

The Wednesday night conclaves at Ecusta have wrapped up for the winter season although the Pisgah women’s group is prepping spring schedule to be posted on social media.

For now, however, it’s time for members to test their flies — and skills — on the water.

The Pisgah Area Women’s Fly Fishing Group hosts numerous yearly outings for the novice and experienced angler alike and is all too willing to pair fishers. The group emphasizes no experience is necessary. Just be ready to have fun and enjoy being on the water.

The most up-to-date information can be found on the group’s Facebook page or call Gillespie at (828) 488-7665 or Whitmire at (828) 877-3106.

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