The Real Fly Girls

Photo by (clockwise from left): Brian Grossenbacher; Tim Romano; courtesy of Kate Taylor; Brian Grossenbacher; courtesy of Mia Sheppard; Jim Levison

As a woman working in the outdoor industry, I have experienced both a warm welcome and a healthy dose of curiosity about my career choice. I'm surrounded by more men than women on boats, in camp, and around our conference-room table here at F&S. My gender's novelty can be powerful, and it can be frustrating. The seven female fly guides in this story can definitely relate. After all, guiding is a tough business for anyone--it's competitive, physical, and dependent on your ability to produce fish no matter what the conditions. Their skills fall under scrutiny on the river, and their looks are often emphasized in the outdoor media. Blogs such as Pacific Northwest steelheader Kate Taylor's Rogue Angels, where all the fiercest females of fly seem to intersect, have helped build a community of women within the industry that has been key to their success in facing these challenges. I wanted to give these women the chance to tell me who they really are in their own words. The answer, I found out, is passionate, skilled, no-b.s. anglers looking to put clients on fish and food on the table.

Full Makeup

Photo courtesy of Kate Taylor; Brian Grossenbacher

Kate Taylor: When I see pictures of women flyfishing in the media, they don't always resonate with me. One really important thing to recognize is that there are the women in the spotlight and the ones under the radar--so many that it's mind-blowing--and they are very divided. For every beautiful young woman on the cover of a magazine, there are many who feel like, Screw it, I don't want to be recognized for having boobs and long hair. When I have to be up at 5:30 a.m. and didn't get to bed until 11 p.m., because I was planning the next day with my guides, the time I'd spend doing my hair or makeup in the morning is another 20 minutes I get to sleep.

Charity Rutter: When you see female guides in magazines, you often see shapely young women with long flowing hair. I want to see a woman like me: I'm a guide, a business owner, a wife, and a mother. I think it's cool if someone reads that I've made this lifestyle doable, and that inspires more women to guide full time.

Kim Bryant might have been one of those women when she started flyfishing at age 17, but at the time, she didn't think guiding was a viable career option for a woman. She's just now trying to break into the business.

Kim Bryant: Pictures of female guides are sexualized, like all women in the media. I want my two little girls to see a photo of a woman fishing not because she's wearing a bikini, but because she's awesome at what she does. I'm not a super tomboy. I wear mascara on the river, get manicures, and highlight my hair. But I want to be seen as a guide, not just a girl.

Taylor: It isn't that it doesn't seem genuine, and I'd never want to hurt anyone's feelings, I just relate more to something like the picture of Erin Block in Trout Magazine, where her hair is all messy and she's tying a fly streamside with her dog running around. That's natural in the setting. She wasn't looking at the camera, like, Cheese! I thought, That could be me.

I mention Taylor's point to Mia Sheppard, a steelhead guide on Oregon's John Day River. She and her husband have a young daughter and recently purchased a jet-boat business.

Mia Sheppard: It's so ironic that [Kate's] feeling the same way I do. Everyone is getting into video and it all looks very big and dramatic, but I don't need people to see how cool I am. It's more interesting to look at what makes a person driven to pursue this lifestyle. For me, it's about being in touch with my soul through the outdoors. That's how I feel when I land and hold a steelhead.
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For Hannah Belford, it's family. Her parents established the homestead-style Damdochax River Lodge in Smithers, B.C., in 1977. She has been guiding anglers there since her late teens._

Hannah Belford: It comes down to the motivation behind [the photos], because everyone is trying to prove themself as a guide. I'm 39, but I was around this industry in the '80s, when my parents were guiding, and flyfishing was just totally old school. Now, it's who's got the best jacket, or the coolest hat, and we look like a street gang when we roll up to the river with our friends. It's not bad, just weird. I can totally appreciate how hard it is for authentic people to get their message across.

Breaking Through

Photo by (from left): Jim Levison; Tim Romano; Brian Grossenbacher

Taylor: In my early stages of fishing, years ago, I didn't know any women who guided, and before the Facebook boom, it was hard to find women who shared my passion for fishing at all. Even now, it is a very small group.

Since 2006, Taylor's Rogue Angels blog has been devoted to women in the sport, allowing her to build relationships with many of them.

Taylor: My whole intention was to include other women out there, and we're all Rogues--different from the rest. I had wonderful experiences with my boyfriend and my male friends who guided and taught me, but I craved female friendships that included a shared love of fishing. I met Hannah through blogging and we talk almost every day. I can trust that another woman knows how to help me through a tough time and celebrate my successes.

Sheppard: Kate started her blog and started a community. All of a sudden there was this surge of women in Spey and fly casting. Before that I just thought, Where are they?

Belford: I started flyfishergirl.com to give other women support. It's not that I'd encountered a lot of chauvinism, but what I do in the bush--felling trees, building cabins, scaring bears away--isn't the typical girl's guiding gig. Yet, I didn't feel comfortable reading a lot of the websites and forums, back then. My site has become a safe space.

Taylor: Hannah straddles the line between the women who paved the way and the women who are at the top of their game right now. She's humble, thoughtful, and intelligent about the pressures of the business.

Belford's father has not been a part of the lodge's business since 2000, when she and her mother bought him out.

Belford: It was tough at times, when I took over for Dad. Some regular guests didn't want to come back if there was no male figurehead. Well into my mid 20s, I still felt intimidated going into fly shops, especially in a strange city, and having some guy ask, "What are you looking for, lady?"

Taylor: I've certainly had my fair share of men who didn't believe in me, but you can find that in any career path in the U.S.--that's an unfortunate part of being a woman. But I've found amazing support from men in my community of anglers who wanted me to be a success. I'm getting choked up just thinking about my boyfriend, our friends, my boss, and all the clients who want me to be the best I can be.

The men in the lives of these women have helped shape their fishing experiences--four of them fell in love with flyfishing as they fell for their boyfriends and husbands, also professional guides. But former Montauk, N.Y., fly guide Amanda Switzer had a saltier experience with a sweetheart as her fishing instructor.

Amanda Switzer: I met a guy on a landscaping job who flyfished saltwater, and I thought it was really cool. We started dating, he showed me a little bit, and we went on a trip to Belize together. I guess teaching me was holding him back, because he said, "Look, I can't fish for both of us, maybe someone else will show you." I dumped him when we got home and taught myself. At first I had so much to prove. People were like, Who is this girl? I worked really hard to become a guide who people want to fish with.

The Grind

Photo by (clockwise from left): Courtesy of Charity Rutter; Tim Romano; courtesy of Kate Taylor

Taylor: We're in Alaska for four and a half months. It's all day, every day. I push through the mornings: meetings, quick e-mails, make lunches, chug coffee, fly out to the destination. It gets tough to recharge your batteries, personally and in your relationships. But once I'm on the water, it all comes back to me: how lucky I am. I have only a handful of horror stories in 1,000 days of guiding, so I check myself whenever I feel frustrated. I look at the client and usually he's totally happy.

Rutter: Sometimes a new angler is just getting into a groove by lunchtime, and then at 4 p.m. there's fish rising everywhere, so we stay out later than planned. Meanwhile, I'm looking at my watch, I'm supposed to pick up the kids from the babysitter, there's no cell service, I can't text, and I'm 45 minutes from home. It's not a 9 to 5 job.

Belford: When I'm not on the water, I'm distributing firewood and fresh bedding to the cabins, cleaning the outhouse, checking that the water lines aren't frozen, and making sure the helicopters arrive on time. If you're not organized--not just as a guide but as a business owner--you'll wind up out on the river without a piece of gear and then say uh oh.

Sheppard: We live out of the shop and a 30-foot trailer for smallmouth and steelhead season​--​we bought the business instead of a house in 2001​--​so I bathe my daughter in the utility sink of a garage filled with musty waders. Sometimes five of our guys sleep in there, too, and the cots are lined up side by side and their gear is on top of our gear--it's a complete disaster. No woman in her right mind would submit herself to this, but I guess I'm different.

Bryant: Most of the year I'm making the most of a challenging inland fishery in Massachusetts. We're close enough to coastal flyfishing, but it isn't my thing, and people don't always want to pay a guide to catch a 6-inch brook trout on a tiny stream. The bigger rivers within commutable distance from me have established guide services nearby, and those guides have helped me so much that I'd never want to step on their toes. So even if I'm not guiding, I fish a lot, in every kind of weather, and on days I'm not fishing, I practice casting. I love it and always want to be better.

Stepping Back

Photo courtesy of Charity Rutter; Brian Grossenbacher

While Bryant is making a go of guiding after having her children, a few guides who had established reputations have recently made the difficult decision to take a step back. Of course, they have no desire to cut the cord with fishing.

Jenny Grossenbacher: After 14 years of guiding in Montana, and by the time my girls turned 7 and 12 a few summers ago, I decided it was getting too hard to leave my kids when they were still asleep in the morning, and maybe not be home before they were asleep again at night. I was at my busiest time of the year when they were out of school for the summer. It was a hard decision, but our No. 1 priority is family.

Switzer: Last year was the first year I didn't book any charters. I have a 6-year-old now, and it changes your perspective. Guiding is exhausting. It takes a toll on your body. At the end of the day you're driving a boat around telling people where to cast, when the real fun is casting. I loved it when I first started. Guiding was like a drug. Now taking my son fishing is so much more fun.

Grossenbacher: I'm happy with where I am now, and flyfishing is still a part of me. I've just shifted where it is in my life. My husband suggests that I get back into guiding, but maybe it's had its time. I could probably do it for fun, but not for work.

Sisterly Advice

Photo by (clockwise from left): Bryant; courtesy of Mia Sheppard; Jim Levison; courtesy of Kate Taylor; courtesy of Charity Rutter

Taylor: My advice to women entering this business is that nothing can replace time on the water or a good mentor. At the beginning of my guiding career, I would talk to my bosses every evening about the success or challenges on the water that day. I'm lucky they took that time with me while running their business.

Rutter: A lot of great anglers, men and women, can't tell you how to make your line load for a great cast, so focus on being a good teacher. And so much of the business is customer service. I joke that every guide should be a waiter for at least six months.

Sheppard: If you build a reputation that shows your experience, get out and do the work without complaining, master your trade, prove yourself, build your credentials, and log your hours, people will respect that. Then being a girl doesn't become a big deal anymore.

Belford: Don't ever listen to the negative, don't take it too seriously, and search out like minds. The best thing you can do is find other women who fish--those friendships have really helped me.

Sheppard: Making a career out of guiding is challenging for guys too. Every year there are more guides and only so much water, only so many clients. I encourage more women to guide, but it is a tough business. There are long hours, sometimes no shower for four or five days, and you've got to pee in the woods and share quarters with stinky guys. But if you're passionate and love the river, this is the job for you. I love it, and that's why I could do it 365 days a year.

Bryant: I think our numbers are only going to grow. Women in the fishing industry are the next big thing.

Girls' Club

Hannah Belford
damdochax.com
Home Waters: Damdochax River, British Columbia
Belford runs a lodge and has been guiding anglers on world-class steelhead waters since her late teens.

Kim Bryant
concordoutfitters.com
Home waters: Deerfield River, Massachusetts
A newcomer to guiding, Bryant works for a fly shop and fishes clients on the streams of Massachusetts.

Jenny Grossenbacher
grossenbacherguides.com
Home waters: Yellowstone River, Montana
Grossenbacher ended a long guiding career to spend more time with family. She is now the pollution prevention coordinator for Montana State University.

Charity Rutter
randrflyfishing.com
Home waters: Smoky Mountain streams, Tennessee
Rutter operates R&R Flyfishing with her husband, Ian, and is hailed as an expert on fishing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Mia Sheppard
oregonsteelhead.com
Home waters: John Day River, Oregon
Sheppard is a part-time steelhead guide, a full-time mom, and the Oregon field representative for the ­Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Amanda Switzer
risefishing.com
Home waters: Montauk, N.Y.
Though she no longer guides, Switzer has been flyfishing the coast of Long Island, N.Y., for 20 years, and cofounded Rise Fishing Co.

Kate Taylor
frigatetravel.com
Home waters: Naknek
River, Alaska
Taylor guides from Alaska to Oregon to Baja through Frigate Adventure Travel, the business she established with boyfriend Justin Crump.

Online Support
Whether you're a seasoned fly angler or just starting out, these websites are some of the best places for female anglers to connect.

sistersonthefly.com Find events hosted by a nationwide network of female anglers, travelers, and vintage-trailer enthusiasts.

reel-women.com Mia Sheppard calls Lori Ann Murphy, the woman behind this website, an industry legend. Browse for flyfishing classes around the country.

flyfishergirl.com Hannah Belford's foundational online forum for women in the sport provides "an outlook on angling from the female perspective."

www.rogueangels.net Check out Kate Taylor's site and the blogroll of sites she follows, broken down into two categories: Fishy Blogs by Angels and Fishy Dude Blogs.

PULPFLY.com Librarian-turned-fly-girl Erin Block is just one of the emerging outdoor writers who contribute to this literary journal available on your tablet device.