Lighter Side
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July 19th, 1999

River Women, Part 1

by Mark Jeffrey Volk

From THE HICKORY WIND published by Winding Ridge Press, March 1999
Available at Just Good Books(800-207-0799) Wilderness Adventures(800-925-3339), or from Winding Ridge's 24 hour toll-free order line at 877-527-6234 (have a credit card ready.)

When I wrote the story I called "My Generous Season" in my last book, about my fly-fishing friendship with a college girl named Erin Kelly, my readers, many of them women, wrote letters and emailed me wanting to know more about this young woman with a sweet tooth for life. I had no idea at the time there were many women who fly-fished as there seemed to be, and I answered this mail as completely as I could, then asked the writers some of my own questions in an attempt to learn all I could about this sub-culture within a sub-culture.

It was an illuminating and surprising journey and, in the end was a valuable learning experience. I simply had no idea that there were that many women interested in fly-fishing. That kind of unawareness can occur when you live out of society's loop and almost off the grid.

When I replied to some of the women with my own questions, I restricted my queries to their experiences. I wanted to know what had first interested them in fly fishing, and about other women they knew who fly-fished, too. I asked where they hoped to be in terms of proficiency over the next five, ten, or more years, and about where and how they fished. Some replied briefly, others with multiple pages of information about themselves and their hobby.

I was surprised at how organized and energized they were. I learned there were fly-fishing clubs just for women, some of them only a half dozen years old and still growing. I learned there were womens' guide services, womens' technique classes, gear made just for women, several womens' fly-fishing web sites, and even an annual womens' fly-fishing conclave. I also learned that the industry had wisely figured out that it would be mutually beneficial to get involved, so product lines and support services were added just for women.

Like any other diverse group, I didn't find much commonality in terms of social or economic background among women anglers. The ones I corresponded with, and some who I eventually met on the water, come from many different worlds, just like their male counterparts. Some were entrepreneurs or professionals, others were office workers, clerks, nurses, waitresses, or housewives and mothers. The correspondence came from all four corners of the country, even a lady fly-fishing guide from Alaska wrote.

All were happy to be out on the water at every chance, seemed eager to improve their skills, and were optimistic about their chances for success. As a group, they weren't intimidated by the challenge of mastering a sport that had, until only recently, been regarded as strictly a man's domain. Soon, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about this emerging group, and continued corresponding with many of them who wrote me at the first. Their replies were often long and interesting, full of stories about themselves and their rivers. A few wanted to meet and fish together and, eventually, we did some of that.

All this did not go unnoticed by the guys I'm occasionally on the water with, and, for a time, there was some grief over these new fishing buddies of mine. However, my research eventually ran its course and things settled back to the way they'd been before; but I can't say I minded the attention I received in the interim. Besides, I was building a file of information and anecdotes that some of my readers might enjoy. In the end, I sorted through my notes and all the letters I received and found a few stories that, hopefully, will be of interest. Of the group of women I'm going to tell you about, two were old hands, one is a girl I knew myself, two are relative newcomers. One is president of one of the most effective Trout Unlimited groups I've ever been a part of, two are fly-fishing guides, one is a college librarian, another owns a motorcycle repair shop.

The first is a girl who's become a friend and fishing buddy. Maggie Miller is a high school science teacher from across the state line. She has a B.S. in forestry and wildlife and an M.A. in education, with a special emphasis in Earth Science. She's also a backpacker and bird watcher, and started fly fishing in 1996 after spin fishing for eleven years. We starting corresponding after she read my first book, and, over time, we decided we'd better try a trip to the river together.

She told me that, the day before we fished, she'd helped several fellow TU members hand-carry fingerlings into the high backcountry of her home state. There were six men and Maggie on the project, and, if I know anything about her independence and stubbornness, she carried her own bucket of fingerlings all the way back in without any help.

I wanted to show her lots of free-rising trout that first evening, so I took her to the Flats, a long, slow pool on the Upper Turkeyfoot, water that's at the far end of a long, rough hike in. Maggi's dexterity in the woods gives no clue to her age, early forties, or her upbringing back in urban New Jersey. She's completely at home among the trees, and moves over rough terrain and slippery riverbed like a mountain boy who's spent his life there.

Like Erin did, Maggi understands the need for drab clothing astream. It's impressive to see a relative beginner who understands that already, but, with her backpacking and birding experience, she says it just made sense. She's dyed her vest OD green, wears a dark shirt and hat, and keeps a low profile. Her flies are coming along, but she has the usual beginner's inclination to the gaudy and large-sized patterns. She says she hopes to learn the bugs and how to use the longer, finer leaders that big, thin water like the Flats requires.

That evening, I learned that, in addition to teaching, she has a small farm where she keeps two horses, a flock of chickens, seven sheep, and a Rottweiller her older brother gave her. The dog came as part of a package that also included a .357 and two boxes of shells. The horses are for the dressage classes she's taking, the chickens are for eggs and hackle, and the sheep supply wool for her annual knitting projects. The magnum and the watchdog? She lives alone.

Maggie hadn't ever seen a mayfly hatch, which was the other reason I took her to the Flats. Our Tiny Olives had started the week before, a hatch and fall that can turn the normally calm surface of the Flats into a circus. She didn't have anything small enough and, under duress, reluctantly accepted a spent spinner I offered. We each caught a couple then met mid-stream where we stood and shared notes. She noticed a nice, steady rise coming next to a log jam back along the bank where we first stepped into the river. Unable to resist the temptation any longer, she crossed to give it a try while I backed up to the bank and sat down on a rock to watch the show.

The spot where the fish was working was out of the main current and contained a small eddy where flotsam and foam gathered and circled interminably before being released to continue downstream. It's a tough, fascinating lie that often holds a good fish. Working her way into position about twenty-five feet upstream of the hold, she then waited to make sure the fish hadn't sensed her approach. There was another gentle boil almost right away. Relieved the trout hadn't spooked, she knelt in the shallows and worked out enough line, her eyes glued to the trout's hold as he continued to take flies off the surface. Her first cast was a little wide, so were the second and the third. Finally she managed one into that tight spot. Another gentle boil erupted that engulfed her pattern. She straightened, raised her rod, and came up tight and fast to a good fish. It was some real nice.

The bright flanks of a wild brown surged and flashed deep in the channel below its lie, then held in the current, not giving an inch. Maggie kept her head and held on, keeping the pressure up and eventually working the fish down to concession. After unhooking it and watching it move slowly off toward deeper water, she walked back across to where I sat.

"I know men who've been doing this for years who wouldn't have handled that any better than you did, lady," I said. "Are you sure you just started this?"

"My ex taught me how to fish with spinning lures," she said,"it just seemed like the way to do it. I'm not new to fishing, just to fly fishing."

"Well," I replied, "you did just fine."

"I surprised myself, actually. He was a dandy, though, fourteen inches I bet. My best this season."

We fished till dusk, releasing a couple more each. Later, over cold sodas at the trucks, she told me about her farm, how she loved her teaching job, and how she was looking for someone to fish with, rather than fish alone. That led to a return invitation and, over the course of the summer, we had some real nice evenings fishing around the county where I live. We are both devoutly single and intend to stay that way, but, overall, it's turning into a real nice friendship.

Maggie's exact opposite is a young woman from out near Berkeley, California, who travels through this part of the country several times each summer on business. Her name is Amy Altergo. She originally contacted me to sign her book, but one email message led to more, and soon it was back and forth a couple times a week. When she informed me she'd be passing through the last week of July, and wanted to know if I would show her around the waters here, I agreed. "Meet me at Porkribs," she said over the phone when she finally called.

Porkrib's is a well-known little redneck joint near the Mason-Dixon line, a place with a reputation for offering free surgery if the patrons decide your looks warrant it. How this Californian knew about Porkrib's, and the significance of that fact, escaped me at first, but, over the day we spent together, it would become abundantly clear. Amy could have written a book on joints like Porkrib's.

On the appointed day and time, I walked in and looked around till I spotted a tall, thin girl in a Deadhead T-shirt and cowboy boots, with a "Long Live Jerry" tattoo on her bicep. It had to be her, and was. She was just finishing a game of pool with a greasy local biker we call Ralph, as a roomful of Ralph's buddies drank, talked, or nodded off in the booths. The usual stale dive aroma of cigarettes, sweat, old beer, and hot fat hung like steam in the dark room. Rock-a-Billy music from a dusty jukebox in the far corner punched through the thick air. I watched Amy take a couple bills from Ralph's greasy hand and stuff them into the pocket of her jeans, then she turned and came over to the booth where I sat.

She was hard as old nails, maybe late twenties, and it had been a while since she'd done much with herself or combed her thick red hair. There was no talk of the business that brought her here from California and there was nothing that would have identified her as a fly-fisher, except the Muddler Hopper stuck in the collar of her shirt, like it had snagged her on a bad back cast and was easier to leave where it was than remove. She saw me looking at it.

"Upper Missouri. Hoppers everywhere," she said dryly.

"I've never fished there."

"Big water. Real big water. Lots of wind. Big flies, nine foot graphite, seven weight line, 2x tippets."

Her conversation was tense and quick, like she had to use the john. "So, you beat that guy you were playing when I came in?" I asked.

"Beat him? I played that fat thing like a guitar. He thought he had me 'cuz I let him win the first two. Then I bet. He should'a seen it coming."

"Fellas in these parts don't have a real big sense of humor when it comes to a lady showin' 'em up. Wife battering's a popular winter sport to some of them, and, 'round here, winters can be real long," I told her.

"Look!" she said, staring me square in the eyes, "I'm cute. I can get away with crap like that. You guys'll put up with anything if we're good looking. Ya' need us that way. We need you for stability and finances, all right, but you either don't know it, or, if you do, ya' aren't smart enough to play that card Women are, so we get away with it."

"Yeah, but this ain't California," I replied. "Besides, I know plenty of women who are attractive and are still smart and good at their professions. They don't exploit their world just because they're cute."

"Then they're crazy!" she laughed. "They live beneath their privilege. Only a chump would be nice and settle for half a loaf, when she could get it all by using her looks and being sly."

"I broke in,"have you ever considered the possibility that thinking like that would make you a chauvinist if you were a man. If what you say is true, that women only need men for their money and stability, and men only need women because of their beauty, then what's going to happen when that woman gets older and loses her looks, while the men are becoming economically secure? If what you say is true, wouldn't it be wiser for "your woman" to be more civil while she still had her looks so that, when she grew older, her mate would love her for what she really was? In your scenario, the woman has spent her "beautiful years" too cranky to co-exist happily with her mate, who then, when she loses her "beauty," no longer needs her around. That leaves her old, unbeautiful, broke, and alone. That world is way too twisted and dark for me, Amy," I said. "Besides, I can't believe I'm sitting in Porkribs Bar with a Deadhead from the Left Coast who I don't even know, discussing this!"

"If I'm wrong, I'll deal with it, alone," she retorted. "Besides, Roy'll love me, whatever."

"Is Roy your husband?" I asked.

"No, he's my piranha. I've had him since he was a fingerling. He sticks with me, whatever."

Turns out that girl had a whole agenda that she wore out on her shoulder like a chip of rotting wood. She talked about her contempt for her dad, and the male school teachers and former bosses who were tough on her. There were four marriages behind her too, each with its own array of addictions, indignities, and misfortunes. She dealt with all this calamity by running the highways, drinking in rough roadhouses like the one we were sitting in, hustling pool, and then moving on when things turned ugly. Fly-fishing got shoved in here and there, between screaming matches and eight-ball, the dead calm within her many storms. It didn't take long to realize that she didn't fish out of a love of the water, but as one more way to invade what she perceived as men's space. I kept trying to figure out what all this had to do with the day we had planned, but, when I'd try to switch back to her fishing on the Missouri, she'd quickly change the subject back to her angry world. Somebody, sometime, had pushed all the wrong buttons with her and had, in the process, created a hating machine. Had she been a man who constantly sounded off with all those loud, angry opinions, she'd have found herself waking up face down a lot, with a throbbing knot on top of her head. Amy could have been the poster child for rage. In this era of political correctness, I won't say that. But she could have been.

Her's was a life of stark contradictions, a convoluted puzzle with a bizarre thread that ran all through it, hating men but living on the fringes of their world. Sneaking in, muddying the waters like she was getting even for something, then running screaming back out, loving it all for the sick little game it was. I wasn't feeling especially comfortable with her, but I'd made a promise and wasn't going to back out, so I just decided to let her ramble. Eventually, it became obvious that, if we were going to fish Morgan Run, we'd better be going.

Morgan Run is a lovely brook on Big Laurel Mountain. It's still in recovery from acid mine drainage and, as the water's improved, the native trout have slowly worked back in from other creeks on the small watershed. I fish it once or twice each season, charting the results to keep track of how the fish are doing. Since 1991, the numbers and size of the brookies have increased in those laurel-shaded riffles, a tiny biome that has literally restocked itself.

Amy followed me there in her light blue van, scraping her bumpers and undercarriage on the rutted dirt road back in. As I pulled up to a stop beside a little run that empties into Morgan, a Red-tailed hawk lifted from his perch in an oak snag and silently sailed off through the treetops. She didn't seem to notice it when I honked and pointed, and gave me a puzzled look I saw from my rear view mirror. We stopped at an old bridge that was too decayed to drive across then stood beside the water and discussed how we were going to fish this. After gearing up, we separated, She upstream, me down. I noticed she had stuffed four cans of beer in the back of her vest and I would come to find where they'd end up once they were empty.

Porkrib's isn't my element, and I was glad for the silence in that deep, cool valley filled with the sound of the water and sweet, clean air. Each little run, stump hole, and pocket seemed to hold a bright native trout dying for a crack at my Elk Hair Caddis, and, as the day wore on, they came with a happy-enough regularity, the biggest about eleven inches, the smallest around four.

About six-thirty, I decided to go looking for Amy, and found her sitting on a hemlock log finishing a beer and watching a brook trout rising in a tiny rivulet. She didn't see my approach and, when she emptied the can, she tossed it into the laurel. Not wanting her to think I was spying, I coughed and walked over.

"How'd ya' do"? I asked.

"Fine, caught four. See?" She smiled and held up a plastic garbage bag with four very dead trout in it. I almost said something about not knowing she was going to keep them, but decided against it. I sensed she was disappointed she hadn't provoked a reaction from me.

"How do you like Morgan Run? It's a recovering fishery. Trout Unlimited, the Bureau of Mines, and the DEP are all involved. We built a lime doser on the headwaters three years ago and the pH went from 3.4 to 7.3 in just a few weeks. Fish have worked back in from two of the tribs. We're getting natural reproduction in the main branch again and the bugs seem to be coming back," I explained.

That smile appeared again, but only for a moment, then her face darkened. "Small time! That's what you local guys are, just small time, small town," she declared emphatically. "Grassroots efforts don't interest me. I'll leave that to you local yokels. I'm interested in the bigger picture. Global warming, destruction of the rainforest, nuke plants. I'm into what Thoreau called civil disobedience, setting fire to earth moving equipment, blowing up dams, planting bombs on oil drilling rigs, stuff like that."

"That's nothing but thuggery and destruction of private property," I replied. "It's that kind of crime that undermines what we 'local yokels' are doing through conventional channels. We use the system. What you're advocating makes it harder for us on the front lines to get things done the right way. If you want to break the law, why don't you go hold up a liquor store? At least you'd make a few bucks, and it wouldn't hurt the cause,' I replied.

"What you're into is nothing more than a crime spree, and I have no intention to sit here along my favorite native trout stream, where you've just tossed four beer cans, one for each of the trout you've killed, and argue with a storm trooper from the Eco-Gestapo."

"But I give them to the homeless people," she said, angrily.

"There aren't any homeless people here," I said. "If I'd known you wanted fish for the homeless I'd have bought you a couple cans of tuna to give them. I didn't show you this stream for you to kill the fish in it. This friendship isn't going to work for me, so don't think we better fish tomorrow like we first planned to."

She shrugged and, without saying another word, walked back to her truck and headed back toward town. As I drove out behind her, the day's conversations burning in my mind the way talk like that does, I decided I was going to be real careful from then on about who I took to Morgan Run. When we reached the crossroads, I turned right toward home. Amy turned left, back toward Porkrib's.

Kate Dana went to high school with me, though I didn't know her at the time. We didn't actually meet till we were introduced by a mutual friend who's a river guide in the mountains south of here. Fly-fishing will do that kind of thing, reuniting two classmates nearly thirty years after they graduated and seventy miles from home. Her husband, Tim is a year older, and both of them teach for a living. The phone rang on a late spring morning earlier this year.

"Do you feel like a morel omelet?" It was Tim and Kate.

"I used to date a girl who said I looked like a morel mushroom," I replied, "but we broke up over her making the observation."

"We found the mother of all morel patches yesterday and we're making a big omelet. C'mon over before it gets done and we'll eat it while it's still hot."

"You don't have to ask me twice," I said, "I just left."

Their home on the far side of Big Winding Mountain is set back in a grove of trees. Greg Allman was playing on the CD when I arrived, reminding me that all three of us could be called old hippies. Tim was sautéing a skillet of sweet venison sausage alongside the omelet pan, and the smell of biscuits baking put on a finishing touch that you just had to be there to appreciate.

Kate's a loner. Her job in education puts her around people all day long, so fly-fishing and cross-country hiking is her way to meet her need for low-pressure time. She's smart enough to know not to be alone on a trail or on the water in these mountains, so she kicks around with Tim, or, when he's working or involved in one of his innumerable projects, with the river guide, Albert, who introduced us. The Danas and Albert are confirmed workaholics, so down time is rare and precious.

"A fly rod is the best psychologist I know," she started. "When I head out to hike or fish, I can think over all the issues I'm dealing with at work, sort through them, make sense, and plan what to do. Being out there, looking at the stream, bird watching, or searching for wild flowers, is very therapeutic, as I'm sure you know. The department I run has changed into such a technical arena, and with that came all kinds of pressures that weren't in the field when I first entered it. I need that time outdoors to plan and decompress. It's also an arena where I can pursue another of my passions - learning. The outdoors are full of things to study. I'm still working on learning more about the wildflowers, the mushrooms, and the birds. I'm hoping you'll show me some of the bugs and help me with my fly selection. That's a big mystery to me right now. I always wonder about picking the right fly, and I need to learn some of that. But I don't want to study it so scientifically that it takes the bloom off Nature, as I think Whitman said. There's a whole art to this thing with the fly rod. It's not just about escaping and learning, it's also about becoming an element within the whole, where everything flows together, the science, the escape, and the art."

Kate's dad also fishes with a fly rod, but didn't teach her as she was growing up. But now they fish together often, and it's opened up a whole new way for them to relate.

"Probably never occurred to him," she said. "He's very old-fashioned, the woman's place and all, ya' know. Now we go up to his camp on the upper Allegheny and spend days together. It was my grandparents' camp and I spent many a summer day there when I was a kid. But I fished with a cane pole and bait. Fly fishing was this mysterious thing that the men went off to do, away from the wives and kids who stayed behind and played. Now we have another way to be together. You can see the water from the porch at camp, and Dad'll sit there in his rocker and watch the water until something starts to happen, then walk down to the river and cast. He's regarded as one of the top rods on that stretch of the Allegheny. I think it's 'cuz he's so observant and patient. He's very helpful to the tourists who see him doing well and want to know what he's using. But he was never able to teach me to cast. He tried but I just couldn't learn from him, probably because he's my father. I had to learn from Albert, who's an excellent teacher."

"Up till the time I booked a float trip for my son and me a couple years ago, I hadn't really gone back to fishing since I was a kid. But when the guide offered to include a rod for me to use, I thought, hey, why not? The trip was fun and I was hooked again. It's been a long road and I'm still really just a beginner. But learning to cast and learning the techniques and details are a climbable mountain for me, an attainable goal. At first I was intimidated, but you learn to view it as accessible and fun. I can see I'm making progress."

"My dad gave me a strong sense of outdoors ethics. He's of the old school; hunting and fishing for his generation, was about food, but killing was never treated lightly. He and his friends didn't break the rules or kill for killing's sake. There was a lot of respect for game and fish."

"But still, it was a 'man' thing, and women weren't usually included, so a lot of what I learned from him came by osmosis. I'm still learning the very basic rudiments of tying. I like the natural patterns tied with natural materials. Synthetic materials aren't as interesting to me. They don't seem to have the life that real fur and hackles do. What I have to really learn is pattern selection and the hatches. I have no experience in those two areas. I don't like to carry hundreds of patterns. If I could have a good working knowledge with twenty or thirty patterns, I'd feel a lot better. But I know that will only come with time and acquiring a sense of intuition about it. I see the guys I fish with switching from one fly to the next and that makes me very aware of how much I need to learn yet. That's probably the biggest hurdle I need to get over."

I suspect Kate will do just fine. She sees the challenges of learning our sport as doable, and has made up her mind to keep at it and pay the price she'll need to. Fishing with Kate and Tim, who's an old hand from the limestone spring-creek country of south-central Pennsylvania, I can see the contrasts between knowing familiarity and eager beginner. It's a contrast that should fade quickly over time. ~ Mark Jeffrey Volk

River Women concluded next time!

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