River Women, Part 1
by Mark Jeffrey Volk
From THE HICKORY WIND published by
Winding Ridge Press, March 1999
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.
Available at Just Good Books(800-207-0799)
Wilderness Adventures(800-925-3339), or from Winding
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(have a credit card ready.)
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
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
"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
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!