Lighter Side
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July 26th, 1999

River Women, Part 2 (Concluded)

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.)

Way up north, in Anchorage, Alaska to be exact, lives a reader of mine who seems to defy the labels. Cecilia "Pudge" Kleinkauf is a testimony to what hard work and a lot of determination can do to some of the walls that have historically kept many women from living the lives they want. Retired from the University of Alaska, where she was head of the Department of Social Work, she holds an M.S.W. as well as a law degree from the U of Puget Sound in Washington State. Involved is a good adjective for Pudge. Active in the Alaska Fly- Fishers, Trout Unlimited and the FFF, as well as the Northwest Women Fly Fishers, and the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau, she is also on the Pro Staffs of Ross Reels, Mustad Hooks, and Patagonia. Of high interest to many women, she's also the owner/operator of WOMEN'S FLYFISHING, a guide service based in Anchorage for women fly fishers. Her outfit specializes in trips to the Brooks River, the Talachulitna River, the Tangle Lakes/River region, Kodiak Island, and Bristol Bay. Hers is an impressive resume.

When your first fly-caught fish is a sockeye salmon, you get hooked pretty fast. On that first day sixteen years ago, a friend put a fly rod in Pudge's hand and showed her how to cast a weighted rig with it. After landing fish after fish all day long, she was a goner. Despite radical surgery later on to save her from cancer, and two extensive surgeries on her elbow, she's stayed with it, learning how to cast all over again with her new restrictions. Pudge refused to let something like a couple of major surgeries rob her of living the rich life of sport she loves.

Her letters and emails are filled with the love and awe of the Alaskan wilderness, and she is devoted to bringing as many women as she can to see and enjoy it. She calls it her life's work. Her advice to clients is to forget what's going on back home and just enjoy the experience, words that ring true regardless of the setting.

I was surprised to learn that many outings in south central Alaska depend on hatching insects. The grayling, big rainbows, and char all feed on bugs, and Pudge's guests cast a lot of dry flies from float tubes. Bugs and belly boats fit more into our images of angling south of the Canadian border, but that only goes to show the tunnel vision that can come from a very sheltered life in the lower forty-eight.

I asked her about some experiences she's had, and she was quick to reply that the best Alaskan stories always seem to be about a bear or the float-plane trip into base camp. It must come with the territory, no pun intended, and would amount to way more excitement than this happy resident of the Alleghenies would be comfortable with. The strongest rush I feel I need during a day on the water is the threat of a few mosquitoes, or the remote chance of seeing one of our timid rattlesnakes. But, opinions varying as they do, her world of Mother Nature in all her raw energy would be a fascinating place to make a living. And how many women can tell their grandchildren they fought blackflies, bush planes, and brown bears, just so their lady clients could catch a few fish, and accomplished this far into their retirement years.

Pudge told me she's convinced that fly fishing is one of the sports that is perfect for women, enabling them to indulge their appreciation for Nature's loveliness, to utilize their special penchant for grace and delicacy, and to appreciate the beauty of a fish without feeling the need to kill it. A day on her home water would be a gift that shouldn't be taken for granted, but treasured long afterward. Pudge is one of those folks you'd like to get to know better, if for no other reason than you'd be sure to be inspired.

"Sorry I was so long in getting back to you, Mark, I was on my honeymoon."

It was Jennifer Lyons, leaving a message on my answering machine. I've known her for fifteen years and watched her grow up in the midst of a northwestern Pennsylvania household that was always involved in local conservation work. Jennifer has been involved with Trout Unlimited all that time. She claims to have started fishing about the time she learned to walk, although her dad tells me he waited until she was six before he started her fly casting. Since then, she's read every book and watched every video she could get her hands on, and it shows in her ability astream.

Jenn is in her second term as president of the Oil Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited, after retiring as editor of their newsletter, which she helped publish for years before that. Nowdays, she's hooked on teaching the sport, and helps with the casting and tying classes run by her home chapter in Franklin, Pennsylvania. She tells me she's determined to focus on building new memberships in the group, but wants to get back to more hands-on projects after her stint with the atypical, though essential, organizational paperwork.

For the last two summers, she's been involved with the Becoming an Outdoors Woman Program, assisting Joe Humphreys with the fly-fishing classes. Add to all that a full-time job as a clinical dietitian and her recent marriage to a novice fly fisherman who will need lots of help with his casting, and you can see that she's a busy 25 year-old. Interesting, isn't it, how the hyper-industrious men and women among us seem to be the ones who get the most done?

Lory Warfield's emails are also those of a busy career woman, punched out on her hurried way through to the next project. A river guide and entrepreneur from Baldwin, Michigan, one of her current projects is building a mail order business specializing in, what else, women's fishing clothes and gear. She and I got acquainted when she wrote to me about Erin's story and, for some reason, we've continued to correspond. Through our email, I've watched the fireball that is Lory slowly reveal itself.

Water, frozen or flowing, seems to have defined Lory's life. Her ice fishing trips as a kid with her dad were the genesis of her passion for fishing. Much later, a steelhead fisherman from Ohio who came and fished her local Pere Marquette became a close friend and, eventually, her husband. She builds rods for herself and ties flies for clients and sport shops in town, and even gets a chance, occasionally, to tie some up for her own fishing. Her favorite rod is a two weight, seven and a half foot Cedar she built herself, and her favorite pattern continues to be the standard BWO. She advises beginners to approach every day on the water with a completely open mind, and not be locked into one method or technique.

Lory attended Joan Wulff's fly-fishing school in New York, as well as several others in her home state. She's a State of Michigan licensed pro guide, and has taught Fly Girls and Orvis fly-fishing classes for women. Her goal is earning her certification as a FFF fly casting instructor, a challenge she intends to tackle as soon as her hectic schedule permits. She claims to be the only licensed woman guide among almost fifty licensed male guides in her district. Lory's would be a life many would envy, making a living everyday out on the river. Being a professional guide would require more patience, diplomacy, tact, and tolerance than abides in most of us, and the people who do it for a living have all the respect I can muster.

Lori's can-do attitude and willingness to face the challenges required to become more proficient at her craft come through to her clients. I spoke to a man and his wife who hired her for a float trip that ended up in a bad thunder storm four miles from the take out. As the howling tempest surrounded her and her clients, Lori stayed calm and professional, while the hysterical husband nearly capsized the boat. When I mentioned it, Lori shrugged it off as just another day at the office. She told me she expected to have to endure many more encounters with the famous lightning of the upper mid-west before she hung up her canoe. You can't write to or talk with someone like her without sensing a little of their class.

When my friends, Marion Lively, and her husband, noted fly-tying columnist Chauncy, retired, they moved to the banks of the North Branch of the Au Sable River near Grayling, Michigan. There they would spend their golden years doing exactly as they wanted; fishing, writing, and getting even more involved in TU and FFF work than ever. It was a good plan. It's always been a mystery to me that some devoted trout fishers retire to Florida, a troutless, and, thus, boring state.

Marion and Chauncy started their joint fly-fishing careers in the 1940's, and were inseparable on the water and off until her death in 1995. The Livelys fished with many of the luminaries of their day; Charlie Fox, Hoagy Carmichael, Ross Trimmer, Vince Marinaro, and Paul and Martha Marie Young. The angling she and Chauncy did on Falling Spring Run, the LeTort, Penns, and finally, the Au Sable, demanded articulate casting and exact patterns. Marion held her own among those others and on their rivers. Hoagy Carmichael, the noted cane rod builder, who once remarked to Chauncy that following behind Marion as they fished their way downriver was "like fishing behind a mink."

Marion held a degree in Natural Science from Waynesburg College, and spent many winters coaching fly casting and tying with the Penns Woods West chapter of TU. In those days it was one of the largest chapters in the country, with close to five hundred members. The core group was an eclectic collection of businessmen, educators, lawyers, and blue-collar types, who took care of matters regarding the environment in an area sadly void of much really good natural angling. A constant figure in the old guard of that chapter, Marion pitched right in with the men. Together, they educated kids in the art of fishing, spent weekends doing work on the resource, and cast a wide web of influence and camaraderie among fly-fishers in that part of the country. I was a teenaged member of that group and it was a rich environment for a kid to come up in. I'd like to think some of us have done them a little proud with our own eventual efforts when we picked up and carried the torch a little further.

I remember trips with the chapter to local free-stone streams in the mid and late 1960's. It was a huge event for me to tag along with Chauncy and Marion. They'd take turns dueling it out with a riser, trying this or that pattern, one changing flies while the other cast to the place where it was coming up. I usually sat and watched, but it was a sure sign I was coming of age the day they invited me to join in and try my own hand in the rotation. I walked a couple inches off the ground on that outing.

There was a chapter bus trip to Spring Creek right after I moved back to the city in 1981. I was struggling to get a small business going and I needed the diversion of a fishing trip with some old friends. The Livelys saved me a seat beside them, and the three hours in that crowded bus flew by. Marion spent the day roaming the banks of Spring Creek, helping beginners choose flies and work out their casting problems. After lunch, the three of us slipped off up stream, where we found some fish working on terrestrials. It was like coming home to spend the day there with them, casting in turn to those crafty wild fish.

It may be politically incorrect to admit this, but, I remember thinking that if you hadn't known it was a lady fishing there with us, you'd have been hard pressed to tell from her competence. Few of those fish were able to resist our pooled abilities and I admit to the fact that Marion fished circles around me. I took lots of pictures that day, and I'm glad, as it was the last time I saw them before they moved to Michigan. Bear in mind, that was 1981. Lady fly-anglers were rare.

You can't tell about Marion without talking about the writing she did. Under the pen name of Effie Merella, she contributed informative and entertaining articles to many of the newsletters and magazines put out by the conservation organizations where she hung her hat. A recurrent theme of hers was trying to fit into a man's sport before it was groovy to be doing so.

A favorite story of mine is a humorous account of her frustration with men's tendency to make things more complicated than they needed to be. The last straw came for her when the industry changed the way it labeled tippet sizes, changing to a system that used measurements in mills rather than "X." This frustrated Marion (Effie) and her subsequent attempts to convert the old standard designation to decimals were carried out with her usual determination, and tongue-in-cheek. She finally settled on stringing her leader spools in descending order on a hank of yarn, and summarily forgot the decimal designations, once again proving that necessity is always the Mother of Invention. It's entertaining writing, and succeeds in deflating those friends and spouses who were insisting their way was best.

In a lot of ways, Marion's ability was like real, old-time money, plain as dirt, quiet, and confident, having proved all it needed to. That Marion fished alongside some of the best fly fishers of her generation, and often out-did them, is a tribute to her refusal to let a little thing like gender get in the way. According to the reports of others who were there, there was little difference between her ability and that of the men who fished with her, and you gotta love that.

In 1995, Marion passed away after bravely fighting a long illness through many of the years that should have been more golden. She left a husband, two daughters, a granddaughter, and a legion of friends and admirers from the conservation community she supported. In an inexplicable, but perhaps fitting, aside, her friend Martha Marie Young passed away in April of that same year in Traverse City, Michigan. Friends of their beloved Au Sable, they were two of America's fly-fishing treasures, and I wonder if their river knows they're gone as much as we do.

One of the delightful consequences of the hook and bullet press's preoccupation with big name rivers is the quiet solitude left to those of us on local waters, streams that are often better that those in the magazines. While lots of ink has been spread about the mighty Susquehanna's smallmouth fishing, little is written about the vastly superior river bass fishing not many miles from it, in another river, this one with a name known all over the globe.

Mrs. Ethel Dallas owns a motorcycle repair shop four ridges to the east of me, but heads down to fish her river for smallmouths every evening as soon as the shop doors close. She drives a souped-up, primer gray Bronco, I think about an '84, with glass packs you can hear coming ten minutes before she does as she descends the two lane down off the mountain. The back of that truck is piled high with boots and gear, and there's a nice Old Town canoe strapped to the top. She's "full-time in the bassin' business," she says.

Ethel isn't interested in trout. They don't fight enough, she claims. She likes a man's fish, and that, sir, is the wild river smallmouth. A graduate of the Lefty Kreh school of double haul casting, Mrs. Dallas can hurl the big deerhair floaters she buys from Bob Clouser's fly shop three quarters of the way across the river. Her favorite tactic is to wade wet up the middle of a broad riffle and make long casts to the edges of the broken water while bent over in a half crouch. Teasing and twitching the fly back toward her in no apparent pattern, she's ready when a fish hits. Her five foot, eleven inch frame straightens when the strike comes and her nine foot graphite wears even the fourteen-inchers down quickly. It's impressive for a woman in her early sixties.

Ethel is retired from a career in the military, where she was an MP. Never married, hard drinking, cussing, she runs the cycle repair business as much as a hobby as an income.

"I don't really need the money. I got a good pension from the military. I just like the guys and their Harleys. I started gettin' tattoos when I was thirty, before it was common with women," she told me. "I got a big one with a bass ridin' a chopper on my back, wanna see it?"

"Maybe some other time, Ethel," I told her. "What color do you find is best on those deerhair poppers?"

"Yella' and black, anyone knows that, Mark," she replied. "You trout guys need to get over here and try our smallmouths. You'll never go back to them sissy trout again."

Ethel's biggest local bass to date is a twenty-two inch, six pounder she caught downriver from the pulp mill. Fortunately she releases all her fish. That pulp plant has been dumping something into the river for years that is gray in color and smells like old sweat and ammonia. No one fishes down there, preferring to stay in the cleaner water upriver. But Ethel has found some real lunkers below the factory outlets and if she wants a real looker to impress an outsider, she takes them to fish the gray water stretch.

Someday, I'm going to get a picture of Mrs. Ethel Dallas, fishing below the source of the factory discharge on some hot, rainy summer evening, casting far out into the stained flow. With her long, gray curls pulled back and tied in a bandanna, her big chrome earrings, her Harley tattoos, and a smoldering White Owl Tip jutting from the corner of her mouth, she's the very image of an independent spirit, making do with what she knows and loves, and doing it on the river where she's determined to do it.

The final lady angler is one whose name I never learned and with whom I never spoke, but whose story has stayed in my mind. I was spending an afternoon alone on the river this past early August, and had walked into a nice run where I thought there might be some hoppers finding their way into the water. The water was off to the right of the trail I was on, and I stopped to watch below the big rapids.

There was a fisherman across the river, seated on a rock and talking into a cellular phone. I winced at the thought of someone bringing their work out to the river with them, then sheepishly recalled doing the same thing not too many years ago. There was a youngster standing next to him, waiting, it seemed, until he hung up. I looked again, and realized it was a girl, and she was holding a fly rod with the leader in her hand. Hidden in alders, I watched, curious to see how long this guy was going to talk while his daughter stood and waited. The roar of the water masked the conversation, so I let my mind create one. Daughter was needing a fly to try, Dad was putting the finishing touches on some deal.

At least I wasn't ever guilty of that. I never took my cell phone when my daughter and I fished. A self-righteous conceit swelled in me as I watched them from my place in the brush. Finally, he snapped the phone shut and turned toward his kid who still stood there waiting patiently.

I'd like to think it made him feel a little bad to not be able to leave work at the office when out on the river with his kid, although there was no way of knowing if it did. He took her leader, knotted something onto it and both were talking when, suddenly, I saw him put his hand up like he was motioning her to wait a minute, then reached into his vest and pulled that phone out again.

I thought cell phones couldn't reach back into these deep valleys, I said to myself. But it had been a while since I had one. Maybe the technology has gotten better, I thought.

I saw her look down at her feet. He talked for maybe five minutes, and then the scene repeated itself, he hanging up, the two of them talking, I could see them smile and laugh, then that upraised hand, and the blamed phone reappeared. She stood there, looking down again. Sometimes you can read exactly what's going on by watching faces and gestures, even though you can't hear any conversation.

"Shut the thing off," I whispered.

This time, he seemed to talk for longer yet, and, after five or six minutes, she moved off downriver to fish alone, leaving her dad perched there on his rock, talking business. I resumed my way downstream to the water I wanted to fish, and noticed that she had stopped directly across from where I planned to stop.

She knows holding water. At least he showed her that much, I thought to myself.

There's a nice stretch of braided water that runs between and through some boulders there and she stepped out into water and started casting. Not wanting to look like I was spying, I resumed my way down the path while she stayed above me. I found a promising eddy and began working out line. I tossed on a deerhair hopper into the fast current at the head of it and mended line with slack roll casts to keep the nice drift from being swallowed by drag in the fast current. Glancing back up river, I could see that the girl was casting with surprisingly good long casts. Her line seemed to just dance through the air, unrolling the leader and dropping the fly on the smooth current as gently as a settling snowflake.

Wonder where she learned to cast like that? I mused. Could it be her workaholic dad shut his cell phone off long enough to teach her, or better, maybe he sent her to a casting class?

There was no way of knowing. The river was wide and deep here, so I wasn't going to go across and ask her. Besides, she might have been all of fifteen, and a good way to find oneself in deep hot water in these hills is to go out of your way to talk to a guy's teenage daughter. My wonderings were interrupted by a splash where my fly had been and I struck and missed, sidetracked as I was with the little story unfolding across the river.

As the afternoon wore on, I caught maybe a half dozen on hoppers and beetles, while my little neighbor across the water worked away at a pod of risers on her side. And she did O.K. too, landing maybe seven or eight, and keeping some.

Too bad Dad hasn't taught her about releasing her catch, I thought to myself.

Dad would walk down and talk to his daughter for a few minutes, and even fish a little, but mostly he sat on his rock, talking on his phone, burning precious daylight that would never come again.

About four-thirty, I walked back to the Jeep and drove toward the village for a bite at a little cafe that overlooks the water. I took my usual seat in the corner in front of the big window, ordered a sandwich, and was watching the flat in front of the building, hoping to see a rise. I heard the door open and they walked in, my father and daughter pair from across the river. They were in the middle of an animated conversation and took a seat across the room. He was a little older than me, and I recognized him as a banker from the town in the next valley, an occasional participant at local TU functions, and, according to a mutual acquaintance, a fair rod on the river when he got out, which wasn't often. I didn't actually know him, so I didn't speak. My original guess as to her age of around fifteen was confirmed now that I saw them closer. The waitress came and took my order, and I settled in to wait for my food, looking out the window. But the conversation coming from their table drew my attention and I listened the way you might when you're waiting around with nothing else to do.

He was all got up in what you'd call 'Safari Club chic', wearing probably three hundred dollars worth of first line outdoor clothes. She was wearing the obligatory teenage jeans and a tee shirt. She must have already forgiven him his ignoring her out on the water and, as they talked, her bright eyes danced the way a teenage girl's will for only her dad. Funny how our kids see us that way when they're young, in spite of ourselves, like our bird dogs.

The topic of conversation, it seemed, was a certain pair of school shoes she'd decided were at the top of her list. He was unhappy about the price, fifty-five bucks. She really wanted them, he thought they were too expensive. This is nothing new in the world, a teenager arguing with her dad about clothes money. But everything she was wearing at the moment wouldn't have bought the shirt he had on, and the irony of that must have been as plain to her as it was to me. Dad was missing it.

"C'mon, daddy, they are so cool, and they'll go with everything, I won't ask for another thing if you'll let me get them, I promise," she pleaded.

But Dad was holding out. He'd already spent over three hundred dollars on her clothes for school, he reminded her, and that was enough. As far as I knew, this was his only kid, and his wife was a tenured professor at the college. I doubted he was going to have to toss his Orvis catalogue when it arrived if he sprung for the shoes. You get my drift.

My food came and I ate, still eavesdropping like an old biddy at a church social, and remembering being here with my own daughter on fishing trips, on days that seemed so recent, yet so long ago.

Then an idea started to come together in my mind. It was a plan, actually, based on what I remembered about certain buttons that usually function well with a banker, if they're pushed just right. But it would take a couple things coming together all at once to make it work. Maybe I should have minded my own business, but I couldn't help myself. A fellow fly fisher needed a little help, and maybe, just maybe, a random act of kindness would be all the river needed to give me a good evening.

As I finished and my waitress brought the bill, I waited for my chance, hoping that the other characteristic I remembered about teenagers was still true. As she finished her third glass of soda, I watched her push her chair back and head for the ladies room.

Here's my chance, I thought.

I almost jumped up and started for the check out counter. Pausing at their table, I did my best dumb tourist impression and asked, "Here for the fishing?"

Her dad looked up, "Yes," he said, and quickly looked back down at his plate and shoveled in another load like he was afraid something might get away before he could put it into his mouth.

"That your daughter?" I pressed.

"Yes. Why?"

"I used to bring my daughter up here to fish. Seems like a hundred years ago now. She's married and off on her own. Sure wish I could have her come back up her with me to fish for a day. I really miss being out on the river with her. Make sure you make these days special for you and her, buddy, they'll be over before you know it."

And to make sure my point was made, I added, "Oh, and something else, I think you should spring for the fifty-five. Nothing looks tackier than a dad in good Upland clothes telling his kid the discount store shoes she's asking for are too expensive, and doing it loud enough that everyone in the restaurant can hear it. Bad reflection on a community bank, don'cha think?"

He sat there, speechless, staring at me with his mouth, full of mashed potatoes, hanging open. I hurried to the counter, paid my bill, and left the building before he could think of anything to say. You can appreciate how quickly that was, if you are familiar with a banker's penchant for quick answers.

As I sat there in the Jeep watching their table through the restaurant window, I saw her come back to the table. Her dad started talking with her, then she smiled, leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Then he motioned out the window toward where I was sitting in my truck. She turned and smiled at me and I think, winked. I winked back, started the engine, and drove off downriver.

That's one for you, Brookie Lea, I whispered to myself.

From those first tentative casts with no feel for approach, presentation, and pattern theory; to the polished knowing work of an old hand who's paid her dues and made good, the lady anglers you and I know bring something a little different to our sport. One of the threads I see through all of their stories is the need, like men's need, to escape from a hectic world, and spend time along flowing water. Whether she's a teenaged daughter in those last days of needing your encouragement and thinking you're some kind of royalty, or a wife and mother who's gotten past the point where she needs adulation for having done it right, they show us a stubborn willingness to risk entering what had been a man's world to pursue their passion to cast over rising fish.

I appreciate how so many of these newcomers to our sport are aware of the art and grace of it, and seem willing to learn that as much as the craft. Perhaps it's a sign of the generation coming up, one that hasn't known a depression or a war, and how they can harden a heart and mind. Time will tell if the shortcuts being taken in the process of learning to fly-fish, the videos, seminars, and classes, will produce a generation of lady anglers who are as gifted as the ones who've gone before.

No matter their age or stage in the game, the river women have found something they can get their teeth into. As they continue to appear more and more each season, it becomes clear they've discovered something us old men have known for generations; that rivers bring a richer meaning to life. It's a realization that holds for women, as much as for men, revealing moments that layer with each other as tiny dramas unfold in and over the bright water. Together, we all come to love it a little more each season; this beauty that reveals itself to anyone, regardless of their gender, who will stop long enough to see. I'm happy to have those women out there, and hope that, soon, they'll find that river water's gotten mingled with the blood flowing through their veins, just like it did with men, generations ago. ~ Mark Jeffrey Volk

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