A string of Greater Yellowstone fly fishing adventurers offer insight on their introduction to the sport, how it influenced their lives, and how they remain on top of their game.
[Story By Sarah Grigg & Photographs by Arnica Spring Rae]
The American West has long been revered as holy ground by die-hard fly anglers. Culturally, politically, and economically, fly fishing is today as significant as ranching on the landscape of the New West. And increasingly, women take up what many typically perceive as an old dude’s avocation. Female anglers make up about a quarter of participants in all kinds of fishing nationally, according to the USFWS 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and WildlifeAssociated Recreation. The Outdoor Foundation’s 2017 Special Report on Fishing places that number slightly higher, at 30 percent. Of fly fishing’s 6.5 million participants, it’s not statistically identified how many are women, but a look around the Greater Yellowstone states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming certainly leads one to infer that lady anglers are making their mark.
This is great news for fly fishing—an $893 million industry as reported by the American Fly Fishing Trade Association—and even better news for the spectacular Western rivers and fisheries that rely on the sales of fishing licenses and gear for conservation and management.
It may seem women are new to the scene. But a closer look reveals that they have long left their legacies on rivers and on the books. Annette McLean, Vice President of Operations and Design at the famed R. L. Winston Rod Co., is a historian on the subject.
“Women in fly fishing are often viewed as a new phenomenon, and we’re not,” she points out. “We can look to accounts of Cleopatra fishing. The first authorized fishing guide in Maine was a woman. The Dette ladies in the Catskills were renowned fly tiers during the Depression.”
Ms. McLean is right. Some of the biggest movers and shakers in fly fishing were, and still are, women. To help put it all into perspective, here are the names, faces, and short profiles of a few women anglers, ages 10 to 75—ladies who run lodges and fly shops, raise significant funds for fisheries conservation and breast cancer, manage major manufacturing operations, and guide anglers on some of the biggest, baddest rivers of the West. Over the course of two years, photographer Arnica Spring Rae and I road-tripped from Paradise Valley to Last Chance to Jackson to capture the portraits and stories of these anglers in hopes of inspiring other women to get out there and do the same.
Gallatin Gateway, Montana
Camille’s upbringing was split between school in Hardin, Montana, and summers on Alaska’s Nushagak River at her family camp, Egdorf’s Western Alaska Sportfishing. At 18, she began guiding, so it’s no surprise that at 27, she radiates a stateliness typical of the infinitely patient and, normally, of those significantly older. But don’t be fooled. A CrossFit regular and big game hunter, Camille could put a grizzly in a headlock.
As a young woman in a society that glorifies checking off boxes, Camille’s checking off boxes of her own. And she has all the reason to stay the course. She’s featured in two major fly fishing films while setting a tasteful standard for professional sportswomen.
“My proudest moments come from sharing the sport with others,” Camille emphasizes. “A few years ago in Alaska, I had a client who was a paraplegic. After a day of struggle, we finally found a system. I’d cast and hook a fish and he reeled it in. Watching that man land fish and have the time of his life was incredible. These are the most rewarding moments in fly fishing.”
“When I finished school and announced I was heading West to guide, my dad asked, ‘Really? Four years of college to become a fishing guide?’ ‘That’s right,’ I said.”
At 39, Alice owns Riverside Anglers in West Yellowstone, Montana. With encouragement from female and male mentors, she completed guide school. But even with certification, she still had to prove her mettle.
“During my first years, the lodge manager told clients, ‘You’re fishing with Alice today!’ And then he had to sell them on it. I went through an extensive interview every morning. So, I take the reins and prove myself up front. During the drive to the river, I describe the local geology, wildlife, and history,” she says. “Clients have quite the education by the time they reach the water. That’s my job, to educate.”
Alice has put in 15 years now, guiding on waters from Montana to Alaska. These days, she’s booked solid through the season, and you’ll most likely find her on the Madison or in Yellowstone National Park, guiding clients from all corners of the globe.
“Someone asked me recently, ‘Burned out yet?’” she relates.
“What’d you say, Alice?”
“Yet?” she responds. “I’m just getting started.”
Paradise Valley, Montana
“This is the time of year that I get to fish,” says Jacquie, tiptoeing along the snowy bank of Nelson’s Spring Creek, a trout-packed waterway flowing a stone’s throw from the famed Yellowstone River. At 31, she’s a mother to two and a full-time fishing guide, spring through fall. She also has livestock to run and a trout aquaculture operation to manage, along with a lodge and fly shop.
Jacquie married into an epic Montana family. Homesteaded in the 1860s, the Nelson Ranch became a fishing hot spot in the 1960s, when angling legend Joe Brooks encouraged the family patriarch to open his stock water to anglers. The creek hasn’t served as a watering hole in decades. Banks and creek beds were restored and managed for fish, and today, Jacquie’s carrying on diverse legacies.
“Ranchers are the ultimate conservationists,” says Jacquie. “If we beat down our land or water, we lose profit. We’ve taken measures here to ensure both are highly functional for livestock and fish. We’ve worked hard to keep the ranch intact. We’re not subdividing it. We support that by letting people experience this amazing fishery for a fee. If we shut it down to the public, we wouldn’t be able to operate the way we do.”
MILLIE JO PAINI
Island Park, Idaho
Millie is, thankfully, about as feral as they come. A native of Moab, Utah, she was renowned for climbing sheer rock faces before becoming a fixture on the Henrys Fork. After giving her body a beating in her 20s, she moved to Idaho and found herself attached to the budding TroutHunter fly shop and lodge, where she’s remained. Years ago, she could be spotted during a shop break doing push-ups on the lawn. Wadered-up anglers waddling into the bar paused in awe as Millie knocked out a quick hundred.
Today, as a Patagonia Fly Fishing Ambassador, Millie’s known for her exquisite casting instruction and for wearing the bone of her husband’s severed ring finger (bit off during archery season in a grizzly attack) as a necklace pendant. But doesn’t she miss the adrenaline of hanging off cliffs?
“Climbers asked me, ‘How can you fly fish?’ It’s true that I’ve never had a near-death moment fishing,” Millie admits, “but it gets you to the same place where absolutely nothing else matters. You’re there with only the river and fish. You’re just gone. In that way, the sports speak to one another.”
Vice President for Volunteer Operations, Trout Unlimited
Board Member and past President, Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited
LESLIE BAHN STEEN
Snake River Headwaters Project Manager, Trout Unlimited
KATHLEEN BELK DOFFERMYRE
Program Director, George B. Storer Foundation
Former Attorney and Board Member, Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited
Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting, so they say. These five ladies, all of whom have served as key administrators, attorneys, chapter officers, or board members for Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited (JHTU), seriously advocate for cold, clean, fishable waters in Teton County, Wyoming, and the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. What do they have to show for their efforts alongside fellow JHTU members and colleagues? Here’s an abridged version: convincing a Wyoming Legislative Committee to commit $6.7 million annually for wildlife and fisheries; securing $2 million in five years for supporting healthy fisheries through the George B. Storer Foundation; leading more than 400 mostly all-volunteer TU chapters and councils; and overseeing collaborative restoration projects on major drainages feeding the Snake River.
Allen, a former Teton County commissioner, summarized, “A healthy fishery reverberates through the ecosystem; we are helping everything from raptors to bears. Trout Unlimited spends significant time with children’s programs. If we don’t teach our children to appreciate our wild places and wild waters, we won’t have folks out fighting for them.”
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their mark in Patagonia. And then, there was Patty. In 1978, she sold her car and headed to Argentina with a fishing guide, carrying their rods as they hitchhiked for six months.
When she wasn’t way down south, you could find Patty on the Snake River. She didn’t mean to become a fishing guide, but most of her friends were. She recounts, “One day they told me, ‘You know, you can’t just fish all day. You have to learn to row a boat.’”
So, Patty rowed. One day in 1979, someone needed a guide for their concession in Grand Teton National Park.
“I wasn’t interested. I said, ‘Oh, you’re all kind of macho,’” she laughs. “Anyway, I did it as a favor. Most of the guys who taught me to guide are dead. Their main thing was: No matter what happens during a guided day, it’s successful if you have your clients back alive and well.”
She returned to Argentina with boats in tow, to start the first gringo-owned Patagonian rafting company. For 35 years now, Patty’s led clients in Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Alaska, and Argentina.
When asked if she’s served as a mentor to other guides, she says, “So I’m told! I think more than anything that because I had a lifestyle that allowed me to travel and get out there, it set an example for some people, especially for women.”
Big Sky, Montana
“I dig around antique stores for fly fishing books, looking for first editions. I get them signed whenever possible,” says Betsey, sharing her extensive collection of antique angling curiosities at a cabin behind Gallatin River Guides, an outfitter and fly shop she owned with her late husband, Steve French. From 1984 to 2012, Betsey ran the famed shop.
“Steve never wanted me to guide. I was too valuable in the store. I’m a retailer, a salesperson. I was an instructor, an encourager, gently edging women along into the sport,” Betsey explains. “I had one woman thank me for inspiring her to learn to fish so that she could join her husband on his angling travels around the world. That’s what I loved—teaching women and kids so that they could be out there, too. If they aren’t involved, this will become an old man’s sport.”
Betsey manned the outfitting and shop alone after Steve passed in 2005 and eventually sold the business. But she still radiates the aura of a seasoned manager.
“Sometimes, women told me they tried fishing, and a guide wouldn’t let them sit down in the boat. Well, that’s b.s., I’d say. And it better not be one of my guides,” she asserts with the saltiness of a ship’s captain. “Part of this is taking a break. I pack a beer in my waders and watch the water. I think women enjoy the whole experience more.”