A Graceful Rise

A recent post, over at Field & Stream, suggested that fly fishing is “suffering” because it is too manly, meaning not enough women are involved. The reason given for this is a lack of gear designed specifically for women, and the author suggests “we must kill the boys club mentality before it kills the sport.”

A lively discussion ensues, much of it revolving around marketing and economics, suggesting it is not the health of our sport that is in great peril; it is the Industry surrounding our sport, the folks who bring us all the latest doodads, geegaws and improved modulus ratings who have the troubles. More people must buy more stuff or our sport will die is the message.

Is targeting women the answer? Owl Jones brought up some interesting points in his post Fly Fishing is Too What?, especially “you either ARE an angler or you ARE NOT an angler”. Most gear on the market right now can be used by both men and women, just like the gear of the past, but if I have learned one thing from reading these discussions it is that a small fortune awaits the person who designs waders that don’t make butts look big.

The Fly Fishing Industry can not sustain unlimited growth; the resource certainly wouldn’t allow it, even if every man, woman, and child could somehow be persuaded to buy a rod, get off their ass and go fishing. The Fly Fishing Industry is not fly fishing and if fly fishing needs more of a less “manly” feel it is not because there is money to be made by targeting an underserved demographic.

With the question(s) of why/if fly fishing needs more women in mind, it seemed appropriate today to make a run over the mountain, to Manchester, for another viewing of A Graceful Rise: Women in Fly Fishing Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow at the American Museum of Fly Fishing.

I found my new camera does not do well in museums so there is no photo of the copy of Dame Juliana Berners book “A Treatyse Of Fysshynge Wyth An Angle,” written in 1496, but the reproductions of her flies came out okay, I guess.

Hometown girl Mary Orvis Marbury is featured, along with illustrations and a photo of her fly tying crew from the late 1800s. Hinged display cases, made for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, are filled with her flies and photos relating to their histories and hang in one corner of the room.

Those are the flies Don Bastian and others are reproducing for an upcoming book.

One of my favorite fly fishing personalities is Cornelia Thurza Crosby, better known as “Fly Rod”. She posed with plenty of dead fish in her time but became an early advocate of catch and release. She was issued Maine Guide License #1 in recognition of her tireless efforts in promoting the outdoor sporting life in the State of Maine and encouraging sporting ethics, and maybe a little bit because the licensing of guides was her idea in the first place.

Fly Rod Crosby didn’t have to worry about waders making her butt look big. She did a lot of her fishing in a long skirt and petticoats, although her skirts created a bit of a scandal in New York City because they showed her ankles.

Julia Fairchild carried a “priest” over a foot long and I have a feeling she didn’t mess around when using it.

Joan Wulff was outcasting pretty much everyone, way back when, and looking good doing it.

She’s still outcasting pretty much everyone and still looks good doing it. (A friend of mine saw her last summer and says she is, indeed, surrounded by bright light. I’m afraid that most of what you see here is the reflection of bulbs hung from a ceiling.)

A Graceful Rise pays tribute not just to individuals. Groups, like Casting for Recovery are also featured.

Every one of the women in this exhibit was or is multi-talented, bringing a wide range of experiences and sensibilities to our sport. Our modern age allows travel and the transfer of ideas like never before, and the scope of their influence is truly global.

Flies, rods, and even exceptionally nice casts are sometimes referred to as art, and all of those things are on display in A Graceful Rise. There are also oil paintings, watercolors, sculpture and fabric art, all beautiful expressions of our sport and what it means.

Detail of Quilt by Susan Balch

Maybe, instead of trying to make fly fishing less manly, we should work on making it (and everything else) more human.

If asked, I could not give one good reason why we need more women in fly fishing, so here are 52 of them, all featured in this outstanding exhibit: Susan Balch, Dotty Ballantyne, Cathy Beck, Elizabeth Benjamin, Dame Juliana Berners, Megan Boyd, Peggy Brenner, Kay Brodney, Casting for Recovery, Elsie Darbee, Cornelia Crosby, Kristi Denton Cohen, Winnie Dette, Selene Dumaine, Debbie Elmer, Julia Fairchild, Rachel Finn, Lyla Foggia, Carrie Frost, Hallie Galaise, Karen Graham, Barbara Klutnis, Fannie Krieger, Mari Lyons, Sylvie Malo-Clark, Mary Orvis Marbury, Kathryn Maroun, Mimi Matsuda, Sara Jane McBride, Ellen McCaleb, Annette McLean, Diane Michelin, Margaret Merriman, Montana Fly Shops, Lori-Ann Murphy, Judith O’Keefe, Margo Page, Diana Rudolph, Annette Lilly Russ, Kathy Scott, Molly Semenik, Helen Shaw, Sisters on the Fly, Carrie Stevens, Joan Wulff, Rhea Topping, and Nancy Zakon. We could also throw in a few celebrities like Ginger Rogers, Rosalyn Carter, Heather Thomas and yes, even Oprah, if we have to, I guess.

Women have been involved with fly fishing from the very beginning and they are still involved today. The Industry may be going through some rough times but the Sport is in good hands, thanks to the thousands of women participating at all levels.

A Graceful Rise: Women in Fly Fishing Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is on display at The American Museum of Fly Fishing through April, 2012.

Categories: Fly Fishing, Vermont | Tags: , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

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19 thoughts on “A Graceful Rise

  1. “Maybe, instead of trying to make fly fishing less manly, we should work on making it (and everything else) more human.” I couldn’t agree more, Quill…and thanks for making the trek over to the museum and posting photos — some of these women I’m very familiar with, others not so — now, time for some research and reading. I very well may be near Manchester VT this spring, and it’s now on my list to see.

    • Erin, lots of research and reading to do! I tried to get links to personal sites and blogs where I could but some are just links to mentions or short biographies. Any one of these women would be worthy of a post of their own.

  2. Nice post. Another problem is that a lot of people are getting recreation from an electronic device, like playstation, etc. Little to no effort, all in the comfort of ones home. The heathens!

    Flyrod Crosby still gets press here, even a new trail is being made in her honor over here from Rangeley to her home in Strong. I’ve been by her place at Upper Dam many times, she picked a good spot. Meanwhile Steep Bank Pool gets more and more crowded on the Kennebago every September. There it seems people like fishing in crowds, or swearing about the crowds. Go figure.

    • Kirk, I hear ya on the electronics! I only get over to Maine a couple of times a year, during the “off” season and a lot of places are closed so I have not made the trek to the Rangely area for a Fly Rod Crosby pilgrimage. I might miss the crowds, but in November and March I miss everything else, too.

  3. Having two daughters, one of which who loves to fish, I have far too many opinions on this for a reply box. The testosterone laden aspects of fishing is a good part of what kills off the interest in women in general. That has to change before any talk of changing gear. My daughter has always wanted to use “what daddy uses” and she does that quite well. I’ve never seen a need to change anything to suit her.

    Luckily, with the popularity of blogs, there are more places for women to go for information that AREN’T forums. The outdoor forums have turned into a cesspool of ignorance and stupidity populated mainly by men. In 15 years, I have only seen two women on the local fishing forums, and they didn’t last long.

    My daughter reads a number of blogs written by women anglers and hunters and enjoys them. She wouldn’t hesitate for a second to contact these women if she had questions. It’s nice to see that.

    What a great idea for an exhibit. My daughter will get a kick out of this. A friend makes custom rods. She wants him to make her a pink one, she just likes pink. Then she’s going to take it out on the river and teach the boys how to fish.

    • Ken, the internet and blogs have certainly made communicating and sharing much easier and I am glad your daughter is making use of the resources available. If she wants to fish pink, more power to her. I don’t know many men brave enough to do that, and if she outfishes the boys, I’m sure it will have more to do with her having a good teacher than a pretty stick.

      • The good teacher part is debatable, but I try.
        I do like to think I’ve taught them to do whatever they can think of to do. At an age where they become very conscious of the “girls don’t do that” schtick, they seem to have that attitude zip right over their heads.
        My 16 year old that doesn’t fish is brilliant at math and science. She wants to be an engineer, a field made up of 90% men. When I pointed that out, she laughed….I don’t care, I’m good at it.

        That’s my girl.

        That exhibit would be nice to see around here. Can’t think of an appropriate venue though.

  4. I’d rather read that it was in good hands because thousands of people fish. I’m sorry, but I see no important difference between women and men where fishing, or money spent on fishing, is involved. A celebration of any kind of minority simply because they contribute to X thing is silly. What does a person’s skin color have to do with job performance? What does gender have to do with the purchase of a new fly rod? If fly fishing actually needed “saving” I submit that there are not enough women involved – no, that there will never be enough women interested in fishing – to “save” it.

    Of course, on a philosophical and cultural level, they’ve contributed greatly – but if fly fishing has to be “less manly” in order to survive, then may it die a quick death.

    Who says “…you know, baking needs to be less girly, so we can sell more flour.” It works the same way, either way – men, in general are not big buyers of vanilla extract and the latest in frilly aprons. Are there great male chefs? Of course. Are men going to save the baking industry ( should it need it)?

    You tell me. 😉

  5. Owl, I tried very hard to make a distinction between fly fishing as an activity, and the Industry that supports it. A Graceful Rise is not about “saving” fly fishing and neither is my post. That was someone else, on another blog, who suggested fly fishing needs to be saved by getting more women involved. My point, and the point of the exhibit, is that women have been an important part of fly fishing for hundreds of years and that we could all stand to be reminded of that fact. Other than the museum raising a few dollars through admission fees, there are no economic issues here and certainly no implication that fly fishing needs to be saved.

    I am sorry you think it’s silly to celebrate the contributions of women to our sport. Again, no one is saying there is anything to “save” other than a very important part of our angling heritage. No one is trying to sell more rods here, but if someone (female or otherwise) is inspired to give fly fishing a try because they learned about Kay Brodney, Fly Rod Crosby, Joan Wulff, et al., well, yippee! Another brother or sister of the angle is born.

    You agree that “on a philosophical and cultural level, they have contributed greatly” and you should have stopped there and put a period on that sentence because that is the only thing behind A Graceful Rise.

    Like I said, it may be that the Industry is having trouble but the activity will continue, no matter the color, size or cost of our rods.

    I made two nice loaves of sourdough bread this weekend and didn’t need no frilly apron.

    We will know fly fishing is in real trouble when you and I are featured in an exhibit.

  6. Whether you have a pair of nuts dangling in them or not, if you are too concerned with how you look in waders you should get into a different sport. Period.

    People (male and female) are attracted to fly fishing for different reasons, and if they do it for for the good reasons, they probably stick to it. As with a lot of things that are a bit of an acquired taste. But the last thing we need is a wave of trend hopping idiots (of any gender) lured by smartass marketing whipping ahem, “our” waters, so the people involved in the tackle industry can drive bigger cars.

    And please get your Oprahs out of my scene, uh..stream.

    • Pieter — Howdy! I’m not sure where you wade, but my nuts don’t do a lot of dangling in cold water, even with waders on!

      You are right about the ones who do it for the good reasons. The trend hoppers are easily distracted, though, and I am sure some get turned off by the attitudes of some on the stream (as with any newbie in any activity), so I like to point them towards golf.

      I don’t know if Oprah will be back. Maybe she’s fishing with the Fonz.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. (The original of that Oprah photo is on her website. They cut the male guide out of the picture for the exhibit.)

  8. QG, I’m afraid you’re quite right about the lack of dangling.
    There, it just happened. Three comments mentioning male genitalia on an article about women in fly fishing. I’m sorry, your post is officially ruined now. 😉

    Anyway, enjoyable read, I make sure I check out the rest of your blog!


  9. Nicely done Quill. I love the history displayed at the AMFF.

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  11. Buzz Eichel


    I am pleased to see your article on the AMFF Graceful Rise. I have been invoved with the Museum for 35 Years as a trustee ( and now emeritis) and have seen our staff of dedicated workers put together many wonderful exhibits-
    Graceful Rise was in the planning stage for many years – it just didnt happen overnight – and your take on the exhibit is well recieved,

    The museum is always looking for new members!!!

    Commercialism is not part of our creed – contrary to what some of your responders think!!


    P.S> I did meet a Sparse Gray Hackle but never a Quill Gorden!!

  12. Buzz,
    Thanks for your note. The AMFF is a very interesting institution. I joined this year and hope to become more involved when I’m not busy herding anglers. Just the sheer number of individual items in A Graceful Rise is mind boggling, so I can only imagine the hours that went into it.

    I wrote a couple of stories last year and thought they were pretty good. I set them aside, to ripen a bit, and did some winter reading. Imagine my surprise to find those stories already told, by Sparse Gray Hackle. I would have liked to sit with him for a spell.

  13. That looks like an awesome place to visit!

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