I get asked many times what it’s like being a girl guide. I get asked how I got into fishing. People are generally curious about how I grew in the position of one of two female fly fishing guides in the Vail Valley. I am happy to share some of my experiences, because at the end of the day; I have learned a lot about myself on my journey and I really wouldn’t change a thing. It hasn’t always been easy, but at the end of the day, my will is stronger than my doubt. I can be proud of myself for doing my best and maybe changing people’s minds about what it means to be an angler.
I didn’t start out with anything to prove. I randomly took a casting clinic and spent countless hours casting a rod I found up and down the rivers in Maine. I moved to Colorado and my then boyfriend had been a fly fishing guide for a number of years. His profession seemed, well, just chill. Compared to the stress of safety boating and raft guiding all while barely affording to not live in my dirty van, this sounded perfect. I asked him what it took to be a guide. Then, I fished my heart out, learned spots, studied insects, tried flies, adjusted my depth, watched, observed, adjusted my depth again, added weight, and tried again; until I felt ready.
I interviewed at the shop where my boyfriend worked with little more than naive confidence and a ridiculous amount of river miles. Jim, the manager at the time, asked me some questions and I threw out all of the fishing lingo I picked up over the past few years. I barely felt nervous. I never questioned who I was as an adult. I kayaked, rafted, and snowboarded for work; all without hitch. I dated guys who did those same things and dated guys who didn’t. That didn’t matter, I was Katie Fiedler, and I did whatever I wanted to do, bottom line. The only ingredient to my success up until that point had been my will. Jim mentioned that he would give me a shot and that he didn’t mind doing so because his aunt (a woman) had taught him to fish. I didn’t realize until then that I might be an underdog.
My first year as a professional fly fishing guide flew by. I barely slept at night because I was so worried about getting my clients to catch fish. The pressure and the stress came crashing down like an overhead swell every time I found out I had a trip on the books. In a nervous rookie sort of way, I delivered. I left everything I had on the water. One day I heard comments in the shop about how Jim wouldn’t let a client choose another guide; because even though I was a woman, I was perfectly capable. If they didn’t have a good time they could talk to him AFTER the trip. The pressure was SO thick. Not only did I feel the need to prove myself as a guide; I felt like I had to prove myself as a capable woman. But, much respect to Jim for having confidence in me when I may not have. He saw me as green, not a gender. That respect, I would come to find out , would be hard to come by in a highly competitive world where you don’t share flies or spots, and a girl could be a mood killer amongst mostly straight men.
Then came the three amigos from Texas. High water limited the spots, and that meant nothing to some first timers who only,” wanted to catch lots of fish.” This was year two as a guide. I was just happy to be out of those nagging casting clinics and out on the water. I picked a sweet spot at the confluence of Gore Creek and the Eagle River and did a quick clinic on roll casting, hook-sets, and the like. I handed each man a rod rigged with Pheasant Tails and pink San Juan worms. In the spring muddy run-off I knew this would work. I spent the time. I did the leg-work. I knew these flies were good. Then, out it came. “I’m not fishing with this girl fly.” I paused. This was a first. I had grown accustomed to the,” So how did YOU (a girl) get HERE (fly fishing)” questions. Or ,”Is this your boyfriends car?” You get the idea.
I ripped Mr. Texas’s “girl fly” off and tied some “whatever fly” on. He informed me that he was going to the other side of the river where it looked like a better spot then the one I chose. I grabbed the worm, hooked it on his waders, and said to him with a smile, ”If you decide you want to catch fish, tie this on.” He huffed and puffed across the bridge to the other side of the river. His friends wailed on fish and were loud and proud about it. That moment had to have been one of the most satisfying moments as a guide. He ate crow and tied the “girl fly” on his rig. That was also very satisfying. Who would have ever thought this to be possible, but a big tough man from Texas caught some fish…..on the ever loving “girl fly.”
Right at my second year as a guide , my boyfriend and I had the opportunity to move to the Florida Keys for a summer to fish for tarpon, and snook, and reds- o my! ANYONE who is serious about fishing would be DUMB to pass this up. So off I went. I sublet my apartment, put all my stuff in storage, and got to getting. Hands down, this remains one of the best summers of my life.
When I came back to the mountains, Jim had left the fly shop. I fell back to the bottom of the guide roster( For those of you who aren’t guides, this hit hard in the paycheck) , and kept up by waiting tables at night to support my guiding habit. Once again, I put in the time. I started to think in a business sense that it may be smart to see if I could get trips from another fly shop in the area. I went over and talked to the manager of a fly shop who had been given my name with a glowing reference from a fellow guide I worked with a couple years back. He never called back, and really didn’t seem very interested. I ran into him in Vail one day over the winter. I brought up that I would still be willing to pick up trips and then he hit me,” We don’t really have enough women booking trips to justify hiring a woman guide.” HEY! What?! ”I can guide men too!” He followed with some mumbling and stumbling about his words, but eventually came out with,” I just don’t see that happening.”
My blood had started to simmer. This can’t be the standard. I am not a second-class fly fishing guide. I don’t choose what color flies the fish eat. I am not limited to guiding women. The trout don’t care if my voice is high or if I have a set of breasts under my pack. Is this all one big episode of Punked?! I started to feel like maybe I did have something to prove, although what or how I didn’t know.
Year five or six as a guide, I took out two young boys. They hooked a couple of trout but nothing in the net despite my best efforts. Kids can be tough. Fishing can be tough. It happens. These kids were no exception. I didn’t receive any gratuity and the shop called to make sure that the guest was happy. The mother of these children chewed the shop out,” How dare you send my boys out with a girl!” “This is not what we signed up for!” This reaction was super shocking coming from a woman. “Are you kidding me,” I thought! I am pretty sure I delivered fly fishing trip complete with trout bites. That is exactly what they signed up for. Now my blood was boiling.
Flash forward to 2014, my seventh summer as a fly fishing guide. I went to pick up a family at a hotel. The wife forgot her license upstairs and ran up to grab it. The husband stood with his little daughter and threw out this gem of a comment.
“ So, are you here to take us to our fly fishing guide”
“I am your guide.”
“Oh! So YOU are going to take us fishing and everything?!”
“Yes, that is what I do.”
Seriously, this is what I do. I know I am not the only one. I have finally hit a stride where my confidence trumps my nervousness. I am good at what I do, and by no means am I the best fly fisherwoman out there. I finally don’t loose sleep over where I am going to take my clients and whether or not they will be able to catch fish. I have people who request me to be their guide, and we have great success! I host clinics in the shop about entomology, and rod rigging. I can tie a few flies and I am happy and free to admit that this is my least favorite part. I have fun doing what I do for a living. I love it! I feel like a fly fisherwoman despite some valiant efforts to discredit my past ten years on the water. I can admit that fly fisherwomen are few and far between. We are a unique crew, digging up insects, wading chest deep in ice cold water, and hanging out in the stereotypical boys club. Yeah, I get all that.
It hit me today; all I really have to prove is to myself, and it is what I have known all along. I can do what I want, and I can be happy, and I can be loved. I don’t need to prove myself to someone else’s ego. There is no such thing as a free lunch; you have to work for what you want. I hope that whatever leap you may be deciding to take: if it’s the right one; the pain, angst, and general ridiculousness will be worth the sweet trout tugging at the end of your line. Your best chance for success is when your line is in the water. Put your line in the water. Have a little naïve confidence. Get out there and, good luck!