To the casual observer, the world of fly fishing may look like a totally male-dominated endeavor. Dig a little deeper, however, and you will inevitably discover the long-held and enduring legacy that female anglers have imprinted on the sport.
It was Joan Wulff who changed the sport forever.
In 1943, at the age of sixteen, she walked away with top honors in the national dry fly accuracy championship. From there she would go on to rack up twenty-one additional casting titles before ultimately winning the National Fisherman’s Distance Fly Championship with a cast of 136 feet against a field of all male competitors. By the early 1950s, a time when women’s rights were severely limited, Joan Wulff was widely regarded as the best fly caster in the world.
Wulff used her deep knowledge and innate understanding of fly fishing and techniques to become one of the single most recognizable figures in the professional fly fishing game.
At age 89, Wulff is still heavily involved in the art she mastered many years ago, mainly through teaching and inspiring both male and female anglers alike.
In the wake of her success, increasing numbers of women have found avenues into the historically male-dominated sport.
Today, fly fishing is experiencing a golden age of female participants. Here are a few of the many female anglers making waves right here in the Blue Ridge and around the country.
Fly Fishing Guide, Headwaters Outfitters, Upstate South Carolina
Katie Cahn grew up fishing the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near the border of North and South Carolina on land settled by her family in the 1800s.
“We would drown worms in the creeks and use whole cans of niblet corn just to catch war-painted shiners on spin rods,” Cahn said of these formative years. “This is when bobbers were called bobbers—not strike indicators.”
Katie didn’t discover what would become a lifelong love of fly fishing until her college years at Western Carolina University.
“For three years, I lived 50 yards from the Tuckasegee River. I spent many study breaks at the river fly fishing. During those years I got to know the Tuckasegee, Nantahala, and a few other streams pretty well.”
It took time, but with focus, perseverance and a little bit of mentoring, Katie soon became a highly proficient angler.
“I had a good friend teach me the basics, and like many, I struggled in the beginning. It took weeks of getting caught-up in trees and untangling line. Not much has changed except that I catch fish now.”
She’s still combing the rivers and streams of the Blue Ridge. “I live five miles from a delayed harvest section and try to end my days with a ‘happy hour’ session. On the weekends, you can find me in Western North Carolina. I prefer fishing for wild trout in areas around the Blue Ridge Parkway, but if I’m looking for big ole’ stocker trout, you may see me on the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee, the Watauga River, the Davidson or the East and North Forks of the French Broad.”
She advises other would-be female anglers to stick with the sport, even if barriers to entry like expensive gear and the long learning curve get in the way.
“Fly fishing takes patience, and the more you do it, the better you get. It’s an expensive sport, so borrow or rent gear in the beginning until you know it’s what you want to do for years to come. If you can, try to get into a women’s flyfishing group around your area.
If you are in Western North Carolina, look up Headwaters Outfitters, advises Katie. The owner, Jessica, is dedicated to helping female angler newbies feel more comfortable with the sport, and she offers a women’s retreat every spring. “I’ll be there this year and would love to help any and all women interested in fly fishing.”
Fly Fishing Guide, Blue Ridge Fly Fishing, Blue Ridge, Georgia
Cassie Spurling began fly fishing at age five in the mountains of North Georgia, which she still calls home today. Under the tutelage of her father, she learned the ins and outs of what would one day become a full-time obsession.
“My father is one of the most impactful inspirations I’ve had in my flyfishing journey,” Spurling says. “I remember being frustrated when I was first learning as I watched him effortlessly present a fly to unsuspecting trout. I wanted to cast as well as him.”
“As I got older, I had the opportunity to guide in North Georgia, which broadened my knowledge and perspective of fly fishing even more,” she said. “I love sharing my passion with others and cherish the ability to teach the sport that has become such a huge part of my life. There is nothing like getting a client on their first fish and seeing the excitement and joy in their eyes.”
Editor in Chief, Dun Magazine, Dover, Tennessee
Jen Ripple learned to to fly fish on the banks of the Huron River not far from the campus of the University of Michigan, her employer at the time.
“I was bored and looking for some entertainment when I saw that a fly tying class was being taught at a local fly shop.”
Before long, Jen was obsessed.
“That spring, as soon as the ice melted on the Huron, I spent countless hours on the river fishing for smallmouth bass. I didn’t realize until two years later that I was ‘supposed’ to be fishing for trout with my fly rod.”
A few years later, when Ripple left Ann Arbor for Chicago, she immediately got involved with a fly tying class at a local rod builder and fly shop in the city.
“There was a new Midwestern fly fishing magazine at that time and the editor was teaching my tying class,” Ripple says. “He knew I could write, and asked if I would be interested in writing a women’s column for his magazine, A Tight Loop.”
She continued to write the column for about three months but eventually grew restless.
“At that point I really felt like I wanted to write for a women’s magazine, but I was shocked to learn that there wasn’t one. So I decided to approach my editor about starting my own.”
From that conversation, Dun Magazine—a publication that showcases female anglers from around the globe—was born.
Now Jen does work for Dun from her home base in Dover, Tennessee where her backyard is adjacent to 178,000 acres of public land known as the Land Between the Lakes.
“My favorite fishing spots around here are located in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, where I fish predominantly for largemouth bass and crappie. The area is a hot spot for traditional bass tournaments, so it’s fun to see the look on people’s faces when I start catching giant largemouth on the fly from the comfort of my drift boat.”
Fly Fishing Guide, Headwaters Outfitters, Brevard, North Carolina
You may know Abbi Bagwell from her popular series, #somestreamerchick, where she demonstrates the finer points of fishing with a category of flies known as streamers.
Like Cahn, Abbi grew up fishing, but she didn’t begin swinging a fly until later in life.
“It wasn’t until I graduated from Brevard College that I would find my passion and love for fly fishing,” she said. She landed a job with Flymen Fishing Company, a company that manufactures fly tying materials.
“Quickly after joining the company, local fly shops and guides took me under their wings and taught me as much as they could about the sport,” she said. “I received casting classes, ‘work days’ on the water, tying instruction and a crash course in the art of knots. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this would be something I would enjoy for the rest of my life.”
While she loves fly fishing and devotes much of her life to it, Abbi is well aware of the challenges female anglers face, particularly when breaking into the sport for the first time. She says her father was her biggest inspiration for overcoming these hurdles.
“In a male-dominated industry, it can be quite intimidating for a woman to go out on her own and fly fish, to walk into a fly shop and buy flies, and to go to fly fishing events and discuss experiences. If it weren’t for him, I would not have had the confidence to do these things, and I wouldn’t be the fly fisherwoman that I am today.”
Today, Abbi is guiding for Headwaters Outfitters in Rosman, North Carolina.
Guide and Owner, Ms. Guided Fly Fishing, Falls Church, Virginia
A resident of Falls Church, Virginia, Kathleen ‘Kiki’ Galvin has been fishing for over 50 years.
“I grew up near the Finger Lakes region of New York State and first wet a line on Keuka Lake at the tender age of 5,” Kiki said. “In those days I had nothing more than a Zebco rod with a bobber and a live worm, but after that first fish I was hooked.”
Her fondness for fly fishing emerged in 1996 when she enrolled in a one-day course in Leesburg, Virginia.
Since then she’s gone on to become a reputable Virginia fly fishing guide, with her own outfitting service called Ms. Guided Fly Fishing. She also volunteers for Project Healing Waters and Casting for Recovery and serves as the Vice President of her local Trout Unlimited Chapter.
“Wanting to share my passion with others, I had the opportunity to attend guide school in 2002 and eventually returned home to begin my guiding business,” Galvin said. “My goal has always been to show others what they achieve with a fly rod in hand. I consider myself a teacher and strive to be the best angler, guide and volunteer I can be.”
According to Kiki, right now is one of the best times to be a female in the fly fishing industry.
“Being a female in the industry at this particular time has been exciting and very rewarding. There are so many of us out there, supporting each other, sharing new ideas and just generally passing on our love for the sport.”
When introducing new clients to the sport of fly fishing, Kiki likes to employ a technique known as Tenkara. Tenkara, which originated in Japan, employs a much simpler and more approachable method involving only a rod, line and a single fly. The minimal nature of Tenkara makes it a perfect alternative for the type of small, rhododendron-choked streams that Galvin fishes with regularity.
“Tenkara is a great way for women as well as children to be introduced to the sport,” she said. “It eliminates much of the line management skills you have to have in many situations, and you can cast and achieve a drag-free drift very quickly. The simplicity allows a complete beginner to get out the on the water much quicker than a conventional fly fishing system.”
Fly Fishing Guide, Brookings Anglers, Cashiers, North Carolina
Simons Welter—a resident of Spartanburg, South Carolina—has been enamored with the sport of fly fishing for over twelve years.
“The late Spider Littleton, the longtime owner of the now defunct DK Littleton Outfitters in Greenville, taught me how to fly fish, and he was my first and probably biggest inspiration,” Simons says. “He always said women were better fishermen and was extremely encouraging.”
When she’s not guiding for Brookings, Simons spends much of her spare time mining the rivers and streams of Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina for wily brook, brown, and rainbow trout.
“Most of the streams I fish are in the mountains of North Carolina, south of Asheville,” Simons says. “It’s just a fact there are loads more trout streams there than in the Upstate. Stocked streams like the Tuckasegee, the East Fork of the French Broad, and the Little River are great, but, for me, nothing beats a good hike into a small wild stream where you’re not likely to see another soul, a trophy trout is twelve inches long and you have to bushwhack your way around at least one waterfall.”
She says that, while breaking into the fly fishing world as a female was challenging at times, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.
“Over the years, I have definitely had mixed reactions to my chosen sport, but by and large the greatest response has been a positive one. Many times I’ve heard the comment from male anglers, ‘I wish my wife would get into fly fishing.’ Or, ‘You fly fish? That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.’
She admits that there have been the occasional tough guys who will always be members of the He-Man Woman Haters Club, but they have been very rare. “I love it when I’m introduced to a client, and the expression on his face says, ‘THIS is my guide?’ But, long before the end of the day, his expression changes to, ‘THIS is my guide!'”
Simons is a 12-year member of the Mountain Bridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited and sits on the Board of Directors for Casting Carolinas, an organization that combines fly fishing instruction and free retreats with medical education and support for women surviving cancer.
Beyond the Blue Ridge
Hilary Hutcheson likes to tell people that she’s a product of the National Park Service.
Growing up in government housing near the west entrance of Montana’s Glacier National Park, where her father worked as a ranger for the NPS, Hilary was afforded opportunities to interact with the natural world that most kids only dream of.
“When we started to go to rivers fly fishing at an early age, we would float Lower McDonald Creek or the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and hitch-hike back,” said Hutcheson, who began fly fishing in the seventh grade. “I think we felt like we were rebellious, kinda like going to the skatepark or something.”
By age fourteen, Hilary had landed a gig with Glacier Angler in her home town of West Glacier, Montana, and by 17 she was guiding fly fishing excursions.
After high school she left Glacier to attend the college in Missoula where she continued guiding while earning a degree in broadcast journalism on the side. The degree lead to a television news anchor position in Missoula and then to one in Portland, Oregon, before the world famous rivers of the Treasure State beckoned her home again.
Once back in Montana, she worked to create an outdoor marketing firm, Outside Media, and a network television show called Trout TV, which she now hosts.
Born and raised in the shadow of the Northern Rockies in Chilliwack, British Columbia, April Vokey has been fishing in one capacity or another for most of her life.
“I think it was the sheer excitement of being outdoors that drew me to fishing in general,” April says. “I’ve always loved water— creeks, rivers, lakes, the ocean, rain—all of it, but I loved the trees and mossy forest bottom just as much.”
It was an excitement that would eventually lead her to discover fly fishing, particularly the variety that involves spey casting to giant Steelhead in the waters of British Columbia, at the early age of 18.
“I was a menace out there,” Vokey said of her earliest fly fishing expeditions. “But I spent my nights watching instructional VHS tapes about how to cast, and eventually my flailing started to look alright.”
By the age of 23, she would own her own guiding service specializing in Steelhead trips on B.C.’s famed Skeena River, and in 2011 April joined the Patagonia ambassador team, where she now assists in the design and direction of an upcoming women’s line of fishing apparel.
“It has always been a shame to me that fly fishing is perceived as a man’s sport. There is truly nothing overly masculine about it,” she said in a 2012 Q & A with Fly Life Magazine.
“Fly fishing requires finesse, timing, passion, excitement, intrigue and dedication—descriptives that are not sole features of either gender. I urge women who have not given this sport a try to skip their next yoga class or hike. Tranquility or excitement, whatever it is that you’re looking for, why not follow Mother Nature to the river to find it?”
Today April hosts a popular fly fishing podcast called Anchored with April Vokey where she interviews some of the most influential people in the fly fishing game. In a recent episode of her podcast, April sat down with fly fishing legend and pioneer Joan Wulff to bring the female fly fishing revolution full circle.
Wulff launched the female fishing revolution over 70 years ago, and now it’s innovative industry leaders like April Vokey who are inspiring a new generation of women to wade out into new waters.