Slowly but surely, Colorado group growing women’s fly fishing

(Pikes Peak Women Anglers photo)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — From Skaguay Reservoir, the women with fly rods hike about two miles through the valley, following upstream to find their very own place.

Meet the Pikes Peak Women Anglers, the Colorado Springs group representing fly fishing’s under-represented gender.

Among American practitioners of the most specialized form of angling, nearly 70 percent are men, says the latest recreation participation study from the Outdoor Foundation. Women’s participation has remained stagnant over the past five years.

Local enthusiasts sense there’s a long way to go before reaching “50/50 on the water” by 2020 – a goal announced by Orvis, fly fishing’s leading retailer.

“It’s not close,” says Sharon Wright, known as the Fly Fishing Cowgirl at Angler’s Covey, where she works.

“A long ways away,” adds fellow guide Kristina Dougherty on the way to the stream.

If they sound hopeless, they’re not. On the contrary, they see progress; at least they’re not wearing men’s waders and boots as they did decades ago when they were teenagers growing interested in fly fishing at a time when the industry didn’t even make gear for them.

And at least today they have seven others with them – among the most dedicated Pikes Peak Women Anglers making these monthly trips. By organizing the group, Wright and Dougherty hope they’re advancing interest in the technical activity that they describe as therapeutic, an escape from the real world that women struggle in every day.

To them, it’s no wonder that Casting for Recovery, the Western-based nonprofit that introduces fly fishing to women with breast cancer, has grown. Another nonprofit, the Denver-based Colorado Woman Flyfishers, is celebrating 20 years of building camaraderie on the river.

That camaraderie is what the Springs’ Joan Bennett was searching for a few years ago after her husband died. She wanted to keep fishing, “but I wasn’t crazy about fishing alone,” she says. “I think a lot of women aren’t crazy about fishing by themselves.”

She found a local co-ed group but worried about the competition that men might bring. She found the Pikes Peak Women Anglers to be “extremely friendly and supportive,” she says as she rigs her line by the stream. “Everybody wants to help everybody else.”

In this group, no one keeps secrets about the flies they use. No spot is reserved, though it can be annoying when a man so casually enters their space.

“I’ve seen them kind of butt in because they feel like you’re just a woman, you’re not gonna catch that fish anyway,” says Deb Wetherbee, among those introduced to fly fishing through the group. “So they try to squeeze you out. Try to.”

Other men express how impressed they are – reactions that Wright and Dougherty don’t remember much from years ago. Still, those are surprised responses, and they are problematic.

However much it seemed the sport wasn’t meant for them, the two guides persisted on their career paths. The “intimidation factor” was there, Wright says. “The good ol’ boy mentality” was apparent to Dougherty, who would go into fly fishing shops with her dad and ask questions, only for the answers to be returned to her dad, as if she were invisible.

“I didn’t really care that it was male-dominated,” she says. “I was proud of that ponytail sticking out of my hat.”

She started going to Denver’s Fly Fishing Show and felt more inspired: “I’d look around, and there wasn’t a lot of women around, so I thought I could throw my hat in the ring.”

She’s seen more women attend over the years, with the introduction of the women’s showcase. Still, she goes and wishes for more technical presentations. “It’s all still about being a woman in fly fishing or being safe on the river, which is good, but …”

But she wants to be taken seriously. As does Jen Lofgren, who manages an Orvis store in Denver with 30 years as a guide and retailer. While the industry clearly is trying to draw women to fly fishing, she’s worried that the focus is on fashion more than function, perpetuating a stereotype.

“I don’t want a pink vest; I don’t want pink waders; I don’t need pink,” Lofgren says. “That to me sends a message that you don’t think I’m serious about what I’m doing.”

She recalls taking “lumps” on her climb through the guiding ranks. She was the only woman in her training class, and once hired, she saw more trips doled out to men – perhaps due to some perception that she wasn’t strong enough for the physical rigors of the backcountry.

“I don’t mean to sound like a victim or something,” Lofgren says. “It’s just something that, for some women, it’s taken time. I think that’s changed a lot.”

Still, Wright and Dougherty at Angler’s Covey meet male clients who appear crestfallen at the sight of them. Wright repeats the questions she’s heard: “Do you really know what you’re doing? Can you really get me onto a fish?”

And often the guides meet women who seek their tutelage because their husband, or boyfriend, does not fly fish – as if a man is the one to teach them. Wright and Dougherty are happy to do so, and they tell them to tag along with the Pikes Peak Women Anglers.

“It’s so great to see people become independent,” Wright says. “To see that light go on: ‘I can do it.”’

After a long wait at the stream, she hooks a brown trout – small, maybe 6 inches. “Needs to grow is all,” she says as she releases it. “A future champion.”

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