Diversity Will Grow Fly Fishing

Fly fishing, like a great many other sports has long been elite, predominantly enjoyed by white men, middle to upper class folk, who have the wherewithal to travel to remote places where trout live and afford the many items of gear necessary to experience the sport.

According to the 2016 Outdoor Recreation Participation Summary report published by the Outdoor Foundation (an nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association), fly fishing was enjoyed by a little over 6 million people in 2015. In general that number has not changed for the last ten years and there has been only a .5% change in the last three years. The 2015 Special Report on Fishing further shows that 3.6 million fly fish in freshwater. That’s not a lot of anglers compared to the 40 million other Americans, or 15.8 percent of the U.S. population ages six and older, who participated in fishing in 2014. That’s just 9%.

But while the overall numbers of fly anglers can seem static, the group is not monolithic and its in flux. In 2014, about 13% of fly anglers where new to the sport. Precisely one third of fly anglers were women, and African Americans and Hispanics were just over one fifth of fly anglers (about 10.5% each respectively). Of course, if your a member of the IFF or TU, two organizations that draw heavily from the core of fly anglers for members, you might not see the diversity reflected. If you don’t fly fish that often, or travel often to fly fish, you might not see that diversity. But you don’t have to look far. There are now over two dozen women’s fly fishing groups, the most popular have hundreds of members. TU also has a thriving women’s initiative aimed at recruiting and engaging more women members -not all, but many who fly fish or want to learn.

And increasingly, women and people of color can be seen on the water, both as anglers and guides. They are typically younger and as such are more likely to engage in different mediums than the previous generation of mostly white anglers – instead of subscribing to American Angler they are following dozens of their peers on Instagram. And that’s not to say they aren’t following fly fishing’s icons (predominantly white men) – pick one – McGuane, Gierach, Apte – but they are also watching videos by like Through the Guides, featuring well-known guides Alvin Dedeaux or Hilary Hutcheson (who is also the co-owner and host of the largest cable fly fishing show, TROUT TV).

If you go to the Somerset Fly Fishing Show in New Jersey, its noticeable how diverse the crowd has become. Saltwater fly fishing is attracting Hispanic and latino anglers who are reflecting their unique stamp on the culture back through video and social media content – DJ Dan Decibel’s films come to mind of young latinos fly fishing for peacock bass and tarpon around southern Florida. And then there’s Chad Brown, owner of Soul River Runs Deep fly shop in Portland Oregon and charismatic veteran, teacher and fly fishing guide – if you’re an outdoor enthusiast and you haven’t heard of his groundbreaking work with veterans and inner city youth (predominantly people of color) then you really aren’t following the fly fishing culture.

Many new brands are lowing the cost and barrier to entry while not sacrificing the performance necessary to enjoy the sport – Redington, Rise, Tenkara USA and TFO come to mind. Wal-mart is selling fly rods! Orvis has created an indispensible online library of fly fishing instruction and offers free classes to anyone in most of their locations. And of course the target species has also diversified – bass, carp, and other “rough” fish are now worthy targets on the fly thanks to a new generation of anglers (still mostly white) but younger and less tied to the traditions, who just believe the tug is the drug – any tug.

Still, it comes as no surprise that like golf, surfing, even hunting, there is a reaction to the change in the sport, who shows up in the locker room (or on the river) and the fact that it isn’t a sport of priviliedge any longer. The same social media and online tools that democratize the experience of the sport, can be used to flail against the change. Such is the case last week when Chad Brown received a nasty Facebook post, racist and ignorant, railing against black people entering the sport. Chad shared it widely and the community – every part of the community – women, men, young, old, black, white, brown, guide, outfitter, business owner – rallied behind Chad to shout down the prejudice. Frankly, I think it was a turning point in our sport. As a highly positioned person of color in the industry (I’m CMO of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation nonprofit) and often time the only African American in the room at fly fishing events, or on the water, I can sometimes sense the unsaid statement – “this guy is evidence that my sport is changing and I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

Well, I could just say, “get over it, the world has changed.” The U.S. electorate this year will be the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse ever according to Pew Research. Nearly one-in-three eligible voters on Election Day (31%) will be Hispanic, black, Asian or another racial or ethnic minority, up from 29% in 2012. By around 2020, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group,” the Census Bureau says. Minorities will be 56% of all Americans by 2060 at the current pace.

But simply dismissing ignorance with facts is not enough. Considering that growth in fly fishing is stagnant, I would offer that the future to the sport lies with diverse anglers. So it was heartening to see the fly angling community leap to Chad’s defense. Someone was eventually going to react (and ignorantly) to the inevitability of the changes that are symptomatic of the shift in the demographics of the US. The outdoor community in general suffers from a diversity problem, but there is no shortage of good will to see it change, but change has been slow. These outbursts, attacks and temper tantrums against change (and there will be more) give us an opportunity to voice our own thoughts about how much we love fly fishing and for so many reasons, why we want to share it with the next generation, no matter who they are, the color of their skin, or the gender they identify with. These moments also give us a chance to ask ourselves – what am I doing to give others – everyone – the chance to experience this fun and positive connection to nature? Finally, and not the least of reasons we must come together to help bring more diverse people the joy of fishing, is that it can lead to an equal passion and commitment to conservation of our beloved outdoors.

Everyday I do my part as a member and lead marketer at TU (I recently initiated a grant to increase women’s representation in fly fishing films with partners Orvis, Costa and the Fly Fishing Film Tour). I also teach and guide just a bit when asked by nice people. I got my brother and his buddies into the sport – they’re Japanese American, African American. I think the key to this – is to spot an opportunity with one thought in mind, if you don’t teach others to take it up, then you well, you’re just using the resource for own pleasure, and really that’s not at all what fly fishing is about.

 

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Gunpowder On My Own Flies

I got out on the Gunpower River on Friday before the real cold weather, wind and snow came in this weekend. It was a balmy 40 degrees but there were at least six or seven other guys on the water. The river was high, at nearly 300 CFS and Backwater Angler suggested using streamers between York and Falls Road. I brought along a few black and green wooly buggers that I tied myself (yep, I’m finally tying my own flies), and with a double streamer rig got into some nice wild brown trout in the riffles. I would cast up stream and across and let the fly swing down and strip back in upstream toward me along the seams.

It was a real pleasure catching trout on flies I tied myself. The trout weren’t large, but then they never seem to be in the GP. In fact, I wonder if there’s any sizeable fish in there at all sometimes. Fish over 13 for 14″ are rarely reported. If any of my MD readers have an idea why leave a comment and share your thoughts. Maybe the big ones are all nocturnal due to the pressure? The Gunpowder Riverkeeper, Theaux M. Le Gardeur,  has a great year end review on the Backwater Angler blog if you’re interested in the activities taken this year to protect the river and its ecology.

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Catfish On the Fly

I guess the fact that my new office is on the Potomac river is having an effect on me. I walk out for a cup of coffee and I see the river. I glance out the window during a meeting, and I see the river. And on some occasions, I see the big splashes of predators chasing gizzard shad, herring and minnows that skip across the surface. So a couple weeks ago…I finally took the short drive up to Fletcher’s Cove after work and fly fished from about 7pm til sunset.

I took a long walk upstream, maybe half a mile until the trail faded away forcing me to bushwhack to rocky outcroppings. Because the tide was low and the weather hot, I waded to the farthest points where I could cast into the deepest currents with a red and white clouser. I waited upwards of a minute as the fly sunk and then started stripping it back in. I had only one major hit in two hours, but when it came, it was a slammer. It took a moment to determine if it was a snag, but when the rod started to bounce, I got excited. I thought it was a big bluefish or a resident striper. Man was I surprised by the +25″ blue cat ( Ictalurus furcatus) that bent my 8 wt rod over like a twig. My first cat, nice! I lipped him with the boga, removed the fly and sent him back on his way. I’m thinking on my next trip I’ll rent a canoe and head up even further to the falls so I can find some smallies. No offense to the blue catfish, of course.

North Fork Shenandoah




This weekend’s trip to the Shenandoah River’s North Fork is going on my top ten best fly fishing trips list. Not because of the unbelievably beautiful scenery. Not because of the abundance of smallmouth, fallfish and bluegill eager to take a popper. Not because the weather held for three days. No, this trip to the Shenandoah’s North Fork was about the blessing of brotherhood.

I stood in the crystal clear waters as the stargrass weaved back and forth in the current and watched the damselflies getting crushed by bluegills the size of my fist, aggressive and leaping fully out of the air. In front of me lay a great green expanse of pastureland and then abruptly, mountains covered in thick forests. The river was at the perfect flow for wading, sauntering between its banks. With me on the water were my brothers and father, Chris, Tim, Cliff and Rick. We fished the seams and fast current, the slack water and the overhangs. We cast poppers and roostertails, even neon green grubs. And we caught fish in honey holes that had us yelling out over a quarter mile where we were spread out, “fish on!” When we retired back to the farmhouse overlooking the river, we returned to our spouses and children with smiles and sore arms, and new memories of our time together on the water. Over the course of the next three days, we found opportunities to step away from the clamor of a boisterous laughter-filled family vacation, poker games and wrestling with the kids, to steal moments of solace in the river. Some of use cast flies, some spinnerbaits, but all of us had tight lines.

One night, as I came off the water, I found my nieces and nephews prepping a bonfire. I remarked, “It doesn’t get better than this.” My nephew Isaiah, proving the younger generation is indeed brighter than us remarked with such finality that it took me aback, “Yes, it does.” I paused and thought about it. I imagined one day standing the river, teaching my sons and daughters to fly fish, perhaps in these very same waters. I turned back to Isaiah and told him, “You’re right, it does.”

Worship on the Upper Delaware

I woke up two hours before my alarm was set to go off. The faint hint of dawn lay over the horizon, but slowly creeping through a crack in the window shade. The birds hadn’t even started to chirp. In the stillness before daybreak, I puzzled it out. Should I just bag it–skip the Upper Delaware and drive up to the Croton instead? Wouldn’t it be nice to just…sleep in and hit my homewater at a more reasonable hour? Wouldn’t it be easier to go get some guaranteed action instead of wandering around the East and West Branches of the Upper Delaware hoping I would stumble onto a hatch? I grunted, rolled over, scratched myself. No, no…it wouldn’t be easier. I’d lose the chance to visit the Delaware in exchange for a few measly minutes of comfort. That ain’t fly fishing, in fact, I grew angry that the immortal monster of laziness had dared raise its gnarly head in the midst of my new found religion. I pulled myself out of bed, kissed the wife goodbye and hit the road. Two days later, I found I had some familiar experiences, the frustration of poor casts and spooky trout, the feeling of ineptitude and inadequacy before Nature, but alas, I also felt the reward of courage, hard work, and penitence.

Thom McGuane writes, “the motto of every serious angler is, nearer my God to thee.” If this holds true, then my visit to the Upper Delaware was like visiting a cathedral, where one is surrounded by inordinate beauty and the sublime, but not always knowledgeable enough to decipher the signs embedded in every ritual, knave and stained glass window. Yet in the inspiring beauty, one senses great wisdom. I’ll admit, the first few hours I felt like a tourist, flogging water, missing the point. And then, as the afternoon swept into that dusky time of day’s end, I felt as if the Catskills sighed and took pity and sent along some help to this new congregant. I met Ron and Frank on the banks of the West Branch under a large lone olive tree on the Balls Eddy. Angling buddies since age 7, and frequent visitors to the river, they were happy to dole out some religion. First, they fished three times a week minimum, the wife would have to go… Second, I should have been here back in May (of course). We leaned back in the grass under the shade of the tree and talked flies, hatches, pools, and good times and bad times to fish the Upper. We shared pictures and jokes. Ron, a onetime player for the Mud Hens, gave me two beautiful Isos of his, and bade me cast to the large rising trout on the far bank. Unfortunately, the middle of the pool was deep and my cast too short. Another time then…

The next day I woke early to the sound of the Beaverkill gurling outside my window at the Roscoe Motel in said town. Too low and hot to fish, I sat in the swirl of fog at 6am and watched trout rise on the junction pool. After a quick retrieve of coffee the fog had lifted and the trout had already gone to seek cooler waters. I made my way back to the West Branch and summarily fished the junction pool of the east and west branch after a half-mile wade upstream from the public access in Hancock, but couldn’t get in place in time before thirty kayakers raced over the riffle and into the pool. I knew enough to reel up and wade back. I drove upstream and fished the Gamelands pools in perfect solitude–but lost my rod tip trekking down the path to the first pool and raised nothing with my backup rod on the second. I hiked to the bottom of the riffle of Ball Eddy and back–a real trudge upstream that wore my legs out. And somehow I climbed back onto the bank to marvel at the strength of the river at fairly low flows.

The riddle began to unfold. This river deserves time, serious time, far more than I had, I was saddened by the fact that I hadn’t given it more of mine when I had the chance, especially knowing I might not be back here for quite a while. And therein I found enlightenment from a lesson I already knew but had not heard in this particular language before. All good things come… Though I managed a few small wild browns in the end, the Upper taught me, reminded me, that I had to earn my knowledge. It could not simply be told in guidebooks, blogs and online forums, even great conversations streamside. Like attendance at any church, only through study and hours at prayer does one find revelation on the Upper Delaware, and all waters we seek to worship at.

Private Waters in the Blue Ridge

I was fortunate to be invited to fish some private waters recently in the Blue Ridge mountains of Georgia. On Memorial day, I got up early and left the suburban sprawl of Atlanta behind and drove about two hours north into the Chattahoochee National Forest, up into the Blue Ridge mountains, across the Appalachian Trail and down into the valley of the creek.

After getting some careful guidance on property lines from some local neighbors, I took a deep breath of mountain air, suited up and crept into the quiet river. It became obvious I wouldn’t see anyone else for several hours and so I just let my thoughts drift off and drank in the solitude of the waters. The flow was pretty low as summer was in full swing in the mountains and there was no visible hatch so after doing a little prospecting with a royal wulff, I quickly turned to my copper john and started searching for structure, holes at the bottom of riffles and deep bends. I was rewarded with several bows, about two every hour as I inched my way upstream, about 200-300 yards in about four hours.

Under one fallen log that stretched across the river, I pulled three bows that must have been stacked up taking nymphs as they rolled underneath it. I also caught the biggest chub of my life, easily 8″ long. However, the trout got progressively larger until I had a 15″ wild ‘bow to hand who I had to chase a bit farther down the pool and turn to keep him from going over the lip and into a riffle.

Further upstream, past a long meadow pool with high sides and undercut banks, I could have sworn I’d find a big trout lurking, but alas, they were all underneath a small dam that created highly oxygenated water and cover from the baby blue skies. A double nymph rig with an unweighted pheasant tail and a beadhead hare’s ear pulled three more ‘bows from below the rapid.

Finally, I wrapped up the day with the desperate need to take a ‘bow on the fly. I walked the entire length again scanning under every shadow, overhang and in every pool…surely by late afternoon there would be a hatch and a trout hanging out in the open. Even as late as six, there was still no hatch as I reached the very top of where I was allowed to cast a line. Swimming, all by his lonesome, was a trout above the dam, lazily taking midges from the surface. Just below him, a couple of suckers seemed to be following in his wake. I tied on a cahill, figuring that in the crystal clear water and bright sky, a light fly might be seen almost as an apparition, a ghost, to fool the trout. My fist cast was all that was needed. Landing about two feet to the right of the bow in a pile cast, the trout wandered over, wandered away, and thinking the better of it, wandered back and ate my fly. I could see the tips of his fins, white lined, a wild trout.  Ah…private waters.

Personal Best

I’m beat. I’m exhausted. My hand hurts, my eyes sting, my back is sore….

But yesterday I had the BEST day of fly fishing since I’d taken up the fly rod last May… I took the day off and hit a local river thinking there might be something happening given we’d had a couple of days of rain, 72 degree weather and the forest canopy was finally full… I headed for a particularly pressured stretch of water on a fork of a river that I had avoided all season.  I should have known it would be a special day when I bumped into some regulars from last season who gave me a nod, wink and smile. I walked up to a well-known challenging pool to see what could be seen. Suckers, carp, oh and rising browns…everywhere. I tied a pheasant tail nymph to a caddis as a dropper and on the second cast and I hooked into a 15″ holdover brown, my biggest from that pool so far. I was so surprised that I almost forgot how to play him in.

I thought it was a fluke until I bumped into another fellow angler whom I’d met last season who told me that he’d had some of the best fishing EVER on the this fork in the past week. The trout were fat and happy from the mild winter and there’s been some epic hatches to boot (caddis, BWO’s, sulphurs).  Seems the big reservoir browns moved in to eat the sucker and carp spawn as well (reservoirs gleam gold and silver, the holdovers are more buttery brown from a life in the river). He said he’d caught three 15″ fish on the previous night and broke off two… I thought, well, that’s HIM, he’s been fly fishing this river for 40 years, of course he gets the big ones…but maybe something was going on…

Then I moved out of the pool and upstream, to see, dozens of wild browns rising, no stockies–just clear bright scales, a full blood red adipose fin and tell tale white stripes on their anal fins. They were small, about 9-10″, but mixed in were some brutes. I spent an hour trying to raise a 18″ brown who was eating nymphs as he defended a depression bowl under the rocky tailout of a pool under a bridge. I threw everything at him until he finally started to rise to my parachute BWO which he finally ate on maybe the thirtieth cast. I was particularly pleased that he did so right in front of two other anglers too who were catching the smaller trout hand over fist… Unfortunately, after five minutes of playing him, and nearly falling in, I let too much slack and lowered my rod tip, and he broke off, but not before I felt a deep connection to him.

Happy, already satisfied to tell the truth, I decided to move up the river, past the bridge. I’ve had some luck in the eddies, nymphing, but in a particularly long run below a dam, I always got skunked, despite rises–or at least I did last season. This time, with much more confidence, I waded on in, right up the center, casting to the bubble line and up under trees near the banks, and immediately starting hooking-up with browns. I could see caddis popping off and sulphers struggling on the surface so I fished those, and alternated back and forth with a BWO and light cahill and caught a few 10″ers but as I moved upstream of the tailout, the fish got bigger.

I would catch a big 16 or 17″ fat brown on the rise, and then it would take several minutes to play him back downstream so he didn’t mess up the fishing upstream. I’d snap a pic and then wade back, this time just a little further than before, wait for another wave of the hatch and cast and hook up again. I did this about eight times, each time hooking up from about 5pm to 8pm. I landed six out of the eight and each was 15″+, most 17 or 18″, and bright with gleaming bronze colors, blood red spots and the tell-tale white anal fin markings of wild fish. A couple had a blue dot just behind their eye. One buttery brown just spazzed out on me completely and jumped once, twice, and then again. Another bull-dogged and just dove for the bottom like a ton of bricks. Each one was a different experience. A couple had lazy takes, others were ferocious rises and scared me half to death. I heard the famous toilet-bowl flush several times on the river. All up and down the run, the slap of rises and slurps of takes and flushes of big gulps was like a slow drumbeat that seemed to slow time, putting me in a trance.

In the fading light, I tied on a light cahill and as I waded back, casually tossed it at rises here and there–the fish were nosing it–and then one last ferocious take and I was hooked up again, with what I think was the biggest of the day. I could feel his mass below the water. My rod bent over immediately but before I could put a proper angle on it, I was so tired, I dropped the tip and the brown made a run which broke me off. I smiled and turned downstream to wade to the edge of the pool. As the sun set casting the river in deep shadow, I didn’t need to see any more trout come to hand today, I could hear them all around me, and that was more than enough.

Striper Season Has Begun

Striper season began on Monday. I’m an super-psyched to be going after stripers this year on the fly. I intend to hit Breezy Point for the first time this season, but this being Spring, there are alot of great things happening in the back bays where the striper spawn is on. The bait fish are in too–I spotted diving birds the other day crashing the shores bait balls right of the fisherman’s parking lot at Fort Tilden on Sunday.

A quick trip to Orchard Beach produced one of my biggest stripers on a fly in a rip current during the outgoing tide. I put the chartreuse over white clouser in the current and deaddrifted it out into the bay. I felt a heavy bump, gave a little mend to the line for that “life” like quality and then “wham” went the line. The next thing I know, it felt like a cinder block had taken my line. Pulling the striper out of the current, my 8 wt completely bent over and up came the striper to the surface. A few big tailslaps and I began to fight him to shore. What a rush. This schoolie was just shy of keeper length.