A river runs through it - and not for Men-only

August 08, 1994|By New York Times News Service

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. -- By 10 o'clock the sun was already high and strong over the Snake River, and the sky stretched big and blue for miles.

A band of 12 women clomped along a gravelly stretch of river bank in neoprene waders and hip boots. They carried 9-foot fly rods, holding them upright like spears. Hooked onto their khaki vests were clusters of bugs fashioned from deer and moose hairs and chicken feathers.

Mary Joe McCracken, a personnel manager from Santa Barbara, Calif., looked dazed. "I have never held a fly rod before," she said. "I have no idea what I'm doing."

She and the others had come to Jackson Hole for a two-day class to find out what to do. They were about to climb down the jagged gray rocks of the steep river bank, walk into the clear, rushing water and discover a joy of life that for five centuries has almost exclusively been a male preserve: the sport of fly-fishing.

Women are taking up fly-fishing in record numbers, and the sport will never look the same again: waders, traditionally a drab green, now come in pink and purple.

"There is an explosion of interest among women that's taken off in the last two years," said Margot Page, the editor of the American Fly Fisher, the quarterly journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vt. "Many men fish to get away from women, but now they have to accept the galling reality that they can't escape."

Thanks largely to the success of the 1992 film "A River Runs Through It," fly-fishing is more popular than ever with both sexes. But there is some surprising news for men: Much of the fly-fishing world no longer calls them "fishermen."

Orvis Co., the country's best-known manufacturer of fly-fishing tackle, uses "fly fisher" to describe a human being who casts an artificial insect on the end of a 90-foot line high into the air and gently lands it in a river, ideally in the path of a hungry, gullible trout.

"We are doing everything we can to portray the sport as equally suitable for both men and women," said Perk Perkins, Orvis' president and chief executive, who estimated that women, while still a "small percentage" of his company's $115-million-a-year business, would account for at least 20 percent in the next couple of years.

Other manufacturers and editors of fishing magazines have come up with their own sex-neutral replacements: angler, fly caster, fly rodder, fly fisherperson.

Some women in the sport say that fishing for words is pointless. "Just call me a fisherman; we all know what that is," said Joan Wulff, the teacher, author and former fly-casting champion.

There are no firm statistics on the number of women who have taken up fly-fishing, but anecdotal evidence of their presence is abundant.

Manufacturers are making waders, vests, boots and clothing for women, who until recently had no choice but to wear uncomfortable, too-large gear tailored for men. Fly-fishing schools report growing attendance by women and say their women-only classes are sold out.

"Fly shops used to be a man's world, and women were not welcome," said Janet Downey, the president of Angler's Expressions, a maker of gifts with fishing themes in Boise, Idaho. "A lot has changed."

The women's class here was sponsored by Orvis, which also holds classes for women in Manchester and in the Catskills. The dozen students each paid $350 and ranged in age from the early 20s to late 50s and came from eight states. Among them were small-business owners, corporate managers and a doctor. Several were novices; others had tried fly-fishing before, briefly.

While some women reeled in trout -- which they quickly released in compliance with local conservation practice -- the entire group quickly learned that there was more to fly-fishing than catching fish.

Fishing experts also cite the growing interest in the environment and ecology as reasons why more people are attracted to the sport. "Fly-fishing takes you to beautiful places, in clean water, and you connect with the natural world in a way that is magical," said Mrs. Wulff.

It is a sport that does not require brute strength. "To succeed in fly-fishing, you need balance, grace and smarts," said Silvio Calabi, the editor in chief of Fly Rod and Reel Magazine. "It is ideal for women."

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