Women in wading: One weekend at an exclusive fly-fishing camp
When she signed up for a women's fly-fishing camp, Louise Wilson had never cast a fly rod. Neither had her husband. "He's actually allergic to fish," she said, sipping coffee before pulling on waders and stepping into Colorado's Tarryall Creek. In 32 years of marriage, this was her first vacation without him, a solo trip to the Broadmoor Fly Fishing Camp, a rustic-luxury outpost of the upscale Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, not far from her home in Denver.
Wilson was part of a small group of women who came from as far as Florida and Oregon to attend "These Boots are Made for Wading," a new Broadmoor event aimed at making fly-fishing more accessible to women. It's indicative of a growing trend: While fly-fishing has traditionally been a male-dominated sport, women are its fastest-growing demographic, representing 31 percent of all American fly fishers, according to the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. The industry has responded with an explosion of programs, classes and gear designed for female anglers.
On this bright July weekend, several of the women had never wet a fly line. Others knew a blood knot from a surgeon's knot. Some wanted an outdoor getaway. Others wanted to learn a highly technical sport from top-notch guides in a pristine watershed. "My story is different from everyone else here," Wilson said. "I had some very specific goals."
Goal No. 1: a serene retreat from an intense job. An HR manager, Wilson loved her work, but needed a chance to recharge. Goal No. 2: Find a way to connect with her 23-year-old son, an avid fly fisher deployed to Iraq. The crew chief of a medevac Black Hawk helicopter, he picks up injured soldiers. Describing him, Wilson's voice splinters. "My youngest boy," she said. "His unit has flown 350 missions. We hear from him sporadically. Sometimes it's hard to sleep." She found fly-fishing through a Google search: peaceful trips for stressed-out people.
"I want to catch a fish and drink a little scotch," Wilson wrote in her pre-trip survey. But it was more than that. "For me this weekend is about being grounded, finding some peace, and learning a skill for a moment we can have when he returns."
The weekend began with trying on waders.
"It's kind of like putting on pantyhose," said Sandi Roberts, a fishing guide and professional angler. She was trying to help Ginnie McIntyre, a newbie who had been told by her friend to "jump around in them," like putting on skinny jeans. Dr. Suzie King (an experienced angler and a prankster) laughed and took a video. (Backstory: On another trip 15 years ago, the night before a triathlon, McIntyre secretly swapped their timing chips as a prank. King did not find it as funny as McIntyre did. "She was probably getting me back for that one," McIntyre said.)
This was the latest iteration of trips they had been going on for years, watering a friendship born in first grade. "We live on opposite coasts, and I have three kids," said McIntyre, who has dual degrees in medicine and law and calls herself an "overeducated mother of three." She lives in Seattle. King, a retired optometrist, still lives in South Florida, where they met. Raised on the drama of saltwater fishing for mahi-mahi, snapper and wahoo, King later discovered the subtle intimacy of fly-fishing in cool mountain streams. Fishing wasn't McIntyre's jam, but she was up for a new adventure.
They stumbled upon the Colorado retreat while searching for a fun and active place to meet halfway between Florida and Washington state. The fact that it was an all-women affair was "just a happy coincidence," King said, but not necessarily a selling point. "I'm a little wary of women's events as dumbed-down versions of what men get." She didn't want to take classes or be herded around on schedule. "I just wanted to stand in a river."
That first day, as the Tarryall flowed around her, King hooked into a dozen trout and brought in four. There was a big one, but it broke the line. Her guide was more disappointed than she was. "Fly-fishing can be meditative. It's a very Zen sport," she said. "I go fishing. I think guys go catching. If it's a good day, and they're not biting, what am I going to be mad about? I can come in and still feel like I had a lovely day."
McIntyre fished on another stretch of the river with a guide of her own. She had fished before, but never fly-fished, and despite overly enthusiastic hook-sets that landed a fly or two in the trees, she landed some lovely fish. "They were all small, but I didn't really care," she said. "It was just fun being out there in the beautiful mountains, the running water."
This fishing-not-catching mentality may not be exclusive to women, but it arose again and again in conversations over wine and scotch on the porch and dinners of cedar-planked salmon. Even Sandi Roberts, a rare fly-fishing guide who also wields a spinning rod in pro bass tournaments, said, "We're not so worried about the fish we're catching. On the river, it's about being together and having fun."
Maybe being in the water -- not on it -- is the difference. "When you're bass fishing, you're surrounded by the environment," Roberts said. "You're part of the environment when you fly-fish. The birds singing, the river flowing, the trees moving -- there's a hypnotic thing that you won't experience with any other kind of fishing."
While McIntyre and King focused their time on fishing, Wilson worked her way down the a la carte options: casting lessons, a fly-tying workshop, a stream-side entomology class hosted by a Ph.D who turned over river rocks to identify emerging caddis, stoneflies and mayflies -- the aquatic critters that trout eat (and fly tiers emulate).
Wilson missed a few fish and caught a few trees. But she also caught herself slowing down. Not looking at her phone. "I was surprised that it was so easy for me to decompress," she said. "I thought it would be quite hard for me to put the phone away. I'd wake up in the morning and read my book, do my thing." And then she'd head down to the river, let her line unfurl with a newfound hope. "I feel energized," she said on the final day. "I feel happy."
She also achieved her other goal: sharing her youngest son's passion. She hasn't told him, yet, that she's become a fly fisher. It's her secret, his surprise. He's due home soon. Maybe Thanksgiving. "I'll tell him when he gets back," she said. "When he comes home, we're going fishing."
Kim Cross is the New York Times best-selling author of "What Stands in a Storm." Find her on Instagram at @kimhcross and share your latest catch.