Fly fishing is the oldest method of recreational angling dating as far back as 200 CE in Macedonia, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The first literary references to the sport date back to 15th and 16th century Europe. Since then, this outdoor pastime has continued to evolve, and what was once a male-dominated activity has been widely adopted by water-loving women across the globe.
Jenny O'Brien, the co-founder of Bend's own Central Oregon Lady Anglers, and Susan Coyle, president of Wild Women of the Water, have been fly fishing for the majority of their lives. Both women are dedicated to bringing the joys of fly fishing – and the importance of protecting local waterways – to like-minded women across the state.
"I grew up in a family of anglers," O'Brien explained. "My father and my grandfather are both total junkies for all things outdoors and for everything fly fishing-related. If I wanted to be included when I was growing up, I kind of just had to tag along, so I was thrown into the fire from a young age. I caught my first trout when I was 6, and I started fly fishing when I was 14."
O'Brien said that a lack of female-driven fishing groups in Oregon inspired the development of COLA. "One day I was thinking to myself, you know, there needs to be an organization here that caters to creating a welcoming social environment for more women to meet and get into the water together. At that point I didn't know that Wild Women of the Water existed, but now we work really closely with that awesome group of ladies. In 2019, we had a big collaborative event; we hosted an entire day of fly fishing instruction. There were over 20 women in attendance, and I still see a lot of them out on the water which is really rewarding."
“For me, it’s a Zen-like experience, a time of deep contemplation and inward focus. Being out in nature and feeling that you are a part of nature is just wonderful.”—Susan Coyle
Susan Coyle, president of WWW (a branch of Central Oregon Flyfishers), recalled that her long-standing love of fishing led to her involvement in the female-founded organization.
"I always loved being on the water," she said. "I got into fly fishing 15 or 20 years ago, specifically because of my son. He picked it up while he was away at university. He came home and said, 'Mom, you're really gonna like this.' So, I joined the Long Beach Casting Club in Southern California. When I moved to Oregon, I joined the Central Oregon Flyfishers. About 10 or 15 years ago a small group of gals founded WWW. There were only three to four members at first; now we have over 100 members throughout Central Oregon."
Coyle addressed the importance of creating a safe space for women to gather together and fish their hearts out. "Women are the fastest growing segment in the sport of fishing," she explained.
Woman make up 31% of the 6.5 million Americans that fly fish, according to a 2017 study by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation.
"It's considered to be such a male-dominated sport, but there's a long history of female fly fishers. The industry itself has really evolved as well. Historically, when women involved in the sport needed to shop for gear, they had limited options. The industry had gear designed by men for men, and they just slapped some pink on it for the ladies. We still have a ways to go, but progress has certainly been made. There are now women's fly clubs across the nation. Being surrounded by women and being taught by women creates a completely different atmosphere."
"The goal is to get women together on the water in an environment that isn't intimidating," O'Brien added. "We want to make the sport as accessible as possible. There's no formal membership, no dues; we welcome women of all ages and abilities who are interested in fishing and in doing things for local waterways from a conservation perspective. Our hope is for women to forge friendships, support local fly shops and fall in love with fly fishing. It's more than a sport; it helps breed awareness of environmental issues that our local waterways are facing. We want to encourage people to start taking action to protect them."
Both women touched on the vital role that local fly shops play in the success of their individual organizations. "We strive to develop and maintain relationships with these shops," O'Brien said. "We want to try and guide business towards local shops and away from big box stores. We're so lucky to have so many local experts."
Coyle added, "We have about six or seven local fly shops that have actively gone out of their way to support women fly fishers. We do a 'Fly Shop Hop,' where we go to a different fly shop every month and the owners teach us about a different subject. They stay open after hours so women can shop and mingle." These events are open to members of WWW and COLA.
The number of annual events has been greatly impacted by COVID-19 related restrictions – but both organizations have been adapting to the best of their ability.
"We try to hold at least six events a year," said O'Brien. "But all of the events are in-person, so we've had to table everything for the time being. We do have some virtual events in the works, and we've been sharing the virtual events being held by similar organizations on our social media pages."
Some of these virtual events include those hosted by WWW. "When not under COVID restrictions we do regular happy hours," said Coyle. "We're holding virtual happy hours and virtual educational groups."
Coyle concluded that although restrictions are in place, fly fishing is a safe sport for people to practice individually or with their loved ones. "It's a family sport, a generational sport. It's really an incredible way to connect with others and with yourself. For me, it's a Zen-like experience, a time of deep contemplation and inward focus. I'm able to focus on and process deep interior things that are going on. Being out in nature and feeling that you are a part of nature is just wonderful. Not to mention, the kind of folks you meet fly fishing are really amazing. They come from all backgrounds, and it's really astounding the variety of people you have that are all connecting over the sport of fishing."