When I started fishing by myself, my dad gave me a can of bear spray. I laughed, thinking he was showing a little too much concern over an animal that had no great presence in my area of the world.
Stone-faced, he said, “It’s not for bears.”
“The best kind of friendships are fierce lady friendships where you aggressively believe in each other, defend each other, and think the other deserves the world.”
Over the years, I have never had to use said bear spray, but its presence on my wading belt has comforted me on occasion. There was the time when I lost a fish after a stranger I was unaware of shouted “Set the hook!” while standing 10 feet behind me. Or the time I was not-so-quietly follow around the lake by another stranger running commentary on the quality of my casts. And then there was the time a stranger proposed to me after learning I was fishing alone, and was not already spoken for. I’m obviously not going to whip out the whoop-ass on these well-intentioned gentlemen, but being a petite, young woman out in the wilderness comes with the need to protect oneself should any of those situations go south.
In an attempt to gain some solidarity after these experiences unfolded, I asked women on a local forum to share their experiences and suggestions. Women of all ages, from all over the globe, chimed in on the discussion. Some had just recently picked up a fly rod for the first time, others have been guides for decades. I got several responses from women with eerily similar stories.
Overall, I got much less solidarity than I expected.
Many of the messages came from women who just wanted to thank the men who taught them to fish and the men who continue to treat them as equals on the water.
How do we, the entire community of fly fishing men and women, reduce the need for bear spray’s alternative uses? The resounding message that women want to convey is that we aren’t a novelty. We aren’t asking to be treated like something special. We expect to fish in peace, just like you. We also expect that our personal safety not be at risk. Assume that we, too, grew up with a rod in our hands. Let us cast without correction or commentary. And when you see another man diverging from this path of mutual respect, help him get back on the right track.
I love the way Averi Wratney of North Umpqua, Oregon put it. “Thank you, but it’s not necessary for you to hold the door to fly fishing open for me - just a polite nod and some room for my backcast please.”
Ladies, get out there and show them we are a force of nature, and we have every right to be out on the water with the best of them. Demonstrate the kind of respectful behavior you expect from the men. Thank the ones who brought you into the world of fly fishing. We are agents of our own safety, and it is ok to educate others on what we need to feel safe and respected.
The day will come when I ask the same question to a group of women and am met with blank stares like I’m an idiot. In hindsight, some of my stories of unsettling run-ins with strangers are humorous, but I look forward to the day there are no stories to tell in the first place. It will happen. I know this because there are some seriously feisty men and women out there who will make it happen. There are so many men in our community who are remarkably powerful allies for women on the water. We have grandpas, dads, uncles, partners, brothers, and friends who regard us as the equal anglers that we are. And, we are so lucky for that.
We love you guys.