Every spring they rise – by the millions it seems – so many it looks like a snow storm. They’re the caddis, moth-like bugs that suddenly hatch on, above and around the Arkansas River in Chaffee County, Colorado. For those who don’t fish, this swarm of insects is just an icky swat-these-pests-away phenomenon … but for the ravenous rainbows and browns who make this paradise of a river home? Oh my - pure buggy bliss!
Naturally, for those lucky enough to fly fish here, the ‘hatch’ inspires nothing less than a pop-the-champagne level celebration. These trout-tempting insects are the whole reason the “Caddis Hatch Hoedown,” event was created five years ago.
Wait, let’s not give these bugs quite that much credit. The real reason for this annual “Sisters on the Fly” event every April is an excuse to spend four idyllic days fishing and frolicking with like-minded, adventurous women in one of the most beautiful spots in the country.
“Sisters on the Fly,” (SOTF) is the nation’s largest outdoor women’s group. This is just one of many events offered throughout the country year-round. Events are hosted by members with a passion for a place; like Michelle Cummings has for Central Colorado.
“I love this group because it creates a safe environment to learn; without being judged or intimidated when doing things for the first time in the outdoors,” says Michelle, event host. “Often when we go camping or fishing with the men in our lives, they end up doing most of the heavy lifting. When it’s just women, we have to do it ourselves and find out that we can.”
Michelle is clearly not the only one who loves SOTF. Since its founding in 1999, more than 8,500 women have joined. SOTF’s ruling motto is:
“No Men, No Kids, Be Nice, Have Fun!”
Started by real-life sisters Maurrie Sussman and Becky Clarke, the idea for SOTF hatched in one of life’s golden moments. As a freshly caught trout glistened in the sunlight before being released, the sisters decided times like these were just too good not to share.
So they invited some friends along next time. Then friends invited friends, and soon the women were hooked, (pun intended). It evolved into a fun, empowering group revolving around, (but not limited to) fly fishing. It’s a community where nature is revered, skills are learned, confidence soars and lifelong friendships are forged.
Maurrie and Becky were blessed with a childhood spent camping and fishing. Their father, Jesse Morrison was a Marine Corp Colonel and often away on remote assignments, so their mother Mazie took the girls herself. Creating SOTF is Mazie’s daughters’ way of paying it forward.
“We are a camp for women,” says Maurrie, SOTF President. “Women have forgotten how to be childlike and play. This group provides that arena for experiencing new adventures. I especially love the friendships and the joy we all feel when watching someone go from fear to unbelievable joy as they experience something unexpected.”
The sisters recently initiated the Mazie Morrison Foundation that helps support women and children in achieving goals and dreams in a variety of endeavors.
Rachel Kohler, a firefighter and paramedic for the West Metro Fire Department in Lakewood, Colorado, is the only female float-fishing guide on the Arkansas River. She has taught fly fishing clinics and guided river trips for SOTF several times. To her, this river is magical, especially in the good company of women.
“All the women at the event have an interest in fly fishing; that’s what brings them here,” says Rachel. “They come from different backgrounds with varying degrees of knowledge and expertise, but no matter their level, they all just want to be on the river. They all share a love of the outdoors.”
Rachel grew up fishing California lakes before she discovered fly fishing on a backcountry trip to Colorado. That was it; no turning back. Rachel learned to row on the Arkansas River and then started guiding with Ark Anglers fishing outfitters in Salida.
The Arkansas River flows across the north end of Salida; Chaffee county’s seat. Salida’s population is only about 5,400, but it is big on charm and vitality. The entire downtown is a designated national historic district. Everyone there seems to be enjoying some kind of adventure; kayaking, hiking, skiing, rafting, or bagging peaks. Nestled in the Arkansas River Valley, Salida is surrounded by the largest concentration of Colorado’s tallest mountains - the 14ers. There are 20 mountains over 14,000 feet rimming this valley, as well as dozens that top 13,000. To call the scenery ‘dramatic’ or ‘majestic’ is actually an understatement.
It’s no wonder then that Rachel, who commutes from Denver to guiding gigs, does so with gratitude. “Even on the drive to work I am always like, oh my god, look where I get to be! The granite canyons, the mountains, it’s all just amazing,” Rachel says. “The Arkansas River Valley is close enough to Denver so that it doesn’t take a whole day to get there, but when you arrive, it really feels like a destination.”
Rachel has fished this whole stretch of the Arkansas and loves it all, but near Salida, she says, “It’s just so striking. You have those 14ers on one side and Browns Canyon on the other. You just can’t get views like that anywhere else, even in a state as spectacular as Colorado.”
In January 2014, wildlife biologists designated this stretch of river as Gold Medal Trout Waters, meaning the waters produce 60 pounds of trout and at least 12-14 inch or larger trout per acre. Browns Canyon was recently designated a National Monument to ensure its 21,586 acres remain an oasis for wildlife habit and recreation opportunities, ranging from fishing to kayaking t whitewater rafting.
Women approach fly fishing a little differently than men, Rachel observes. “There is something special about fishing with a group of women. They want to learn, they listen. They are less competitive, more cooperative. It’s not about how big the fish are or how many they catch; it’s about the whole experience.” There’s so much joy, Rachel says, stemming from the rare chance to be immersed in a wild environment.
“When fly fishing you’re actively involved in doing something. You’re focusing and paying attention so it makes you be present, in the now. Everything else falls away.”
Rachel prefers float fishing to wading because it gives access to more of the river. All those hours in a boat together encourages bonding, too. Then there’s the laughter. “We laugh. So much. Both on the river and in camp,” Rachel says.
For this event, campers convened at Sweetwater River Ranch between Canon City and Salida. Some brought their own RV’s or trailers, others pitched tents or glamped it up in motel rooms or cabins. Everyone was encouraged to unplug and just enjoy the outdoors. The sparse cell service at this beautifully remote location made this an easier surrender.
Michelle’s camp agenda appealed to diehard anglers, as well as any fun
female. The women began and ended each day together for meals. The first night they enjoyed a Sister Welcome Dinner, followed by a campfire. Friday night they chowed down at a catered Cowgirl Themed dinner. On Saturday,
they had a Dutch Oven/Cast Iron Cook-Off inspired by the recent publication of
SOTF member Irene Rawlings’ book on the subject.
The daytime schedule was flexible, full of options - not obligations. For those who came to fish, experts from fly fishing outfitters, Ark Anglers in Salida and Buena Vista, offered lessons or guided trips.
Off river, some chose to hike while others played cowgirl on a two-hour guided trail ride with Mt. Princeton Stables. Afterwards, many soaked in the steamy, dreamy natural hot springs at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs and Spa. They also took a group VIP wine tasting tour of Holy Cross Winery in Canon City.
“A favorite activity every year is vintage shopping. The whole area is rich with great resale and antique stores. The gals find all kinds of treasures for their trailers,” Michelle says. In past years they’ve gone zip-lining and ATV riding. With so many outdoors options in the area, Michelle enjoys shaking it up year to year with different activities.
The outstanding response to SOTF mirrors the trend towards more and more women embracing fly fishing. It’s also showing up in the marketplace. When Michelle began fly fishing in 2009, she had to make do with gear made for men. “Back then it was very male-dominated,” Michelle says. “Now at this past Denver Fly Fishing Expo, there were eight different vendors with waders and gear made just for women.”
Michelle’s love of the sport inspired her fictional novel, “The Reel Sisters,” a tale of fly fishing and the power of women’s friendships due for publication in 2018.
“There are multiple reasons it’s good for women to be outdoorsy and adventurous,” she says. “It gives a sense of accomplishment and a way to step out of the normal day-to-day.”
Fish on Sisters Fish on