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photo by Gracie Baldwin

I sat anxiously until I heard the unmistakable beep of the seat belt sign clicking off. Immediately, I jumped up and snagged my rod case out of the overhead bin.  I clutched the case and breathed a sigh of relief, (my eternal fear is that I will forget my fly rod on an airplane).  I walked off the plane, breezed through customs, grabbed my white duffel bag, (breathed another sigh of relief knowing my luggage made it) and then walked outside.  I was greeted by the intense sunlight, hair-frizzing humidity, and the throng of stressed out ‘gringos’ synonymous with Cancun, Mexico.

I would wake up in the morning at 6 am and fly fish before class

if three years ago, you told me I would be spending a full week after my college graduation on a fly fishing trip, I probably would have given you a strange look and then asked, “what exactly is fly fishing anyway?”  But fast-forward three years and there I was, sitting outside the Cancun airport awaiting an unforgettable adventure.

My serendipitous journey into fly fishing began when, on a whim, I applied to be in the course “The Art of Fly Fishing” for the January term of my sophomore year at Colby College, (a small liberal arts school in Maine).  At Colby each January you can take a month long course.  The course intrigued me both because of the stunning pictures of Owens Valley, California, where we would be fly fishing, and the fact that I could fulfill my literature requirement.  Little did I know that the course would have such a life-changing impact.

photo by - Andrew Loffredo

The first two weeks of the course were a basic introduction into fly fishing and fly fishing literature.  On the third week we flew to California to finally get in the water!  The guides we had were amazing teachers and extremely patient, especially considering most of us were rookies.  During my first day fly-fishing ever I caught three beautiful trout!  The course was extremely memorable and a wonderful introduction to the sport.  The following spring and fall, I continued to fly fish the local trout streams in Maine.

photo by - Gracie Baldwin

It was not until the following year that my fly fishing addiction really set in.  During January, I went on an Ecological Field Study in Belize.  We spent the first two weeks battling bot flies, fire ants, and Fer-de-lances in the jungle and ended the trip exploring the beautiful coral reefs on South Water Caye, off of Belize City.

photo by - Gracie Baldwin

Leading up to my trip to Belize, I became obsessed by the prospect of catching a bonefish.  I read Dick Brown’s Fly Fishing for Bonefish, borrowed a saltwater rod from a friend, and bought a couple of Crazy Charlies and a new leader.  When I got to South Water Caye, I fished every chance I could, and after numerous attempts and hours, I finally caught my first bonefish!  In fact, during the seven days we were on South Water Caye I caught a total of five bonefish and one bar jack!

The confidence I have gained from fly fishing emboldens me

Fueled by the excitement of my success in Belize, I started to fish as much as I could.  During the fall of my senior year I would wake up in the morning at 6 am and fly fish before class; I also spent most of my Saturdays fishing in Maine.  I continued to improve and started to catch more fish, which motivated me to fish even more.

My rapid improvement over a short three years was greatly influenced by many of my friends at Colby College, who happened to be excellent fly anglers.  My friends’ support and guidance inspired me to create a club that would help connect other students at the college who were interested in fly fishing.  Ironically, around the same time I received a call from Andrew Loffredo about the Trout Unlimited Costa 5 Rivers College Program, which connects active college fly fishing clubs around the nation.

The 5 Rivers program consists of five components; conservation, fundraising, community outreach, becoming a Costa Ambassador, and fostering a connection to Trout Unlimited. These goals aligned perfectly with what I wanted to accomplish as a club leader and with the support of Trout Unlimited and Costa I was able to create a more successful and impactful club at Colby College.

The first club-sponsored event was a Project Healing Waters (PHW) Trip.  I invested many hours organizing and speaking with local military veterans, PHW volunteers, Colby faculty, and students.  The event was a huge success!  A total of 29 people, veterans and volunteers, attended.  The trip was truly impactful for all of us and was a highlight of my senior year. My favorite part was watching as Colby students and faculty bonded with the local veterans.

As the year progressed, we continued to organize other activities and events.  We held a weekly fly tying session every Wednesday during dinner.  The fly tying was open to anyone who was interested, and gradually grew from only three people to around 15 by the end of the year.

photo by - Oliver Rogers

In the spring we ran a fundraiser event titled, “Flies, Films, and Foam,” during which we screened a series of short fly fishing films at our on-campus pub.  We charged admission, all of which was donated to Trout Unlimited, and had a raffle giveaway with tons of Costa hats and Croakies.  Over 30 Colby students and faculty and local Trout Unlimited members attended.  Also, during the event, Emily Bastien, who leads the Brook Trout Survey Project of the Maine Audubon Society, spoke about their important initiative.  After her presentation, multiple club members helped with the project, which utilizes anglers to survey local rivers.

Our club also volunteered at the Colby Cares About Kids (CCAK) annual barbecue.  CCAK is a mentoring program that pairs Colby students with local elementary and middle school children.  The fly fishing club had a station at the event where we taught fly tying, fish identification, and casting.  Over 200 children and their mentors attended the barbecue and our station was a hit thanks to all the Colby and local Trout Unlimited volunteers.

photo by - Andrew Loffredo

Starting the fly fishing club is one of my proudest accomplishments and, hopefully, it will become a lasting legacy.  Moreover, it was extremely gratifying to watch the club grow and evolve in one short year.  For example, the email list started with only 20 people and grew to over 60, and when we ordered club hats over 75 people purchased one.  The club was awarded “Best Community Outreach” by Trout Unlimited and I was chosen as one of five top ambassadors, winning an all expense paid trip to Ascencion Bay, Mexico thanks to Costa del Mar!  Fast forward to June fourth…

The group in Mexico consisted of Andrew Loffredo of Trout Unlimited, Todd Barker of Costa del Mar, Oliver Nettere, another top ambassador, and Oliver Rogers, a professional photographer.  We fished for six whole days in Ascencion Bay out of Pesca Maya Lodge.

We spent each day fishing for bonefish, hunting for permit, and trying our hand at baby tarpon.  During the trip Oliver N. and Todd both got grand slams, (bonefish, permit and tarpon)!  I was on the boat for Oliver’s grand slam, which was an awesome day.  The last fish was a hidden baby tarpon deep in the mangroves which nearly broke off on some branches.

For me, the most exciting part of the trip was landing a beautiful permit on day two!  I was the first person on the trip to land a permit and ended up catching the biggest one.  It was absolutely exhilarating to land such a picky and feisty fish.  I also loved fishing for bonefish.  We had a couple days where the bonefish were so active that we were constantly rotating off the bow.  During the trip we took fin clips of lots of bonefish and all three permit that we landed, and we also tagged the permit, as a part of Bonefish Tarpon Trust research efforts.  The last two days, we invested more time fishing for tarpon.  I really enjoyed sight casting to the tarpon because some of the schools had around 10 to 15 fish.  While I had some promising takes, I never ended up hooking one.

Overall, the trip allowed me to grow significantly as a fly angler.  I learned so much from the other people on the trip, who were much more experienced.  Watching them cast and fight fish and all of their kind guidance and tips allowed me to improve immensely in only six days, and allowed me to gain increased confidence.  For example, the first weekend after the trip, back in the U.S., I caught my first bluefish on a fly!

I hope that my story can inspire other women to become involved in the sport that has had such an impact on my life.  I have become so passionate about the sport in such a short period of time because I love the feeling of improvement and how much skill and knowledge is involved.  Additionally, fly fishing allows me to escape stress or frustration and helps me to gain perspective.  The serendipity and spontaneity that embodies how I fell into the sport has taught me how aspects of your life, what you find important and what you are passionate about, can change rapidly.

Moreover, starting the fly fishing club and being recognized for my efforts was incredibly empowering.  I learned that sometimes the smallest decisions, like randomly signing up for a course, can have a resounding impact, and that taking risks and being open-minded, from trying a new sport to changing your fly, can be overwhelmingly positive.  As a recent college graduate, the confidence I have gained from fly fishing emboldens me to look excitedly at the next chapter of my life, and my future fly fishing adventures!