When I got into fly fishing, I rarely saw another woman on the river. I heard rumblings that there was a woman who came into the fly shop and fished, but I never saw her on the river. The times, they say, are a-changing, and it’s about high time. Today, the angling community is robust with young and old alike, female and male, and growing in ethnic diversity. That’s a great sign. The only way our sport will continue to grow is if we break out of that old male-dominated box and progress along with the society we live in.
It was 10 years ago when I was living in Chicago and heard about a thing called “guide school.” I thought that was the craziest and most awesome thing ever. A school that educates you to take someone fishing. How incredible was that? But, as amazing as it sounded, I never considered it. The mere thought of going to a fishing school as a woman was a no-go. That just sounded like a whole lot of intimidation. I was not a good enough angler for that. Besides, I had no desire to be a guide, which to me is the hardest job in the industry. So many variables outside of your control that you somehow become responsible for. I quickly tucked the idea away as a great alternative for those (men) whose dream was to be a guide.
Fast forward to today. I’ve spent countless hours wading rivers and countless more in the front of a drift boat. I am a good and competent angler. I even own a drift boat but have no idea what I’m doing behind the oars. And now, though I still have no desire to guide, I’m considering enrolling in guide school – and here is why.
There’s an all women’s school being offered that is taught by women
Four years ago I started working with The Fly Fishing Show, which tours the nation every winter, to incorporate a Women’s Showcase. We “showcased” the women’s section in Denver first. The area had women-owned industry booths, with gear made specifically for women, and even a dressing room. Never having been to The Fly Fishing Show before, I was at a little disadvantage understanding where the women’s section would be. To my dismay, when I arrived the day before to help with setup, it was not on the main floor of the show, but off the back and up a ramp. To say I was a little put off would be an understatement. It was discouraging that we were still segregated away from the main floor of the show. But then a miracle happened. I’d love to say it was by design, but that would be untrue. The caterer mistakenly set up the Saturday afternoon social in the middle of the Women’s Showcase instead of in the speaker’s room. I quickly asked if they could leave it right where it was. It was as if at that moment the whole dynamic changed. The Women’s Showcase became the place to be. It had a different feel. It was warm and welcoming, and women came and stayed. They tried stuff on, they ate, they laughed, they told stories, and most importantly, they felt that they belonged.
That same day, I had an eye-opening revelation when a woman in her seventies came to me and said “I’ve been fishing for over 50 years. I taught my husband and my son to fish. I came here today because I heard there was a woman’s area and I had to see what that was all about. I was quite upset to see that after 50 years we were still being segregated but decided to check it out anyway. I came to your booth first and saw your slogan 'Empowering Women, Not Ignoring Men' and took a look around. There were women of all ages trying on gear, talking at every booth, and sitting around the campfire spot you have in the middle. And I got it. This area isn’t about me. I’m perfectly comfortable on the main floor, but the vast majority of women are not. You’ve created a safe haven where women can come, ask questions, and learn. And that’s brilliant.” And that’s what it’s about. This summer Sweetwater Travel Company is offering it’s first women’s only guide school. The instructors are seasoned female guides, and it’s being offered just to women. They’ve created a guide safe haven, and it’s about time.
It will fill in the gaps
I had been fishing my little river and shopping regularly at the local fly shop for about a year and a half when one day it dawned on me that I had become a “regular.” Somehow overnight I had gone from newbie to regular, yet I still knew very little about fishing. At that moment, I was in that awkward stage where the guys in the shop assumed I knew more than I did, and I was embarrassed to ask questions I was supposed to already know. I spent a lot of time from that day forward nodding and smiling. To this day, there are things I learn about this sport every day; basics that I should have been taught many years ago, but never was. While I am confident enough in myself now to ask those questions and not care what anyone else thinks, I’m sure there are a lot of gaps that could be filled in on the foundation of my fly fishing skillset, especially where trout are concerned. This would be a great place to fill in those gaps.
It will make me a better angler
Who doesn’t want to be a better angler? Make a tighter loop? Catch more fish? Tie a better knot? If you’re anything like me, tying knots is NOT like riding a bike. If I don’t use it – I lose it. I’m considering the school because it’s the whole shebang. From fly tying to rowing a drift boat, and everything in between. This is the most comprehensive school I’ve ever seen. I want to learn the intricacies of rowing a drift boat and operating a jet boat. I’m sure my friends and family would also love for me to spend less time rowing us in circles and more time keeping the boat at 50 feet from the bank. And, while I learned to tie flies before I learned to fish, my fly tying skills of late are severely lacking. Teach me to be a better angler? Count me in.
It will make me a better teacher
I teach all the time, but every day I want to become a better teacher. If you fly fish, then my guess is you’ve also taught at least one other person to fly fish, or at the very least have taken someone else out fishing with you. Very rarely is there an angler who has never helped someone else catch a fish, be it a family member, friend, or neighbor. Guide school is a great place to hone your teaching skills no matter how you’re going to use them. We all know people who are excellent anglers, but poor teachers. Don’t let that be you. Whether it’s your goal to guide or not, learning how to take another person fishing is a lifelong skill I believe is worth studying.
It’s set in a beautiful place
I went to school in Wisconsin. Most of the year the weather forecast was cold and freezing with a touch of dreary. The Sweetwater Guide School is offered on the banks of the Bighorn River. Who wouldn’t want to spend a whole week fishing the Bighorn and honing their skills at the same time? This is not fish your local ditch on the urban college campus. This is the Bighorn. Enough said.
It will equip you for a job in the industry
I already work in the industry, but if I didn't, this would give me a huge step up. The Sweetwater Guide School has been around for 20 years and has an excellent reputation in the industry. If you want to work as a guide, especially in one of the to die for places in this world, you’re going to need an in. Sweetwater has a very high job placement rate and they have placed hundreds of graduates across the western US and Alaska, as well as in Mexico, Chile, Canada, and as far as the Seychelles and Mongolia. If you want to work as a guide, then this is the place to be. Sure you could try and do it your own, but would you have the backbone of such a strong advocate in the industry? I don’t think so.
Even at my age, I’m strongly considering attending this guide school and you should as well. As someone who went to college in the 80s, I wish this had been an option for me back then. I can only imagine how this would have jump-started my fishing life, changed my trajectory, and afforded me many more opportunities.
The first of its kind, all women’s Sweetwater Guide School will be held at the Royal Bighorn Club fishing lodge on the banks of the Bighorn River this summer, August 10-16. All the instructors are women who are seasoned guides with impressive backgrounds.
Marya Spoja has been an instructor at the guide school for six seasons and is the lead instructor. She has done everything from managing a fly shop to guide Montana waters, including Yellowstone Park, and has a diverse background in both salt and freshwater.
Alison Schumacher is a Canadian native and previously guided in British Columbia for Steelhead. She is also a Coast Guard Captain and will be teaching the jet boat portion of the class.
Lanie Galland is a guide in Mongolia and on the Truckee River. She came to Sweetwater first as a scientist researching Taimen conservation. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Ecology Evolution and Conservation Biology.
Diana Abbott is an up and coming guide who has worked for Sweetwater for five seasons. Apart from guiding, she has hosted trips to Brazil and the Bahamas and is currently studying water law in Vermont.
Sabrina Beganny is an Army veteran who came to Sweetwater through Project Healing Waters and will be joining the team as an intern who is eager to share her experience with the class. If you ask me, that's a star-studded group of instructors right there!
Space for the class is limited to 12 students and will fill up fast. To reserve your spot and find out more information contact Steve Wilson who is the Guide School Director at Sweetwater Travel Company here.