Two hundred years before Izaak Walton penned The Compleat Angler, Dame Juliana Berners, a fifteenth century nun and sportswoman, published The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle. In this extraordinary tract, she reveals the arts of rod-building, line and hook-making, dressing flies and preparing baits. She tells us how, when and where to fish, warns us of the "twelve kinds of impediments which cause a man to catch no fish," and describes the eccentricities of individual species. She explains everything so accurately and so thoroughly that nary a woman in the past 600 years has bothered to rehash her basic advice, though countless men, of course, have made a career of it.
Following Dame Juliana's lead, female anglers have continued to gain ground on the good old boys for the past six centuries. Today, more women than ever are fishing. Judging from the number of women featured in the major flyfishing magazines, there must be a good dozen of us out there already. That is quite a comforting thought, for when I first started flyfishing, there were so very few women on the rivers, that I found the experience somewhat intimidating.
Within a matter of weeks, however, it became apparent that I was not only tolerated but actually welcome on the water. In those days I was 20 years old, tanned and thin, with straight blonde hair to my waist, and I suppose that accounts for some of the goodwill which was extended to me by the mostly male fishing community. In fact, I received numerous proposals of marriage during my first season after letting it slip that I could back up a pickup with a boat trailer attached. Now don't get me wrong here. You may have heard rumors about certain fishing femmes fatales whose antics on the river give new meaning to the expression "hooking fish." But that's not my style. I don't even wear lip gloss when I'm fishing. It's absolute hell on blood knots.
I have relatively few complaints about fishing with men. As a rule, I have found that men are extremely considerate to women anglers. They will freely dispense flies and information, and, until they realize you can actually fish, will cheerfully relinquish their favorite holes and allow you to cast from the front of the boat. Men are also extremely gracious and forgiving if you fish poorly. It's only when you fish well that they get truly upset.
A few years ago, I was invited to join two fellows who'd booked some time off to fish the Missouri. They were friends of a guide friend, and though we'd never met, I'd heard enough lies about the pair that I considered them ideal fishing companions. We introduced ourselves on the loading ramp at Craig, where the two gentlemen informed me they'd already run the shuttle, ordered the lunch, and arranged to trade off rowing during the day. Nobody said anything about me rowing though the Missouri's a fairly easy river, but if they didn't trust me with the boat, I wasn't going to argue. I figured I could put up with a whole day's fishing if I had to. I started to climb into the back of the raft.
"Hold on there," said the fellow stringing up a Winston. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm getting into the raft."
"No, no," he said generously. "You take the seat up front."
They were nice guys, and I didn't mean to beat them up. It was one of those days when everything comes together, and I simply got a little carried away. I don't remember the particulars, but apparently I caught large numbers of fish. I recall making only one really bad cast, a 60-footer that was two feet this side of a voraciously feeding fish. Without thinking, for I never would have attempted such a thing consciously, I cocked my wrist, drew up the 60 feet of line, and, much to my surprise, set it down again in the feeding lane.
"Holy shit! I mean, Holy Dinah. Did you do that on purpose?" This from the guy rowing.
"No," said his buddy, reeling up to give me room to play the fish. "She just accidentally roll-cast 60 feet of line right onto the fish's head."
"That's right," I said, skating the fish across the surface into the net. "I didn't mean to. I'm sorry." They exchanged a look of worried solidarity. I felt very much the outsider, an angling alien on some intergalactic fishing expedition, my identity just revealed.
As there were two of them and one of me, I decided to back off a little. When we pulled into shore, I remained in the boat while the earthlings fished the next hole on foot. Nobody twisted my arm to fish the hole, and I was quite content to sit in the raft, taking photographs of the two playing their fish and offering conciliatory congratulations. My companions were in considerably better spirits after taking a couple of fish each, nothing spectacular, mind you, but decent two- to three-pound fish. When they decided they could use a beer, I volunteered to deliver it. As I turned to open the cooler, a large golden back emerged from the weeds not 10 feet from the raft. A fish that big would have to be a carp, but I had heard that a carp could be taken on a dry and I thought it would be interesting to attempt.
I didn't bother to shake out any line. I simply detached the fly from the flykeeper, let it swing out over the water, and dapped it on the surface. A huge mouth seized the fly and kept on going. The three-pound tippet couldn't hold it. I didn't land the monster, but the gentlemen in the water got quite a good look as it streaked between them, spoiling their hole with a tailwalk.
"Big brown. Five, six pounds at least," was their judgment. "Made ours look puny."
"Holy Dinah," I said. "I thought it was a carp. My apologies."
To their credit, they didn't drown me on the spot. They were sportsmen, and at the takeout, they insisted that I accompany them again the following day. I protested vigorously, but they accepted none of my excuses, claiming they'd discussed it thoroughly and were in total agreement.
"On one condition," I said.
"Tomorrow I sit in the back of the boat."
"The hell you will," I was informed. "You're sitting in the middle. Your turn to row. Be here at 7:30 sharp to run the shuttle, and while you're at it you can pick up the beer."
I don't usually fish that well, and I frequently fish quite poorly. Like many anglers, I am afflicted with a peculiar kind of fishing jitters that appears when the pressure's really on. Give me a howling wind or three current changes between me and fish, and I can nail the cast every time simply because the odds are against me and I don't put pressure on myself. But give me a reason to fish well - perfect conditions, an amazing hatch, huge fish everywhere, or prestigious company - and everything goes haywire.
The last time this happened, I was fishing the Snake River in Idaho. My host was the editor of a magazine I'd written a piece for, and needless to say, I fished like a dude. After missing my first dozen fish, I hooked my shirtless host between the shoulder blades, cast my reel into the water, and had to be rescued when I waded too deep. My first fish of the day was a whitefish, which my host seemed genuinely astonished to find existent in his river. My second was a cutthroat smolt which knocked itself senseless against the side of the boat.
My host was extremely gracious through all of this, tactfully switching the emphasis of the trip from fishing to nature. We lunched in a magical, little side-channel where a spring creek comes into the Snake. In that place, the water is so clear and the vegetation above and below the water so luxuriant that you lose a sense of division between the two and feel that you are floating in a cool green sphere. The chill rising from the spring water helped to neutralize the effects of the 100-degree heat, and the afternoon went a little smoother. When we entered a canyon, my host began to scan the surrounding cliffs through his binoculars, promising me an unusual surprise. The surprise, which materialized after several hours of anticipation, turned out to be a pair of eagles. I didn't have the heart to tell him that in the coastal village where I live and teach, we go out at recess to shoo the damn eagles off our steps.
The next day I floated that section of the Snake again with a different party and brought several dozen fish to the boat, having abandoned the logic that fish living in fast water must be fast on the take in order to stay fed. However, my karma hadn't improved. The lodge shuttled our boat trailer to the wrong location, and it was a long walk out to the main road. None of this seemed to damage my standing with the editor, who continued to print my work, though he did shortly thereafter start an exclusive club for short, fat, bald fly fishers. I didn't take it personally.
Women often outfish men, and several interesting theories have been offered as to how such an outrageous thing could happen. "It takes skills, not bulging biceps, to land the lunkers," says Bass'n Gal founder Sugar Ferris, who believes that women may actually be better suited physically and emotionally than men to the sport of fishing. She points out that women have consistently scored higher than men on industrial tests for manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination and digital sensitivity, obviously important traits for angling. In addition, the qualities of persistence and patience help women to "fish slower, stay calmer, utilize rhythm, and be more methodical in their fishing patterns."
But Mother Nature did not forget the men when she handed out biological fishing advantages. I, for one, have always envied the ease with which male anglers are able to attend to bodily functions while fishing. The new neoprene chest waders equipped with fly fronts allow the male to capitalize fully on this natural advantage. Men should not despair when their female partners outfish them. A male angler with his wits about him can easily get two, three fish up on a woman while she is in the bush struggling with her waders.
A rather interesting theory for women's extraordinary success in salmon fishing is presented in Salmon & Women: The Feminine Angle , co-authored by Wilma Paterson and Peter Behan. As it turns out, the three most coveted British salmon records have been held by women since the 1920s: the biggest salmon on rod and line (Ms. Ballantine), the biggest salmon on a fly (Ms. Morrison), and the biggest spring salmon (Ms. Davey). Co-author Peter Behan, who has researched the non-feeding behavior of migrating salmon, suggests that either men emit some substance or chemical that repels fish and/or women emit a substance which attracts them.
Pheromone research is in its infancy. If the researchers do find a female attractant, no doubt we'll be gooping Madame X's with it and sprinkling it on cheese balls. In the meantime, if you're a male, I suggest that you book exclusively with female guides and wash your hands thoroughly before you go fishing. If you're fishing with me, kindly keep both hands in the boat, and the first guy who asks me to stroke his fly for luck will get a rod tip in the eye.
The whole issue of women outfishing men would not be problematical at all if men were not so competitive by nature. Men seem to have this thing with competition in general and with numbers in particular. As another female angler pointed out to me, the key categories seem to be first fish, biggest fish, and most fish. I keep a journal of my trips, and I have noticed that when I fish alone, I will log "a couple" or "a lot" of fish, but when I fish with men, someone will have tallied up the exact number of fish and their weights or sizes, which I then record.
The first time I really clued into this numbers thing, I was fishing in the Yellowstone Park area. Technically, I was on my honeymoon, having just married the guide who originally introduced me to flyfishing. A friend of ours had also come along. My husband and his buddy had been making an annual pilgrimage to the park for several years, and we saw no reason to exclude him from a major fishing trip just because we'd gotten married. Flyfishing has a way of transcending incidentals like marriages or even the dissolution of marriages. I am no longer wedded to the fishing guide, but we still fish together on occasion. If people are nosy enough to ask, we tell them that as part of the divorce settlement my ex was ordered to row me around on the river of my choice for two weeks every summer. I suppose that isn't very nice, but you'd be amazed how many people believe it.
We'd been hammering the Henry's Fork pretty hard for one or two fish a day, and the boys suggested taking a side trip over to the Yellowstone to lighten things up a little. At that time, you needed a fishing license to fish the park, but it didn't cost you any money. You simply informed the attendant when you entered the park that you intended to fish, and you were provided with a license. You also received a card on which you were supposed to record the number and species of all the fish you caught while in the park. We were given our licenses and surveys and were halfway to Buffalo Ford when our buddy suggested that I fill out the cards.
"Put everybody down for ... how about a dozen cutts and a couple of whitefish," were his instructions.
"Excuse me, but I think the idea is to fish first and fill out the cards later."
"Well, I guess that would be the normal way of doing it, but this is more of a challenge."
It was more of a challenge, and I suppose it was more fun, right up to the part where the boys were drinking celebratory beers in the car while I was still standing in the Yellowstone cursing the bats and the buffalo mites and praying to catch one more stinking whitefish.
Numbers aren't everything. A number may sound solid, but being a statistic, it's always open to interpretation. I wasn't exactly killing them last summer on the Green. I was fishing on foot one day near a takeout and had the misfortune to get in the way of an exceptionally loud angler congratulating himself on an 80-fish day. Perhaps I did experience an initial twinge of jealousy, but afterwards, when I'd had a chance to dwell, I mean think about it, I felt downright sorry for the poor fellow. I mean, the guy had floated seven miles of the Green River. At 7,000 fish per mile in Section A, he'd floated over approximately 49,000 fish. Allowing that a person can only fish one side of the boat at a time, he really only had an opportunity of catching half those fish, which is 24,500 of which he hooked 80, a percentage of .0032653 according to my calculator. Big deal. Of course, if I should ever have an 80-fish day, I suppose I could manage to tease a story out of it somehow.
It just could be that men and women fish from different parts of their brains. I've just been reading Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan, in which he makes the observation that sporting activities are governed mainly by the right brain. According to Carl, if you really want to throw off someone's tennis game, you get them involved in some kind of left-brain activity like describing to you exactly where they place their thumb on the racket. It seems to me that Carl may be on to something. I mean, plunk any of you pipe-and-tweed types into the middle of the river with huge fish rising all around, and what's the first thing you do? Calculate the speed of the water in cubic feet per second, record the water temperature, estimate the trout's window of vision and his sensitivity to the available light, calibrate your tippets down to four decimal places to eliminate micro-drag, and rattle off the Latin names of bugs. You can't get much more left-brain than that. Well, you dear fellows are free to do as you like, but from now on I'm going to fish from the right side - the female side - of my brain. The waters of life will swirl around me and images of primordial trout will fill my consciousness. Trout. Large. Fishing. Now.