Last week I sat down with Geri Meyer, founder and owner of Athena & Artemis Women’s Fly Shop. Geri was born and raised in the high plains desert of eastern Washington. Thanks to having an extremely fishy brother, she was exposed to fly fishing while growing up, but it wasn’t until a casual casting lesson in the Blue Mountains of Oregon in the mid-90s that her fly fishing passion was activated.
Geri began her pursuit of southern Rockies trout while living in Taos, New Mexico, and ten years later she and her husband moved to the Midwest with plans of opening a fly shop and guide service. She co-owns the Driftless Angler, and is currently a guide there. Geri is fiercely committed to not only bringing more women into the sport of fly fishing, but also to supporting other female professionals in the fly fishing industry. Geri and I talked about the growing presence of women in the sport, why it always wasn’t that way, and how we can keep diversity of all kinds growing in fly fishing.
MC: My first question regards the statistics on female participation in the sport. Despite the image presented by recent PR campaigns, the data point to relatively low numbers. Why is that?
GM: Well, the first thing we need to do is distinguish between the number of new female anglers entering the sport and the number of new female anglers staying in the sport. Right now the number of women entering into the sport of fly fishing is most definitely growing, but it’s true that they aren’t necessarily staying–there’s a retention problem, basically. I guess the good news is that the evidence points to interest being there. The question really is: why aren’t they staying? The retention numbers also vary by region. I know that both coasts are seeming to keep more women in the sport–especially the west coast. So the answer seems to be in keeping retention levels up and supporting the growing level of interest in all ways possible.
To speak on the subject of participation more generally, it wasn’t until the last several years that I saw any serious momentum in women’s participation. I personally think that in the past women didn’t understand that we didn’t need an invitation to participate in the sport of fly fishing. Women didn’t understand that we didn’t need permission, and that we could hire a guide (maybe even female), or just grab a rod/reel/line, and a handful of bugs and get out there.
MC: I wonder if there’s a possible connection between the relatively low number of female guides and the retention problems you’re speaking about. In my experience, the longer it takes an angler to get to a fishable skill level—one where they can hit the water and have a reasonable expectation of catching something—the likelier it is that the angler’s interest will fizzle out. With that in mind, it would make sense that think that being able to learn technical skills from another woman would help shorten the learning curve, and by extension help with retaining interested anglers. In my early days in sport, I’d grab a friend and we’d go and split a guide for a day, learn the water better and improve our technique. But if two women wanted to go out and find a female guide, it sounds like there are some obstacles.
GM: Absolutely. And that’s changing, too, but slowly. In the last few years we’ve started to see more female ambassadors, more female guides and pros in magazines, more industry women, and a lot more everyday women who love the sport and are committed to it. Our fly shop has seen a huge increase in women in the last 4-5 years. So, like I said, we do have momentum on our side.
Another issue that seems to be a challenge is that companies need to spend more energy and resources on women’s specific advertising. Women need to see more guides and serious female anglers, and not just swim suit models, in catalogues and magazine advertisements. Companies need to really start making women part of their primary fly fishing demographic and not an afterthought. Women have more expendable income than ever before, so it just seems logical that we would start to see the fly fishing industry focus on them a bit more. It’s been a slow roll, but it’s really starting to gain some momentum.
MC: Let’s put retention aside for a moment and talk about getting more female anglers interested in the sport. Acknowledging that fly fishing can be intimidating to just about any newcomer, are there different inhibitions that keep men and women from entering the sport, or are they the same?
GM: Different. And the biggest difference is how welcome you feel, which is tied to seeing others like you in the sport. Of course, this is not specific to fly fishing or sports in general: it’s always more difficult to get into something new when you don’t see yourself represented in it. I’ve been fly fishing for about 20 years, and I know that women are less of a novelty today than ten or even five years ago. Not to call them legitimizers, but when I started fishing it was very important for me to see women’s faces in the industry. Joan Wulff was a big name (and still is), but there weren’t a lot of others as visible. Currently there are more female guides, more fly fishing ambassadors, pros and reps, and even more fly designers and writers that are really important figures in the fly fishing industry. I won’t speak for everyone, but from my perspective, there’s a little more comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. That said, while it’s certainly changed, it’s definitely not the same as for men in the sport.
MC: Given how visually oriented fly fishing is, what with photography and video, I can see where seeing someone like you out there would make a difference in entering the sport. I hadn’t thought too much about how being in a sport where everyone looks like me. When I walked into a fly shop for the first time I was a bit intimidated, but I had the benefit of everyone who was working there looking just like me. So I appreciate the degree to which seeing other people like yourself doing something can be an important part of bringing more diversity to the sport.
GM: Right. Imagine walking into a fly shop and seeing nothing that is made for you. If you’re not selling products for women, and if you’re not going to pay attention to women, how are women going to be convinced that folks want them in the shop?
I do think that the comfort level is increasing. You see more female faces in fly shops, more faces in clubs and in local TU meetings, more female guides and even more female shop owners. Women are more visible in the sport, but it’s still slow going.
MC: I really like what I’m seeing Artemis and Athena. The name, and imagery on the site, is great. Help us understand why women-specific gear is important.
GM: If a piece of gear doesn’t fit right, if it’s uncomfortable, an angler won’t be in the game for very long. Bottom line, most women’s bodies are very different from men’s, so it’s up to companies to actually design gear that fits a woman’s body. Luckily there are a handful of companies that are putting their time and resources towards getting women’s gear right. But there are still too many poorly sized waders, jackets, boots, etc. that are just basic and really kind of crappy. Companies put a flowery design, or some pink on a crappy single layer wader and sell it as women’s gear. That offends me. There are many female anglers that not only have cash to spend, but are also dedicated anglers who really appreciate gear that will actually enhance their fly fishing experience. Again, there are a handful of companies are really diving into making more technical gear specifically for the female angler. It’s not perfect, but the industry is really starting to pay attention to the needs of the female angler.
That said, I really think that a solid commitment is coming from a hand full of companies right now. The Simms G3 is a super technical wader that many female guides wear, as well as a lot of hard core women fly fishers. Patagonia’s new Spring River wader is also super technical and perfect for not only guides, but also every day fly anglers. Orvis also makes a solid women’s wader. These and other companies have gotten pretty close with sizing as of late. I’m hoping that companies will continue to focus on the technical side of women’s gear. And remember that it’s not only about the gear itself, it’s about feeling like you’re even wanted in the sport. What kind of a message does that send if a woman enters into the sport, starts to get into it and want better equipment but then realizes that equipment just isn’t available?
MC: I just took a peak at the wader sizes of one manufacturer. There are 19 sizes for men, 7 for women. I see what you mean. It communicates this idea that we might want you in the sport, but we’re not expecting you to really get into it.
GM: It’s really frustrating but we’re getting there. And things are also getting better at the fly shop level. I rarely hear the stories of the woman who goes into the fly shop and is completely ignored. Maybe every once in a while, but it’s not the common thing that it was, say 10 years ago.
MC: We’ve been focusing on the experience of women in the sport. What about the perception of women in the sport? Are you noticing changing attitudes toward women?
GM: Definitely. Most of the men that I know are encouraging women’s participation in the sport. Most of the guys I know are really excited about seeing more women, more new faces and more diversity in fly fishing. I’m hoping the trend will follow and we’ll see not only more female anglers but more female anglers from all backgrounds, ethnicities and demographics.
MC: How to you account for the changing attitudes? It wasn’t that long ago that fly fishing was perceived to be a stuffy, elitist group. And many people still perceive it that way.
GM: I think a big part of the changing attitude comes from a larger reaction to the increased challenges facing our watersheds and environment. When clean, healthy lakes and rivers become everyone’s personal investment, everyone wins. I think of the rivers I fish as my playground, I need to take care of it. But if I’m the only one who’s going to protect it, well, I’m only one person and I’m not going to be able to do much. So the more people we can get to love their resource and understand the threats to it, the better. Increased diversity in fly fishing only helps this cause. Let’s keep growing this thing, and grow it faster. In the last few years it’s been really impressive to see the momentum that women have created in the conservation piece of fly fishing.
MC: In light of all we talked about, let’s pretend for a moment that we’ve granted you god-like power. What are three things that you would do to keep the sport growing, a 3-part recipe for accelerating the increase of female participation in the sport?
GM: Well, first I’d continue to develop the visibility of women in the media within the sport, and social media is playing a big part in that continued exposure. To see more women doing it, to see women on the industry side. The bigger companies are the ones that need to make continued pushes to showcase women, and ALL women, not just gorgeous wader models.
Next, I’d like to see more women in traditional media (not just social media). Traditional media is also really important. The e-mag Dun is a fantastic resource for women in fly fishing. Jen Ripple has done a lot in providing a carved-out space for women in the sport. It would be great to see more of that.
The third thing, and maybe most important, would be increased connectivity. If I could make sure that women could see other women anglers on a map, like as a red dot, it would be a huge help. That way they could see, here’s someone nearby that you can fish with, there’s a woman in a town three miles away that’s having a tying gathering, or maybe a casting clinic at a shop nearby. Women being able to find each other would be a tremendous help to increase participation. While some anglers like to fish alone, many women are going to want a partner to fish with at some point. Being able to find each other is key.