Tayla Gentle journeyed into the Australian wilderness with expert fly fishing guide, Charley May, in search of a trout or two. She came back with a question: Why don’t more women take up this relaxing, tactical and restorative sport?
“My first piece of advice to you today: Don’t expect to catch a fish.”
I’m sitting on the banks of the Rubicon River under a canopy of gum leaves, somewhere about two hours east of Melbourne, watching fly fisher Charley May thread a tiny replica caddisfly onto her line with surgeon-like precision.
“No offense,” she says, without looking up from her intricate operation, “but the first time is never easy and you might walk away without catching much more than a tree branch. But if you’re disappointed by that, I kind of think you’re missing the point.”
I don’t say as much to Charley, but I’m confused. I thought the point was to catch a fish? Isn’t that why I’m wearing chest-high waders and neoprene boots? To snag myself a slippery brook trout?
She ties the last knot with a finesse born of spending a decade on the water and hands me the rod. It’s taller than me when standing; featherlight and flexible. I awkwardly wave it around my head, like a new kid with their first wand at Hogwarts.
A spin fisherman walks past, a couple of trout flung over his shoulder and shouts, “Good on ya gals! It’s great to see ladies fly fishing, you don’t get that very often!” I marvel firstly at the fact that he believed I was a professional and secondly, at his surprise to see women on the fly.
“Welcome to the fishing world,” Charley says to me before marching uphill in the opposite direction to the river. Apparently, we’ve got some drills to do before I’m allowed in the water.
Charley is a five-foot-three fishing guru decked out in a wide brim hat and a vest packed with gadgets. Originally from the UK, she grew up in the English countryside and spent her youth fishing the rivers northwest of the Peak District.
“I’m tired of the ‘boys gone fishing’ mentality; this idea that fishing is for men who need a break from their nagging wives.”
“It was a form of escapism for me, a way of dealing with a pretty turbulent childhood,” Charley explains. “I got my first rod when I was nine—my dad taught me how to throw a decent overhead cast and I was instantly hooked.” I note that she uses the word ‘hooked’ without a trace of irony.
We jump a few fences and pull up to an open paddock. Prime looping real estate, I’m told. The first thing I must master on my fly fishing journey is something called a ‘sexy loop’.
This basically involves flicking your rod between two invisible triangular points in the air (called the casting arc) until your line forward-casts and back-casts in tight circular loops. When you get it right, the loops form a smooth ‘missile’ shape that sails through the sky.
Well, that’s what Charley’s looping looks like. My first attempts either require “more welly!” or “less wrist!” Creating good loops is harder than it appears, as is reeling, casting and tying the fly. It may be a mild day in May, but I’m sweating with concentration.
History books can’t place the exact origins of fly fishing, but many experts credit the Macedonian anglers at the end of the second century with first taking to water. From there, the Japanese developed their own version of the sport called tenkara and the anglers in the United States evolved the use of artificial flies. What has prevailed throughout history, however, is the general notion that fishing is a man’s sport.
“I’m tired of the ‘boys gone fishing’ mentality; this outdated idea that fishing is for men who need a break from their nagging wives,” says Charley. “How about the wives? I know for a fact they’d probably love a day in the outdoors!”
We’re in the water now, having waded upstream 10 minutes to reach a closeted rock pool. I can see straight through the fresh water to my boots at the bottom. God, I love wearing waders.
Charley is passionate about changing the stats when it comes to equality on the water, and is in the midst of planning a women’s-only fishing retreat for the end of the year. “We’ve got a long way to go,” she says. “When I came to Australia, my first impression of women in fly fishing was: ‘Where are they?’ Women are kicking goals on football fields and scoring centuries on the wicket, but I’m yet to bump into another female fisher on the river.”
As we cast, strip line in, cast, strip line in (Charley effortlessly, me … not so much), I learn more about a woman’s place in the fly fishing world. Take Charley’s home club, for example. The Victorian Fly Fishers Association was established in 1932, but it only began taking female members last year. Charley is in the process of becoming the third lady to join. While it sounds a bit backwards, Charley sees it as progress. “It’s not that all the men are Neanderthals,” she says. “No way. Most guys I’ve met around the world have been pretty progressive. It’s just the language needs a refresh. It needs to stop being such a fraternity. That’s why I love teaching women, because each new fisher is changing the status quo.”
Despite catching my fly on every rock, low-hanging branch and river bank we encounter, I begin to find my flow. There is a method to this madness that requires angelic levels of patience and keen observation. I don’t doubt women would make first-class fly fishers.
“Fly fishing is great for your mental health—everyone could do with an afternoon out here.”
The tiny replica flies we’re using are crafted to imitate the insects that trout eat. They’re immaculate; works of art. And to bring that art to life, it’s the fly fisher’s job to land the fly in the water as naturally as possible. I’m taught how to present the fly and then let it move with the current, hopefully catching the eye of a hungry fish. I learn about nymphs and caddisfly, hoppers and beetles. It’s a whole new world out here on the river.
Hours later, and with a slightly sore casting arm, I’m still not close to catching a fish. I haven’t even seen a fish. But I’m not fussed because the point of fly fishing is beginning to dawn on me: It’s a meditation. It’s just you, the Great Outdoors and the hunt for that elusive tug at the end of your line.
I repeat my profound existential moment to Charley, who turns to me with a grin. “You’re bang on,” she says. “Fly fishing is great for your mental health—everyone could do with an afternoon out here. But don’t get too settled, I spy a few fishies up ahead.”
In what feels comical, but actually makes perfect hunting sense, Charley and I squat in the water and move slowly, and ever so quietly, upstream toward the school of trout. We are sneaking up on them from behind, using the surprise to our advantage.
“Whatever you do, don’t let them see you,” whispers Charley—my final marching order before she sends me further upriver on my lonesome. This is it. Will I catch my first ever fish?
Brook trout have a reputation for being a bit on the slow side, but the ones we stumbled upon were a particularly smart bunch. And while I may well have been able to reel one of the slippery suckers in myself, it was Charley’s experience (and excellent arrow cast) that eventually landed our catch.
Still, I felt euphoric. I’d been welcomed into the secret society of fly fishing, and it felt pretty special. There was no badge of honor or plaque of remembrance, but I did get a photo with my prize before removing the barbless hook and sending the little guy swimming back to his friends.
Because if I learned anything from my time on the fly with Charley, it’s that fishing is about so much more than just catching fish—it’s about letting go, too.
Charley May operates on a range of rivers in northeast Victoria, Australia. Book your own fishing adventure with her at charleymayfishing.com. Both women and men, beginners or professionals are welcome.
Tayla Gentle is a freelance writer and producer specializing in adventure travel. Her work has featured in outlets such as Lonely Planet, AFAR, AWOL and Red Bull Australia. Her spirit country is Myanmar.