Worlds Intertwined: VT Fly Gals helps bring women into the fly fishing fold

Worlds Intertwined: VT Fly Gals helps bring women into the fly fishing fold

Two people standing in the river.
Anglers on the Browns River are in Jericho for the Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited meet in October. Photo by Alyssa Frame/Community News Service

Alyssa Frame is a reporter with the Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Documentary Reporting and Storytelling program.

JERICHO — It could have been just another meetup full of “old men in plaid” when Jimmy Eisenberg showed up at a local meetup for unlimited trout one night in 2017. For decades, the Underhill fly fisherman didn’t feel welcome. Exclusively male-dominated chapter of the fish-focused non-profit organization. But she was lonely, looking for community around fishing.

There was something different this time. In the parking lot, the license plate of a Prius proudly stated its owner as “FLYGAL.” Eisenberg needed to meet her. She went inside and approached the only other woman she saw.

Sure enough, she found her fly friend: Nikki Puckett, a former EPA pharmaceutical scientist who lives in St. Albans. The dish matched the name of a group Puckett knew in Nashville, the Music City Fly Gals, and within months, the two women traveled to Tennessee to fish with them. Experiencing their energy and connections, Eisenberg thought, “I want to do that. I want that.”

That’s how VT Fly Gals started. It started in 2020 as a Facebook page that advertised events like potlucks and fishing sessions, or served as a portal for people looking for a fishing buddy.

For Eisenberg, this was a huge step. “I’ve been on my own for 30 years, fly fishing,” she said. Sports no longer have to be a solitary endeavor.

In the years since, the group has expanded to 150 women, with about 50 regularly active members all engaging in a much-needed conversation in fly fishing.

According to a 2020 report compiled by the Recreational Boating, Fishing and Outdoors Foundation, males represent 70% of participants in the sport.

Eisenberg said that’s no secret at the Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited chapter, one of five across the state through which she met Puckett. “They acknowledge that. We talk about the ‘old white men’ thing, and they agree that it needs to change,” she said.

But bridging the demographic gap hasn’t always been easy.

“It’s not easy to break into the boys’ club… It took me years to break into it,” Eisenberg recalls. She said her own journey through the fly fishing ranks began with the book “The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing,” which became her bible.

Eisenberg was completely self-taught before the ease of Internet research and YouTube videos. “The first two years it was absolute chaos. I was completely immersed in my rod and losing five flies and having a blowout — and catching the occasional fish,” she said.

Eisenberg continued as she honed her skill and built more connections in the fishing community. Eventually, she hired a local guide to help her discover the area’s prime fishing spots.

“He and I agreed,” she said, and soon Eisenberg asked if she would join his team of mentors. She agreed, and that’s when she shook the status quo of the boys’ club. Other male guides “began to realize that I wasn’t an idiot, that I could hold a good fly, and I could actually tie a good fly,” Eisenberg said.

She had to prove herself to get there. But now she feels very welcomed by the men in the fly fishing community, and last spring she joined the board of directors at Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited.

Puckett’s first exposure to fly fishing was in Maryland when she decided to join the Potomac Valley Fly Fishers. She said she had luck with a club that had “open arms,” where members freely shared advice and invited her on trips. The positive culture attracted her immediately.

She began volunteering with Casting for Recovery, a national organization that provides fishing resorts to women with breast cancer. It was another rewarding experience where I felt appreciated and had a strong sense of camaraderie. When she retired from the EPA in 2016, Puckett settled in Vermont, where she looked for a new fly-fishing community.

The Trout Unlimited chapter seems to be the place to check out, being a well-known fisheries and conservation organization. But she said she found the atmosphere strikingly different from previous hunting groups she’d been involved in.

“I found them very unfriendly,” Puckett said, as the demographic was mostly older men who seemed unaccustomed to women participating in the sport. However, she stuck with the class and was nominated to become secretary by the other woman in the group at the time, who happened to have stepped down from the role.

For Eisenberg and Puckett, the universe seemed to align on the night Eisenberg showed up at a Trout Unlimited meeting in 2017. It was the moment both women had been waiting for: a chance to create community where they had lacked it. The women hoped to welcome others like them into the world of fly fishing, without the intimidation or isolation that could come with being a female in a male-dominated group.

The founders of VT Fly Gals believe it could be the antidote. Eisenberg made business cards that say “VT Fly Gals” with the Facebook page and contact information below. “I kept business cards with me when I went fishing, and if I found a woman on the river, I gave her a card,” Eisenberg said. Thus, it attracted the majority of participants in the group.

The promise of community is crucial because, for many women, solo outdoor adventure comes with risks. Safety is a looming concern. As Eisenberg sees it, women tend to “hunt hesitantly – as if they are not hunting, because they are afraid to hunt alone, and they do not know enough.”

Being with a group of like-minded women, “people have more confidence and feel more comfortable,” Eisenberg said.

The tide is turning at Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited these days. This chapter is trying to expand its reach across broader populations, especially after it almost collapsed during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There has definitely been a change in the idea of ​​having a more open attitude toward getting women involved in Trout Unlimited,” said Ed Collins, chapter president.

“Can we do better? Absolutely,” he added. “We can always do better.”

Dining at Mills Riverside Park in Jericho on an overcast afternoon this fall was one such effort to do better. The event brought together members of the local Trout Unlimited chapter and the VT Fly Gals. A handful of anglers gathered under a pavilion to chat over cups of hot cocoa, while others made their way to the river, rods in tow.

There is now a lot of overlap between Trout Unlimited and VT Fly Gals – “the groups intertwine and collide, which is really cool,” Eisenberg says. “Talk about dreams (that come true)… Over the past four or five years, my world has expanded, and all kinds of people are connecting and going fishing and learning and tying flies.”

Katherine Todd, a Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited board member who serves as chair of the fundraising committee, attended the food event in Jericho with her husband and two young daughters. She explained how there is a growing number of strong women in the Trout Unlimited chapter.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity for women to find something they love and care about and be a part of it,” Todd said. “And we do a lot more than just fishing…we do a lot of conservation work, and there are all these other pieces that really speak to different parts of what you care about.”

As the relatively new secretary of Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited, Eileen Worcester explained how she hasn’t been around long enough to notice a noticeable shift in class demographics. However, sitting alongside Todd at the dining table, she was excited about the prospects: “We’re part of this change… I hope the younger generation sees this because it’s so beautiful, it’s so much fun, and there’s so much camaraderie.

Puckett, who now serves as treasurer of Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited in addition to her ongoing involvement with the VT Fly Gals, summed up her special relationship with the sport these days by saying, “I just love being out there on the river and connecting.”

“It’s really the outdoors that I seek out,” she added. “Tranquility, nature, beauty and challenge.”

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