BIGHORN RIVER — Gayle Whittenberg gathers her gear on an August morning for a half-day of fly fishing on the Bighorn River.
Whittenberg pulls on her breathable waders, her boots, a fishing vest, gloves, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Then she jokes that every fly fisherman also needs a fish call.
“Here fishy, fishy, fishy,” she demonstrates.
Asked if fish respond, Whittenberg nods.
“That and lipstick,” she says, laughing. “You’ve got to be a proper lady out there, with lipstick on.”
Her fishing partner, Michele DeGroat, prefers wet wading on this already warm day. She wears shorts, along with her shirt, vest and hat, and a pair of fishing boots.
Both women prepare their fly fishing rods and pack their bags with water and other necessities, including a variety of artificial flies that they chose the day before. But they won’t know for sure which flies will attract the trout until they get down to the river.
Whittenberg, a 22-year fly fishing veteran, teaches the sport and offers guided trips. DeGroat is a former student who still relies on Whittenberg’s expertise.
The pair hikes along the dirt path of the Three Mile access trail until they find an unoccupied stretch of the river. A look up and down the river reveals a string of fly fishermen standing on the riverbanks or in the water, casting their lines, hoping to hook a trout.
At first, Whittenberg and DeGroat are the only two women as far as the eye can see. Later, a few of the many boats that drift down the center of the world-renowned fly-fishing haven hold
women equipped with fishing rods.
“It’s not such an oddity, like when I started,” Whittenberg says. “It’s not a novelty anymore.”
Drawing more women
A 2014 Special Report on Fishing produced by the recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation and the Outdoor Foundation seems to agree. Of the 8.7 million anglers new to the male-dominated pastime in the United States in 2013, the number “skewed heavily female,” it says.
In regard to fly fishing, which the report calls “the most male-dominated type of fishing,” 70 percent of participants in 2013 were male and 30 percent female. In 2005, the percentages were 75 percent and 25 percent, so it appears that the number of female fly casters is rising.
Like Whittenberg, Pat Straub, a guide and owner of Gallatin River Guides in Bozeman, has seen an increase in the number of female anglers over his 20 years in the business. At first it tended to be women accompanying their husbands or boyfriends.
“I started in a real small guide shop in Gardiner, and anytime we’d have a female customer it was like a ray of sunshine,” Straub says in a telephone interview. “Now it’s much more commonplace, especially in the Big Sky area where there are a lot of families.”
Another indication of that growing interest is the expanding lines of clothing and equipment geared to women. At his shop, Straub says, that includes two styles of women’s waders displayed on the wall and a full section of clothing.
“It’s still not a large facet of business and lifestyle, but it’s definitely enough that we need to pay attention to it, to educate and bring people into the sport where they enjoy it,” he said.
Noting that sometimes women can be intimidated to fish among their male counterparts, Gallatin River Guides started a free weekly women’s-only half-day class three summers ago, dubbed Gallatin River Gals. It was a time, Straub says, for women to learn how to fly fish in a relaxed atmosphere and enjoy the camaraderie of other women.
“The beginning anglers were excited and were wanting more experience,” he says. “And we found the experienced anglers were either looking for other experienced anglers to fish with or just wanted someone to fish a variety of waters with them to help them.”
This September, Straub is adding a three-day women’s fly-fishing school to offer more in-depth instruction and a broader variety of experiences. Open to six to eight women, enrollment is expected to fill quickly, but the guide hopes to offer a similar class once a month next summer.
Straub sees fly fishing as an equal-opportunity sport.
“The fish don’t care what sex you are,” he says.
Though it’s hard to generalize, Straub finds that women seem to appreciate the process of fly fishing as much as hooking a big trout. That can make them better anglers, he says, “because they relax and let the fish come to them, as opposed to forcing the fishing.”
“Women are a little more laid back; they’re there to have fun and enjoy the environment we’re fortunate to be able to fish in,” Straub says. “Most men have to catch a bunch of fish, then prop up their feet, pop a beer and say ‘this is awesome.’”
Exception to the rule
Billings resident Brandi St. George enjoys everything about fly fishing — the peaceful setting, the camaraderie when she’s with a friend or the solitude when it’s just her and her dog, Kozmo, on a mountain stream.
A day trip on the river might take her to the Bighorn or the Stillwater. But she especially enjoys mountain waters and takes a weeklong backpacking trip every summer when “the ice is off the lakes and it’s not cold and the days are still long. It’s awesome.”
“The water is so crystal clear you can see the fish coming up, rising up to grab the fly,” she says. “When that fish hits the fly — especially if you get a trout — and they sail through the air, there’s nothing cooler.”
St. George was a spin caster before she took up fly fishing at age 22. Both were thanks to her father, George St. George, a longtime outdoorsman who introduced his daughter to fishing and backpacking.
When she started out, it was more about spending time with family than focusing on her craft. But that has changed.
“I have a really competitive spirit, and I hate getting beat,” St. George, 47, says. “So I took an interest in getting better so I could out-fish men.”
On the other hand, she thinks “the men have open arms for women, for the most part.”
When she fishes with friend Karen Page, the two compete, but they also enjoy a social visit.
“And we fish closer to one another, so we can get excited when one or the other catches fish,” St. George says. “When I go with my dad or my brother, they spread out. They want their space, and they want their chunk of the river.”
When she first started fly fishing, the women she saw with fly rods were out with their boyfriends or husbands.
“I’m seeing a lot more women, both in fishing and backpacking, with other women, which is really nice,” St. George says.
A lot of people who don’t know much about fly fishing tend to think of it in terms of the movie “A River Runs Through It,” with actor Brad Pitt’s character effortlessly casting his line back and forth and landing it precisely where he wants it. St. George admits that’s not how it was for her at the start.
Her first time out on the river, she hooked her eyelid. That’s when she learned to always wear sunglasses.
“That was my first lesson,” she said. “My first year I caught the trees behind me. When you have the line running down the river, the current will cause a bow in the line and the fly won’t look natural, so you have to flip that line back up to take the drag out of it.”
That’s hard to do without jerking the fly or dragging it underwater, or catching it in the trees or snagging it on rocks, she says. To improve her technique, St. George took classes through a fishing shop, and she joined the Magic City Fly Fishers where she met “an amazing group of people” who have mentored her.
She often goes with a trio of fly-fishing buddies in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
“They are masters, and they are teaching me,” St. George says. “They love that somebody else is coming into the fold. They encourage me to learn.”
Sport for a lifetime
Page used to love to fish with a bamboo pole and a bobber on the Knife River when she was a child in North Dakota. She let go of the pastime until years later in Montana, when, at age 48, a friend who had a home in Big Sky introduced her to the fly rod.
“I caught my first wild trout on an actual fly by mistake, and that did it,” Page says during an interview at her Billings home.
She was hooked. But Page didn’t get serious about the sport until she turned 70, after she broke her shoulder and could no longer ski.
“That’s when I started really devoting a lot of time and a lot of money,” she says. “You can turn it into a really costly sport if you want to, but you can get by with a fly rod, too.”
Page met Whittenberg, who taught her a lot of her craft. Page also joined the Magic City Fly Fishers, got on the Internet to pick up tips and went fishing with people who knew more than she did.
“The glory of this sort of thing is that at 78, I can still fish 70 days a year,” Page says.
She might go out in a boat once or twice a year. But Page loves the freedom of wading, saying “there’s something healing about having water move past your legs.”
She makes certain allowances for her age, no longer fishing on her own and always taking along a wading staff, which she calls her “third leg” because it helps her balance in the stream.
Once out on the water, Page loves everything about the experience.
“When you get a good cast and it feels right and lands perfectly, it’s a sense of accomplishment because it’s hard to get that perfect cast,” she says.
Hitting the right spot, at the seam where the water currents come together, is challenging. Fly fishing requires patience, she says, but the payoff is worth it.
“Having enticed them to your fly, there’s a tug. Or if you’re really lucky doing a dry fly, you see the fish rise to the fly, and that’s really thrilling, even if you don’t catch it.”
Page takes fly fishing one step further, tying her own flies. A portable tying bench sits on her dining room table that she uses to make the flies that mimic certain waterways’ insects.
“My go-to fly is a caddis, because even if they aren’t hatching, they’re small enough that the fish is going to say, ‘hmm, I’ll try it,’ ” she says.
Page also is on a team of volunteers who go into the schools and teach students how to tie flies. It’s one way to get the next generation interested in fly fishing.
All they have to do is talk to Page about her enjoyment of the sport.
“I love being out there even if I don’t catch a fish,” she says. “There’s a sense of accomplishment just to have done it. And there’s such a sense of peace.”
Back on the Bighorn
Whittenberg stands on the rocky shore, figuring out where the fish are biting.
“You see the faster moving water right there?” she says before she ventures out. “You see where the water flattens out? Right in between those two speeds, at the riffle, fish like to lie and wait for something to come by.”
Watching Whittenberg on the water is almost hypnotic, her green fishing line making a graceful arc through the sky as she aims it at a point in the water where the fish are feeding.
This popular fly-fishing river draws anglers year round. That kind of pressure on the river makes the trout picky eaters and challenges casters to figure out what the fish are drawn to on any particular day.
On this day, Whittenberg tries a variety of dry and wet flies and exchanges her line for one the width of a strand of a hair, all to get the fish to bite.
“I guess that’s what I like best about fishing,” she says. “Because if it was so easy, it wouldn’t be a fun challenge for me.”
Whittenberg, who earned a college degree in animal science, says her task is to figure out what it’s going to take to outsmart the fish.
“You have to have the skill to deliver a weightless fly to a wild animal and make them think it’s real,” she says.
On this day it’s DeGroat who finds a spot where a feeding frenzy is in progress and manages to hook two brown trout.
“Gayle!” she says, after she feels the tug of the fish on her line.
Whittenberg slowly makes her way upstream to join DeGroat, then guides her as DeGroat slowly reels in the fish for Whittenberg to catch in a net. The hook removed, DeGroat poses for a quick photo with the trout, then gently places it back in the water to swim away.
“The fishing gods were with me,” she says later. “That was fun.”
It was also a teaching moment. DeGroat, who years before went fly fishing for her kids’ sake, has only recently taken it up now that they’ve grown up.
“I really need Gayle because I’ve had a hard time landing the fish,” she says. “To let them go and bring them in, that’s what she was helping me with.”
Whittenberg has taught fly fishing for 10 years at Montana State University Billings, as well as through community education, fly-fishing shops and private lessons. Though her profession is in the nonprofit world, she teaches the classes for the love of the sport.
“I’ve met some really great people who have helped me, enriched my life,” Whittenberg says, a few days before the trip, sitting in a coffee shop. “Now I would like to enrich other people’s lives.”
Fly fishing “takes all of your senses, and it challenges you in a way that humbles you,” Whittenberg says. But she tells her students not to get discouraged.
“You’re not going to do the breast stroke before learning the flutter kick, and you’re not going to do a Michael Jordan layup until you learn how to dribble,” she says. “We start with the basics.”
Her classes begin on land because she wants her students to learn how to manage 100 feet of line before they’re introduced to moving water. Whittenberg employs four tools: a metronome for rhythm, a pencil for the rod pattern, a paint brush for finesse and a hula hoop for a target.
She may even use a clip from the movie “A River Runs Through It” to demonstrate a type of casting described in the book of the same name as “an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between 10 and 2 o’clock.”
“You need rhythm or you’ll never reach out across the river without a good back cast,” Whittenberg says.
She also teaches river etiquette. With so many people out fly fishing, it’s important not to ruin other anglers’ experience.
“No. 1, my saying is you rig up and you look up,” Whittenberg says. “You look up to see if there are any other anglers. If they’re upstream, especially, you have to give them enough room.”
The art of fly fishing is a continuing challenge, she says. But for women and men anglers alike, it’s worth every bit of effort.
“It’s a lifetime sport, and it takes you to the prettiest places in the world.”