Everyone has their favorite fishing spots. This little jutty is one of mine.
Last October, after no less than two full days of constant hounding, I begrudgingly agreed to a spontaneous fishing trip to the mountains of West Virginia. I couldn’t resist the innocent beckoning of the deep blue eyes belonging to my son and my nephew, and I caved. The idea of leading a wild mountain adventure with two boys, 7 and 12, is both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Knowing my fear of having my vocabulary reduced to monosyllabic words like no, don’t and stop, my daughter (23) agreed to come along for company. Or the sake of sanity. I’m still not sure which. Little did she know, but this would turn out to be HER trip.
We arrived much later than I wanted and settled into our little fisherman’s cabin that was bursting with chatter about bugs and tippet and knots and lots of words that most of the crew was just learning. We were situated just yards from the Elk River that sent songs of rushing water through the trees behind us, making the excitement palpable. So, we rigged up a few rods and headed to the water, trying to make use of the little daylight that remained.
Despite the eminent nightfall, we weren’t the only ones out and about. The banks were speckled with a few other hopeful anglers, looking with anticipation, for the beauty birthed in a river when fall rolls around. The boys immediately got distracted by sticks and rocks that were begging to be thrown and a hill that needed climbing and my daughter and I found ourselves alone on this little jutty. Our fingers were already starting to tingle with numbness as our feeble gloves failed against the strength of the autumn air and daylight was nearly gone.
At her request, one of her first lessons in fly fishing ensued.
I’m acutely aware of my own strengths, and being an instructor is NOT one of them. However, after a few example casts, some selective pointers and a bit of limited and top-level advice, I handed over my rig. Though I knew I wasn’t doing the opportunity justice, I had been waiting for this very moment for over a year. I stood nervously with bated breath as she cast and re-cast, trying to find her rhythm. I knew better than to offer coaching advice from this position because her gaze was fixed, and she was determined that we weren’t leaving that spot until there was a fish in the net. We both struggled to see her fly of choice resting on the water as the moon rose higher and higher and her own impatience grew (she gets that part honest). Her tiny frame and delicate features would never lend credibility to the fierceness in her soul, and that rainbow trout never saw his fate coming.
No words can describe the beauty of a moment like that, but, just for a second, your heart has wings. There were squeals and high-fives and happy dances and the boys showed up to help celebrate. Lost in time, we were all oblivious to the audience that had gathered on the opposite side of the river.
Every ‘first fish’ story bears repeating and hers was no different that night as we combed the bug selection in the pro-shop. Hearing her retell the details of the event got the attention of one of the guides who said, “Yeah, we had a guy come in earlier talking about how cool it was to watch some girl land her first trout on the river tonight. Said it was like magic. So, that was you, huh? Good job, sis.” And, just like that, she was an angler.
The narrative of fly fishing has typically found its home embedded in stereotypes. Individualism. Exclusivity. Inequality, unfairness and unwelcoming to women. I’ve yet to see that firsthand. And I never had such a conversation with my daughter until that night because, frankly, it feels like a soundtrack that’s gotten stuck on a loop pitting ‘us’ against ‘them’ and creating for her any preconceived bias or uncertainty would have only served to stack the deck against her.
The world most of us grew up in is burgeoning with change. Paradigms are shifting. Ideologies are being cast aside. Granted, it isn’t happening with acceptable speed, but it IS happening. While gender inequality is a real thing in many places (women earn $.80 for every $1.00 a man takes home), the river doesn’t discriminate. Trout don’t care. There’s no such thing as a ‘female fly rod’ because it’s just not necessary. I’ll still buy your waders even if you DON’T pander to me in pink. Unless trout like pink, then I’ll take two!!
Vehement stances on debatable issues are only effective when folks know what you’re FOR, not what you’re against. Anything else returns void.
To that end, anglers are FOR clean, mountain air. Crisp streams full of life-giving magnificence. Fish that fight, early morning wake-ups, riverside naps, epic floats and the never-ending challenge of mastering the flies in their box. And, at the end of the day, we’re for each other. The elements binding us together are disproportionately greater than any differences, perceived or real. Truthfully, we’re all just walking each other home.
The ignorance of a few CANNOT pave the way for many unless we acquiesce our position as…. well, human. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This is YOUR story. Write a good one and edit it often. Refuse to hand over the pencil to an unqualified author with nothing to argue but colorful opinions steeped in experiential bias. Because feelings aren’t facts. There’s a difference.
The last time I went car shopping, the very first question out of the salesman’s mouth was, “What color were you thinking about, honey?” Class, unlike a double haul, can’t be taught. There’s always ‘one bad apple’ and some of us seem to be a magnet for the sort. We can’t allow those isolated experiences, or snippets from our past, to cause us to paint wide strokes with a broad brush. Moreover, we can’t let the stories and experiences of others steal from us the opportunity to forge our OWN opinions. Even if they are unpopular opinions. Curiosity is strength. Only the wise know to ask questions. And you are the same kind of different as me. We all want someplace to fit it. The collective, rallying cry among us is a plea for true belonging.
But true belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.
You don’t wander into the wilderness unprepared. Standing alone in a hypercritical environment or standing together in the midst of difference requires one tool above all others: trust. To brave the wilderness and become the wilderness, we must learn how to trust ourselves (and others).
True belonging is a spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who YOU are; it requires you to BE who you are. ~ Brene Brown.
Just show up. And keep showing up. Don’t wait for an invitation. Don’t wait for life to be fair because, as my mother always reminds me, ‘life ain’t fair.’ Build your own table if no one saves you a seat at theirs. Hold your ground, and let others see you break a sweat doing it. The purported incongruousness in the fly-fishing industry are, at best, subjective.
My daughter will never have to run interception on a story that doesn’t belong to her. She’ll never wait around for some cameo part in the movie of life because someone with an outdated, grossly ill-constructed and misguided perspective tells her there’s no room for her in the script. She belongs and she knows it. She was born wildly capable (and so were you). I’ve told her that since birth. More importantly, I never told her that others believed her INcapable. I’m an angler. My gender is irrelevant. I need no permission to rise.
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