ROANOKE, Va. — Kim Brannock became fascinated by fly fishing after watching "A River Runs Through It," a 1992 film starring Brad Pitt. Years later, a co-worker taught her to fly fish during lunch breaks, when she practiced casting underneath the St. Johns Bridge on the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon.
"Besides falling in love with Brad Pitt, I fell in love with that cast," said Brannock, who lives in Bend, Oregon, and designs fly fishing gear for Patagonia. "I was hooked."
Women are the fastest growing demographic in fly fishing, one of the most male-dominated outdoor sports. That has presented a host of challenges, including finding proper gear, navigating the pitfalls of social media and even developing an awareness for self-defense skills in the outdoors.
Industry leaders say women are the only growing demographic in the sport, which is why they are so crucial to cultivate. Women make up about 31 percent of the 6.5 million Americans who fly fish, according to the most recent study by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. In 2016, more than 2 million women participated in the sport, an increase of about 142,000 from the previous year.
A new initiative, begun over the summer and led by equipment and apparel company Orvis, in partnership with Simms, Costa and Yeti, has among its objectives the goal of an even gender split in fly fishing by 2020. In the spring, the program will expand to offer outreach events to educate women on gear choices, selection and function; plan classes to build skills and confidence on the water; and arrange mentoring opportunities for future female guides, shop employees and industry leaders.
"It's completely crazy that fly fishing has been identified as a man's sport," said Kate Taylor, a fly fishing guide who recently returned from leading a group of six women in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
"It takes so much patience and nurturing," she added. "It deepens our connection to natural rhythms, and that brings humility and the understanding that you are part of something that's much larger than our own personal self."
DUN, a quarterly magazine dedicated to women and fly fishing, began online in 2013 and printed its first edition this year. Jen Ripple, the magazine's editor, called the sport "empowering."
"There's something about getting out on the river and catching a fish on your own that makes you stronger," she said.
Jess McGlothlin, a female instructor and photographer from Bozeman, Montana, said the sport was attractive for different reasons.
"Many women I teach to fish are in it less for the fishing itself, and more for the excuse to be outside," she said. "Many liken it to yoga; a quiet, meditative getaway from daily stressors."
Camille Egdorf, a guide with Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures in Bozeman, said women working as guides — and women hiring their services — were becoming more common. Sometimes, she said, those trips can prove the most rewarding.
Egdorf gave as an example a guided fishing trip with a veteran angler husband and his wife, a novice. She gave tips on ways to fish the river and to slow down the back cast. The husband ignored Egdorf, but the wife listened and had a more productive day, catching five fish for every one he caught.
"He had a pretty rough day because he didn't listen," she said. "It happens all the time: The wife outfishes the husband, and it drives the husband nuts."
More women in the sport has led manufacturers and suppliers to tailor equipment to them. In 2012, the Patagonia fishing director, Bart Bonime, reached out to Brannock for help redesigning one of his company's wading jackets. Brannock also helped design waders for women, and Patagonia started a full line for women in 2015.
"We didn't want to take a men's wader and dumb
it down and color differently for women," Bonime said. "Women don't want something that's designed for a man. They want something that's designed for them."
Female body types vary more than men's, but there were practical issues, too: figuring out a way to go to the bathroom in waders without having to get undressed was among the major challenges in developing the line, Bonime said. A drop-seat function fixed the problem.
"Because it's so male-dominated, you're on the river with guys a lot," Brannock said. "You're always in the position where you have to go to the bathroom and it's just awkward. It's awkward no matter what. But now it's better."
Simms Fishing Products consults with Egdorf on what gear works and what does not, and it plans to release a women's line in the spring.
For guide April Vokey, the challenge was not finding the right gear, but buying it. She was among several female anglers who said a big hurdle was the men who work in fly shops.
"When I would go get gear, I was immediately met with a problem," Vokey said. "Even when I became successful, they still made it really hard on me."
Brannock said fly shops can be intimidating for women. "Women don't want to feel pandered to," she said. "I walk into a fly shop and they look at me like I'm lost."
Bonime has a simple solution: Fly shop employees should greet customers, make sure the bathroom is clean, and have female employees and a full-length mirror.
"When you walk into your fly shop, you have some grizzled-haired kid behind the counter drinking a PBR," he said. "It's not a welcoming environment."
The gender issues in fly fishing go deeper than ill-fitting waders, though. Using social media to showcase women fly fishing is part of the new initiative, but the rising profile is not without its critics. Several female fishing stars have become bikini-clad YouTube sensations.
Vokey, who has more than 85,000 followers on Instagram, calls them "cupcakes in waders" or "fly-fishing Barbie dolls."
Egdorf said: "Women that feel they need to show a lot of skin in order to get a following is frustrating. It sends the wrong message. But people see through that pretty quickly — the girl holding up a fish in her bikini with her nails all done and makeup on and her hair perfect. People see what's authentic and what's not."
She has had positive experiences with more traditional social media efforts. Egdorf was recently featured in a video for Yeti titled "Odd Man Out." The video describes her upbringing at her parents' fishing guide service in Alaska, her workout routine and her experiences as a guide.
"Just because you're a girl doesn't mean you can't do this just as well as a guy," she said in the video.
A few young girls started corresponding with Egdorf after seeing the video, she said. One started a fly fishing club in her hometown. "It's a pretty incredible feeling that I honestly wasn't expecting," Egdorf said.
The challenges women face while fishing were discussed during the annual Trout Unlimited meeting this fall in Roanoke, Virginia. When the subject of self-defense came up, several women made suggestions on ways to protect themselves from predators, both human and wild: Use a whistle, carry pepper spray, fish in groups, carry a gun, or take a basic self-defense course.
Jackie Kutzer, a guide for Orvis and one of the architects of the new initiative, said, "You don't want every woman on the river strapped with a gun, but these are the kind of issues that are coming up and we need to address them."
Taylor, a guide, said female fly anglers simply want their own personal experience.
"Women want to feel that it's OK to be out there," she said. "That's all."