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Women on the Fly

Fly fishing guide J Michelle Swope talks conservation, strides made for women in fly fishing, and Women on the Fly.

Growing up on the Hood Canal in Washington State, J Michelle Swope recalls her first fly fishing experience. Her father, a cop who worked the graveyard shift, took her fishing for her seventh birthday. Tired from his recent shift he slept in the car and she ventured off by herself in a canoe. She watched in fascination as a group waded into the water, cast their rods, and caught fish. Excited to understand what she had just seen she woke him up, demanding to know what she had just seen. He told her it was called fly fishing.

A Passion is Born

Within a week she had received her first fly rod and fly tying kit from her dad. As a result, she’s never looked back. J Michelle recalls clipping hair off the family farm animals to see how their hair worked on her rod. Until her mom sat her and her siblings down to tell them the family dog had to be put down. Her mom explained that the dog had been losing hair and had likely acquired mange. She remembers having to fess up to cutting fur off the family dog.

J Michelle began taking fly fishing classes in the 70’s and early 80’s. And she remembers how it became “an all-consuming deal” for her. She now teaches casting, fly tying and fly fishing and reflects on the strides the industry has made towards the inclusion of women.

In the Beginning

“Industry has absolutely changed,” she says, “A ton. As a whole it’s very welcoming to women who have done it for as long as I have, as well as young girls [who are] learning.”

This, however, has not always been her experience.

In the early 70’s J Michelle begged her dad to take her to a well known fly shop in Seattle. It soon became apparent that without her dad present, she was not going to get any help from owners or workers at the fly shops. At best she recalls being ignored. At worst she was ridiculed for “having boobs” and being a fly fisher. Workers even attempted to sell her the wrong material.

“I’m stubborn and I don’t give a shit and I’m very extroverted,” she says. “So I would tend to go back at those shops and the owners and gents working there saying, ‘I really want that chenille for my Pat’s Stone so either you have it, or you don’t.’”

J Michelle has always had a bold personality and has never felt incapable of handling herself.She did, however, begin to worry about the other ladies who were interested in the sport. She worried about them having the door slammed in their face. Rather than hoping it would change, she did something about it.

In the mid-90’s she began making a list and broadcasting names of fly shops she would not go into because of how they treated women. “I’m never going to send a woman into a fly shop where she’s not going to be treated like a consumer. Like a contributing human being who has every right and reason to be there. Those of us who can stand up for ourselves should stand up for those who can’t.”

An Industry Shift

Since then, she says, the list has gone way down in terms of places she tells women not to go. And she says she is “super supportive” of the places she goes to that are “worth their salt”. She attributes this shift to a couple factors.

First of all, she believes younger men are just being raised differently. They are being taught to respect women more. Furthermore, she believes people are changing their tune because of numbers. Women are the only growing demographic in fly fishing within the United States.

Currently, there are about six million women who fly fish in the U.S. That’s not a small number and any marketer or fly fish shop owner is going to pay attention to that. The demographic has helped change the way shop owners talk, the culture of their establishments, and what inventory they carry. Many have even seen the benefit of holding classes taught by women. “Women learn differently from men. Through behavioral science studies it has been shown that we learn better from each other,” says J Michelle.

Responsible Conservation

“If we’re going to continue to enjoy the resources that we’ve been enjoying, we’re going to have to step up our game and start taking care of them more – not just monetarily or in name only.”

Around 2014, an organization J Michelle is involved with, Trout Unlimited, realized they had a PR problem. For one, they were being recognized as a fishing club when in fact they saw themselves as a coldwater conservation organization. They began a women’s initiative and started holding meet and greets, using fly fishing as a way to get people into conservation.  “When you teach someone to fly fish, a conservationist is born.”

J Michelle also recognizes Heather Hudson as one of the catalysts for opening the door to more women in fly fishing. In 2015, Hudson formed Spokane Women on the Fly, paving the way for J Michelle to follow in 2016 with the opening of her own company, Oly Women on the Fly, based in Olympia, Washington. Oly Women on the Fly instructs women in the area of fly fishing, and also helps to educate participants on conservation programs.

Collectively, Oly Women on the Fly, Spokane Women on the Fly, and Trout Unlimited now have the largest group of active women in fly fishing in the U.S. (per capita). Hudson also started United Women on the Fly. The network of women across the U.S. support each other through a love of fly fishing and conservation.

Advice for Women Interested in Fly Fishing

If you’re a woman wanting to get involved in fly fishing J Michelle has some really easy advice: “Google ‘women in my area fly fishing’,” she says. “The internet has accelerated the way we connect with each other. Something is going to pop up. A person’s name, a shop name – and any shop worth its salt will either have a program for women or know women you can connect with.” Additionally, she suggests reaching out to other women who are fly fishing who will likely be able to steer you towards classes and events that will help you learn more.

She also says there are many nonprofits that do conservation work. They will probably be a great place to tap into. “Chances are, folks doing conservation work around rivers, streams, ground water, and beaches – there’s gonna be people who are also interested in fishing.”

Favorite Fishing Spot

Many of you may be wondering, as I was, where her favorite fishing spot is. “My favorite fishing spot is where the fish are biting,” she says. “It’s dependent on the time of year and what’s running.” But in reality, her heart will always belong to the Elwha river. The spot she describes as “Home” and “Heaven”. The spot where she first began fly fishing and caught her first fish at the age of 7 ½.

If you’re a woman interested in finding resources or learning more about fly fishing, or looking to connect with other women fly fishers, feel free to reach out to J Michelle via email at or by phone 360 349 0743.

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