On a Wednesday morning in mid-December, Cari Ray drives her dark green Toyota Tundra into the parking lot of Lazy L&L Campground in New Braunfels. There’s a hockey puck–size Zen Fly Fishing sticker on the outside of the truck. Inside, each nook and cranny is jammed with rods, waders, and gear. “My truck looks like a fly shop exploded in it,” Ray says as she hops out. From her home in Granite Shoals near the shores of Lake LBJ, she owns School of Zen Fly Fishing, a school and guide business. Ray is also a member of the Texas Women Fly Fishers (TWFF), a 22-year-old club that organizes trips and retreats throughout the state and to places like Broken Bow, Oklahoma.

As someone whose knowledge of fly-fishing was limited to its achingly cinematic depiction in A River Runs Through It, I was in New Braunfels to see another side of the sport. I wanted to experience a version of fly-fishing that doesn’t star handsome white men in Montana, like “that movie,” as many fly-fishing diehards call it. Women like Ray and TWFF president Joan Swartz are working to smash gender stereotypes. Rejecting the notion that the sport is reserved for the Brad Pitts and Robert Redfords of the world, they welcome new members and lend out gear to keep it affordable. About 31 percent of fly-fishers in America are women, and TWFF has 139 single memberships and 43 family memberships. Those numbers are growing, but not as quickly as they would like. “Every female fly-fisher has been harassed,” Swartz says. “It’s like a locker room culture that the guys have.”

As one of the few female guides in Texas (she credits local female fly-fishing pioneer Raye Carrington as an inspiration), Ray has plenty of stories about that macho culture. She’s been heckled online and in the water. In fact, later that day out on the Guadalupe, we’ll paddle by a pair of fishermen who glare at us so intently, I’ll swear their disdain radiates through their polarized sunglasses.

“It’s like dying by a thousand little stab wounds,” Ray says of the misogynistic comments and disapproving stares. “You can be left out or ostracized. It’s almost worse if you’re good. I choose to take it as a compliment that they feel threatened.” Ray and Swartz—who makes her own flies and wears a cap pinned with her colorful, fuzzy designs—are quick to point out that not all men who fly-fish are this way. Alvin Dedeaux, who lives in Austin and runs All Water Guides with his wife, Lenée, works hard to shift misconceptions about the sport. Lenée says they want to “break through and dismantle that narrative of wealthy white men having the most access.” Refuting decades-old notions isn’t easy, though. 

Texas Women Fly Fishers Are Angling for Respect
Dana Williams, Alex Huffman, Joan Swartz, Adrienne Barnett, and Keira Quam of Texas Women Fly Fishers in Aquila.Sonja Sommerfeld/TPWD

“I’m not gonna sugarcoat it,” Lenée says. “It’s a hard go here in Texas.” She describes the state’s fly-fishing scene as “male-dominated and not very welcoming. It may have chewed me up and spit me out a few times.” These days, she spends more time running the business than she does fishing for bass. There’s resignation in her voice when she talks about her reasons for taking a break from the water. “I would compare the things that happen on the boat ramp to Mad Men,” she says. “Clients would grab my butt or heckle me.”

Brooke Curtis, a Houston-based member of TWFF and Brown Folks Fishing, says most male guides she’s met are supportive of women, but every once in a while, “you get the look like you don’t belong there.” She fell in love with the sport a few years ago, and says it’s a form of meditation that’s become crucial for her mental health. “I love seeing people who look like me on the water, or people with backgrounds that are not traditionally seen in ads,” she says.

In a report published last month, researchers with the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation found that eight in ten women thought of men when asked to imagine someone who is good at fishing. The survey asked female anglers what needs to change to inspire more women to pick up a fly rod, and one respondent, referring to magazine ads, said, “Enough with the pink camo.” When I bring this up with Ray, she has a pithy phrase to describe this kind of advertising: “If they’re marketing to women, they pink it and shrink it.”

Despite a few glares, the time I spend on the Guadalupe with Ray and Swartz is lovely. Heavy winds and a dense cover of fallen leaves make it tough to catch anything but cypress, but watching Ray and Swartz cast their lines and wax poetic about cichlids and sunfish is pretty entertaining. After some discussion of flow rates and a little arduous rowing to find a new, hopefully luckier spot, they anchor the boat. Ray hands me a fly rod, shows me the basics, and I start casting.

Ray grew up on a seventy-acre “mostly wooded slice of paradise” in Indiana before working as a creative director and entrepreneur, and later going on the road as a touring musician with her wife, Dionne, and their country blues band, Cari Ray & the Shaky Legs. They drove their RV across the U.S. and played shows wherever they could. When the pandemic hit, they “took the wheels off the house” and settled in Granite Shoals. Ray is “not great at sitting still.” In her thirties, she started to realize she was taking up hobbies that forced her to slow down. Golf, wood carving, and meditation all helped a bit, but fly-fishing was the one that really brought her a sense of peace. When she’s on the water, her worries fade. “Everything else just goes away, by necessity,” Ray says. “If my line is tangled up, it can either derail my day or I can choose to let it be a part of my zen. I get to decide.”

Swartz grew up fly-fishing in the North Georgia mountains with her parents. Her preferred angling buddy is her eighty-year-old mother. When she moved to Texas in 2005, she was a “cold-water snob” and figured she’d have to travel if she wanted to break out a fly rod. She soon joined TWFF, met like-minded women, and discovered trout season on the Guadalupe. Swartz has also found favorite spots on the Pedernales, Brushy Creek, the Llano River, and even the pond at Austin’s Camp Mabry, near her home: “I can fish anywhere, anytime.”  

That day on the Guadalupe we didn’t have much luck, but I did learn to practice patience, a trait that I am sorely lacking. If there are more than three people in the checkout line at H-E-B, I nearly lose my mind, so shrinking the world down to two points of focus—looking for fish and watching the bobber and fly—felt monumental, in a zen sort of way.

It’s called fishing, not catching, as Ray says, but since we didn’t have any luck on the first try, I wanted to give it another go. So on a warm January day we meet at Living Waters Fly Fishing, in Round Rock. Swartz shows up and we head inside to check out some flies. One of the pleasures of this hobby, I realize, is collecting and sorting through all the tackle. There are small crawfish flies with teeny foam claws, flies made with deer or elk hair, micro poppers, and flies with names like Colonel Kurtz, Dali Lama, and Peanut Envy. “Sometimes the names aren’t very supportive of women,” Swartz says as she recites a litany of fly monikers like Two Bit Hooker and Pole Dancer. After she and Ray pick some new flies (no Pole Dancers), we head out and wade into the cold waters of Brushy Creek, ditching the boat to try the fixed-line method of fishing, a Japanese-inspired style that uses a telescopic rod and a fixed length of line. Some say this approach is limiting, in that you can catch only smaller fish, but Ray sees it as “purposeful limitation, like a haiku.” If anyone doubts her, she shows them a photo of her holding up a huge Guadalupe bass she caught with a fixed line.

We’re the only people on that stretch of Brushy Creek. Once again, my focus narrows to watching the bobber. Ray snags several sunfish, but the large bass that Swartz spotted from the bank of the creek remains elusive. No matter, though. We are just three women out on the water, biding our time, watching the shadows shift just below the surface.