VT Fly Gals helps bring females into the fly fishing fold

It could have been just another get-together full of “old men in plaid” when Jamie Eisenberg showed up at a local Trout Unlimited meeting one night in 2017. For decades, the Underhill fly fisher had not felt particularly welcomed by the male-dominated chapter of the fish-focused nonprofit. But she was lonely, looking for community around fishing.

Something was different this time. In the parking lot, the license plate of a Prius proudly proclaimed its owner was a “FLYGAL.” Eisenberg needed to meet her. She walked inside and approached the only other woman she saw.

Sure enough, she found her fly gal: Nicky Paquette, former Environmental Protection Agency pharmacologist who lives in St. Albans. The plate matched the name of a Nashville group Paquette knew, the Music City Fly Gals, and within months, the two women trekked to Tennessee to fish with them.

Photo by Alissa Frame. 
Fishing on the Browns River in Jericho for a Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited meetup in October.
Photo by Alissa Frame. Fishing on the Browns River in Jericho for a Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited meetup in October.

Experiencing their energy and connection, Eisenberg thought, “I want to do that. I want that.”

So began VT Fly Gals. It started in 2020 as a Facebook page that announced events like potlucks and fly-tying sessions, or acted as a portal for people in search of a fishing buddy.

For Eisenberg, it was a monumental step. “I was all by myself for 30 years, fly fishing,” she said. No longer would the sport have to be a solo endeavor.

In the years since, the group’s numbers have expanded to 150 women, with around 50 regularly active members who are all engaged in a much-needed conversation in fly fishing.

According to a 2020 report compiled by the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation and the Outdoor Foundation, males represented 70 percent of the sport’s participants.

Eisenberg said this is no secret in the Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited chapter, one of five across the state and the one through which she met Paquette. “They admit it. We talk about the ‘old white men’ thing, and they agree that it needs to change,” she said.

But bridging the gap across demographics has not always been simple.

“It’s not easy to break into the boys club … it took me years to break in,” Eisenberg recalled. Her own journey through the fly fishing ranks started with “The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing” book, which became her Bible, she said.

Eisenberg was completely self-taught before the convenience of internet searches and YouTube videos. “The first couple of years it was an absolute mess. I would get completely wrapped up in my line and lose five flies and have a blast — and catch a fish, once in a while,” she said.

Eisenberg kept at it until she honed her skill and made more connections in the angler community. Eventually she hired a local guide to help her uncover fishing spot gems in the area. 

“He and I hit it off,” she said, and before long he was asking Eisenberg if she would join his team of guides. She agreed, and that’s when she really shook up the status quo of the boy’s club, she said. The other male guides “started to recognize that I wasn’t an idiot, and I could hold my own, and I actually could tie a pretty good fly,” Eisenberg said. 

Now, she feels quite welcomed by men in the fly fishing community, and this past spring she joined the board of directors at Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited.

Paquette’s first exposure to fly fishing was in Maryland when she decided to join the Potomac Valley Fly Fishers. She lucked out with a club that was “open arms,” she said, its members freely sharing advice and inviting her on trips. The positive culture immediately drew her in.

She proceeded to volunteer with Casting for Recovery, a nationwide organization offering fly fishing retreats for women with breast cancer. It was another rewarding experience where she felt valued and a strong sense of camaraderie. When she retired from the EPA in 2016, Paquette set down roots in Vermont, where she sought a new community for fly fishing.

A Trout Unlimited chapter seemed like the appropriate venue to check out, being a well-known fishery and conservation organization. But she found a strikingly different atmosphere from her previous fly-fishing groups, she said. 

“I found them not to be so friendly,” seeing as the demographic was mostly older men who seemed unfamiliar with women’s involvement in the sport, Paquette said. Still, she stuck with the chapter and was nominated to become secretary by the one other woman in the group at the time, who happened to be stepping down from the role.

To Eisenberg and Paquette, the universe seemed to align the night Eisenberg showed up at that Trout Unlimited meeting in 2017. It was the moment both women were waiting for: an opportunity to create community where it was lacking. The women hoped to welcome others like them into the world of fly fishing, without the intimidation or alienation that can come with being female in a male-dominated group.

VT Fly Gals, its founders thought, could be the antidote. Eisenberg made business cards that read, “VT Fly Gals,” with the Facebook page and contact information below. “I kept the business cards with me when I would go fishing, and if I found a woman on the river, I gave her a card,” Eisenberg said. This is how she attracted a majority of those involved in the group.

The promise of community is crucial because, for many women, adventuring solo outdoors comes with risks. Safety is a looming concern. As Eisenberg views it, women tend to “fish hesitantly — like, they don’t fish, because they’re scared to fish alone, and they don’t know enough.” 

Being with a group of like-minded women, “people have more confidence and feel more relaxed,” Eisenberg said.

The tide is changing at Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited these days. The chapter is trying to expand its reach across wider demographics, especially after it almost collapsed during the height of the COVID pandemic. 

“There has definitely been a change in the idea of having a more open attitude towards getting ladies involved in Trout Unlimited,” said Ed Collins, the president of the chapter. 

“Could we do better? Absolutely. We can always do better,” he added. 

A potluck at Mills Riverside Park in Jericho on one crisp, overcast afternoon this fall was one of these efforts to do better. The event brought together members of both the local Trout Unlimited chapter and the VT Fly Gals. A handful of anglers gathered under a pavilion to chat amid cups of hot cocoa, while others made their way down to the river, rods in tow.

Now there is quite a bit of overlap between Trout Unlimited and the VT Fly Gals — “groups meshing and colliding, which is really, really cool,” Eisenberg said. “Talk about dreams (coming) true … over the last four or five years, my world has expanded, and all kinds of people are meshing and going fishing and learning and fly tying.”

Catherine Todd, who is on the board of directors for Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited and serves as the fundraising committee chair, attended the Jericho potluck event with her husband and two young daughters. She explained how there is a growing number of strong women in the Trout Unlimited chapter.

“It’s a really good opportunity, I think, for women to find something that they love and care about and to be a part of it,” Todd said.

Paquette, who is now the treasurer of Champlain Valley Trout Unlimited in addition to her continued involvement with VT Fly Gals, summed up her own relationship to the sport these days, saying, “I just love being out there in the river and connecting.”

“It’s really the outdoors that I’m after,” she added. “The peacefulness, the nature, the beauty — and the challenge.”

(The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.)