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Women Hooked on Saltwater Flyfishing

Flyfishing Fad Has Increased Woman Participants

by Becky Garrison

When saltwater guides began poling the sandy flats and wading the beaches of North America, the sight of a female guide was a rare sight. However, an increasing number of women flyfishing professionals have joined the ranks of their male counterparts. Of 1,100 Orvis endorsed flyfishing guides, 50 are women. These women chose to make their livelihood from flyfishing for basically the same reason male guides do - the love and beauty of the sport, as well as the thrill of introducing others to the thrill of landing a fish on a fly.

Capt. Merrily Dunn, Orvis Endorsed Guide through CB's Saltwater Outfitters, Sarasota, FL

Captain Merrily Dunn bass fishing
Captain Merrily Dunn (R) and friend Leiza Fitzgerald (L) proudly present their catch.

When Capt. Dunn was a preteen, her father took her fishing from bridges and piers with spinning outfits. While high school and boys interfered with her fishing, she returned to the sport when she moved to Manatee-Sarasota area in 1986. Merrily began fishing for bass and brim on an aluminum 14-foot boat, graduating from freshwater to saltwater fishing.

Her first fish caught on a fly was a small Jack Crevalle, which she landed while wading in a protected basin. After she hooked the jack, a dolphin started to pursue her fish. All she ended up with was the head of the fish.

After working five years in the one-hour photo lab retail business, Merrily answered an ad in a local paper for a manager of an Orvis store. While she relished her introduction to the sport of flyfishing, she missed the outdoors. Eventually, Merrily left the confines of the store to work as a full-time saltwater guide.

Presently, Capt. Dunn casts for the wide variety of species available in the waters of Southwest Florida. She stalks tarpon along beaches, catches redfish and snook on the sandy flats, casts to cruising jack Crevalles, works the grassy flats for spotted sea trout, as well as landing the occasional ladyfish or bluefish. Of all these species, she finds tarpon to be the most challenging, as she has yet to have a tarpon stay on her line long enough to even call it a catch.

Capt. Dunn can be found year round guiding clients on her 18-foot flats skiff or tying some snook flies and a couple of pompano patterns.

During the fall and winter, she conducts clinics for women. She's also been an instructor at the Bradenton Herald's Fishing College and Ladies Let's Go Fishing. As a member of CCA Florida, the Snook Foundation and the International Women's Fishing Association, she has won several awards and raised money for fishery causes by participating in catch and release fishing tournaments.

The most common question Capt. Dunn hears is "How do you handle the bathroom situation?" She finds her biggest problem is being taken seriously. Often, guys think she can't stay out all day fishing. Also, Merrily notes that it's easier to stay feminine while guiding now that manufacturers are making fishing clothes tailored to fit the needs of women flyfishers.

Capt. Lynne Heyer, Cross Rip Outfitters, Nantucket, MA

Growing up on Nantucket Island, Capt. Heyer lived close to Miacomet Pond and was surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. While Lynne cannot recollect when she landed her first fish, she remembers clearly catching her first fish on a fly. She and her mother Phyllis anchored her skiff on the flats. After she cast a chartreuse/white clouser, her rod bent, the fly disappeared and the chase was on. A tingling feeling went down the back of her neck as she landed a beautiful striper on her line.

Presently, Lynne is a licensed captain and co-owner with husband Capt. Jeffrey Heyer of Cross Rip Outfitters, a fly shop and guide service located on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. On the water you can find her either poling the flats in Tippet, a 20-foot Robalo rigged with a poling platform for the flats or fishing the rips and south shore of the island in Rip Tide, a 27-foot sportfish.

Capt. Lynne Heyer's greatest challenge remains putting male clients at ease with her fishing ability especially when she is poling the flats. Sight fishing for stripers on the Nantucket flats clearly tops Capt. Heyer's list of favorite saltwater fishing adventures. Even though this type of fishing can be some of the most difficult, stalking the fish and watching the take proves to be very rewarding. While she mostly poles for stripers, she caught a 100 plus pound tarpon while fishing the back country of Florida.

Nancy Zakon, Casting Instructor
Nancy Zakon, Casting Instructor, Key Largo, FL

Nancy Zakon, FFA Casting Instructor and Orvis Fresh Water Advisor

When Nancy Zakon was ten years old, her father introduced her to a family ritual by taking her fishing with the bamboo fly rods he inherited from his father. She didn't realize she had hooked her first fish until she retrieved the line and found a small brim at the end. Since she didn't' know how to take the fish off the hook, she had to drag the fish home.

After this childhood introduction to fly fishing, Nancy abandoned the sport until she met her future husband. He had been given a fly rod and wasn't sure what to do with it. Since Nancy knew how to flyfish, the two went fishing. In the early '90s, she began working with the Orvis New York store, where she served as a freshwater advisor and helped Orvis develop the women's market in the Manhattan area. She founded Julianna's Anglers, a New York City based women's flyfishing club in 1995.

Presently, Nancy teaches salt and freshwater flyfishing to men and women, gives flyfishing demonstrations and hopes to start a women's saltwater flyfishing club in the Florida Keys. Nancy finds that flyfishers with experience in freshwater flyfishing find it easier to handle the gear when making the transition to saltwater flyfishing.

While Nancy enjoys fishing for both tarpon and trout, her favorite fish to date was a 95 pound pacific sailfish that took her an hour to reel in. Nancy compares fishing for a fish of this size to breaking in a horse. She notes, "You can sense the spirit of a trophy fish. If you can break the fish's spirit, then you can land it more quickly." With strength and finesse needed to reel in this large a species, Nancy considers fighting trophy saltwater fish to be the X-treme sport for saltwater flyfishers.

Capt. Sarah Gardner, Flat Out Flyfishing and Light Tackle Charters, Nags Head, NC.

As a child, Sarah would go baitrodding using cans of corn and worms. She became attracted to flyfishing after she had been flying birds of prey for several years. Like falconry, fly fishing requires skill, thought, and a complete understanding of the environment. At first Sara instructed other flyfishers and tried her hand at outdoor writing. After moving to Nags Head, North Carolina, she hooked up with guide, who is now her husband, and obtained her captain's license.

Capt. Gardner guides out of Oregon Inlet for most of the year. From October to November, she trailers her boat 100 miles south to Harkers Island for the false albacore season. She describes this experience as down and dirty fishing, where six guides sleep in a shack with one shower. For Sarah, false albacore represent the epitome of everything she wants in a saltwater fish - a blast to cast towards, a handful to fight, and a beautiful fish all around. She ties all her own flies with variations to match the baitfish that inhabit Oregon Inlet.

As Capt. Gardner notes, often people come down unprepared. She feels there's a need for her to get her clients up to speed, so they can have an enjoyable day fishing the Outer Banks of North Carolina. At times she can hear folks on other boats whisper "there's the women I've heard about," Capt. Gardner finds that most saltwater flyfishers are very accepting of a woman guide. As she states, "I let my actions speak for myself. I just speak softly and cast a big stick."

Lori-Ann Murphy, Reel Women Outfitters ®, Victor, Idaho

As a child, Lori-Ann spent summers in Sierra Mountains of California fishing for trout using worms, cheese and marshmallows. After a hiatus from fishing during her teens, she began fishing for steelhead in her early 20s, while living in Seattle and working as a nurse. In 1989, she moved to Victor, Idaho to become Director of Public Health and started guiding in Montana and Colorado. While trout tug at her heart, Lori-Ann remains haunted by tarpon. Even though she's had a 28 giant tarpon on her line, Lori has yet to one of these majestic beauties.

After working as the fly casting instructor on the movie The River Wild in 1993, Lori-Ann quit her nursing career and founded Reel Women Outfitters ® in 1994. As an Orvis endorsed guide, she sponsors programs for women anglers in fishing spots throughout the world for both fresh and saltwater flyfishing. While Lori offers casting instruction and clinics during Reel Women trips, she relies on local guides when fishing saltwater destinations, such as Sarasota, Naples, Vero Beach, Belize, Bahamas, Cancun, and other tropical destinations.

Also, Reel Women Outfitters ® sponsors professional guide schools for women flyfishers. Each school session attracts 15 to 20 women rang per ranging in age from 20 to 70. Lori-Ann estimates that a quarter of the attendees want to be a professional flyfishing guide and the remaining students want to increase their skills.

When Lori-Ann began flyfishing, she felt everyone had their eyes on her. She recalls one incident about 5 years ago when she was rowing a couple down the Snake River. She came across an old timer sitting in a little camp chair who was fishing by the bank using minnows. He looked up and said, "Well I'll be damned. I've seen it all - girl guide." Now, Lori-Ann seldom gets stares except when she's guiding a group of women to a far-flung destination.

Contact Information

Capt. Merrily Dunn
1912-29th Ave. W.
Brandenton, FL 34205-5249

Capt. Lynne Heyer
Cross Rip Outfitters, Ltd.
24 Easy Street
Nantucket, MA 02554

Capt. Sarah Gardner
Flat Out Flyfishing and Light Tackle Charters
P. O. Box 387
Nags Head, NC 27959

Lori-Ann Murphy
Reel Women Outfitters ®, Inc.
P. O. Box 289
Victor, Idaho 33455

Nancy Zakon
31 Pumpkin Cay Road #A
Key Largo, FL 33037