Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

All fly fishers have to deal with winter, unless they live in the tropics. I’ve spent my entire life in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where average winters are still severe enough, despite Climate Change, to make winter fishing uncomfortable and low-percentage and sometimes impossible. Even modest destination travel is not in my budget. I must amuse myself with other things during the months when cold weather, ice, and snow are the norm.

Although I tie flies the year around, I do a lot more tying in winter. During the fishing season, my tying is almost exclusively devoted to replenishing depleted stocks of workhorse fly patterns. I occasionally run into a hatch or fishing situation for which I am not prepared, and must to do some ad hoc tying to deal with it. Time spent at my tying bench during the winter is more recreational in nature. I experiment with new materials, and with fly patterns I find in magazines or on-line. I browse the books in my personal fly tying library to find new ideas or rediscover old ones I’d forgotten.

The winter months bring requests from nearby Trout Unlimited chapters and other fishing clubs for tying demonstrations and seminars. I enjoy this activity, regardless of the gender composition of the audience. I must confess, however, that I particularly enjoy the tying programs I do for the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association.

We have few experienced tyers in the DVWFFA. Most are at a beginner to low-intermediate level. Some seem to tie only when we hold a club tying event, and are what I refer to as “perpetual beginners.” I often have to review such fundamentals as how to thread and hold a bobbin, and how to get the working thread started on the hook. I really don’t mind this.

The key to avoiding frustration for both instructor and student is to keep expectations realistic. Most of these women are never going to become accomplished fly tyers. No matter, that’s not why they’re there. They come to enjoy a pleasant afternoon in the company of women with whom they share a common interest–fly fishing and, to a lesser extent, fly tying. So we tie our flies, and talk of fish we hope to catch with them come spring.

Some of these women have already had the wonderful experience of catching a few fish on flies they’ve tied themselves. The fish did not care that their flies were not exquisite examples of the fly tyer’s art, so why should they? A common and very useful compliment used to encourage struggling beginner fly tyers is this: “That fly will catch fish.” And those not-so-workmanlike flies are indeed capable of catching fish–so long as it’s possible to get the tippet through the eye of the hook and for the point of the hook to engage a fish’s mouth. The thrill of having success with a fly we’ve tied with our own hands is what keeps us coming back to try again, and perhaps to improve as a tyer.

I love tying flies with both my male and female fly fishing friends. It’s different with a group of women, though. Not better and not worse, just different. I think this arises, in part, from an ancient, cultural dynamic: that of a group of women sitting sociably together and cooperatively performing some useful task. It can be food preparation, crafting, or anything similar. Think quilting bees, sewing circles—or tying flies.

One time a group of DVWFFA members rented a cabin in Potter County, Pennsylvania to enjoy fishing the beautiful mountain trout streams there. The Susquehannock Forest Cabins are owned and operated by Steve and Laura Benna, very nice folks. One evening not long after they had married, Steve asked Laura to run up to Hemlock Cabin to collect payment for the rental. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with this request but Steve said not to worry, the renters were a group of women. When Laura came in and saw us sitting around the table surrounded by, among other things, spools of thread and hanks of yarn, she asked, “Oh, what are you sewing?” We didn’t make much of this, we simply told her we were tying flies. Years later Laura finally confessed to me that she was utterly mortified by this incident and worried that we must have thought she was an idiot. I assured her that none of us had thought anything of the kind. It was a natural enough assumption to make.

The DVWFFA holds its winter tying events at the homes of members, usually starting at lunchtime. Depending on the preference of the host, she may provide a lunch for everyone or we may have a potluck, with each of us contributing an item. We sit down and eat and catch up with one another, then settle down to our fly tying. A plate of cookies or a dish of candy or nuts often finds its way onto the table, and many tyers keep a glass of wine or other beverage near at hand to fortify themselves for the job.

Our most recent tying event found us at the home of Bonnie Miller. She set out quite a feast for us, including a spectacular platter of smoked fish specialties, with bagels, rye breads and cream cheese on the side and a delicious home-made Kugel (a Jewish noodle pudding) and other goodies. Bonnie’s friendly Golden Retriever Hank made us all feel very welcome. Once the food came out he worked the room steadily, hoping for a hand-out. Despite a general lack of success, he did his mooching in a very low-key and mannerly fashion. He was hard to resist, as anyone who has looked into the eyes of a Golden will know. Several of the ladies threatened to take him home with them–as if that could ever happen.

It’s been a bit of a struggle for our instructors to figure out how best to configure our tying events. We have a lot of beginners, but also a few intermediates that are looking to be challenged a bit. We’ve tried offering separate programs for each, and that hasn’t worked well. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that our members have no frame of reference to evaluate their fly tying level or capabilities. Beginners who have never tied before know they are beginners. Those who have a bit of experience are more problematic. They have tied enough to be bored with very simple patterns and want a challenge—yet not to be frustrated. It’s a fine line to walk when choosing patterns to tie.

Currently we have decided to offer our programs as “all levels.” We do three patterns, one very simple, one a bit more difficult, and one fairly challenging for all but the most advanced among us. Even then one has to be careful in choosing what to tie. The good news is that, no matter what, we always have fun. That, after all, is the goal of the entire enterprise.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing Mary. Yes, off-seasons (for all sports in fact) are always a time of reflection, reminiscence, sharing and prep for the next cycle. It’s one more way that Fly Fishing gives us participatory options despite the weather. I remember the year-to-year differences in winter’s severity as a kid being pretty much identical to what I see now–some years I “rushed the season” in the dead of the bleak months by trying to get out with ice still covering lakes and ponds; other winters sent us no ice or snow to deal with at all and a person could have played golf (if a person had such a mind) all winter long; still other years were too brutal to let fishing even be attempted. It only means our temperate North American climate has & will always serve up change, sometimes radical, sometimes not…and the guessing and discomfort (hopefully) steels the character. 🙂

    You mention that a gathering of fly-tying women has a different “feel” to it than one largely consisting of men, and you offer some telling insights as to why, such as vestiges of age-old patterns in our species. I think you’re very insightful in saying so. And I might offer one other plausible factor, that being that thought structures–and therefore conversational focus and flow–tend to differ between the genders in numerous ways. While such tendencies remain generalizations rather than rules, in my humble opinion it’s because, while we’re the same species, our “life strategies” remain different enough that our approach to ideas, challenges, priorities and responses “tend” to exhibit marked differences as well.

    I remember writing for a company newsletter long ago–I was part of a large group of contributing planners and content developers who would rarely but occasionally get together in advance of some big issue (like a year’s end edition or an April Fool’s edition). While I could easily discuss ideas and tasks on-on-one with the editor or perhaps with her and one or two of her other writers, these large gatherings, 99% of which were women, left me so thoroughly unable to even follow a group-wide conversation, let alone form and interject opinions and suggestions, that I had no choice but to sit like a lump and do my best to just uselessly try to follow. The reason was that the flow of conversation, the degree if multi-tasking within each conversation, and the methods whereby ideas were explored and consensus gained, were so foreign to me that I was lost. It was quite a lesson: Group dynamics can vary greatly and are nearly as critical as speaking the same language. It takes learning, practice, and a LOT of experience, none of which I had acquired up to then.

    The above is populist heresy all, yet still no less true for being so. I think that tying flies, or any common interest “craft,” in such a group mix can really help the conversational flow. So I thank you for helping sponsor in me a “new twist” revelation on the subject! Should I ever find myself “thoroughly outnumbered” in such a mix again, I’m going to whip out a vise, slap a big pile of feathers on the table, and start a dubbing loop. Yes, that’ll be the right way to handle it. : )

    Thanks again; I enjoyed the article. It’s the perfect time of year to absorb your perceptions! I also enjoyed your description of the “hope” that remains in flies tied less than perfectly. That scenario fits my own output more than I’d like to admit. : )

    – Mike

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed my article, Mike. I agree with you, there are very fundamental differences between men and women in the way they think, communicate, and solve problems. Much as all people of good will support gender equality, I believe these differences are hard-wired into our primate brains and can not be undone. Mostly due to my interest in fishing, a good bit of my educational, work, and recreational experiences have been in the company of men. In the natural course of things I’ve also spent a lot of time interacting with women, of course. I seem to have developed an ability to “shift gears” and can usually fit in well with groups of mostly women, mostly men, or mixed. This is such a blessing. I know many women who are very uncomfortable when they find themselves in a mostly-male group, no matter how friendly and nice the guys may be. I’ve known several women in the DVWFFA who have told me that they went to a meeting of one of our nearby TU chapters and were not made to feel welcome. This was hard for me to understand. I know many of our area TU guys, and knew this had to be some kind of miscommunication. I honestly feel sorry for the guys. They have to walk a very fine line between being friendly enough yet not too friendly, if you take my meaning. I think that the key to everyone getting along well is to recognize our differences and adapt to them–again, in a spirit of good will. And you’re right again, it does take experience–and patience!

    1. You’re a person of great insight and wisdom Mary; it comes out in your writing. Not everyone develops the poise you have, to gracefully participate in every mix. I suspect there may be folks who, in a given situation, feel discomfort according to their own limits but who elect to see it as the fault of those around them. Opportunities to learn where our personal bounds are, and expand them, can get squandered.

      But streams, cool breezes and the break of dawn heal all. One of the great gifts fly fishing gives to me is that it’s a meditation. The events of the weeks, months and years replay, sort themelves, gently reveal their interconnections to me, and each time I leave just a smidge wiser…or at least happier. It’s almost a dream state, except that there’s the soft swish of the back cast and the gurgle of the riffle woven in. And every time I sit down to tie a fly, such a scene replays in my mind. There’s no hiding from my foibles, no wanting to deny them. Fly fishing is honesty happening to the angler.

      …until I start telling somebody how big some fish was, anyway…. : )

      – Mike

  3. None of us is immune from turning to the dark side on occasion, in one way or another. If we were angels, after all, we wouldn’t still be here. Sometimes honesty is overrated. I once pulled a tape measure out on a friend of mine who kept insisting a trout was at least 18 inches. I said more like 15. It was 14-3/4. Why did I do this? It was mean to not just let him believe what he wanted to. Where was the harm? The funny thing was that this guy was a PhD research chemist who dealt with accurate measurement constantly in the course of his work. Perhaps fishing was an escape for him in more ways than one.

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