One day as my family and I were traveling from Medford to Bend, we stopped for a break at a popular fishing hole on the Rogue River for Southern Oregon anglers. Our 10-year-old, Olivia, immediately became mesmerized by the fishermen — and yes, they were all men — casting and wanted to learn how to do it herself.
Of course she would. The Rogue River is one of the best spots in the world for fly-fishing. Just like people go to Hood River for windsurfing, people come to these pristine waters for their abundance of big fish and natural beauty. Without a moment’s hesitation or concern for gender norms, we turned to my friend and avid fisherwoman Gracie Mills in Medford to introduce her to the sport.
Though Olivia had already learned the basics of fishing from her grandfather, from the start she was enchanted by the skill of casting, watching Mills’ line as it rainbowed through the sky. “It was so pretty when Gracie was casting,” Olivia recalls.
When she took her turn, she felt emotions not commonly expressed by fishermen: “It makes me feel like I am doing ballet,” she says. “I feel graceful and peaceful.”
Experiences on the River as a Woman Fly-Fishing
It’s a fact that girls aren’t traditionally taken out on the river as commonly as their brothers in many families, and they face resistance — if not discrimination — entering the sport.
Mills can attest to that. As a child back in the ’90s, when Mills would see her grandfather getting ready to take her brothers out, she would ask to go and was always told no. Many years later, when her husband was invited into the boat but she was told there was no room for her, she figured it just wasn’t worth the battle.
Three years ago, Mills and a friend finally decided to take on the sport themselves. She found the first fly shop she entered “rude and dismissive, offering no support at all.” Ashland Fly Shop, however, provided the support and gear she needed to get started: teaching her how to put her fly rod together, answering her questions and inviting her to their classes.
She then started reaching out to local fly-fisherwomen she knew had more experience, learning alongside her Southern Oregon-based friends Hilary Cosentino and filmmaker and photojournalist Katie Falkenberg, as well as using the online resource United Women on the Fly, an organization that creates educational videos and other content for women interested in fly-fishing.
Even though Mills has found her place in the fly-fishing world, she says she still experiences condescending comments downplaying her skills as an accomplished angler. Gender norms seem to play into the notion that women can’t fish as well as men.
“Because fly-fishing is male-dominated, and because we are conditioned to believe men are inherently better at outdoor [or] physical activities, the stereotypical threat of coming across as dumb, incapable, weak, soft, annoying, too loud, etc., affected my ability to effectively learn,” she notes.
When Mills decided to learn to fly-fish on her own, she realized that having the support of other women — her “amazing female friends” — allowed her to focus on skill building and community on the gorgeous rivers of Southern Oregon.
“Learning from other women eliminated that stereotype threat, and I feel confident that the safety of that environment is what fueled my love for fly-fishing,” she says.
Female-Friendly Guides and Resources
While you may not be as lucky as Olivia to learn from Gracie Mills herself since she doesn’t provide lessons to the public, there are myriad resources in the area for women who fish. If you’ve always been curious — or just want to book another of many fly-fishing vacations — Southern Oregon has several options for female-friendly fishing education and services.
Kait Sampsel of Humble Heron Fly Fishing, based in Port Orford, broke barriers by becoming one of the only female fly-fishing guides in the region in 2009. She and her husband offer all-inclusive fly-fishing experiences on the Rogue River to anglers of all abilities and ages, specializing in steelhead.
Andras Outfitters in Talent, owned by Rachel and Jim Andras, offers fly-cast private lessons where “the young and young at heart” can learn everything from basic equipment and gear discussion to being on the river and casting for steelhead or other kinds of trout. If you have a bit of experience, they offer guided trips on the Rogue and Klamath rivers too.
If you would like to connect with women interested in fly-fishing, Southern Oregon Women on the Fly offers monthly fly-tying workshops, meet-ups and group-fishing days. (For organizations elsewhere in Oregon, check out this list by United Women on the Fly, who have signed a pledge to support angling for all.)
The outfit that kindly offered to help Mills when she was a beginner, Ashland Fly Shop, still rents all of the gear needed to fly-fish. Though they don’t offer women’s waders for rent, they do have them for purchase. They also offer free monthly workshops, classes (roughly from April to December) and guided trips from May to October.
Places to Cast Your Line in Southern Oregon
If you’re already an experienced fly-fisher, Southern Oregon has a few favorite spots that are accessible from shore. In the Rogue Valley, TouVelle State Recreation Site is conveniently located just minutes from Medford on the Rogue River, offering a boat dock as well as many open spaces to fly-fish with views of the Table Rocks.
If you’d like to go to a less-populated area, Casey State Recreation Site is on Highway 62 just past the small town of Shady Cove and includes a boat launch. If you are interested in fishing the North Umpqua, the North Fork section is restricted to fly-fishing only for 31 miles, from the boundary markers above Rock Creek to the Soda Springs Dam.
Be sure to check the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife website for information about other locations, necessary licenses, tips and safety guidelines. There’s a season for just about every kind of angling in Oregon, but if you’re interested in fall salmon and steelhead, the main season on the Rogue River is late August to November.