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Your name or any nicknames you have?
Emerald (no one ever believes this is my given name, but it is!)
Black Eyed Merle (a nickname that came from when a downstream oar made contact with my face. I use it now for when I need to channel my inner tough old guy.)
Where are you at in the world? Where will you be fishing this year?
I spend my summers in central Idaho, my winters in Missoula, Montana and my shoulder seasons eating ice cream somewhere in between.
What river(s) and lake(s) do you guide/fish?
I guide the Middle Fork, Main and Lower Salmon as well as Hells Canyon of the Snake for OARS Dories.
How long have you been guiding/fly fishing?
This will be my sixth season commercially guiding.
What got you into fly fishing? When did you start?
Oh, it’s the classic story. Despite growing up in Idaho, I never fished with my family. But by the time I got to college at University of Montana I was pretty intrigued. When I met a cute wildland firefighter who offered to show me the basics, I used him mercilessly for his fly fishing skills (and he was a pretty great boyfriend too). A class with Missoula’s Stacy Jennings filled in the gaps. Since then the sport has grown into something that is really a passion of my own. Fishing alone is my number one way to decompress and relax after a busy week of guiding or writing.
What made you decide to be a guide/angler?
My parents were both guides before I was born and I grew up boating Idaho’s rivers every summer. Idaho’s rivers are like a fifth member of our family. I realized that to be happy I needed to be as close as possible to those rivers and guiding was a financially feasible way to make that happen! After graduating with a degree focused on water resources, I’ve also realized that guiding is one of the most direct ways to contribute to river education and river conservation. There is no better place to talk with folks about why rivers and fisheries matter than under the Idaho stars after they’ve caught hog cutthroat trout all day.
Has being a woman ever been an issue with a client (such as them hitting on you or maybe talking down to you)? If so how did you deal with it/them?
My first ever time lead guiding a multi day trip, I walked into my pre trip meeting at the hotel and the first question from one of the clients was, “So, will there be any adult guides on this trip or just you?” I know that most of our clients are expecting a bearded, grizzly-looking dude to be their trip leader or fishing boat guide. The surprised look when one of our guides that does look like that turns a client over to me for a TL decision or a fishing question is always pretty priceless.
I’ve learned to be assertive and unapologetic about my position as a guide and what I know. I work hard and show our skeptical guests why I’m in the position I am. I also try to remember that at their core, many guests (even the men with the most swagger) are just terrified. They’ve never boated whitewater or spent six nights in the wilderness and they just want to know they’ll be safe and well taken care of.
What’s neat about our trips is that they are multi day so I have time to get to know my guests. The feedback I often get at the end of trips is, “I was skeptical when I saw you’d be our trip leader but I’ve been nothing but impressed with your ability to lead your crew and us down the river.” On one hand, that’s a bit patronizing and it can be frustrating to not get the benefit of the doubt. On the other, it’s rewarding to know that maybe I’ve changed their perception of what young females can do in this industry.
It’s funny you mention the unwanted attention, because the guides and I have been talking a lot about this this summer. What I tell the younger guides I train is that generally, you have to draw the line early and assertively. When a guest crosses the line, I simply say, “That comment makes me uncomfortable” or a simple, “Nope” and walk away. I’ve got a killer closed lip, “don’t mess with me” smile. But really, I try to think of it as educating our guests on how to treat a female guide and most are apologetic and respectful once you draw that boundary.
With that said, it’s not a women specific problem. Some of the most blatant unwanted sexual attention I see on the river is female guests towards our young male guides. On my last trip we had a woman tell a guide she could, “hear him better with his shirt off.” Everyone, including him, laughed it off – but thinking back, that’s a pretty unfair double standard. I would never let a male client speak to me that way.
Do you think being a woman gives you a different perspective as a guide? If so, how?
You know, despite writing about this in the past, I’m really trying to get away from that way of framing things. I just don’t think it’s doing our industry favors to continue to split men and women into separate boxes. A good guide knows the river, gets clients into fish, is perceptive, physically and mentally strong, empathetic, passionate, joyful, technically skilled and flexible. What I love about the guides I work with is how they ignore those typical gender stereotypes (ie: dudes lift heavy stuff, women cook gourmet meals). Some of the best chefs or river nurses I know are our male guides. Some of our strongest and most whitewater accomplished guides are female. I hear often both in fishing and in whitewater that women work “smarter not harder”. I suppose that’s a perspective that, as a 5’1” female I take seriously. But I also see our male guides cultivating that attitude too, just as I try to be more playful, assertive and aggressive (especially when chasing a fish down!)
How can the fly fishing industry and community encourage more women to get involved?
Uh oh, I could talk about this for days and probably piss everyone off in one way or another. Can I split it into three parts?
Stop labeling talented female anglers as talented female anglers. April Vokey is an insanely accomplished guide, angler and businesswoman. Period. Even when compared to her male counterparts. We don’t say that Hank Patterson is a successful male angler, comedian and guide, so why do we find it necessary to point out gender for the ladies? This is along the lines of the current Serena Williams conversation.
The more women see other women featured in stories, movies, advertisements the more accessible the sport becomes. But I don’t mean this in the pink-washed, BABES CATCHING BIG FISH IN BIKINIS kind of way. I want to see old elegant ladies catching fish, I want to see pregnant women catching fish, I want to see groups of gals and dudes out on fishing trips together, I want to see moms teaching their sons how to fish. Because that’s what’s really happening out there. To suggest that it’s only cute twenty something gals in trucker hats with long braids out there slaying isn’t really showing the real story. People need to see themselves in the stories we tell about this sport and not have it labeled as “female specific fishing media”. I think guys should be just as inspired by watching female anglers as I am watching male anglers. Because ultimately? It’s not about the gender of the angler, it’s about the spectacular scenery, camaraderie and amazing fish.
A fellow angler and girlfriend also recently pointed out the “confidence gap” in outdoor sports. I see men succeed in fishing and whitewater guiding earlier because they jump right in and make their mistakes big and early. Often, women feel they don’t have permission to mess up when they are learning something new. They feel they need to be 100% confident they will succeed before they even put their fly rod together or take the oars above a big rapid. In our culture, I understand where that comes from, but it isn’t doing women any favors. To be honest, the fishing guiding aspect of my job is relatively new to me compared to my whitewater rowing. My roll cast is a mess and I’m still learning all the different flies and how/when to use them. But I got to the point where I realized I could either keep saying I “wasn’t a fishing guide” and watch the men around me who knew less but were more confident get promoted into those positions, or I could jump in and know I’d learn along the way. We should be encouraging young women who are interested in fishing to string up their own rod, to chose their own flies, to go out alone and mess up and learn from their experiences.
The NRS Crush shoe is pretty rad, I’m a wet wading machine in those things. And the grippy rubber on the bottom has an Idaho print. Be still, my potato loving heart.
Best catch of all time?
A GIGANTIC bull trout at a highly top secret location in central Idaho…
What’s your “Dream Trip”?
This fall, a friend and I are going to hike down a tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon to meet up with a group who are floating the whole river. It’ll be a treat to be on a private trip and also explore more of the watershed. I know I’m supposed to say Seychelles or something but honestly, I get to work my dream trip every week of the summer.
What are some of the best places you’ve been fishing?
Pft, why would I tell you?! Come on a Salmon River fishing trip with me and I’ll show you instead!
How do people get ahold of you for guiding / sponsorship?
You can book through Outdoor Adventure River Specialists – Idaho or contact me directly via www.emeraldlafortune.com.
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