“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” This adage is permanently embedded in my head thanks to Gloria Steinem and a recurrent image I have of a trout riding a fixie down Valencia Street. After an adventure in fly-fishing this past week in our very own backyard, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, I have simplified this slogan to, "A woman needs a fish."
Male-dominated golf courses are the spaces where contacts are made, deals are brokered, cigars are smoked, and futures are planned. But after an inspirational conversation with avid fly fisherman René de Guzman, senior curator at the Oakland Museum, I learned that the mostly male sport of fly-fishing is also perfect for extreme networking and good times.
Fly-fishing, like golf, is a jovial sport that relies on a beautiful setting, specific gear, and a social atmosphere. Both activities originated in foggy Scotland. I'd argue that the dunes of Scotland are not that far off from the low visibility and cloudy conditions we endure right here near San Francisco's bay. It's the perfect environment, with rod in hand, to crash a boys’ club and pitch one's ideas (Bikini Car Wash!) to prospective venture capitalist types.
I had finally found a way to break through the glass ceiling, or rather, get my feet wet (well, except for the fact that they’d be in waders) – though I'd need to learn how to cast first.
The key to being a good fly fisherwoman is technique, and technique can be taught. I reached out to the pros – Leland Fly Fishing Outfitters is known as one of the best spots in the country to get fly-fishing gear.
When I walked in to Leland I realized I had entered a man’s world; not a woman to be seen. From sexy waders (OK, I lie, there is no such thing) to rods, reels, flies, hats, and books – this place has you covered for all your angling needs. I missed the lunchtime rush, but I could easily picture FiDi execs in their suits heading into Leland to chat over the rod display, or perhaps play a round of pool in Leland’s backroom, the lair. Aha, I had found another secret space where deals could be made.
All of the folks (OK men) that work at Leland are surprisingly young – I’d say in their 20s to 30s and super friendly. Keith showed me around, pointing out the rows and rows of beautiful flies. Ladies, do you remember stepping into Claire’s at the mall for the first time and breathing in all the colors, shapes, and possibilities of the costume jewelry that surrounded you? The fly selection at Leland is no different – magical (plus, the merchandise is less likely to break than a Claire’s earring).
From tiny little pom-poms to pink-feather-duster-looking things, the flies dazzled me, each made from combinations of fur, tinsel, feathers, and Mylar (“flash” in fly-speak). I was tempted to pet them all, but Keith reminded me that they had hooks attached. Oh, right. He also mentioned that Leland’s feather collection is popular with ladies who make their own earrings.
George Revel from Leland enthusiastically responded to my lesson request. George is a three-time National Casting Champion and as Leland’s website states, "The youngest ever casting instructor to be certified by the Federation of Fly Fishers." George is also the vice president of Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club. I’m not sure he’s even of legal drinking age, and he jokingly told me he was 12 to 13 years old, but I know that he’s a good 10 years younger than I am. I doubt he knows who Gloria Steinem is, but that’s OK because he definitely knows how to fish.
I asked George what a required outfit consists of and he responded, “Most will wear waders (waterproof pants) and a rain jacket in colder, wetter climates. In the summer just pull on a pair of board shorts and a T-shirt and you are on your way. Most people will use a wading boot – either felt or rubber soled. They are great for not slipping on river rocks.” You’ll also need a rod, reel, a pair of sunglasses, and some flies.
Fly-fishing rods are much longer than your conventional fishing rods, and according to George, “The length allows you to manipulate the fly on the water to achieve the perfect presentation.” George says at the low end you can go fly-fishing for $100, though many enthusiasts spend thousands and thousands on the best equipment money can buy.
I invited my friend Abbey to join me and headed to the angling ponds in Golden Gate Park, just across from the buffaloes, to meet up with George for our lesson. We entered the park and biked past the Conservatory, the de Young, and Lindley Meadow. When we finally got to the Polo Fields, we saw a sign announcing a competition called "Spey-O-Rama," an international casting festival. "What were we walking into?" I wondered, as we entered an oasis I'd never before seen.
Crystal clear pools, an old wooden clubhouse – and my first experience being around so many men (and a few women) in waders. Participants were waist-high in the water, casting lines crossing the pools and hitting targets. It felt like batting practice at spring training with the stars at bat. We would hear a few "bravos" when an exceptionally long cast was thrown. At one point, I thought folks might even go up to their favorite batter – I mean caster – and ask for an autograph.
This tournament had the best casters in the world, many of them traveling across continents just for this competition. It was beautiful to stare, even gape at the casters as they looped their lines across the pools like a whirling dervish or a cowboy at a lasso competition; there was something Zen about it. I counted a kilt or two, with the Scottish duly representing their native sport. George was shaking hands with everyone there, including men 40 years his senior. This man knew how to network.
I was mildly disappointed that the tournament happened to be on the day of our first lesson; it meant that Abbey and I headed to the Polo Fields to practice our casting on the grass. If I was lucky, I thought, I'd hook myself a pony in the nearby stables or a tourist on a Segway circling us on the track.
George and Keith taught us the basics of casting. We learned that women are much better at learning the technique (supposedly we listen more), and we don't utilize brute force to chuck the line out. Abbey and I each had a rod (with no hooks attached) to practice fake casting. We were taught how to hold the rod (very similar to a golf club, in fact) and we learned how to make loops with forward and back casts, stopping just long enough between casts to put momentum into our next moves.
Surprisingly, it wasn't that hard, though my arm did get a workout. The Polo Fields, unprotected from the trees of the angling ponds, were quite windy, and it was hard to distinguish a good loop from a bad loop, as San Francisco gusts blew my lines out. Our instructors used humor and metaphor to get us through the lesson. They had Abbey and me laughing as we waved our rods in the middle of the Polo Fields.
After more than an hour of casting back and forth, I realized that I really wanted to be in water (not on grass) and have an actual fish in front of me – plus, my arm began to hurt. We wrapped up our lesson and headed back up to the clubhouse just in time for a $5 BBQ lunch hosted by super-friendly GGACC volunteers. With hamburgers in hand we sat on the grass and watched as the sun shone on the competitors practicing their casts.
Although GGACC was a beautiful hidden gem, I wanted to know where the fish were. Could you actually fish in SF by fly-fishing? I learned that the answer is yes; many locals cast for surfperch and striped bass right off Ocean Beach and Crissy Field. Although the majority of fly folk are on a mission for trout and escape from urban living by heading up to the Sierras, Redding, or even the coast.
In the end, I realized that I do not have what it takes, just yet, to impress a prospective VC with my angling skills, but I do know that I can reach out to the folks at Leland for a great afternoon of recreation. I think Gloria would be proud of me.
Want to fly-fish like a pro? Take a lesson with one of the certified teachers from Leland and check out all their gear. Become a member of Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club and begin utilizing the ponds in Golden Gate Park – perfect for dates, deal making, and general awesomeness. If you are really good, try your hand fishing at Crissy Field or Ocean Beach.