They all fish in the Upper Midwest’s Driftless Area, and they’re passionate about diversifying their sport. Get ready to be inspired to try something new.

Fly-fishing is a mostly male, mostly white sport. (According to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, only three in 10 participants in the sport in 2021 were female.) But it's also an incredibly welcoming one—in part due to women like Tina Murry, a military veteran, career educator, and owner of Shenanigans, a woman-focused guide service based in Madison, Wisconsin. "I'm all about breaking barriers down, so people understand that the right way to fly-fish is the way that works for them," she says. Here, Murray and two other women working in guiding and education in Wisconsin and Minnesota, explain their love for fly-fishing, why it's so important to diversify the sport, and how it's improved their overall wellbeing.

veteran tina murray fly fishing guide
Tina Murray fly-fishing in water with woman, cropped.
Left: Credit: Kathryn Gamble
Right: Credit: Kathryn Gamble

Tina Murray, owner of Shenanigans

Shenanigans's company motto is "Fly Fishing for Everyone," and Tina Murray is committed to that mission. She has spent time educating at-risk youth and fellow veterans, and she is deeply involved with the Southern Wisconsin chapter of Trout Unlimited, a decades-old conservation nonprofit. In 2005, she created their beginner and intermediate clinics for women, and more recently coordinated a leadership institute for female fishers. She also leads private excursions, as well as an annual all-women trip to Canada. "The more competent a woman becomes, the more confidence she gains," Murray says. "The more confidence she gains, the more she's willing to take risks, which increases competence. It goes 'round and 'round."

How did you get into fishing?I grew up in a family of six and we fished for food. We moved around a lot, so I got to fish in a lot of different kinds of bodies of water throughout Wisconsin. Both my parents were into fishing. On Mother's Day, in fact, my mom would get up, leave the house, and say, "It's Mother's Day: I get to do whatever I want so I'm going fishing—and none of you are coming with me." [Laughs]

Was it fun for you as a kid or something you got into more as you got older?

No, I always loved fishing. It was a way to have some alone time in the family—just sitting on the banks with a cane pole, bobber and worms.

Do you remember the first time you tried fly-fishing?

I was about 10 or 11. We were on a family vacation somewhere on the Snake River [in the Pacific Northwest], and there was a fellow fly-casting into the river from the shore. It just seemed so poetic and completely different than anything I had ever done. He saw me watching him and asked me if I wanted to try. I said "Absolutely!" and he gave me my first little casting lesson.The second time I tried it was with a friend on a trip to Montana. Every bridge you go over there, somebody is standing in a stream casting. I turned to my friend and said, "When in Rome…" So we drove to a fly shop and were astounded at the price of equipment. But the fly shop owner was really cool. He told us to go to the K-Mart in town, buy a [cheap] rod, then come back and he'll show us how to tie the knots and tell us where to go fishing. And that's what we did. I remember holding this tiny little fly this guy gave us and thinking, "There's no way this is going to work." But sure enough, I started catching fish. And that was it. I came home from Montana, put all of my spin fishing gear away, and I haven't opened it since. That was 30 years ago.

Sounds like you lucked out with that fly shop owner. When you meet women who are curious about the sport, are they intimidated by the idea of going into a fly shop? Or by the sport in general?

Fly-fishing traditionally has been a very snooty kind of sport. And people think it's expensive. When I do clinics with women, I do a whole section on how to walk into a fly shop: how to act and what to ask. Who cares if you don't know what the thingamabobber is called? Walk in there with your shoulders up, just like you would a job interview, and act like you belong there. They don't get to judge whether or not you're in this sport. You decide.

What makes fly-fishing in the Driftless region so special?

Everywhere I go, I take a fly rod with me. But after a few days, I just want to go home and fish the Driftless. It's a classic fly-fishing thing to say that "trout only live in beautiful places"—but it's true. The water is spring-fed, it's clear, it's cool, and I can do it with my eyes closed and feel comfortable. You're not thinking about work or the fact that your knee hurts or that you have to winterize the RV. You're just immersed in that one stream's ecosystem, listening to the water running and the eagles in the trees and the killdeers yelling. It's relaxing and restorative—what I call the "be here now." 

Jennifer Hsia fly-fishing in water
Credit: Rubens Modelli Photography

Jennifer Hsia, online fly-fishing instructor

An ear, nose, and throat physician who splits her time between Minneapolis and Milwaukee, Hsia met many of her best fishing pals through Instagram—a prime example of technology and social media helping to attract new and younger women to the sport. Hsia is largely self-taught, thanks to YouTube, and now serves as an instructor for United Women on the Fly and Fly Fish Instruct. As a woman of color, she hopes to be a model so that "people who might not traditionally be involved with this sport don't feel like they don't belong. No one should be a gatekeeper to enjoying the outdoors."

Did you grow up in a family that fished?

My parents are from Taiwan, but I was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. They loved bobber fishing, especially my mom. I hated it and thought it was boring because we rarely caught anything. I don't know why; there were largemouth bass everywhere! We must not have been very good. As a kid with a short attention span, fishing felt like a waste of time. 

How did you get back into fishing if you hated it as a child?

My significant other, Rick, grew up in Minnesota, bass fishing on the local lakes and ponds. We wanted to spend more time outdoors, so Rick suggested we give [spin] fishing a try. He said if we didn't catch anything after five outings, or I still thought it was boring, I could choose the next activity. We went out four times and caught absolutely nothing. But on the fifth outing, I was on fire! I was catching everything: smallmouth bass, walleye, catfish, crappies, all in the first 30 minutes. I was completely hooked. Like, now I understand why this is so exciting.

And when did you first try fly-fishing?

Rick had fly-fished for bass but never trout, and he thought it would be a cool challenge. We watched a ton of YouTube videos but we also hired a guide, which cut down on the learning curve. 

When you first got into the sport, did you feel welcome?

It was a mix. There is definitely an intimidation factor. The first time I went into a fly shop, I felt nervous— not because the shopkeeper was intimidating or unwelcoming, but because I didn't know any of the vernacular. I could barely tell the difference between a fly that sat on the water and one that went underneath it. It's not just your rod and your reel; you have to know what kind of fly line you need, things about your leader and your tippet, your nippers and your hemostats, and all these other doodads and gadgets—and you haven't even gotten to the flies yet! I just didn't know where to start.Almost all of the fly shops in the Twin Cities are super-welcoming. They love to talk flies and fly-fishing and they don't care if you're an expert. They want to educate and want you to get better. I wish somebody had just told me when I was starting out, "It's OK to look stupid. We've all been there."

What drew you to United Women on the Fly?

Fly fishing is traditionally associated with white males, but United Women on the Fly's mission and core values is about trying to be as inclusive as possible—representing women and women of color and making sure there's a space for them to learn and be safe. They're really big on education, too, which I like because I'm still new enough to remember all those random questions I had when I was starting out. It's just a really awesome way to connect with other like-minded women.

What do you think is the main barrier of entry for women of color interested in the sport?

Cost. Whether you're fly-fishing or conventional fishing, equipment can be pretty expensive. It doesn't have to be though: You can buy used equipment and most brands offer a budget-minded rod-and-reel combo that's still quite good. Another issue is basic awareness. When most people think of fly fishing, they automatically think of trout, and if you want to fish for trout in Minnesota you have to travel at least two hours to a trout stream. That can be another barrier. But fly-fishing doesn't have to be for trout; you can fly fish for warm-water species like smallmouth bass, carp, muskie, and pike. I often go out to the Mississippi River, right in my backyard. So it's also a matter of realizing you can catch more than trout and that you can catch stuff locally.

When you consider the women you've met through this sport, what do they have in common?

A love of the outdoors and nature. It's mentally stimulating but also physical: You're constantly moving. And for me, it's a great way to unwind and unplug: Even if I'm just out there for 30 minutes, it's my respite from the real world.

Geri Meyer fly fishing in water
Credit: Kathryn Gamble

Geri Meyer, co-owner of the Driftless Angler fly shop

Originally from Washington State, Geri Meyer started fishing 26 years ago, back when there was no easy way to connect with women who shared her interest. Today she runs the Driftless Angler fly shop with her husband, Mat Wagner, in downtown Viroqua, Wisconsin. Meyer has made a point to stock the store with gear tailored to both men and women, and she also operates

There's been a notable influx of women in fly-fishing in recent years. Why do you think that is?

Social media. When I started fishing, there was no real internet and no way to be connected. I remember seeing some fly-fishing magazines featuring women like Wendy Gunn, Wendy Williamson, and Lori-Ann Murphy and thinking, "Oh my god! These women were heroes." They were fishing hard and guiding men in days when it was unheard of, and I was just like, "Wow, that's awesome: You're doing this!"

What was it about fly-fishing specifically that enchanted you?

There's a romance to it—the way the line moves, the noise it makes, the ribboning. It's like watching someone create a symphony. 

You've fished all over. How is the fishing in the Driftless Area different from out west?

Here it's all spring-fed creeks and meandering pastures. Out west, it's mountainous with fast water—hard and intense. The fish are bigger there, but we have more—and ours are all wild. The fishing is also more technical because the streams are smaller and the fish are easily spooked.

One frustration some women have with the outdoors industry in general, though I imagine it also applies to fly-fishing, is its lack of inclusive sizing. What has been your experience with that?

I started my women's company, Athena & Artemis Women's Fly Shop, in 2015 because I was livid. [Major manufacturers] didn't make anything for women and when they did, they'd pink it and shrink it. It was garbage. Oh, girls won't notice! You'd look in a Simms catalog and you see guys with fat bellies and all the women were stick-thin. Why are men allowed to go up to a size 3X but we stop at XL and that's a vanity size? I was just like, this is bull. And I'd say to the product reps, "Why isn't there more stuff for women?" They'd sigh and say, "Oh, we're trying, Geri, we're trying." It was infuriating! Things are starting to change, but it's still not enough. 

What's the biggest misconception newbies have about fly-fishing?

That it's not that hard. It is hard: The learning curve is steep. But once you get it, it's not hard to maintain. Once you learn how to cast, everything else falls into place.

These conversations have been edited for clarity and length.