Maggie Merriman, Female Fly Fishing, West  Yellowstone, Montana


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Kelsey Sather

My father and I go fly fishing each summer to the extent that my limited patience can handle tangled lines and fishless casts. One year, as a birthday present, my father arranged a lesson with a patient he'd had since he began practicing optometry in Montana some 25 years ago. "My kids won't listen to me," he joked, "so I might as well get them the best!"

We drove to West Yellowstone, and for the rest of that windy June day I was a student of fly-fishing instructor Maggie Merriman.

Maggie pulled up in her gold Subaru Forester, rolled down the window, looked over thick driving glasses, and said to my dad, "Well, you brought the weather, Doc, but how about this wind?" She got out of the car, licked her finger, and determined the wind was coming from the west. "We'll go behind the old dining lodge to cast, where the wind won't be as strong."

With her pink lipstick, headscarf over light blond hair, and retro Helly Hansen windbreaker, I couldn't decide if Maggie reminded me more of my grandma, best friend, or professor. That was the thing about her—she had a relatable personality. She knew almost everyone in the small town of West Yellowstone, and throughout the day would stop and chat to the locals in between casting locations. Her straight-to-the-point mannerisms followed years of experience as a fly-fishing instructor. The woman was, after all, a pioneer: she was one of the first female fly fishers to cast into the growing industry during the 1960s and 70s. Now, following the sport's booming popularity among both genders, Maggie is known by thousands.

The instruction began with me casting so she could observe my skill, or lack thereof. We began with the basics. She wrote down tips on stokes and sequences, including things such as "Remember to practice and have fun fishing!" Maggie doesn't own a computer, so the pages were always handwritten or typed. She also doesn't own a cell phone. We talked about the overuse of cell phones and found commonalities in such things as the distaste for the estrangement of modernity and the necessity of a personal connection to nature.

Before becoming an instructor, Maggie sold furniture in the 1960s and early 70s. She left after being denied a raise—a common occurrence for working women then—and found her destiny on the river. Her accomplishments over the past 35 years—including organizing and leading the first fly-fishing school for women in the western United States in 1978, as well as designing the first fly-fishing vest for women in 1982—helped her earn various awards for her pioneering efforts. Among these acknowledgments were the Federation of Fly Fishers Woman of the Year award in 1995 and the Legends of Fly Fishing award in 2003.

Maggie knew that entering into a male-dominated sport would take dedication and skill if she wanted to earn a living, much less achieve landmarks for women fly fishers everywhere. I was unfamiliar with the term glass ceiling before my conversation with Maggie, and I appreciated her reminder of women's struggles. "It was a sport I enjoyed all my life, and I saw very few women in it," she said. "After working with some fly fishing professionals to learn how they talked and explained, I thought, 'Okay, if I'm gonna do this, I gotta be as good as the guys or better.'"

Today, in her early seventies, Maggie still spends her summers fishing around the Montana area and giving instructions. She is also an active conservationist, and advocates catch and release ethics.

Two o'clock, ten o'clock, two, ten. Then to the water. After a couple of hours, my loops improved and I was working on cast accuracy. Fly fishing, with enough perseverance and attention to form, proved to be an artistic sport. The hardest part was maintaining form while not overgripping. "If it doesn't feel natural, you're doing something wrong," Maggie said.

Throughout the lesson she emphasized this notion of a natural flow, not only in fishing but in life. Maggie said that is why she chooses to teach, rather than guide. "It's about the sport and the wilderness," she said. "My heart is in teaching, passing the information on."

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