How this Club of Female Anglers Inspire a Nationwide Movement of Conservation
words by Morgan Tilton, photos by Kami Swingle
The flat, turquoise water is as static as the hot air that surrounds our fishing boat. I loosen my grip on the rod and pinch the line in my other hand. “12 feet, 4 o’clock” whispers Paul Pinder, head guide for Abaco Lodge on Great Abaco Island where I’m stationed in the Bahamas for a four-day fly fishing school. Our primary target: The rare, elusive and skittish Bonefish, the ghosts of the sea that occupy a saltwater flats region to the west of Abaco called The Marls.
An Abaconian and 30-year guide, Pinder is a guru of the flats. He reads every flicker of light below the surface. I heed his command and, lay my line back, let it unfurl and snap it forward. Ziiiiip. Silence breaks and the line shoots out of my reel. “We got him,” says Pinder. I look down, and in rookie fashion, the line chokes my ankle. Behind me, Jackie Kutzer, the third member of our fishing team, grabs the rod as I slam to the deck to free the line. Seconds later, I’m back on my feet and work for ten minutes to reel in the catch.
“If I’d known fly fishing can be this exciting, I would’ve gotten into it a long time ago,” I tell Kutzer, co-founder of an Orvis-led initiative called 50/50 On the Water, which has a mission to establish gender parity in the sport of fly fishing. “I’m not sure where to start when I get back home. I don’t have a community in the sport,” I told her.
“I can help you with that,” said Kutzer.
Enter: Braided, a fly fishing club based in Durango, Colorado, with a mission to strengthen communities of female fly fishers, support newcomers in the sport and inspire conservation.
Founder Kami Swingle first tossed a fishing line a decade ago, during the dating chapter with her now-husband, Nick. When the couple moved west from Washington, D.C. two years ago, Swingle hit a dam. She had no avenue to connect with other women who fish, so she created one.
Braided debuted with a packed room of 25 women in April 2017. The growth hasn’t stopped. They hosted Costa’s SLAM Film Tour, which featured narratives about women in fly fishing, and the event sold out to 80 spectators. The first casting clinic attracted 70 students. Less than a year later, the club expanded with a Northeast-based chapter, which Kutzer co-founded in Vermont, a perfect compliment to Swingle’s involvement in 50/50 On the Water, which she helped to develop during the campaign’s two-year research stage prior to its launch at the July 2017 International Fly Tackle Dealer Show.
Among U.S. fly fishers, 31 percent are female, ages six and up. They are also the fastest growing demographic across the entire sport of fishing, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 Special Report on Fishing. That’s why she wanted to be proactive about making the sport accessible to women.
“If I believe that women should get involved in these sports and fly fishing, what am I doing about it?” Swingle said.
The Southwest Chapter has 273 members to date plus another 135 anglers in the Northeast, and members also include men. Skills clinics are women-specific, and the conservation events are inclusive. They also serve a dual-purpose: To strengthen ties between anglers as they explore a new local waterway, and to educate members on environmental issues in their backyard.
To point, this year’s Southwest conservation lineup features a Silverton, Colorado trip for anglers to learn about the Superfund cleanup of the area’s mining sites, followed by fishing. Other local issues include the restoration of native cutthroat trout in the prized upper Hermosa Creek and advocacy for public lands. Events also include river cleanups and volunteer projects like clipping fins for researchers.
Beyond the local ecology or skill of a catch, there’s the component of interwoven human connection, which is why I learned about a local grassroots movement on a body of water 2,000 miles away.
“Braided revolutionizes relationships and grows community, which is one of the biggest impacts of fly fishing,” Swingle said. “Catching fish is a bonus.