When Claire Topalian sets her mind to something, she doesn’t stop until it is done. Earlier this year she found herself in need of a new project. She picked fly fishing and set out on a mission to learn everything she could about the sport. Starting from scratch, she has been teaching herself how to fly fish by reading books, watching Youtube videos, and practicing knot-tying on the bus to work. Claire has learned a lot along the way, and she is sharing some of what she’s learned here with us.
Tell us a little about yourself! What is your full name and occupation?
My name is Claire Topalian, I’m a 27-year-old Seattle native, and I’m currently the PR Director for a local startup called Transpose.
What first got you interested in fly fishing?
I’ve had a mellow curiosity for fly-fishing for years. I think the interest spurred from growing up in the Pacific Northwest and hearing about the sport in the area. I’m sure this interest was also magnified by popular culture: seeing the film adaptation of A River Runs Through It alone piqued my curiosity years ago. Without any experience in the sport, I had a very romantic association with fly-fishing built up in my mind. I am kind of an “old soul” in the sense that I appreciate tradition, history, and cultural customs that might be considered outdated today. I think fly-fishing has a clear, active presence in today’s culture on a lot of levels, but something about the sport always struck me as linked to tradition. Perhaps that’s simply because fly-fishing models one of the activities that our ancestors had to do to eat and survive. Fly-fishing will always nod to this origin, even if it’s adopted by most people as pure sport today. Anyone who’s fly-fished can probably attest to the fact that one’s senses are suddenly more necessary and “awake” in order to fly-fish more effectively. This small outcome alone reminds me how natural fly-fishing is and that the impetus behind the sport (catching your next meal) is actually very simple and tied to basic human needs.
What made you decide to teach yourself how to fly fish?
As I mentioned, I had a dormant curiosity around fly-fishing, but I had never taken action to learn how to fly-fish until I felt a little forced to do so. That motivation arrived when I sprained my ankle this April. Mentally, I was getting ready for summer and looking forward to a season of hiking, running and climbing. The thought of being sedentary for weeks was really unsettling, so I decided to distract myself with a project. It didn’t take me long to land on fly-fishing: it would require a big commitment, but on a physical level, it was well within reason while my ankle was healing. I started out by gathering a ton of books about fly-fishing. I read articles, watched YouTube videos, and signed up for Meet-up groups centered on fly-fishing. I started practicing knot-tying on the bus to work and sometimes at my desk. I then decided that I wanted to capture my learning process, so I created a blog and a separate Instagram account to share photos along the way. Lastly, I emailed a number of fly-fishing companies to see if they would support my project. I ended up forming a great relationship with Redington, and they’ve generously provided me with fly rods, waders, and boots. Their support alone made the process feel much more manageable, and it indicated that, as a company, they are dedicated to helping more women get into the sport.
How is it going? Do you feel like a pro yet?
I am less embarrassed than when I first started out, not quite fully confident, and very far from ever feeling like a pro! I love that fly-fishing, when compared to many other outdoor sports, has very reasonable requirements when starting out; the barriers to entry are not so great that people give up before they’ve given it a fair shake. On the other hand, fly-fishing is a life-long passion for so many people because it constantly presents new challenges and opportunities to learn (whether that’s learning about technique, different rivers and conditions, or how fish behave and live). I’ve talked to a lot of anglers who all agree that fly-fishing is a sport where, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, something new surprises you and reminds you that you have more to learn. I will say that I’m a lot more comfortable fishing with the boys.
What is one of the biggest challenges that you have found in teaching yourself to fly fish?
One of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced is fostering patience and learning not to take myself too seriously. I have a tendency to get really competitive and when I’m not automatically good at a given activity, I can get frustrated very easily. On one of my first fly-fishing outings, I remember how quickly I became frustrated when I couldn’t cast properly — it put me in a terrible mood and my boyfriend finally had to remind me that I needed to get over myself (but in nicer words). I figured out quickly that I’d have to break down that personal barrier before I could make any real progress. There’s just no room for that spirit in fly-fishing, or in learning any new sport or hobby. If you pick up a fly rod and try to cast for the first time, I guarantee you’re going to feel at least a little foolish. It’s even more humbling when you get your line snagged on every other cast — and it’s bound to happen. Those experiences are important, though; if it was easy for anyone to pick up a fly rod and cast beautifully off the bat, the sport would lose a lot of dignity. Technique is something that requires work and focus, and the difficulty in casting perfectly is the reason why it is so stunning to watch someone who’s mastered the art.
What has come as the biggest surprise to you about fly fishing?
The biggest surprise for me has been the adrenaline rush that comes every time you feel life on the line. I had heard plenty of fly-fishermen talk about how exciting it is to have a fish on, but until you’ve felt it yourself it’s hard to describe. The first time I had a large trout on the end of my 5 wt, I remember my breathing becoming really fast and irregular and being overcome with adrenaline — it was such a startling moment for me that I have to laugh a little when I think about it. Now, even though the feeling is more familiar, I still get a unique type of rush when I feel a take — it never gets old. I’ve also become infatuated with trout, somewhat unexpectedly. I’ve always “liked” fish (hard not to when you’re from Seattle), but I had never held a trout or understood its life in the way that I do now. It’s a joy to be able to briefly hold a fish and release it back to its waters, and I feel genuinely fascinated each time. I never expected that fly-fishing would offer me that type of wonder on such a regular basis, but it’s a big part of why I’ve come to love it so much.
Tell us about the weirdest thing that has happened to you while learning to fly fish.
Some of the weirdest moments that have happened to me thus far almost always involve timing. I’ve had extremely frustrating dry spells where I won’t catch a single fish over the course of two or three entire weekends, only to catch over 25 trout between four people, all well over 12’’, the following weekend. There are moments like that where you feel like you’re being duped or you’re not fully clued in to the bigger picture — or at least I’ve certainly felt that way often as a beginner. On one occasion, I had left my 3 wt leaning against the side of a boat with the line in the water only to return five minutes later to see a huge trout swimming in circles next to the boat with my fly decisively stuck in its lip. As I pulled the trout in, it jumped aggressively and part of my fly rod came off as the fish got out of my hands and landed back in the water. Luckily, we were able to reach the floating piece of fly rod, still attached to the fish, and bring it in again. In the moment, it was such a bizarre turn of events — but I guess it shows that sometimes the most natural presentations are the ones where humans aren’t interfering at all. On another occasion, I remember coming back to the car after 10+ hours of fishing in extreme heat, exhausted and discouraged by a day of zero takes, only to find a huge smear of cow poop all over my left leg. I still have no idea how that got there, but the image of the cow poop perfectly summed up how I felt at the time. Those days happen.
How about the coolest thing?
The coolest part of this process has been the momentum built around my goal by friends, other anglers, and complete strangers. Any time I tell another fly-fisherman or woman about my project, they are so eager to help and encourage me. I’ve received countless emails from companies and individuals who just want to support my interest in the sport or share their own stories and wisdom. Between receiving gear from Redington, constant support from others who love the sport, and even some interest from journalists and leaders in the industry, I’ve been able to build a community around one activity rapidly. I think this is a testament to the passion that anglers have — and it encourages me to find ways to support others now, too.
Fly fishing is still a male dominated sport. What obstacles (if any) have you faced due to being a woman?
Sometimes Redington will share my photos on their Instagram account, and on one occasion there was a bit of backlash related to the fact that I was female. One Instagram user commented that they should sponsor me, and another user replied, “Why? Just because she’s a girl?”. This exchange spurred a debate between the two users about the role of women in the sport, which was odd to see surfacing as a theme. Shortly after, my friend at Redington sent me an email explaining that it’s not the first time that type of debate has come up on social media, and it won’t be the last. He reiterated that he works with women who are some of the most talented anglers he’s ever met, and explained that any prejudice that comes up is isolated and driven by individuals — it’s not a theme within the sport of fly-fishing itself. I’d agree that any social barriers to fly-fishing that might exist for women are completely human-made. The sport itself is an ideal way for women to experience the outdoors, because any physical ability required for the sport isn’t afforded to one gender more than the other. I’ve also heard countless anglers say that women have a tendency to pick up casting much faster than men, because casting techniques are more form-based than strength-based, and a lot of men have a tendency to try to “muscle” their movements when casting, putting too much strength into the technique. The real barriers for women probably stem from cultural narratives that subconsciously show or tell us that fly-fishing isn’t for women, simply because there are more men in the sport. The more we talk about female anglers and continue to support their curiosity around fly-fishing, the less this narrative will dominate the way we think of fly-fishing — and the biggest barrier that exists today, this mental barrier, will become all the more manageable.
What piece of advice do you have for other women who are interested in trying out fly fishing?
I would tell other women to start approaching fly-fishing in steps in an effort to de-mystify what might come off as a complicated or foreign activity. It might have layers to it, but those layers should be approached as opportunities for depth and enjoyment over the years, not as hurdles that need to be overcome immediately. Fly-fishing is, in its most basic sense, a very intuitive and natural activity — I think if this was understood, it wouldn’t seem as intimidating or overly-specialized. Lastly, I’d tell women that it helps so much to find other females who are interested in learning or who already know how to fly-fish. There are more programs these days that bring women together to learn how to fly-fish, and finding a group of women to learn with — especially early on in your learning process — is a great way to remove pressure, ask questions that you feel silly asking, and laugh with others who are making the same mistakes as you. And I can guarantee that anyone starting out, male or female, will all be making the same mistakes. Also, if any women want to fish with me, I keep a spare pair of women’s waders and boots handy just in case. 🙂
This article was originally published in October, 2015