Woman on the Fly

By Norman Boucher / September/October 2013
September 9th, 2013

If you leave Brown with an undergraduate degree in international relations and follow up with a master’s from Yale in theater management, you’re poised to launch a career in any number of typical overachieving directions. And sure enough, for her first twelve years out of school, Sara Low ’83 established herself in New York City promoting Broadway shows.

Karen Kaplan
Sara Low '83, with a well-fed rainbow trout on the famed Henry's Fork, a tributary of the Snake River in southeastern Ohio. 
And then a strange thing happened. Sometime around 2001, Low, who by now was feeling she needed a change, quit her job and became a professional fly-fishing guide. For the last eleven years, she has guided anglers—or “sports,” as guides often refer to their clients—on the Beaverkill and other rivers and streams in New York’s Catskill Mountains as well as on the Farmington River in northwestern Connecticut.

Although at first glance Low’s latest career choice may seem rare—perhaps even unique—for a Brown graduate (if you know of other guides, drop us an e-mail at alumni_magazine@brown.edu), she is an even rarer subspecies: a female licensed guide, one of the gender pioneers in the male-dominated sport of fly-fishing.

This summer, she also became one of the few women authors of a substantive book on the subject, when Skyhorse Publishing released A Guide’s Guide to Fly-Fishing Mistakes: Common Problems and How to Correct Them. In addition to offering solutions to frequently encountered mistakes, the book provides examples from Low’s guiding experience and clever tips she’s picked up over a lifetime of fly-fishing. The BAM caught up with Low during a break from fishing in Wyoming.

[Read more fly-fishing tips from Sara Low.]

BAM How in the world does a Brown alum become a professional fishing guide?
LOW It’s a strange route. I’ve always fished. My parents put a rod in my hand, not a fly rod, when I was three years old at the end of a day of sailing and tied me to a mast—I think that was just to keep a toddler from falling off the boat. But as I got older I continued to fish. I loved fishing. Eventually I discovered fly-fishing.

BAM Where did all this happen?
LOW I grew up in Providence—my dad is Ted Low ’49 and my sister is Emily Boenning ’85—and we summered in South County. If my parents couldn’t find me, I was in a rowboat on a pond fishing for bass or panfish. My mother tells stories of seeing a terrible rainstorm and wondering where I was and finding me in a rowboat as thrilled as could be: “Hi, mom!” I didn’t care.

BAM Did you fish while you were at Brown?
LOW Not during the school year. In the summertime, yes, I would take rods wherever I was. During the school year, I was having way too many good times enjoying what Brown had to offer.

BAM So how did the guiding decision come about?
LOW I had this job, which I loved, for about twelve years, but I just needed a break to try something different. I didn’t know what it was. I happened to start dating a guy who had left the corporate world and become a fishing guide. I thought, “I can do that. I can totally do that.”

BAM A lot of people who are passionate anglers would never consider becoming a guide.
LOW I had already been involved in helping start a fishing club in New York City. It was for people who liked to fly-fish and would go fly-fish together, but also we taught people who were interested. So I had already been teaching casually and helping put together trips for the membership. I sort of put that all together and watched what this guy was doing as a guide.

BAM Then what happened?
LOW I apprenticed myself as a guide, figuring this would be an interim thing I would be doing between jobs. And then I just loved it. And I kept doing it. I wanted to know more. That’s the whole Brown thing. It wasn’t enough to just stand there with a rod in my hand and put together a pretty cast and pull out a fish. I needed to know the behavioral characteristics of insects, something I never thought I would want to know. I wanted to know the action of a fly rod, physically, why it works the way it does, not just can I do this or that with it. I also found that I loved teaching people, whether it was teaching beginners or taking someone to water they haven’t fished before.

BAM That’s as important a characteristic for a guide as loving to fish, isn’t it?
LOW It really is. Really, the point is giving someone a whole new source of enjoyment. I had chosen theater for that same reason, because I wanted to be involved in something that made people smile or think or find another side of themselves.

BAM For how long did you apprentice?
LOW About a year.

BAM Do you remember your first client after hanging up your shingle?
LOW I do, as a matter of fact. I had a lovely couple, actually. Instead of one person, I ended up with two. They both had some experience, which was again a challenge. It was nerve-wracking, it really was. But we had such a great time that the woman sent her brother-in-law to me after that. So it worked.

BAM What’s the secret to your guiding success?
LOW This is in part Brown training: I walk into a situation, and even though I’ll look at a river and feel as if I know what I’m doing, I want to do something to make somebody else happy, to make sure they are fulfilled. That’s what makes me apprehensive. I’m always asking myself, “Am I doing enough? Is there more that I should be doing?”

BAM Don’t you have to be an astute student of psychology?
LOW Absolutely. That’s a subject I didn’t take at Brown, I must admit, but it would have been helpful. I did have a sport who brought his son. He said this was his way of sharing time with his son. He wanted a private guide for his son, and he wanted a private guide for himself. So I brought another guide in. It’s sharing time with his son, but he goes off with a private guide and the son goes off with a private guide. I felt like a bartender in a way, because he really spent the time talking about the difficulties he was having with his son. The talk going back and forth really had nothing to do with fishing.

BAM How old was his son?
LOW He was fourteen or fifteen years old, a difficult age anyway, and there had been a divorce. Then, by the time I was finished with the father, the other guide and I switched, so I had the son. I thought, “My god, this kid’s going to be a monster.” And he was just the nicest guy. I think the father just didn’t know how to relate to him or something. I just had to laugh to myself afterward because this was another whole thing I hadn’t signed up for.

BAM How does being a woman affect your day-to-day guiding?
LOW It can be hard for a man to take fishing instructions from a woman. Not all men, but that’s where I have to tread a little carefully.

BAM How are women fly-fishers viewed generally by male anglers?
LOW I think it depends on where you are. There are women who fly-fish just about everywhere in this country. They are the growing audience for this sport. In the East, and certainly in the Northeast, it’s much more accepted and easy in some ways for a woman to come in as a fly-fisher and also as a guide. There are quite a few women guides there.

You don’t walk into too many fly shops anymore and have guys laugh at you. Interestingly enough, just on this trip here out West, what I’m finding is that they’re still not quite there yet, even though there are lots of women who fly-fish out here. The guides who have been out doing it for awhile and don’t have anything to prove are totally accepting of women. The young guys who are trying to prove themselves, they couldn’t be more dismissive. And I’ve come across that just in the past week. Which is something I haven’t seen a lot of for a long time in the Northeast.

BAM Can you give an example?
LOW First of all, it’s very hard for women to get waited on in certain fly shops, depending on who’s in charge, because they won’t take you seriously, or they don’t realize the woman is actually seriously looking at fly-fishing gear and not just shopping for a boyfriend or husband.

As for guides, for years I had been the only female guide on the Beaverkill, or in that area. Now I think there are a couple of others. In honesty, up there I never had a problem. I never did. Which was nice. I’ve found that other guides just took me under their wing. I think they felt I wasn’t going to compete with them like the other guys would.

BAM Are you ever concerned for your safety, alone in the woods with a male client?
LOW There had been an article in the Hartford Courant years ago on women guides, and I was one they focused on. After that article came out I received an e-mail from a man who said, “Let’s go out fishing out West together. We’ll share the driving, we’ll share the cooking, we’ll share the back rubs.” I can tell you that no male guide that I know has ever received that.

I personally love to go where there’s no one else fishing. I’ll just scramble all over to find places to take my sport where he wouldn’t normally get to because it’s off the beaten path. It suddenly occurred to me at one point that, if I was taking someone for several days in a row, maybe the first day I should stick closer to the road, because you just don’t know about people. I had never thought about that before.

BAM Have you noticed more women getting into fly-fishing during the eleven years you’ve been guiding?
LOW Yes, I definitely have. I think it’s wonderful driving along a river and seeing the pony tails that belong to women. Otherwise, you can’t tell the difference between men and women, because everyone’s in waders.

BAM Has it been a smooth entry for women?
LOW Well, at first manufacturers made women’s fishing vests with flowers on them or a little bit of lace. Women said, “If we’re fishing we want to be treated seriously, like real fly-fishers. We don’t need lace.” Many women need smaller things, whether because their hands are smaller or their bodies are smaller. Women want the same conveniences that men want.

BAM Is it easier now for women to get waders that fit?
LOW Yes. There weren’t even women’s waders when I first started. Now manufacturers are putting the same elements into the gear. There was a time when one manufacturer came out with a men’s wader that I really loved, so I waited a year for the women’s version. But when it came out, it wasn’t the same. It didn’t have the same pockets. It didn’t have the same shoulder straps, and it wasn’t comfortable. I think they thought women wouldn’t use them as hard as men. But I will be out on the water just as long, if not longer, as a lot of the male fly-fishers that I know.

BAM What advice would you give to a woman—or a man—who wants to try fly-fishing for the first time?
LOW I would suggest if they’re really serious about it, go to a school or hire a guide or a teacher—someone who is a real teaching guide. If they’re less serious and just want to try it, they should still go out with someone, because, starting out, you’re just clueless. Just get out there, but be patient with it, because it’s a totally different sport. Give it a good day just to feel it. And plan to come back a second time just to see if it’s really something you like.

BAM You returned to campus for your thirtieth reunion in May. How did your classmates react to your unusual career?
LOW I did a book signing at the bookstore. What’s interesting was hearing people who have come to fishing, women who have been friends of mine who may not have fished before but have husbands who do, or women who have just come to it themselves. It’s a hard thing to come back to Brown being a fishing guide, I have to say.

BAM Why?
LOW I kept thinking, “Oh, no, everyone’s going to be a master of the universe, and here I am with this really strange job.” But it was hysterical, just the smiles, the absolute warm, laughing response that people had.

BAM You’re living a lot of people’s fantasy.
LOW Well, that’s what everyone was saying. So many people had that kind of response. Which tickled me. I’ve always been able to go off and do things I’ve enjoyed doing or I’ve wanted to do. Obviously, this stage of my life is exactly that.

Contact Sara Low at hoopsnflies@msn.com or visit her website at highspiritsunlimited.com

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Related Issue
September/October 2013