Book Excerpt: Preserving the Heritage of Women Fly Fishers

Moirajeanne FitzGerald at her home in Pennsylvania.

[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Fly Fishing Treasures: The World of Fly Fishers and Collecting, by Steve Woit. The book offers a colorful review of the world of fly fishers and collecting, including 30 interviews with leading collectors, experts, museum and club curators, tackle manufacturers, auctioneers and traders and dealers of antique, vintage and collectible fly fishing tackle.]

Moirajeanne FitzGerald’s home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania could easily qualify as a leading museum dedicated to the fascinating history of women who fish.  Mj, as her friends know her, is a one-woman powerhouse on this intriguing subject, reminding us all that women have been fishing as long as men have. This is a fact that hasn’t always been recognized by the fly fishing community.

In the U.K. and around the world, it has been documented in the record books that women have landed some of the largest Atlantic salmon.  The prioress Dame Juliana Berners’ landmark work Treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle, Printed in 1496, is believed to be one of the first published works on fly fishing in the world.

Women have also been inventing and tying flies since the beginning. Mary Orvis Marbury in Vermont wrote the landmark American book Favorite Flies, and Megan Boyd in Scotland was perhaps the most famous salmon fly tier of all. With the advent of commercial fly tying, in terms of overall fly production, women have probably tied more flies than men.

In addition to commercial production, many notable women also contributed to the evolution of fly design and created and tied innovative new patterns, including Carrie Stevens of Maine, whose streamer patterns, such as the Gray Ghost, were both novel and beautiful.

A Red Sandy salmon fly, tied by Megan Boyd.

Theodore Gordon’s fly fishing companion was often a woman, although due in part to the social mores of the time little is known about her. Margaret Penn, the daughter of William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania, was also an early flyfisher in the 1700’s. One of her rods, imported from England, is held in the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

One of Maine’s most famous flyfishers was Cornelia “Fly Rod Crosby”, one of the pioneers in promoting angling as a destination sport in the 1890’s. She was in fact the first Maine Guide registered by the state in 1897.

Today, many of the leading fly fishing and outdoor brands such as Orvis, Patagonia, Columbia, and Simms have directed their marketing attention to promoting their brands to women flyfishers, who represent one of the most rapidly growing customer segments for the industry.

Mj has been fly fishing for decades, enjoying the sport with both men and women. Years ago, a chance find of some antique cabinet cards from the 1880’s in upstate New York featuring a woman fishing in the Adirondacks led her to the accumulate

and curate of one of the most extensive collections of photos and ephemera featuring women anglers.

A German print from the 1930s (left) and the cover of Hearst’s Magazine from May 1913.

She has also collected hundreds of real photo postcards of female anglers. The early invention of a powerful portable and easy-to-use Kodak camera that produced real photo postcards captured women fishing and fly fishing alongside men, with their families, their fathers, brothers and sisters or by themselves.

Photos of women fishing, hunting, or traveling the rodeo circuit and enjoying other traditionally male oriented sports are a fascinating reminder that women have always been part of our outdoor sporting heritage.  Some of photos reflect the pioneering nature of women in the U.S. West and Midwest, when women settlers spent much of their time outdoors, along with the men.

Now a very active category for collectors, images of women fishing and fly fishing have become very valuable and collectible. Mj culled many of the postcards in her collection from more general accumulations of postcards at paper and postcard shows.

She is fascinated by history and by the exploits of women who do interesting things, so the search for photographic and artistic representation of women in the outdoors became a passion.

Click here to learn more about Steve Woit’s book.

Mj is an adventurous and accomplished flyfisher and a member of many fishing associations and of the angling clubs founded for women, including the International Women Fly Fishers, the Delaware Valley Women Fly Fishers, the Chesapeake Women Anglers and others. She has also served on the board of the Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum Association.

She is a graduate of the Reel Women Fly Fishing Adventures guide school in Montana, co-founded and run by Lori-Ann Murphy, the first woman to be named an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide.

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