Written by: Carol Jo, as told to Wade Fellin of Big Hole Lodge
The Quality Chicks (aka the Wannabes) in 1993
It has been one year since twelve women, armed to the teeth with fly rods and fly boxes, took the Big Hole Lodge by storm. For one week, we were lucky enough to host The Quality Chicks’ annual retreat, an event filled with laughter and motivated by a ferocious passion for the sport. This week, their hand-tied patterns, precise casts, and “fish-on” cries return to the Big Hole Valley and it is sure to be an experience not soon forgotten.
The Quality Chicks, established in 1993, are very much an Orvis-sponsored tradition. During the winter of 1992, co-founder Carol Jo found an ad in the back of an Orvis News edition, which listed several casting classes and fly-fishing destinations. Highlighted was a women-only course to be debuted at the Orvis headquarters in Manchester, VT. It was to be led by Lori Ann Murphy, a renowned Orvis guide, and a crew of accomplished female anglers. Carol Jo had always wanted to fly fish, but learning such a difficult and intricate sport alone proved to be a daunting endeavor. Yet, she knew it was something she needed to do. Before even checking her calendar, she picked up the phone and reserved a spot in Orvis’ casting course. To this day, Carol Jo believes that phone call was life changing.
The three-day class was attended by thirty beginners, ranging in age from 20 to 60. Though a handful were there because their husbands had signed them up, the majority of the women were there to recapture childhood memories of fishing with dad or grandpa and to experience the wonders of the outdoors. The instructors were so enthusiastic, many of the women were hooked for life.
The following fall, Carol Jo signed up for a Reel Women trip to the South Fork of the Snake. In the Denver airport, she noticed another woman with a fly rod, Linda Windels. Linda was also embarking on her first all-women’s fishing adventure. The two looked around the terminal and then back to one another, not seeing anyone else in fishing attire; they walked toward each other and said, “Hey, you going fishing on the South Fork?” Thus began a lifelong friendship. Their fishing career began below the Palisades Dam, near Swan Valley, where they immersed themselves in the sport, spending the night in tents on the river and soaking up as much knowledge as possible. They turned six other Reel Women into friends and booked together for several years. “We shared a fascination about fly fishing, and something just clicked,” says Carol Jo.
Craig Fellin of Big Hole Lodge with The Quality Chicks, 2010
In the years following the South Fork trip, the group referred to themselves as The Wannabees, because they wanted to fish with the skill of the Reel Women guides. “We each went on other Orvis trips and each time invited other women to join us originals,” says Pat, a Chicks co-founder. As their ability levels grew, the name had to change. Members Pat and Suzanne took charge and printed brightly-colored tee shirts with “Quality Chicks” boldly across the front, and The Quality Chicks were born.
Nineteen years later, their group is up to twenty members, each from diverse regions, ages, and walks of life, dedicated to the enjoyment of fly fishing and being in the wild. Linda now says, “Fly fishing is a physical and mental escape from everyday life. Stress melts away as you become totally focused on the pursuit of trout. I love the fact that no day on the water is ever the same. Catching fish is great, but the education you receive every time you go out to fish is even better. It’s my passion and I can’t imagine life without it.”
Two women in a boat used to be viewed as an oddity floating down the Snake or the Big Hole, but The Chicks are helping pave the way for women in a big way. “Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years. Not only are women accepted, they are encouraged,” says Linda, a Chicks co-founder. She remembers starting out as a Chick, “I used to drive myself an hour to the South Platte River to fish at least once a week. I wanted to learn all I could as fast as I could and that seemed the best way to do it. I was almost always the only woman on the river, and if I was in a good spot there would be at least one man who would edge in next to me, cast over my line and try to run me off. They could see I didn’t know what I was doing and thought they could intimidate me. I always held my ground, but was very uncomfortable. After a while, I improved and they started leaving me alone, but I swore then that if I could ever help another woman who wanted to learn to fish I would do it.” She credits early fly fishing promoters Joan Wulff, Lori Ann Murphy, Rhonda Sapp and Donna Teeny as women who had major influence on her, all of whom she has now had the opportunity to fish with. She hopes that she has been able to encourage and help women in some small way, but she has undoubtedly done both in a big way. Linda is the glue that holds The Quality Chicks together, organizing annual trips, introducing new members, and tirelessly tying gorgeous fly patterns for members throughout the winter.
Quality Chick Linda Windels with a quality brown trout
Today, the Quality Chicks can proudly say they have climbed down canyons and crawled back up them, fished with frozen fingers and ice forming on their rods, and embraced every experience with each other. The thought of fishing together the following year brightens many a winter’s day. “We never expected we would be so lucky to still be fishing with this group, nor did we expect to meet so many women interested in fly fishing who are now fellow Chicks,” says Pat. “I love the Quality Chicks who come in after a full day of fishing and never come in to announce the number they caught but are more focused on the great day they hope you had, regale us with the tales of the fun they had, the one that got away, and the marvelous cast their partner made that produced a beautiful fish that was put back in the water for the next guy or gal to catch.”
Big Hole Lodge is proud to again host such a passionate and engaged group of anglers this season. The rivers of Southwest Montana are finally coming into shape, and the trout are healthy with all of the food and water this spring. But they’d better be careful this week. These gals are here to fish.