It’s a vibrantly-coloured fall day on the Bow River just east of Calgary, Alberta. As Paula Shearer gets ready to cast her line into the water, she stops with the realization of something unusual.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been out on the water with this many women before,” she says, pointing at the three other females around her, Ruth Lee, Kate Targett and Amber Toner, all hip deep in the fresh, trout-filled rapids of Alberta’s internationally-renowned fly-fishing river.
“There was a point where there were no other women. About four years ago, however, the sport began to open up, and it’s amazing to see. I think social media has helped, and also I think women are more open to and excited about getting out and trying things that were previously male-driven or dominated outdoor sports and activities in this province.”
Shearer is one of (if not the only) full-time female fly-fishing guides on Alberta’s Bow. She’s been casting, stripping and striking since before she was 8-years-old. By the age of 11, she was pushing herself onto lakes to fish alone. She learned from her father and uncles and has turned her passion for the fly into a career. The angler not only has more than 45,000 Instagram followers (@PaulaShearer) and a wealth of sponsors, she’s also one of the most sought-after guides in North America.
A day out with Shearer on her drift boat nets a full day of good fishing time, lessons, lunch and a tour of one of the world’s best fishing water bodies. Through her company, PS On the Fly, Shearer is one of several Calgary-based fly-fishing tour operators who guide people through prime fishing season, which starts in spring and usually runs until mid-October, all in search of rainbow trout, brown trout and whitefish.
“The Bow is a bucket-list body of water for fishers, and I’ve taken everyone from complete newbies to seasoned anglers out, from everyone from the Bahamas, to Scotland and Germany, as well as New Zealand and Australia out,” Shearer explains.
Lee, 26-years-old, is relatively new to the sport compared to her three companions. The Calgary-based graphic designer says she’s been fly fishing for about three years. She started in the sport when her boyfriend, who is an avid fisher and hunter, introduced her.
“I love being in nature, that’s why I wanted to start, and I’ve been addicted ever since,” she says.
Toner, who grew up near Millarville just south of Calgary, learned how to fly fish on the Sheep River with her father when she was young, but gave up the sport as a teenager. “It wasn’t exactly cool,” she says with a laugh. “No girls were doing it, or anyone for that matter.”
After completing art school elsewhere, she returned to Calgary and started fishing again with her husband about a decade ago. They document their adventures on Instagram at @thebugparade.
“We love fishing together as a couple, and I think it’s the isolation that I like most. I try to leave my phone at home. It’s about being alone in the world with your thoughts and enjoying all Alberta has to offer.”
Toner, like most fly fishers, releases the fish she catches. “There are lots of conservation efforts aimed at saving our trout population and fly fishers, on the whole, tend to be very mindful of it. You won’t find many of us who keep the fish.”
For Targett, the thrill is all in the hunt. She started fly fishing about seven years ago, and says the best part about the experience is seeking out untapped bodies of water across the province.
“I love the adventure. My boyfriend and I will spend a lot of time figuring out new zones and missions that we can hike and get to by foot,” she says. “The fishing is a bonus.”
While the stereotype of the lone, older male fisherman just off the bank of the river may run true for many unaware of the sport’s intricacies, Targett says there isn’t much truth to that image.
“People think it’s an old man’s sport, but it’s not. You have to give it a chance. Most of the fly fishing we do is off the beaten trail. We will walk for nearly 12 hours some days on the rivers, and hike in and scale cliffs to get to areas of Alberta. You’re usually exhausted at the end of the day.”
Targett says there’s nothing better than setting up camp on a mid-river island and fishing for a few days.
“There are a ton of mountain streams and mid-river streams down south of the Bow as well as throughout Alberta. The average size of fish in the Bow is 16 inches, that’s a big fish, so that’s why people love coming to Alberta to fly fish. Also you’re talking about 2,000 fish per mile and one of the world’s healthiest fisheries. We’re fortunate to live in such a beautiful and vibrant fly fishing area.”