Angling for Parity in Fly Fishing: Interview with Jackie Kutzer and Christine Atkins, Co-Leaders of Orvis 50/50 On the Water

August 06, 2019
We speak with Christine Atkins and Jackie Kutzer, the women leading the 50/50 On the Water initiative at Orvis, to learn more about the initiative, which aims to introduce more women to the sport of fly fishing and to create gender equity on the water.

The Orvis Company has long been synonymous with high-quality outdoor sporting equipment, particularly fly fishing equipment. Mention of the company evokes images of a crystal clear river and an angler standing knee deep in the water casting a fly line in hope of a rising fish.  Traditionally, that angler has been a man. Orvis is working hard to change that. In 2017, the 160-year-old family-owned company launched an ambitious initiative called 50/50 On the Water, which aims to introduce more women to the sport of fly fishing. We recently sat down with Christine Atkins and Jackie Kutzer, the women leading the 50/50 On the Water initiative at Orvis, to find out more.

50/50 On the Water seeks equal gender representation in fly fishing. How far do you have to go to reach equality? What percentage of fly fishers today are female?

Jackie Kutzer: It’s no secret that, historically, fly fishing has been a male-dominated sport. Statistically, only 31% of the people who fly fish are female. Women have been a part of fly fishing since the very beginning, and we’re always trying to find ways to thank the women who paved the way for us to get this far.

Christine Atkins: That statistic comes from the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation’s (RBFF) annual report. It’s something that we’ve been tracking for the past six years. It is naturally going in the right direction; we’re just hoping to speed it up – to get to 50% faster.

What obstacles prevent women from getting into fly fishing? 

JK: The biggest barriers are a lack of confidence and a bit of intimidation. We can understand how from the outside looking in, fly fishing can be intimidating. There are also concerns about personal safety, finding others to fish with, finding gear that fits and making the time to fish.

How is Orvis addressing these barriers to entry?

CA: We started by focusing on three main areas because it’s easy to go down too many paths. The first is education, and that includes access to resources. It’s not just about going to a class, but being able to go online and watch YouTube videos that offer tips and tricks from female instructors. We think access to education and gear go hand in hand. We develop women’s gear that is actually designed to fit a woman, so we’re not shrinking and pinking it.

The second is storytelling and imagery. We want people to be able to see themselves in the sport. For that to happen, we need to project images that they identify with. We’re striving to do a better job with our still photography, videos, articles and the stories that we’re sharing.

The third is conservation; it’s central to the Orvis brand. It’s also a gateway for bringing women into fly fishing. I’d argue that women are nurturers by nature, and the idea of protecting resources is important to us. We think we can use that to draw them in. And the flip side of that is if we’re putting more anglers on the water, we need to make sure they’re helping to protect the resources so that everyone can continue to enjoy them.

How did you get into fly fishing?

JK: My short answer is, I fell in love with a fly fishing instructor at Orvis. Now we’re married with a 6-month-old daughter. But really, eight years ago, I took a women’s-only fly fishing school, taught by Molly Semenik, a guide in the West. The feeling of seeing a room full of women in a relaxed space and the comradery drew me in – we’ve all kept in touch. At that time, I fell in love with the form of the cast. I love being outside and focusing on being in the moment.

CA: I started fly fishing in college because of a guy, who is now my husband. I watched him cast one day, and I said, “I would really like to learn that.” Then I had the opportunity to move to Vermont and get to know the folks at Orvis and at the fly fishing school. I would spend my afternoons getting casting pointers, or I would go on the water with co-workers and ask tons of questions and be a sponge.

50/50 On the Water is an Orvis-led, industrywide campaign. Can you tell us why Orvis chose to be the leader of this campaign? 

JK: Orvis is naturally positioned to become a leader in this campaign. The company already has in place all the necessary pieces to bring this initiative together. We offer fly fishing schools and host trips. We have an online learning center for fly fishing and widely followed social media networks.

CA: We also put 15,000 students through our FF101 program every year. We’ve been doing that since 2007-2008. It’s established. From that perspective, it made it easier for us to do this. We didn’t have to start from scratch.

But the catalyst was really Steve Hemkens, the vice president of rod and tackle for Orvis. He comes from a family with many brothers and sisters. He had the opportunity to fish with Hilary Hutcheson, a phenomenal angler and guide who owns a fly shop and is very tapped into conservation in Montana. He came back and said, “I just had an ‘aha’ moment with Hilary. I realized that’s what it could be like if my sisters had fished growing up – I could have had that with them.”

Women's fly fishing clubs are popping up all over the country as well. Social media has played a big part in building the community and enabling women to see how they could participate.

Has Orvis partnered with other organizations on the initiative?

JK: We’ve had partners across the entire industry since the beginning. We’re continuing to work on building those relationships. Our most recent has been the RBFF, whose annual reports we use to pull the statistics each year. We’ve always worked hand in hand with Casting for Recovery, Trout Unlimited and Orvis as a company too, not just for the initiative.

CA: In August, we’re going to have a 50/50 On the Water Film Tour, in partnership with Costa, Smith, Patagonia, FisheWear and more. We’re all holding hands on this, and it’s going to be incredible. It’s powerful for us all to be in this together.

What tactics is 50/50 On the Water employing to encourage more women to try fly fishing?

CA: If you are intimidated in the beginning and want to be with other women when you’re learning, we have women-only classes for you. We have a 50/50 website where we share the stories, videos and profiles of anglers of all different skill levels, and we have an event finder.

JK: Orvis can be your guide. We introduce people to fly fishing through our FF101 program. You can figure out if you like it, and then you can take it to the next level – maybe take a women’s-only school or women’s-only trips. We have all the pieces in place to help women through their fishing journey.

How have you seen the sport change in your lifetime? How much of that change do you attribute to Orvis?

JK: In the eight years that I’ve been fly fishing, I’ve seen exponential growth at trade shows. There are groups of women who are coming for themselves, not being dragged to the show by their significant other. You see more women in the ads, posters and catalogs. You see it on the river. Women’s fly fishing clubs are popping up all over the country as well. Social media has played a big part in building the community and enabling women to see how they could participate. That’s why we focus on the imagery and what we’re projecting as an industry.

CA: In the past, the chances of running into another woman on the water would be slim. Today, we can say, “I’m going in the water today, and I want to make sure I run into another woman angler (or fly fisher). I’m going to make that happen.” Heather Hodson started a Facebook group called United Women on the Fly that has over 2,000 followers. She’s created a safe space where you can ask questions and bounce ideas off each other and ask to meet up with other anglers. Social media is responsible for generating that community.

Are there other sports with similar initiatives to get more women into the outdoors?

CA: We’ve been approached by folks in the cycling industry. There’s going to be an event in Vermont in September, where participants will have the opportunity to do a little mountain biking, and we’re going to teach you how to fly fish.

In July, Outside Experience is doing an event in Chicago with different activities, and we’re going to be there to represent fly fishing. If you already understand that there’s value in being outside, then we’re going to put a rod in your hand and see if you like it.

How important is it to teach the next generation to fly fish?

CA: A by-product of bringing in more women to fly fishing is that the sport naturally becomes part of what you do as a family. It’s something that you can do together.

JK: We see the evolution of the initiative organically expanding to children and families and greater diversity and inclusion. I believe that it’s our social responsibility to teach the next generation how to protect the outdoors. Fly fishing can be the catalyst that gets the next generation outdoors and makes them appreciate the wonder and awe of nature.

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