The water glittered fiercely in the afternoon light. A solitary angler in waders, knee-deep in a mountain stream, pulled gracefully against a weightless line as orange leaves silently drifted on the current.
It was a classic Field & Stream cover shot, redolent of autumn air, cigar smoke, real-man adventure and rugged macho prose. But then the fly fisher turned and, with a real-woman shriek of delight, yelled to her daughter, "I got him!" -- and the rest of our all-girl crew erupted in cheers.
I am woman, hear me whirrr: Daryln Hoffstot tries fly fishing near Ohiopyle State Park during a Western Pennsylvania Field Institute's women's clinic.
(Christopher Rolinson For The Washington Post)
Our inspiration during a recent women-only fly-fishing clinic on western Pennsylvania's Youghiogheny River wasn't Brad Pitt, whose role in "A River Runs Through It" made angling seem romantic. It was Joan Wulff, the fly-casting legend who made it seem effortless. Wulff, an ace angler in the 1940s and '50s, was famously photographed in a ball gown demonstrating her 160-foot casts. Our own instructor, Cyndi Zibrida, assured us that championship casting doesn't require male strength or power -- just a little of Wulff's finesse.
We learned that a deft touch, a light grip on a willowy rod and a willingness to think like a fish were perfectly easy for women to master. So was a day of Zenlike meditation, deep in a magnificent river gorge. Armed with a bit of practice and a lot of gear, we all-girl anglers did some serious stereotype-busting. And no slimy bait was required.
There are plenty of lazy rainbow, brown and brook trout in Pennsylvania's mountain streams this fall. The near-endless summer rain kept waters deep and cool, the way trout like it; this year, they're practically leaping out of the well-stocked waters along the Maryland border. "You can fish till your line freezes," said Zibrida cheerfully.
We signed on to a women's fly-fishing clinic run by the Western Pennsylvania Field Institute, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit devoted to outdoors recreation. We met on a brisk morning at Ohiopyle State Park in the Youghiogheny (Yaw-ki-GAY-nee) River Gorge. Our group meshed easily, mastering one another's names as we spent the morning learning about our quarry. Trout eat midges, caddis worms, stoneflies and tiny fish, so we learned how artificial flies mimic those tasty creatures -- and which ones were likely to fool a trout at this time of year.
Classmate Rebecca Shafer, an experienced angler, offered a tip on learning what trout like for lunch. "My boyfriend and I, when we're gutting a trout, always cut the stomach open," she said. "It's really interesting to see what insects it's been eating." (Immediate reaction: Whoa. Too much information there, Rebecca.) Trout generally lounge beneath boulders or overhanging banks, waiting for food to drift by, so bubbles eddying downstream can clue an observant fisher to their hangouts.
Next we practiced horizontal casts, simply flicking our rods from side to side on a level riverbank. Laying the fluorescent line smoothly on the grass, beyond a rope, took practice. The cork-handled rods were as light as wands. But after snapping my line too close to Shafer's ear, eliciting a small scream, I was relieved that we hadn't yet attached the hooks.
"It's not a power sport," Zibrida stressed. "Just slow down." As she demonstrated, her ponytail swinging, I realized fly-fishing was more balletic than boyish. Her smallest graceful gesture made the best cast. Our littlest classmate, 8-year-old Maeve Hoffstot, mastered the technique in two strokes, to mom Daryln's delight.
We ended our morning with lunch in Ohiopyle, a tiny town with a pleasantly indolent postseason vibe. A few cyclists pedaled through the slanting sunlight along the riverbank trail. Two beat-up vans, topped with kayaks, parked nearby. A cool breeze rustled leaves just beginning their goodbyes.
A few minutes later we parked at Beaver Creek, a crystal Yough tributary that cut down the mountain like a bright ribbon. Here we donned the equivalent of an Orvis fashion show: vests covered with clips and pockets. Extra reels of tippet, the weightless thread that attaches the hook and fly to the line. Polarized sunglasses. Wellingtons or waders. And then Zibrida led us over a charming low bridge, to finally meet our prey in the clear green water below.
"It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout," Hemingway wrote gruffly in "Big Two-Hearted River." "They were very satisfactory." Well, maybe -- to a man. To us, they were absolutely beautiful.
Thanks to the Field Institute, we had our choice of intricate flies: a woolly bugger, a Hare's Ear and the charmingly named Madame X. The first two, Zibrida explained, were wet flies, to be dragged a few inches beneath the surface of the stream; Madame X was a dry white fly, wound with delicate rubber to perch on the surface like a grasshopper.
But which to choose? The big, green woolly bugger appealed to me; but was I thinking like a hungry trout? Dale Kotowski, Zibrida's teaching partner, assured me it would work.