The regulars at Anglers Sporting Goods, at the western end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis, miss the able and cheerful Sarah Gardner, who for years brought a woman's touch to a manly trade in rods, bait, guns and ammo.
They'll be pleased to know she misses them, too. "I really miss Anglers," she said last week as she piloted her new, 18-foot fishing skiff across the tricky shoals of Pamlico Sound near Oregon Inlet on North Carolina's Outer Banks. "Not the work--I saw enough of retail in my time behind the counter. But I miss the camaraderie, being in the middle of everything, just being one of the guys."
Gardner, a co-founder of the old Washington-Baltimore fishing group Chesapeake Outdoor Women and long considered one of the top female flyrodders in the mid-Atlantic, took her angling talents on the road a year and a half ago. These days she's Capt. Gardner and spends as many days as possible guiding flyrodders for king and Spanish mackerel, stripers, speckled trout, false albacore, cobia, red drum, blues and amberjacks around the Outer Banks at Nags Head.
She followed her heart there after she was wooed by fellow flyrodder Brian Horsley, a 20-year veteran Outer Banks guide who runs Flat Out Charters. Now Horsley and Gardner share the chartering work load, he specializing in more experienced anglers and she, at least for now, focusing more on novices and less intense practitioners of the flyrod game.
But she hardly labors in his shadow. As a female in yet another almost exclusively male bailiwick, Gardner "gets in the newspapers a lot," said Dick Darcey, a retired Washingtonian who lives in a beach house down the road in Rodanthe. And when people from "Today" turned up last week to shoot TV segments, host Matt Lauer chose Gardner to teach him the fundamentals of flycasting on the beach.
She was my first choice, too, when I had a morning free for fishing on the way home from a stay in Cape Hatteras. Oh, I knew Gardner isn't the most knowledgeable guide on the Outer Banks yet and probably couldn't lead me to the most fish. She's only been at it for one season and she's the first to admit there are spots Horsley knows from long years that he hasn't shared with her. "You can only get so much" by being in love, she said.
But I've always liked fishing with her, and it is supposed to be fun, isn't it? She has a sense of humor. When the fish-finder kicked out of service at a critical moment in our search for speckled trout, she lifted it from its mounting bracket. "This is a woman's way of repairing electronics," she said, and gently disconnected the plug and reconnected it. Worked like a charm. A man would have smacked it silly, of course.
She pointed the bow of her shiny center console skiff, "Fly Girl," toward the windward shore of a marsh tump called Duck Island, set the anchor by the stern and instructed me to lay one of her hand-tied Clouser minnow imitations up along the bank, let it sweep across the grass beds with the incoming tide and hope for a strike from speckled or grey trout.
It was slow going. The wind was up, as it often is on the Outer Banks, the water was off-color and littered with loose bits of grass and the sky was the color of a two-day-old bruise. Spitting rain punctuated gusts of wind--just the sort of conditions you wouldn't choose if you could pick your fishing days.
But the company was fine and the chatter was steady. Gardner wanted to know all about Maryland politics, the bay, duck hunting last fall. "Don't get me wrong, I love it down here," she said. "Fishing is great. But it is an island, which isn't the easiest place to make friends. I haven't found anyone to hunt with yet. And I never lived in a place before where what church you join has business implications."
She was shocked to hear of John Griffin's ouster as secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources last week, pleased to hear about the return of submerged grasses to several rivers in the middle Chesapeake and anxious to gab about the various wilderness triumphs and flops of her longtime fishing and hunting cronies.
With the southwesterly breeze clipping in at 15 knots, it was too breezy to head out the inlet and try the ocean side, so we worked from hole to hole in protected Pamlico Sound, casting diligently with little success. The very same places where we came up empty had produced the day before, she said. "We got 20 trout in an hour here," she said of one place, "and four in a few minutes behind Duck Island."
It was challenging just getting from place to place. Most of the flats behind Oregon Inlet are only a foot or two deep and Gardner had to pick her way at high speed through shallow channels to get around.
Much of what she has learned has come the hard way. "My very first trip last year I had two guys. I couldn't get the anchor to hold, then when I finally did, one of the guys got his flyline caught around the propeller and I didn't know how to get it off without getting out of the boat. I do now, of course. But I had to jump in and it was deeper than I thought and I went right up to here," she said, gesturing to her nose.
"It was embarrassing, but we did catch fish. When we got back to the dock, I told them it was my very first trip as a captain and they seemed surprised."
She and I finally managed to catch and release a few trout when the tide shifted to ebb and when she turned the bow downwind for home I was satisfied with the morning's outcome. On the run back, we discussed the Women's World Cup soccer hoopla.
She was blown away by her fellow females' success. But she said she wasn't planning to rip her shirt off anytime soon, a la Brandi Chastain, no matter how big a fish a client might catch.
Sarah Gardner and partner Brian Horsley are solidly booked for the false albacore run in October and November, when fly anglers from across the country head to the Outer Banks for high sport. However, they have dates open for the rest of the summer. She expects that amberjack and king and Spanish mackerel fishing will pick up along the beach during the next two months, and that some false albacores will make an early appearance as well.
Gardner specializes in teaching saltwater flyfishing to novices and welcomes women customers new to the sport. Call her or Horsley at 252-449-0562.
CAPTION: Sarah Gardner left Annapolis area to become a fishing guide at Outer Banks.