April Vokey sets hooks in mostly male sport of fly fishing
“You’re not going to write about the ‘being a woman in a male-dominated sport’ thing, are you?” she said politely near the end of our interview. “That’s old, boring and I’m tired of it.”
But unless you are April Vokey, the theme is still compelling and evolving.
Like it or not, her femininity is a strike indicator for clients and media.
I probably wouldn’t be writing about a talented 30-year-old fly-fishing entrepreneur from Chilliwack, British Columbia, if my attention hadn’t been caught by her gender.
It’s unlikely that “60 Minutes Sports” would have zeroed in this fall on Vokey if she’d been just another fishing guide who gives seminars at trade shows, teaches fly-tying classes and casting clinics and leads trips to exotic destinations.
Vokey has become a star in a sport that suffers no fakers.
She can cast a longer line around the pool of clientele than most pros because she inspires gals to fish as hard as guys while reeling in the admiration of men.
Vokey double-hauls her way to the center of any fly-fishing circle with her unique recipe. As a young girl she became fascinated with steelheading – the antithesis of instant gratification – and matured into a woman with a tireless work ethic, polished skills and a good helping of brains and beauty.
Photographers beg for a chance to accompany Vokey on her travels or homewaters, where she’s almost certain to generate a cover shot or photo spread.
If you haven’t seen April Vokey posing on the fabled steelhead runs of the Skeena or Dean rivers with an equally jaw-dropping chromer, you haven’t seen a fly-fishing magazine in the past few years.
But once you get past the curves, Vokey’s story has intriguing angles.
She has gracefully exposed her fly-fishing prowess over the years in the chit-chat weaved through her seminars, with guided clientele and between the lines of her eloquent and often soul-dredging blog.
“I don’t like fluff in people, life or flies,” she said to a group of anglers during a recent fly-tying seminar in Spokane. She was referring to adding the proper amount of marabou to a streamer while indirectly opening the door to her character.
Vokey was raised in Surrey, British Columbia, a crime-ridden suburb of Vancouver. While she was an A student in accelerated classes, she also says she hung around with a tough crowd. She learned to drink. Dropping f-bombs and working out on a speed bag were in her defense mechanism.
Among the most remarkable if not phenomenal details in Vokey’s life is that she’d become a hard-core steelhead fly fisher by the age of 16 without the direct influence of fishing parents.
“As the world around me spun out of control I desperately sought some sort of stability in my unsteady surroundings.” she wrote. “Late-night parties found drunken classmates stumbling through self-discovery as I soberly snuck out early to be on the river for first light.”
Rushing down a braided teenage stream full of eddies and logjams, she chose the channel that set her free.
Once she got hooked on the power of a steelhead ripping line off her reel, she started sharing the thrill with friends. Passing on the pleasure led to gratification that paved the way for her career.
“I wanted it so bad that come hell or high water I did it every day to see how I’d do and get better at it,” she told me. “I’ve never had a 9-to-5 job.”
Although she reserves much of September for herself, Vokey guides seven days a week during prime steelheading seasons and packs the rest of her schedule with teaching, filming and hosting trips through her Fly Gal Ventures, a company she founded in 2007.
Two weeks ago she was presenting in Missoula. This week she’s fishing in Chile.
“I’ve been to about 20 countries, all for fishing,” she said. “I don’t go to a country if I can’t go fishing.”
Her foothold in the industry and her outspoken advocacy for fisheries conservation have landed her on various boards. She consults with fly-fishing companies.
When Lee Funkhouser of the Inland Empire Fly Fishing Club was looking for a good speaker for a fall program, he said he got a glowing recommendation from a British Columbia fishing guide. “He said April really knows her stuff,” Funkhouser said. “It’s one thing to hear that from other fly fishers, but it really got my attention coming from another guide.”
And while many celebrities crust over with self-importance, she graciously made time for The Spokesman-Review during the dizzying schedule of her 18-hour day in Spokane.
“I take pride in being an extra-hard worker,” she said. “I have my fingers in a lot of pots.”
She’s focused recently on filling gaps in the fly-fishing industry with female-specific casting instruction and marketing certain brands of feathers to tiers.
“I don’t have a husband or children so I’ve had the opportunity to give it my all. I don’t take days off, although I’m learning to.
“I haven’t had a home for longer than two or three weeks at a time in six years, but I’m ready.”
Indeed, she prompted a few audible sighs from the group – and took the edge off a few fantasies – by announcing to the club that she’d become engaged just four days prior to an Australian man she’d met while fishing in Norway.
“I’ve had a few boyfriends,” she said. “The ones who didn’t understand steelhead fishing didn’t last long.”
Vokey demonstrated her experience and practicality during an afternoon fly-tying seminar in Spokane.
“The people on YouTube telling you how to wrap a pretty fly probably fish one day a week,” she said. “The people who fish every day do it this way – so it’s more durable.”
Introducing her to the larger group for the evening program, Hugh Evans stepped to the podium and praised her teaching ability and passion for the sport.
“I just finished probably the best fly-tying class I ever had,” he said.
“This is a men’s-only club, but if April Vokey applied it would be a unanimous vote to go coed.”
She was unflappable during the program in front of the club’s largest turnout of the year.
She focused on catching steelhead with streamers on the swing to a seasoned audience, most of whom had been fly fishing for decades before Vokey was born.
“Truly talented anglers put the puzzle together of a particular piece of water,” she began. “It’s not just the best caster who catches the fish.”
In our one-on-one interview, Vokey said, “My whole life, people have told me I can’t do it. So when I hear that, I want to do it, and I usually do.”
She didn’t want to talk about being a woman in a male-dominated sport.
“I wouldn’t bring it up if you didn’t ask the questions,” she said.
“Growing up in a tough neighborhood prepared me for the rough start. Men have yelled at me and told me to go home and make the sandwiches. I don’t hear that much anymore.”
Last year, she told the Everett Herald, “It has always been a shame to me that fly fishing is perceived as a man’s sport. There is truly nothing overly masculine about it.
“When explaining one’s desire to fly fish – finesse, timing, passion, excitement, intrigue and dedication are all descriptives that come to mind, descriptives that are not sole features of either gender.”
Joan Wulff put the feminine touch on fly fishing nearly 70 years ago and became a grande dame of the sport. Vokey appears to be on the same path.
“Woman in a male-dominated sport – I feel I’m so far past that now,” she told me. “I live the sport every single day of my life.
“I prefer to be thought of as an angler with integrity, someone who considers it a pleasure and a privilege to share what I know.
“But I’m always on trial. When you meet people in this sport they’re usually gracious, but underneath they’re saying, ‘What’s she got?’ ”
A woman realizes she’s different from other guides, Vokey said:
“She’s being judged on the way her ass looks in a tight pair of jeans as much as whether she can catch fish.
“I’m blessed and lucky, but I worked for it. After eight hours of guiding, I go home and I’m tying flies, making calls, answering emails, preparing presentations….”
Under the constant glare of a spotlight, Vokey remains remarkably frank.
“I’m not a great caster; I’m not a great fly tier; I’m not a great writer; I’m not the best at any of those things,” she says in the “60 Minutes Sports” feature that aired in November on Showtime.
“Then what makes you so good at this?” asked CBS reporter Bill Whitaker.
“I love it more than anybody I know.”