They say there’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come, and a little more than two decades ago, Ann Miller had the notion there are women who would love to learn how to fly fish if there weren’t so many hurdles. So, Miller decided to remove the hurdles. She founded Flygirls of Michigan (flygirls.ws), a nonprofit group designed to provide women with the same benefits men have enjoyed through their fishing fraternities.
“Twenty years ago, there were a lot of obstacles to women getting into fly fishing,” said Miller, who lives in southwestern Michigan. “Most of the clubs were 90-95 percent men, and it was hard for women to come in and feel comfortable to learn. It was definitely a good ol’ boy’s network. That’s why Flygirls was started.”
Miller doesn’t care to tell how old she is, but she acknowledges that she’s soon to be a grandmother. She began teaching women to fly fish well before the group was formed. Working with her pal, Dorothy Schramm, whose husband was an important player in the Federation of Fly Fishers (now known as International Fly Fishers), Miller put on clinics for women at fly shops and events. The pair kept the names and contact information from the women who participated. When they surveyed the participants, some 80 percent thought the idea of a woman’s fly fishing club was right on.
Annual membership in Flygirls of Michigan ranges from 250-300. There are no dues; the club operates mostly on funds raised by raffles at club events and by selling Flygirls merchandise (hats, shirts, etc.), though all members are required to join IFF.
“Twenty years ago, there were a lot of obstacles to women getting into fly fishing. Most of the clubs were 90-95 percent men, and it was hard for women to come in and feel comfortable to learn.”
— Ann Miller
Miller would have made her mark in the fly fishing world even if the Flygirls never existed. Trained in aquatic biology and a former teacher, Miller found there wasn’t a good text available to teach would-be fly fishers the entomology needed to be proficient in the sport. So, she took it upon herself to write one.
Miller’s “Hatch Guide for Upper Midwest Streams” is considered a must-have for beginning fly fishers and a should-have for veterans. It is a to-the-point, beautifully illustrated tome with photographs Miller painstakingly took, setting up her own trout stream/photo studio at home. She sat for hours watching aquatic nymphs hatch out into adults, so she could capture them with a camera.
It wasn’t without some personal cost. Her three now-grown daughters weren’t pleased with the bugs flying around in the house, Miller said, though it never bothered her. She loves bugs. She had grown up an “absolute tomboy” in a neighborhood of boys and was into tree forts and other trappings of boyhood. She was a cane-pole-and-bobber angler who was jealous of her brother’s rod and reel.
“I never had a doll and I didn’t want to play with people who had dolls,” she said. “I didn’t get my ears pierced until I was 26 or 27 or 28.”
Miller was introduced to fly fishing as a graduate student at the University of Michigan Biological Station. She was immediately smitten.
Later, she introduced her three daughters to the sport, but only the youngest (a musical theatre major in college) developed the fly fishing itch. She took her to Montana, “It was her idea,” Miller said, and even today, the only time she’ll go do girly-girl things — like get a pedicure — is if one of her daughters wants to.
Miller has trotted the globe with her fly rod in tow. She recently returned from Belize for the third time, where she fished for bonefish, tarpon and permit. She’s been to Patagonia twice and plans to go to Alaska or New Zealand, perhaps with her youngest when she graduates college.
She remains dedicated to Flygirls, which continues to fulfill its missions — education, conservation and stewardship — by hosting events ranging from fly tying bees to seasonal outings. Excess cash in the annual budget is donated to conservation groups, such as the Anglers of the Au Sable or the Conservation Resource Alliance to further the cause.
Flygirls is thriving, in part, because it has managed to avoid the in-fighting or lost focus that dooms other groups. And many of its members attribute that to Miller’s leadership.
“For the past 10 years, Ann has really stepped up,” Dorothy Schramm said. “Her talents and dedication have made this thing what it is. Ann’s the glue, a very talented woman. There aren’t enough good things I can say about her. She’s just a Michigan treasure.”
Bob Gwizdz is a career outdoor writer who works for the Department of Natural Resources. He lives in East Lansing.