The Story of Utah Women Flyfishers
Heidi Lewis isn’t sure she actually remembers one of her earliest fishing trips while growing up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It is entirely possible the “memory’ is based on stories that emerge every time a priceless family picture of the then 2-year-old is spotted.
Where the memory comes from doesn’t matter; it just matters that is exists. In the picture, Heidi is holding a stick about as long as she is with a fishing line wrapped around the end and hook tipped with a worm on the other end. Her family was fishing for bluegill off a dock on the Eagle River that day.
Little did Heidi know decades later that memory would help complete a fishing challenge 1,400 miles and three states away. In addition to those family trips that happened to include a little fishing, Heidi grew up experiencing a more serious side of the sport during outings on Lake Michigan. Her father guided charter fishing trips for coho salmon and brown trout.
“That was a little different than catching panfish on a stick,” she laughed.
Flash ahead a few years. Heidi tagged along when her mom and brother drove to visit another brother who was living in Salt Lake City. Seeing his place at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon was enough for Heidi to plan a ski trip at Christmas with a high school buddy.
“After just two trips I knew where I wanted to go to school,” she said. “I was accepted at the University of Utah and moved to Salt Lake in the summer of 1996.”
By the time Heidi graduated from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City had become home. Skiing and rock hounding trips as part of her environmental earth science major took up most of her outdoors time, but fishing remained on her radar.
She would eventually marry and have two daughters. At some point her husband, Ryan, started talking about fly fishing. She had no idea what he was talking about.
“I was still fishing worms and lures,” she said.
Watching Ryan fly fish made her want to try. In the winter of 2012 she went to the Fly Fishing Film Tour in Salt Lake City. “I thought ‘wow, this looks cool’,” she said. “The films were all set in beautiful places. It looked really glamorous. I noticed nobody was keeping the fish. Fishing had always been about harvesting for me, but this was different.”
Heidi was looking for some alone time and she found it in fly fishing. She signed up for a women’s fly fishing class at Western Rivers Flyfisher in Salt Lake soon after the film tour. The rest, as they say is history. Heidi is hooked; or maybe we should say hooked up. Free time is spent on the water with the intent to catch fish. Sure fishing takes you to amazing places and helps relieve stress, but Heidi really craves that feeling of a fish hitting and landing it after a fight like she did as a 2-year-old back in Wisconsin.
She understands keeping fish in the certain situations, but Heidi practices catch and release and #keepemwet techniques.
"I support harvest where it is legal, but I can’t kill them. Killing fish is killing joy, my joy,” she said.
Heidi was suddenly all in when it came to fly fishing. Fishing alone was fine, but fishing with friends is better. She found fishing buddies through Western Rivers Flyfisher, but ultimately decided to give all women interested a fly fishing a chance to meet other of similar interest.
Heidi created Utah Women Flyfishers and Western Rivers stood ready to provide space and support to the endeavor. Today, more than 300 women are on the email list (firstname.lastname@example.org) and there are nearly daily conversations on the Utah Women Flyfishers Facebook page. The group meets monthly, with the exception of the prime fly-fishing summer months.
Meeting events include learning to tie flies, practicing casting at the park, planning trips, learning about conservation and hearing from special guests. The idea is to give women a safe place to ask questions they may not ask in a mixed crowd. Many of the women plan their own trips to Utah waters, and beyond, based on relationships they developed at the meetings.
“I love, and I think the other women really love, the connection you get going somewhere on a trip, even a day trip, and sharing stories from the experience,” she said. Not surprisingly, Heidi was recruited by several people associated with the Utah Council of Trout Unlimited to join the national non-profit conservation and fishing organization to serve as leader of the women’s initiative in Utah.
It was in that capacity that Heidi ended up leading three other women from across the country on a Utah Cutthroat Slam adventure in the summer of 2018. Heidi had already caught three of the four native cutthroat trout of Utah in their native range when she started helping the others and figured it would be a great way to catch the last fish to complete the slam.
When the group headed to the remote corner of northwestern Utah to try to land a Yellowstone cutthroat trout Heidi was ready to finish the goal, but the creeks are tiny, the brush is thick and the fish can be hard to reach with a fly.
Heidi wanted to let the others have the first crack at the best holes since they had a limited time before they had to return to their home states. But she wasn’t ready to give it up that easily. Employing the method of the memory of days on the Eagle River, Heidi found a stick, wrapped some tippet around it and tied on a small ant pattern.
“I found a place that seemed like a fish would be holding and crawled in. It was difficult to drop the fly on the water through the trees,” Heidi said. “I didn’t even see it take the fly; I just felt it.” Slam complete. Video of the Utah Cutthroat Slam adventure was recorded, with the exception of Heidi’s stick slam, and it could end up in the Fly Fishing Film Festival.
Taking women fly fishers from other states across Utah to complete their slams was a lot of fun; it also reminded Heidi of why she was drawn here and eventually stayed.
“They kept talking about how beautiful Utah was and how lucky I was to live here,” Heidi said. “It was fun to be able to show my state off to them. I fell back in love with Utah hearing all the oohing and aahing they were doing.”