Making Changes on the Fly

Photo: Katy Mooney

Erica Nelson, the host of the Awkward Angler podcast, brings a new perspective to fly fishing.

Fly fishing guide Erica Nelson wants to normalize getting hopelessly tangled in trees. After all, when she taught herself to fish in 2016, that’s about all she knew how to do.

At the time, Nelson had just moved to Lander, Wyoming, to work as a guide for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Unable to find a disc golf course (her previous passion), she started hunting for a new hobby. That’s when she noticed local anglers heading to the river after work without much in the way of fancy gear—just blue jeans, sandals, and a couple of flies.

“That was really eye-opening to me—I’d always thought you needed this whole getup,” Nelson says. So, she borrowed a rod and reel from the NOLS gear room, watched some YouTube videos, and started her Instagram account @AwkwardAngler to get plugged into the community and start asking questions.

Now, five years later, Nelson is an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide based in Colorado’s Gunnison Valley (historically Ute land). She’s also the co-founder of diversity and inclusion consultancy REAL Consulting, the host of the Awkward Angler podcast, and an ambassador for Brown Folks Fishing, a community-based nonprofit organization that uplifts anglers who are Black, Indigenous, or other People of Color (Nelson is Diné, or Navajo).

Nelson (she/her) sat down with Public Lands to talk about honoring the Indigenous perspective on fishing, the rise of women in the sport, and why representation matters.

Public Lands: So many people still think of fly fishing as this super gear-intensive sport. Is that a misconception?

Erica Nelson: I think it’s a total misconception. These days, I carry a lot more than I should. But I try to keep to my roots—which is this notion that you don’t really need a lot. Just a reel, a rod, some line, a couple of flies, and maybe some fingernail clippers to cut your line. But almost everything can fit in your pocket. Usually in the summer, I take this little tin that used to have breath mints in it, and I stuff  a bunch of different flies in there and that’s the only thing I carry.

Why did you start @AwkwardAngler on Instagram (and later your podcast)?  

At first, I just wanted to know if it was normal to get caught up in trees. I’d never seen any representations of true fly fishing. It was always this grandiose image—probably of a white guy—standing in a crystal-clear mountain stream. That wasn’t my experience. So I do try to keep creating that space where it’s OK to be vulnerable and ask questions. And I don’t consider myself an expert, but I try to share what I’ve learned.

Fishing boomed during the pandemic. Are there more women and BIPOC anglers getting into the sport these days—or are people just now paying attention to them?

I would say it’s a little bit of both. The pandemic has gotten a lot of people outside in general, and I think fly fishing is becoming more and more popular. And the industry itself is also recognizing—slowly but surely—that there are People of Color out there fishing, and there are women out there fishing. It’s just a matter of how much they’re represented in our media. So,  yes, it’s growing, but also, yes, we’ve always been here. The women I’ve known have been fishing their entire lives and are just now getting recognition for it.

Erica Nelson fly fishing in the river Photo: Katy Mooney

Who’s one woman you look up to in the fishing world?

I really love this woman named Tracy Nguyen-Chung. She’s the founder of Brown Folks Fishing and grew up fishing all her life. I admire her for being brave enough to launch Brown Folks Fishing and to be involved in hard conversations. She’s also this badass angler but has a lot of humility. She’s been a big advocate for me as an indigenous woman to become an entrepreneur, and we’ve co-created the Angling for All pledge, which is a pledge fishing folks can sign to address racism in the industry. So she’s a friend, a mentor, and a partner, as well.

Do you still see yourself as an awkward angler?

There are two meanings to the Awkward Angler name. One: All the things that are awkward in doing it—getting stuck in trees, for example. And I still do that all the time. The other day I had to cut my line like eight times because I kept getting tangled.

But the other meaning is about sharing the different observations I’ve noticed within the fly fishing industry—things like representation, clothing size, wader size, or whose story gets told and why. I like to call that out and have conversations around it, and sometimes it gets really awkward.

Is it problematic to talk about the rise of women or People of Color in fishing, given that Indigenous people were the original anglers?

I think the first thing is to recognize we’re all fishing on stolen land and water. That’s due to the Indian Removal Act that was put into place by President Andrew Jackson. The Indigenous community used to migrate through the Gunnison Valley where I live. That included the Ute Tribe and many other tribes. Now they need a fishing license if they want to fish here. We have to pay to steward our own lands that we’d been stewarding for thousands of years. I think that’s something that’s foundationally not recognized.

How did fishing change your relationship with water?

Since I was a kid, I always had this fear of water. I took on whitewater rafting a few years ago to overcome that fear and guided the American River. But what I was missing was a respect for and relationship with water. Fast-forward to today, and I wade in the water. I’m immersed in it, and that puts you on an instant level with it.

Does fishing help you maintain your connection to the land or water in any special way?

Inherently, being Indigenous, we are in relationship to the land. It’s not something that’s separate from us. I think stewarding and caring for the land and for all living things, especially looking at the philosophy that water is life, is a part of that. It’s a reciprocal relationship for me. I don’t take from the land. And that’s something about the fishing industry—it’s individualistic. “I want this spot. This is my place. I am here to catch fish,” not, “I am here to be connected to mother nature or be in relationship under father sky.” For me, it’s about the relationship I have, which is always evolving. I’m always learning.

Does guiding give you hope about the next generation of fly fishers?

I never wanted to be a fly fishing guide. But I knew if I wanted to see representation, I needed to be it. I wanted other younger Indigenous women to be able to see themselves in the industry, too. It’s a little emotional for me, because it’s really special to be able to take out people of other marginalized identities, and to know they specifically chose me because of that.

Whenever I’m on the water with someone who’s booked a guided trip with me, any time they get their lines tangled or stuck in a tree, I notice this embarrassment. And every time they do that, I’m like, “OK, now you’re actually fishing. You’re in it.” Catching fish is just a small part of this. It’s really about being out here and connecting with these places. That’s what I want to normalize.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.