Female guides make inroads in Missouri fisheries

Female guides make inroads in Missouri fisheries

BRANSON, Mo. (MCT) - Years ago, Carolyn Parker never would have pictured herself where she was Thursday - floating down Lake Taneycomo in her drift boat, getting paid to go fishing.

At the time, she was a longtime employee of the Bayer Corp. in Kansas City, stuck in the "daily grind," as she called it. And though she loved to fly fish, she never imagined a day when she would be a guide.

Guiding? That was man's work - or at least, so the common thinking went. 

"Guys who are in their 60s come from an era when people thought, 'Girls just don't do that type of thing,' " Parker said as she used her fly rod to launch a cast. "You just didn't see that many women fishing guides."

But Parker and several others are breaking that stereotype - and in a big way.

Launch your boat on Lake Taneycomo on any given day and you might see Parker guiding male customers to big trout. You might also spot her fellow guide Gina Leitle showing a client how to use a fly rod to work a secluded spot.

And visit the White River in Arkansas, and you might catch Lisa Mullins cutting across the water in her boat, headed to another favorite pool.

Together, they represent the new face of Ozark fishing guides.

Parker laughs when she recalls the fear she felt when she first decided to get into guiding with her husband, Stan.

"When I got started, I was really nervous," said Parker, 66, who lives in Branson. "Being a woman, I felt I had to prove myself.

"I remember one of my first guide trips. I had a guy who just didn't want any help. You could tell that he wasn't going to let any woman tell him how to fish."

But that story has a happy ending. That fisherman did take advice from Parker, he caught lots of trout, and today he is one of her valued customers.

And so it goes. The water is often a proving ground for women fishing guides. But when you fish as well as Parker does, that test often doesn't last long.

She has been fishing most of her life. "My dad wanted a boy," she said. "So I became his fishing partner." But it wasn't until she and her husband watched a couple fly fishing that her life took a turn.

"I thought, 'Boy, that looks like fun,' " she said. "So Stan and I tried it.

"At first, I wasn't very good. But I caught fish. "To stand in the middle of a stream, figure out what the trout want, present that fly just right and get them to hit  ... for me, that's the ultimate."

She has been fly fishing since the 1960s, and today, it's the central part of her life.

Once she retired from Bayer, she and Stan decided to turn their hobby into a business and they started guiding.

They borrowed a technique they had seen while fishing with guides out West, using a drift boat to navigate the swift waters of Lake Taneycomo.

That allowed them to control their customers' drifts with their flies and get to water that couldn't be reached with ordinary boats.

It wasn't long before the Parkers opened their own fly shop, River Run Outfitters in Branson, and they hired other guides to meet the demand.

They must be doing something right. Orvis, a leading manufacturer of fly fishing equipment, named River Run as its 2006 Outfitter of the Year, an honor the Parkers take great pride in.

Carolyn also is on the board of directors for the International Women Fly Fishers. And she works tirelessly to get other women involved in the sport she loves, giving clinics from her shop and talks to groups whenever she can.

"A lot of women are intimidated," she said. "They think, 'That isn't something I could do.'

"But once they try it and see how easy it is, a lot of them love it.

"It's very therapeutic, very relaxing."

On a cool summer morning, Parker was getting her therapy.

She rowed her drift boat into the fog below Table Rock Dam and pulled over into a stretch of slack water at the edge of the current. Then she tied a tiny burgundy midge fly to her line and tossed it into the water.

No sooner had it started drifting than Parker watched the orange strike indicator move slightly. She immediately set the hook and felt the frantic pull of a nice-sized rainbow trout.

"That's a good sign - a fish on the first cast," she said as she unhooked the 13-inch fish.

That was a sign of things to come.

Parker and I spent the day fishing the edge of current runs in Taneycomo's specially-managed Trophy Area and enjoyed one of those days fishermen dream about. We caught trout at every stop - many of them rainbows in the 12- to 14-inch range. Add one brown trout that measured 19{ inches, and you have a day to remember.

"I haven't seen it this good in a while," Parker said. "But that says a lot about this fishery.

"A good fisherman can come out here and catch 50 or more trout a day when conditions are right."

Parker should know. She and Stan have enjoyed many productive days on the Ozarks trout lake.

Today, though, she takes just as much satisfaction at teaching others to be good fly fishermen.

She often starts a trip with a beginner who hasn't even cast a fly rod. By the time she is done, she has often taught that person to whip a fly into the water, how to drift it efficiently, how to play fish that are hooked and what to look for.

"That's all we do - fly fishing," she said. "It really is a productive way to fish.

"It allows you to make a natural presentation. You're imitating something the trout see all the time."

Gina Leitle, 55, considers herself a late bloomer when it comes to fly fishing.

Up until eight years ago, her idea of a good time was playing golf, not going fishing. But then she attended a Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshop sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation - a program designed to teach women about everything from fishing to hunting to camping.

That changed her life forever, she said.

"I bought a fly rod and a friend and I hired Stan (Parker) for a guide trip," said Leitle, who lives in Aurora, Mo. "We did real well that day and it just really got me addicted.

"I learned tons that day and I just knew fly fishing was for me."

Soon, Leitle made a New Year's resolution - to take each of her four brothers and sisters on guided fishing trips with the Parkers. That only served to further fuel her passion over fly fishing.

Soon, Leitle was heading out on Lake Taneycomo whenever she could, fly fishing for trout. Then she returned to the Parkers and expressed an interest in guiding.

The Parkers taught her the business, everything from handling the drift boat to dealing with customers. And she was ready to go.

She still remembers one of her first tests. It was a cold, rainy day and every other guide had his customers cancel their trips. Not Leitle. Her fishermen wanted to go.

So they headed out and ran into nothing but adversity. They were miserable, and worse yet, the fish weren't biting.

"My fingers were so cold that I could hardly tie a fly on," she said. "But I didn't want to let on. I didn't want them saying, 'Poor girl,' so I kept working."

That work paid off. The group finally hit a spot where the trout were schooled and they caught fish after fish.

"I still worry about how I will be accepted," she said, referring to her gender. "I've had a couple groups I've had to win over.

"But once you get them into fish, a lot of that is forgotten. You're just another guide."

(c) 2007, The Kansas City Star.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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