Kate Fritz, Chief Executive Officer of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, fishes for rainbow and brown trout at Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County, Maryland. (Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Like most of us, Kate Fritz had always been somewhat intimidated by fly fishing. The intricate casts, the cumbersome gear, the waist-high water—it all blanketed the sport in a mist of elitism.

“It’s sort of like golf in that way,” Fritz said. “You seemed to really have to know what you were doing.”

It wasn’t until a trip with a colleague, and a board member of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, of which Fritz is the Chief Executive Officer, that she started to relate to the sport. During their day on the water, Fritz found that her colleagues were analyzing the stream life before they made their casts. They checked stream gages, discussed the fish hatches and macroinvertebrates—all things that Fritz, who studied biology, knows well.

“It started to speak to me on some very nerdy level,” Fritz said.

Unlike typical fishing, where anglers put worms, bugs and other tasty bait on their hook and plunge it into the water, fly fishers use “flies”—man-made, inanimate objects meant to look like the insects or macroinvertebrates the fish are eating at a given time.

This emphasis on stream life struck a chord with Fritz. Macroinvertebrates, which are larval-staged bugs like mayflies and caddisflies, are used as a water quality measurement because many of them can only survive in the cleanest of streams. The water quality monitoring programs that the Alliance leads test for macroinvertebrates, and Fritz herself collected them during field studies earlier in her career.

Analyzing the behavior of the fish she's going after—what they like to eat, where they might be hiding in the river—also spoke to Fritz’s interest in stream morphology, hydrology, and Chesapeake wildlife.

Effectively hooked, Fritz is now on a journey to learn all she can about fly fishing and connect with other anglers in the region. The sport has blended into her work in interesting ways, proving that there’s more to the sport than just waders and tied flies.

Tying together recreation and conservation

As an advocate of Bay restoration, Fritz understands how important recreation is to the region. Billions of dollars in annual consumer spending come from outdoor recreation within the region, and money spent on park entrances and fishing licenses is used in state conservation work.

“When you buy a fishing license, you are literally putting money back into the conservation of those resources,” Fritz said.

Angling is also a great way to connect with nature and build community. Whether it’s casual stream fishing or competitive fly fishing, the activities get people out onto the water when they might not otherwise. For Indigenous groups whose ancestors were the first to fish Chesapeake waters, angling is not so much a pastime but a way of life.

As Fritz has gotten into fly fishing, it’s only reaffirmed for her the importance of connecting and uplifting anglers.

“If we lose the anglers in this world we’re going to lose conservation quickly,” Fritz said.

Thinking back to her work, Fritz is also well aware that the Chesapeake region loses opportunities to bring in anglers when it doesn’t take care of waterways. Trout, which are a common prize for local anglers, require fresh, cold water to survive. According to Fritz, these conditions are only made possible by natural connections between the streams and groundwater or underground systems, which maintain those cold temperatures.

“When we develop land or cut down trees, we lose those connections,” said Fritz.

Kate fishes in a stream.

The cool water downstream from Prettyboy Dam keeps trout well-fed by aquatic macroinvertebrates, making them a challenge to catch. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Getting more women onto the water

Fritz’s early exposure to angling was at a fishing and hunting club that her grandfather and father belonged to. At the time, and for a long time after, the club never had a female member.

Fritz knows because she became the first one.

“I’m the first woman member at the club in 124 years,” Fritz said.

Like regular fishing, fly fishing tends to be a male a dominated activity. However, women represent the fastest growing demographic in the sport. According to a 2018 Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation report, 31%, or about two million, of the 6.8 million fly-fishers in the U.S. are female.

Though it was two male colleagues who first invited Fritz out to fly fish, she’s been extending her involvement through different female social groups. She’s become a member of United Women on the Fly, a nonprofit that is committed to building an inclusive community of fly fishers. And she’s also learning from a friend who founded Lancaster Fly Girls, a group that fly fishes around central Pennsylvania waters.

Fritz recommends fly fishing not only to women but to anyone looking to become more in tune with nature. For her, it’s the joy of walking along a stream, analyzing the fish’s habitat and trying to make the catch.

When the puzzle pieces come together, she gets the opportunity to catch, and form the connection with one of our watershed’s most beautiful creatures.

“That’s a whole other element to it as well, is the fish themselves.”

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