“I used to think making a roll cast was so hard. I just didn’t get it. Now it’s the most natural thing.” -Bridget Norris Kirk
Bridget Norris Kirk loved to fish from the time she was a little girl. But fly-fishing was not on her radar.
“That was something other people did,” she said. “People in Colorado do that, right?”
But through chance, a determined nature, and strong influence from her grandfather “Papa” — who was always ready drop everything to help a little girl take a catfish off a hook — Kirk found new life in fly-fishing in the space of only about 18 months.
“My Papa had the greatest influence on me of anyone,” she said. “I still catch a good fish sometimes and say, ‘Papa would be proud.’ “
Kirk is one of a growing number of fly-fishing anglers in the United States, which still is a small demographic. A Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation report on 2020 notes that anglers seeking new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic spurred an increase of more than 100,000 new fly-fishing anglers, pushing participation to a record 7 million nationwide. Still, it is the least popular of fishing endeavors. And with men making up 70 percent of the crowd, it is the most male-dominated of fishing pursuits.
About 30 million people bought a fishing license in 2020, and close to 40 percent of those were women, according to the report.
With her fondest memories of being a little Texas girl who jumped off Papa’s tractor to spend the day at a “tank,” to catch a grasshopper in order to catch a “perch” in order to catch a catfish, Kirk was a prime candidate to get bitten by the fly-fishing bug.
In September 2020, she took home the champion’s trophy in the All Fish All Oklahoma Fly Fishing Challenge organized by Oklahoma Trout Unlimited Chapter 420. Dubbed “The 15-by-15,” it’s a challenge to catch 15 different Oklahoma fish species on a fly in the 15 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The winner is drawn from the relatively short list of anglers who actually complete the challenge.
She also started the Okie Fly Gal Facebook page and brand, under which she creates designs and vinyl stickers that adorn truck windows, rod lockers, tumblers and coolers seen on waters from Tishomingo to Tenkiller.
She had become a regular at Scotty’s Blue River One Stop. When owner Jason LaFevers said he needed a logo for the shop, she told him she would design one. His first batch of stickers at the store sold out in a day. A new favorite sticker shows a hand with bright-red fingernails grasping a fly rod with the words “Fish Like a Girl.”
Getting to this point was not without its challenges, however.
It all started at Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area on Valentines Day 2019 with her good friend Jason Bryant.
“I thought that catching a trout was like an impossible feat,” she said. “I caught my first one that day on a white rooster tail right above the Highway 7 bridge. I probably took 50 pictures of that trout, I was so excited.”
Bryant used a fly rod that day, and it was Kirk’s first exposure to the sport. He offered to let her use an extra rod and to teach her, but she only gave it a little try later that day.
“I just didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “It seemed like something that was so beyond what I could learn.”
Still, she decided if her friends were going to do this kind of fishing that she would get her own gear.
“I got a $38 Martin combo with bright orange fly line, and it came with a selection of flies. I thought, ‘Oh … this is so cool!’ ... The first thing I caught was a perch.”
Every sunfish was still “a perch” back then, she said.
“Now I’m the worst critic on calling out people who call a bluegill a perch,” she said with chuckle. “I’m a fly-fishing snob.”
YouTube videos provided “fly-fishing 101 for girls who don’t know anything about fly-fishing,” she said.
With that first bluegill under her belt, she felt ready to try the Blue for rainbow trout on a fly rod.
“That was going to be the ultimate, right?” she said with a laugh. “I asked around about what to use, and my daughter’s youth pastor, who fishes the Blue River a lot, told me to use Power Bait. ... So, there I was with my fly rod and jigging with Power Bait, thinking I was fly fishing!”
It didn’t work. In fact, she failed time and again.
“I just didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.
Things turned around one weekend after she posted a question about fishing the Lower Mountain Fork River at Beavers Bend to a Facebook group.
“People said a guide, Donovan Clary, was going to be out there, and I was like, ‘Whoa, he is way out of my price range. I am not going to ask him anything.’ ”
But when she went to the river, she ended up bumping into Clary and the couple he was guiding anyway. They struck up conversation, as anglers do, and before she knew it, Clary was ready to show her how to catch a trout by Euro-nymphing — a style of fly fishing she knew nothing about.
“I had my Martin rod at the car, and Donovan was like, ‘We can just leave yours here.’ ”
A couple of lessons on reading the water, where trout like to hold and where to toss the line for the right drift, and she was on-track.
“I think on my third drift I caught my first trout,” she said. “That lit the fire.”
She devoted herself to fly-fishing during COVID-19 shutdowns. She completed the 15-by-15, which meant learning that “perch” were not perch but were bluegill, longear, redear and green sunfish. She also learned the difference between a spotted and largemouth bass, and the differences between white bass, striped bass and hybrid striped bass.
Competitors post selfies on the contest Facebook page to confirm their catches, and one educational part of the event is when entrants post selfies with incorrect fish IDs.
“I was down to where all I needed to complete the challenge was a striped bass, and (tournament organizer) Scott Hood became my enemy,” she said, laughing. “I kept posting pictures with ‘striped bass’ and he’d just reply, ‘hybrid, nope, hybrid, hybrid.’ I got so frustrated!”
Nowadays, she’s the one to out-fish most and to pass along advice, even though she says she doesn’t feel qualified. One day, she advised a group of men, befuddled as they’d caught nothing for hours. She walked up and started catching fish after fish.
“I got to feel big-headed for a little bit,” she said. “That was when I got the idea for the Fish Like A Girl sticker.”
When she’s at Scotty’s at Blue River these days, she’s on a first-name basis with just about everyone. The same goes for the crowd on the Lower Illinois River any given weekend. Clary is a good friend, as is the couple she met that day on the Mountain Fork.
“There are so many people that I love and that are (like) family now, and I only knew one, Jason (Bryant), a year ago,” she said. “The greatest thing I’ve gained from fly fishing is lasting friendships. I’m blessed beyond measure.”
That’s a mighty catch. Papa surely would be proud.
(Kelly Bostian has been an outdoor editor and writer for 35 years at newspapers in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Tulsa, Okla. He now operates KJB Outdoors, writing articles about conservation and outdoor recreation.)