There is nearly nothing better than having a hard fighting fish hooked up, and Mary Alice Hoppe knows this better than most. From permit to brown trout, she spends her time casting at these fish from Colorado to Belize. In the latest Women on the Water Interview, Mary Alice tells stories of well-deserved fish, her vision for the future of fly fishing, and what went into landing her fish of a lifetime. Check out the full interview below.
Flylords: Who is Mary Alice Hoppe?
I am a public servant professionally, have always given back to my local community, and now on a massive scale working for the Colorado Health Department to help mitigate the spread of COVID. I am also an adventurer. I have that switch inside of me that not everybody has, but I have it, and when that switch is on I have to go, there is nothing that can hold me back. The only place that I want to be is in the wilderness. The only reason that I live the life that I live is that I have to have a job, but if I had it my way we would be living in the back of the truck, end of story, with my dogs, and Chris (her boyfriend) and the fly rods. That is who we are, we are adventurers, we love the wilderness. It is so much more than just fishing. It’s the only thing that can clear my head and make me feel like a kid again. I love to take that road we haven’t taken before, go to that river we haven’t fished before, I love it. It is a safe place where I feel the most connected to myself and the most connected to my surroundings.
Flylords: When did you begin fly fishing? Who or what inspired you to start?
Actually, Chris! So Chris and I met about nine years ago, as I was just getting out of college. I went to CU Boulder and was just kind of a mess coming out, didn’t really know my way yet. I met Chris, an avid fly fisherman, and he started teaching me. I started learning the ropes and absolutely fell in love like I said. The first trout I caught was on the Yampa, outside of Stagecoach, and I felt like a ten-year-old kid again, and it was awesome. Every tug, every single time, makes me feel alive and free.
Flylords: Tell me one crazy fishing story that stands out in your mind?
I think that would have to be my trophy permit. So we were down in Ascension Bay, and this was a 12 day trip, that’s how crazy we are, 12 days in a row of permit fishing. So we are out there, 10 hours a day on that boat trying to target permit. Chris caught some permit, but I couldn’t get the cast out there, I was just getting really frustrated, it’s so hard to get that double haul and really feel your line.
We found a big school of permit on day ten, in the final hour. I had already been on the bow practicing my cast because the guides had been helping me. I laid out an 80 foot cast, here come the school of permit, they turn, they come at the fly, I saw it eat the fly and I was hooked up with a permit. I was shaking so hard that the entire boat was shaking, the guides were at the back of the boat laughing at me. I just, didn’t think I was capable of doing it because it is so complicated and so difficult, and I am still new to the sport, I have only been fishing for nine years, and when that fish was placed into my hands, I just couldn’t help but cry. It was the most powerful thing that I have ever experienced. I truly felt like it was magic. It was the coolest, the absolute coolest because we probably put in 80 hours before that of just waiting, and waiting, and waiting so that the hard work definitely paid off.
Flylords: Has fly fishing been a motivation for travel?
Oh for sure, I am a salt junky, I love the salt so much. We spent a lot of time at a small Mayan lodge in Ascension Bay and loved it down there. We then started to discover Belize because we wanted to invest in property, and it is easier for Americans to buy property in Belize. You can own it outright; you don’t have to be a Belizean. Then we got an Airbnb down there and checked it out, just six months later we had The Iguana House. It happened so fast because we love it so much.
Flylords: Do you have any bucket fish or travel destinations?
Yes definitely, so many, as any fly fisherman has. Iceland is up there for the sea-run brown trout, but I think that number one would have to be the Seychelles, just because of the variety of species. I would love to be able to target an Indo-Pacific permit, just something different, something we don’t see in the Atlantic.
Flylords: Have you witnessed or spent time in a larger female fishing community outside of the United States?
No, I think with salt, I mean every trip I have been on I have been the only woman there. I have always kind of been one of the guys, so it is easier for me. It is always interesting to see how few women really are out there. I think it is for sure changing, and we are seeing that, especially as more female guides are getting out there, and women are feeling more comfortable. But personally, it is usually me and the guys.
Flylords: How has being a woman impacted your experience fly fishing and in the industry?
I think it all depends on where you are and who you are around. I have called fly shops asking about fly lines and have been spoken to like I don’t know what I am talking about. That’s never fun, but I don’t take it personally. I think it is just a culture that has been established over years and years of fly fishing, very similar to golf. I have felt it with guides too, especially saltwater guides who underestimate women. I have been put in situations where I can do more, but they are like, “Oh, just have her go target those little baby fish over there”. Sometimes that can be a little offensive, but the only way that I am going to learn is if I try. That has been tough sometimes, but again, I just don’t take it personally because when I am out there I am so connected to my surroundings that all that stuff just kind of rolls off my back. I think my biggest difficulty is being hard on myself. When I can’t get the cast out there it becomes, “What am I doing wrong? How can I become a better fisherman?” and that just takes time. Fly fishing you can learn and learn, and think you know it, and then lose everything, it is just constantly learning new things.
Flylords: As an industry and sport, what can we do to be more inclusive (race, gender, age, etc.)?
One, I think that things like what you are doing right here, and what we see fly fishing magazines doing, bringing women into the magazines more, is huge. Social networking has just been massive for women in the industry. It is so easy to just get out there and share what you are doing, and I have seen massive growth in that. I am sure that you follow a lot of the same women I do, and I really look up to these women because they have put themselves out there, and especially ones who are guides. I mean, being a guide as a man is incredibly difficult, let alone a woman, so it is very admirable to see that.
For a long portion of my life, my professional career, I worked with at risk youth, inner-city youth, and we actually created a fly fishing program where we would teach them, in the gym at the school, the techniques and everything, and we would take them out fishing. It was just the coolest thing to see foster kids who are going through so much at such a young age and carry so much heaviness around with them, and you put a fly rod in their hand and they are just so happy and they love it. I think that we are seeing more and more of those companies starting to come up, like The Mayfly Project, working with the foster kids. There is another one working with human trafficking and sex trafficking (Fly Fishing Collaborative). More and more people are starting to understand that the more that we can almost look at it like a nonprofit and an outreach program, the more we can teach people skills that they can take with them.
Fish for Change is another great example. Just this past summer, Steve (Brown) and the crew had a group of kids from Denver come up to the mountains. Some of those kids had never even been to the mountains and had lived in Denver their whole life. They then went out on some float trips and all these kids caught fish. Just to see the smiles on their faces. I think it is such an interesting way to give somebody an activity and goal while pulling them into the wilderness. It is really hard for some people to just enter the wilderness if you don’t have any experience. I just hope that more people who feel that they wouldn’t be welcome know that they are.
Flylords: How can we use social media to create a more positive fly fishing culture for everyone involved?
I think just keep sharing. Keep sharing what we love and the more that we can show people how much it can change your life. Hopefully, they will say, “Hey, maybe I want to try that”. We need to make it about more than just catching. I think that people get so nervous. I mean, my brother is the perfect example. My brother and his girlfriend just started picking up fly fishing, and they just hired their first guide. He tied up a nymph rig with weight and with three flies. They were like, “How am I going to cast with three flies?”, but you just have to get out there and keep trying, and understand that it more than just the catching. You are going to get knots, but when you get out there and you are immersed in the wilderness you start to become connected, calm. It is called the three day effect.
There was a book written about a study where they took veterans on a three day float trip into the wilderness. This wasn’t necessarily fly fishing, but they showed a massive decrease in depression, PTSD, anxiety, all of these things simply because they were in the wilderness. So for me, I think that the more people that can just start entering the wilderness, we’ll see that shift. I think that people are nervous to get out there because they just don’t know, so the more that we share and show people that they can do it, hopefully, they say, “Hey yeah, I can”.
Flylords: What advice would you give someone who is just starting to fly fish?
Stick with it. It is going to frustrate you. You are going to get tangled up. You are going to get knots and lose some fish. So do people who have been fishing for 30 years. It is hard when you are learning because you think that you are doing something wrong, and you’re not, it’s just fishing. And remember, it’s not about catching. It’s so much more.
You can keep up with Mary Alice Hoppe’s adventures by clicking here.
If you are looking to plan a fly fishing adventure down to the Iguana House or to Belize shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.