For Serene Cusack, finding gear that fit has never been a walk in the park, but nevertheless, she has found ways to navigate difficult size barriers in fly fishing and in life, and through the process has shed light on a very important, and rarely talked about issue in the fly fishing industry. In the most recent Women on the Water Interview, Serene tells her story of perseverance and love for fly fishing, as well as her vision for the future of inclusion in the fishing industry. Check out the full interview below.
Flylords: Tell me a little bit about yourself, who are you both on and off of the water?
Serene: Well my name is Serene Cusack, and I was born and raised in Bozeman Montana. I currently live in Missoula, I have been here for three years, I moved here in 2017. When I am off the water I am a psychiatric inpatient adolescent social worker working with teenagers who are having mental health crises. When I’m not working at the hospital, you would be hard-pressed to not find me on the water. I don’t know how to say it; I love to fly fish. I wish I was a purist for the dry fly, but the change of seasons sucks me into the nymping world. In addition to fishing, I grew up skiing, (in college I taught ski lessons in Big Sky), riding bikes, and doing my best to play outside all summer.
Flylords: How did you start fly fishing? Who was your biggest influence when you were just starting?
Serene: I would say that there were a lot of men in my life who fished, but I didn’t know many women who were on the water. That never stopped me, I was just a go-getter on my own. I started spin fishing when I was a little girl with my dad, who is still a spin fisherman himself. I started fly fishing when I was in high school. My woodshop teacher loved to fly fish and I would hear him talk about it and be so jealous, so I took it upon myself to learn. I had a lot of failed seasons of fly fishing, where I wouldn’t catch a single fish on the fly rod. Back then, I wore a fly vest when I fished. In the back pocket I carried this retractable spiderman pole with me so that whenever I wasn’t catching fish on the fly, I would just pull out the spin rod and catch fish. Then I knew that they were still in the river.
Flylords: What similarities do you see between the barriers of starting to ski and starting to fly fish?
Serene: People of size, or fat people as I would identify myself, have barriers in all activities that we want to do that are outside. I have had size access barriers my whole life; even as a little kid my parents had a hard time finding me the appropriate gear to wear when I was skiing, playing hockey, or playing soccer. I have been an active person my whole life, and we have just had to make things work, which is fine until it is a safety issue. My drive to fish, drive to ski, or drive to ride bikes really pushes me to make things work. Size barriers are hard in the sense that sometimes they can be navigated, but most of the time they are the one thing that keeps people from trying the sport.
Flylords: In the last several years, have you seen more size inclusion in the industry?
Serene: It is the elephant in the room in the sense that we are not going to talk about the fact that people are trying to patch work their gear together to get on the water. For example, if you are going to go to New Zealand, or on any other trip around the world, you have to have all gear put together for that. For fat people, we want to go on these trips, but yet we are so afraid to arrive and not have everything we need. Heaven forbid that we get halfway around the world and our waders split or our rain jacket is ruined. We are really S.O.L because we cannot just find a replacement. It can feel intimidating to want to do bigger things because if we do not have everything together we are really in trouble.
Flylords: Going forward, what, as an industry and as people who fly fish recreationally can we do to be more inclusive?
Serene: The industry is changing, it is being forced to change as people are starting to ask more questions and anglers are starting to show up in new ways. I think that one thing that the industry can do is a better job of showing inclusion and representation in their ads, on their teams, and in their social media presence. Even sharing pictures of people that don’t look like your typical angler or your typical sportsperson in that way. For companies to be open to someone who challenges the previous norm. The industry can do a better job of being open and welcoming for people of size, as well as meeting them in their needs in the fly shop; being more inclusive in gear, being more inclusive in sizes of clothing, and overall being welcoming on the water for all bodies.
Flylords: In addition to being of size, how has being a woman impacted your experiences?
Serene: Growing up a female in a male-dominated sport never stopped me from fishing, I never felt intimidated by men. Being a woman does make me invisible in the sense that I feel like sometimes men don’t really see women as true anglers until they feel threatened by them, and then things can get really ugly. Unfortunately, it can be a really tough crowd to break through and to stand your ground and be part of that. The good news is there are men that are equally excited about breaking the stereotypes in fly fishing. We are going to see the industry change when all the seats at the table are filled with people who represent all anglers.
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Flylords: What role does social media play in inclusion, and how can we use it for the positive as opposed to all of the negativity that we see?
Serene: Social media is kind of a catch 22 in the sense that it can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. There are some really cool things and some really cool connections that I have made over social media, especially in the times of COVID. I have been introduced to some amazing angling communities and made connections with different people that I would have never had if it wasn’t for social media. At the same time, there is this ability to hide behind the screen that comes with an unwillingness to be open to change that is happening in the industry. There are some people that can be really mean behind social media that can be deterring for newer anglers.
Flylords: What resources do you use/how do you find gear that works for you?
Serene: There is one wader company that is making waders for women above a size 18 or 20; over 60% of women in America wear above a size 18. So 60% of women in America don’t have access to waders except for through one company, which is called Miss Mayfly Waders. Kim, the wader design, had done a phenomenal job of making size inclusive waders that fit all unique body types. Not just plus size, bodies that have curves and any shape at all. Miss Mayfly Waders has really changed the game of fly fishing for me. I am 32 years old, and my first pair of waders just came a few months ago, which is surprising because I have been fishing for many years now and have never had the opportunity to fish in the cold because it’s unsafe without waders.
I have not found any sun shirt or rain jackets or anything like that that is fishing specific that works for me. I have to wear a lot of clothes that are not made for fishing. I have a raincoat that I wear, as well as a puffy down jacket, but the sleeves are long and in the way. They don’t cuff inside of the raincoat so my arms get soaked when I reach into the water. There isn’t a company, big or small, that offers size inclusive gear outside of waders. I have to make what I wear on a day-to-day basis work for fishing.
Flylords: Have you found a community of women in Montana who fly fish?
Serene: The local women’s group here in Missoula is called the Missoula Fly Gals and it has been awesome to connect with them. They are not particularly for just fat women, but they are for all women in Missoula that are getting involved or are involved in fly fishing. As we have developed a relationship together, I have been able to encourage them to be more size-inclusive. We have conversations about inclusion on the water, about bringing people of size into the group and making people feel comfortable on the water. It is so intimidating, fishing is so intimidating to get involved in and to stay involved. Women’s groups are trying hard to break down the barrier of fear that so many people have, not just fat women, but women in general, of showing up and just trying it. There is this stereotype of who fly fishes, trying to whittle that down and make it a connection point of showing that all people can fly fish.
Also, communities outside of Missoula are excited to be involved in. One example is Confluence Collective, an intersectional group of people who love fly fishing. That is more of an internet/Instagram connection that I have, but I have made some really good friends out of that.
Flylords: Years and decades from now, what is your fantasy of what the fly fishing industry looks like?
Serene: I want fly fishing to feel like the grocery store. To me, the grocery store is a common place where everyone goes with limited barriers. I dream about an experience that is accessible, diverse and represents an opportunity for all. An intersectional place of healing, exploration, and self-discovery for everybody to be out on the water.
Flylords: What advice would you give someone who is struggling to start fly fishing, whether that be because of a gear barrier or because they are just intimidated?
Serene: I would encourage them to reach out and be looking for people who look like them, and try to get connected in places that feel comfortable to ask questions. I would encourage them to try it, and keep trying it, not just one time, but try it a few times. Have conversations with people. Invite someone to join you when you are trying something new for the first time, sometimes having the buddy can take the pressure off of you for learning all at once. Look for opportunities in your own community, finding a connection point where you feel included and welcomed, they exist!
A big thank you to Andrew Braker for making the introduction and for setting this interview in motion.