In February 2022, the New York Times profiled Erica Nelson, an Indigenous fly fishing guide and diversity and inclusivity consultant from Colorado – she is one of just two Indigenous women fly fishing guides in the entire state.
Nelson, of Diné ancestry, was raised in Kirtland, New Mexico. (The Diné people were called “Navajo” by Spanish colonists and the term is still in use. Many prefer to use the name Diné, which is what the Diné call themselves.) Nelson told her interviewer that she learned fly fishing through Youtube videos and dreamed of “big, long, dramatic casts like Brad Pitt in ‘A River Runs Through It” But her actual experience was quite different. “[…} it turned into a lot of patience, frustration and untangling.”
Nelson developed a passion for angling and she started a podcast in 2020 called “Awkward Angler” to discuss all aspects of fly fishing, including the lack of diversity and other inequities she observed. “It wasn’t really a welcoming space initially,” Nelson said about her early experiences.
To counter those experiences she co-founded REAL Consulting with advocacy group Brown Folks Fishing, and helped launch the Angling for All initiative. This initiative calls on anglers, outfitters and organizations to take a pledge and commit to finding solutions to the racism and inequality that people of color can face in fishing communities. “In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, people have had the realization that racism does happen in this country, and it trickles down to fly fishing,” Nelson said in the Times interview. “Since the start of the pandemic, lots of new people tried fly fishing for the first time, and we started to see a shift in demographics.”
How Robert F. Smith Helps Marginalized Groups Enjoy Fly Fishing
A passionate fly fisher, Robert F. Smith spent time during his childhood outdoors enjoying the beautiful Colorado wilderness with his family. Today, he enjoys angling when he can spare the timet. “[Fly fishing] helps me be more mindful, more thoughtful,” Smith said in a 2015 interview with Columbia Business School. “It makes you slow down and actually focus. You have to focus on everything that you’re doing, seconds at a time.”
Like Nelson, Smith is aware of the inequalities that exist within the sport. To help address this, Smith and entrepreneur Matthew Burkett founded Anglers of Honor, a nonprofit organization that offers therapeutic fly fishing opportunities for veterans with disabilities and their families, as well as individuals living with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.
As over 45,000 veterans and their families struggle to “cope with the severe emotional and physical injuries” from their time in Iraq and Afghanistan, Smith hopes to use fly fishing, a proven therapeutic tool in restoring physical function, to aid in their recovery.
Anglers of Honor has guided more than 1000 veterans on therapeutic fly fishing excursions since its inception.