In Pursuit of Passion: Flyfishing

Spirit

By Rachel Studebaker | Photography by Sarah Unger

An abundance of streams, lakes, and rivers have long attracted anglers to the South. This connected community of passionate professionals and hobbyists alike includes those devoted to the art of fly fishing, a unique angling technique well suited to the area’s thriving trout waters. Here, we spotlight five local women whose decades of fly-fishing experience have seen them wade into waters far and wide in pursuit of their next big catch.

lisa lewis

Lisa Lewis McBryde

After attending a weekend fly-fishing workshop in 2010, Lisa Lewis McBryde was instantly hooked.

“It’s not so much about the catch but more about the focus and the pursuit,” McBryde explains. “I’m a nature and science junkie and love soaking in the beauty and solitude that surround the creek or river where I’m fishing.”

The scenic waters that McBryde frequents include Henry’s Fork, a section of the Snake River in Idaho and a lauded location for fly fishing. She visits the river every spring and fall and it has left her with countless stories to tell. McBryde recalls a trip to its “Cardiac Canyon,” which involved a daring 1,500-foot-hike down to the water. However, every step was worth it.

“It’s isolated and so beautiful. I felt like I was in a movie,” she describes. “The hatch was on, and the fish were biting. I threw a dry fly all day and we stopped counting after a while. It was epic and memorable to say the least!”

Among the many fish that McBryde has caught at Henry’s Fork, one stands out. She recalls the thrill of reeling in this proudest catch: “I cast under the lip of a boulder and a 23-inch brown trout came up for a sip. My heart was pounding. Catching a wild fish is such a fight and an art.”

McBryde also enjoys fishing local waters and says that no matter where she goes, “nature has always delivered.” She would love to see even more women in Chattanooga join in on the sport and notes that fly shops like The Hatch Outfitters are great places to get plugged in. Having pursued fly fishing on her own, McBryde encourages anyone who is interested to book a workshop or guide and see where the water takes them.

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katie thornton

Katie Thornton

Katie Thornton’s love for fly fishing has followed her across the country.

Thornton grew up fly fishing during summers spent in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, learning from guide, Klay Mangis. She has spent years exploring Tennessee mountain streams and worked for a time at Orvis Charlottesville teaching casting and fishing for brook trout in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now living in Chattanooga, she shares her expertise with aspiring anglers through her business, On the
Fly Outings.

While Chattanooga has plenty of bass and brim in its backyard, Thornton says she is partial to targeting trout on the Hiwassee River, located east of the city. She explains, “The river has a powerful presence. One of my favorite times to fish it is when spring is waking up alongside it.”

Thornton also takes her skills on the road, scoring her proudest catch to date off the coast of Clearwater, Florida. During this trip, she and her father battled windy conditions with guide, Dave Chouinard. They swapped out casting from the bow of the boat as they searched for the “magnificent tarpon.” Thornton recalls the unforgettable moment when her opportunity arrived.

“Two tarpon were moving towards the skiff at nine o’clock. I made the cast just 20 feet from the boat. There was a moment of grace as the tarpon turned her head. She took off with an iridescent jump out of the water that was powerful and surreal. Those were 30 minutes on the salt I’ll never forget.”

From trout to tarpon, Thornton finds it rewarding when her hard work results in a beautiful catch. She reflects on how a lifetime spent on the water has made it feel like a second home.

“My spirit wakes up on the water. My eyes wake up to nature’s beauty. It’s the smell of the river, the tug of the line, the feeling of the water rushing past you where time slows down to precious moments. Being out on the water with a rod in hand is a way I come home to myself.”

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kim ranalla

Kim Ranalla

Fly fishing is more than just a rewarding hobby for Kim Ranalla – it’s a healing practice.

After suffering spinal injuries from a patient while working as a caregiver, Ranalla spent two years navigating the challenges of recovery. This experience would transform her perspective of the sport she had enjoyed since childhood.

“A friend invited me to fish, hoping to lift my spirits. Wading into the water for the first time, I felt transported to another dimension. The healing benefits were immediate, and the focus required for fishing helped me forget my pain and push past my limitations,” she recalls. “Today, despite minor movement limitations, fishing has transformed my physical abilities and led to a new career.”

Ranalla launched Miss Mayfly in 2016, the world’s first line of size-inclusive fishing and wading gear made for women. Outside of her business, she continues to advocate for female anglers, especially those healing from experiences like her own, and wants women seeking the tranquility of the water to have a support system that can “understand their unique needs and guide them on outdoor health and safety.”

Chattanooga has become a haven for anglers such as Ranalla, with plenty of fish species and friendly faces. “No matter where my travels take me, I always find myself grateful to return home to the expansive beauty of Tennessee’s waters and landscapes,” she shares.

To beginners looking to take advantage of fly fishing’s therapeutic benefits, Ranalla advises not to sweat the small stuff.

“My best advice is something that often goes unsaid: It’s okay if you don’t catch a fish. It’s okay if your line gets tangled in a tree. It’s okay to feel inexperienced and imperfect; in fact, it’s normal. Don’t let these moments distract you from the beauty and experiences all around you. Keep trying, again and again.”

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allie vannoy with her daughter

Allie Vannoy

These days, fly-fishing guide Allie Vannoy is teaching the ways of the water to a special pupil – her 3-year-old daughter, Luna.

Vannoy was also introduced to fishing as a young girl, tagging along on trips with her Pop. A stint working at a fly shop as a teenager reignited her love for the sport and Vannoy has been fishing ever since.

Today, Vannoy guides local waters and has found a tight-knit community of fellow fly fishers who have welcomed her and Luna to the fold. She shares, “I’ve got a group that meets up monthly at each other’s homes just for cooking out, catching bluegrass, or tying nights, solely because we all met through fly fishing.”

Fly fishing with a toddler is typically limited to wading trips, since “trying to fish while wrangling a child, keeping rods safe, and manning a rig is hard to do,” says Vannoy. However, her supportive community has made special memories possible, such as Luna’s first float trip down the Toccoa River in North Georgia.

allie vannoy with her daughter

Vannoy laughs that a five-hour trip with a 3-year-old meant hearing the alphabet sung one too many times, but says she was excited to see Luna engage with the sport. “She helped pick out my nymphs (bright pink, flashy ones, of course) which was actually good with it having rained the day before. We netted a fish immediately. She knew she picked out the rig and helped with netting, so witnessing her connection to that was really cool for me,” recalls Vannoy.

As she continues to teach Luna, and soon, another little girl on the way, Vannoy’s heart for sharing fly fishing with other women only continues to grow. “Just get out on the water,” she encourages. “Experience, no matter how it unfolds, is going to teach you.”

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wanda taylor

Wanda Hair Taylor

A pioneering force for female fly fishing, Wanda Hair Taylor says she has always felt called by the water.

Taylor comes from a rich lineage of fisherwomen, including her grandmothers, who introduced her to the sport at 4 years old. She and her mother have also bonded over their shared love for fly fishing and the memorable adventures it has taken them on.

While fishing has always been a part of her family, Taylor discovered her own passion for it when working at a fly-fishing outfitter on the Hiwassee River in the ‘80s. She credits the sport for saving her from “being a workaholic,” explaining that every trip to the water prompts her to pause and relax. “I can think of nothing else while doing it, giving my mind a rest and vacation,” she says.

Taylor has fished around the world, breaking records along the way. In addition to reeling in sailfish in Costa Rica and bonefish in the Bahamas, she set the current world record for women’s 20 lb. class tippet spearfish on the fly when invited to vie for the title in Kona, Hawaii.

Back home, Taylor’s colleagues call her “The South’s First Lady of Fly Fishing,” due to the many firsts she has achieved. Her accolades include being the first woman inducted into the Southern Fly Fishing Hall of Fame; first female Orvis-endorsed guide in the Southeast; and first woman to be certified by the International Federation of Fly Fishers as a Master Certified Casting Instructor.

Now in her third decade of providing fly-casting instruction on the Hiwassee, Taylor is creating new anglers at the same site where she fell in love with the sport. She remains a passionate voice for teaching women and girls to independently fly fish as she paves the way for female anglers to follow in her storied footsteps.

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