BEFORE APRIL ARCHER cofounded Denver-based SaraBella Fishing—makers of women-specific fly rods—she’d already noticed an influx of female flyfishers to the sport. But as an angler herself, fishing since she was a toddler and flyfishing for the past 16 years, she also recognized that there was a distinct lack of women-specific gear.
“I started to pay more attention to what was available for women, and became frustrated at what was and wasn’t out there,” says Archer. “Some companies have a women’s line, but it’s a sliver of their market, not their main focus.”
Spurred by this frustration, along with stats pointing to women and saltwater as the two fastest-growing segments in flyfishing, Archer, her husband JT, and business partner Scott Grieble launched SaraBella in 2014. (The company is named after the couples’ dogs—Sara, a German wire-haired pointer, and Bella, a lab mix.) Though the rods are mostly custommade, SaraBella is the only manufacturer to be marketing its entire rod line specifically to women.
This would not have been possible 20 years ago. Or even 10, probably. But there’s something afoot in women’s flyfishing these days, and it goes far beyond skorts and the smiling faces of Instagram. The sport has always had talented female casters and anglers, from the legend of now 89-year-old Joan Wulff to the phenom of now 12-year-old Maxine McCormick. When that influence spread to guiding in the late ’80s, Lori-Ann Murphy became the first female Orvis-endorsed guide in the country, and went on to cofound Jackson, Wyoming-based Reel Women Flyfishing Adventures. The next two decades saw growth in the number of female guides—from Amanda Switzer and Sarah Gardner on the East Coast to Hanna Belford and Amy Hazel on the West—but the overall percentage of women in the sport still hadn’t reached a tipping point where it made sense for manufacturers to invest in them. Women’s gear made up “a sliver of their market” because women made up a sliver of their market.
But all of that is changing. There’s been a dramatic shift in the flyfishing marketplace, and Archer and her SaraBella partners know it. Consider the past four years: December 2012, Lise Lozelle launches Austin-based Maven Fly, a line of flyfishing clothing designed specifically for women; September 2013, Jen Ripple launches Dun, the first women-specific flyfishing magazine; October 2013, flyfishing’s uber-girl, April Vokey, appears on “60 Minutes Sports” steelheading in B.C. with Bill Whitaker (the YouTube clip has been viewed more than 115,000 times); spring 2014, Field & Stream publishes a story by Kristyn Brady called “The Real Fly Girls,” highlighting a batch of emerging female guides like Charity Rutter in Tennessee and Kate Taylor on the Oregon Coast; winter 2015, Abel Reels starts “Able Women,” a public outreach initiative that aims to “spread the word about flyfishing” using an ambassador team consisting of A-listers like Keys veteran Diana Rudolph and the travelling Texan, Meredith McCord; July 2015, Geri Myer, co-owner of Driftless Angler fly shop in Viroqua, Wisconsin, launches “Athena and Artemis Women’s Fly Shop”; 2016, @maddiebrenneman. One. Hundred. Thousand. Followers. Many of them women.
The result of all this? As of fall 2016, four major players in the flyfishing industry—Patagonia, Simms, Orvis, and Redington—each have a separate “women’s line” of flyfishing softgoods, offering a combined 149 products. (If that number doesn’t sound very high to you, remember that, not long ago, it was probably around seven.)
So. Why not fly rods?
SaraBella’s tagline is “smart, beautiful fishing,” and Archer says putting the smart—or technical—aspects of rods before the beautiful—aesthetics—was intentional. “The technical aspects that meet women’s needs have to be there,” she says. “Women don’t necessarily want smaller and lighter; they just want to fish all day and not get fatigued.”
For SaraBella, this means offering different options for different women. Custom rods come with a bevy of choices in size, length, and grip. Weights from 3-12 are available at various lengths, and grips include curvy, narrow, and traditional—options that allow for different hand sizes, strength, endurance, and range. (This is similar to Scott Fly Rods’ “custom shop,” only Scott doesn’t offer colors like yellow, orange, lavender, teal, and “sparkly teal.”)
“The design of the grip just seems to fit a female’s hand better,” says Vail-based guide and artist Mandy Hertzfeld. “I especially love throwing dries with it.” Hertzfeld is a member of the “SaraBella Allies” program, a collection of female guides, outfitters, ambassadors, and leaders in the flyfishing industry who help with product development, events, and outreach. “I also love all the options you get,” Hetzfeld adds. “Women love options.”
Choice in size and grip are important for performance, says Archer, but also, being able to choose between so many different alternatives just makes the custom rod-building experience that much more fun and significant. “When something is customized, it carries more meaning,” she adds. “People take care of it differently.”
Archer says SaraBella wants to appeal to all levels of flyfishers, not just experts (who currently make up the majority of custom-rod buyers). Echoing the spirit of Colorado’s thriving “maker” community, attention is in the details. Local, re-purposed Colorado hardwoods are used for reel seats. Cherry and apple were most common last year because fruit trees were dying, but they’ve also used maple and juniper. Cork for the rods comes from Portugal and has been hand-glued and lathed. Local craftsmen do all the thread wrapping, with a variety of colors being another custom choice. In other words, SaraBella rods aren’t cheaply made, and the prices reflect that, ranging from $350 to $600.
The Brookie Series is SaraBella’s “Semi-Custom” collection, offering fewer customization options. They also keep some “ready-to-fish” rod inventory, stocked in limited quantities and currently available in 3- to 8-weights.
SaraBella partners with several nonprofits on production, including Vets from Project Healing Waters Colorado, who are contracted to do the wrapping by hand. SaraBella also contracts with Denver’s Mile High Workshop, which creates employment and job training opportunities for people trying to rebuild from addiction, incarceration, or homelessness.
Colorado consumers love to support Colorado companies, whether the businesses make beer, boats, or fly rods, and SaraBella’s sales reflect that. (Though most of their rods are sold direct, Denver Fly Shop carries 3-weights to 6-weights.) Archer is also creative with marketing. In addition to the Allies program she organizes casting parties, has a presence at lodges and ranches, offers co-branding opportunities, and partners with groups like Sisters on the Fly.
“It’s a great time to be a woman in the sport,” says Archer. “The products are better now, and more people in the industry value all anglers. There’s still a lot of room for growth and improvement, but we’re excited about those opportunities.”