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When he learned to fly-fish while a student at Colorado State University, Eeland Stribling felt like the only black angler on the planet. Some fly shop employees assumed he was lost or stupid. White anglers were reluctant to trade advice. Once, two people in a passing truck shouted the N-word at him while he cast for trout. So when the Denver resident was introduced to Brown Folks Fishing (BFF), it was a revelation. “It’s been so good just to know I’m not the only person of color on the water,” Stribling says. “I’m not alone.”
A largely solitary pastime, fishing may not seem like it would require integration. But for people of color, it can be too isolating: 79.2 percent of all anglers are white, according to the Outdoor Foundation and the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation. Started in 2018 by Oregon-raised Tracy Nguyen-Chung, BFF is a nationwide network of anglers working to make room on the dock (or boat or shoreline) for people of color. Regional ambassadors Stribling and Erica Nelson, a member of the Navajo tribe, lead the community-building effort in Colorado.
The first barrier many minorities face is cultural. White parents and grandparents pass down the particulars of casting and mending a line to their children. People of color often have to teach themselves. “It seemed like everyone I met on the water said, ‘Oh, I grew up fishing,’ ” Nelson says. “But I didn’t.” As a novice, Nelson posted questions such as Is it normal to hook yourself with your fly? on her Instagram account, @AwkwardAngler. Members of BFF passed along tips.
But BFF’s mission goes beyond support-group status. Buying gear and even a fishing license can be obstacles for people in marginalized communities. BFF hosts free events, such as fly tying or casting clinics, to provide otherwise unaffordable lessons. (Follow @BrownFolksFishing on Instagram to discover meetups and clinics in Colorado.)
Fortunately, the fishing industry seems to have jumped into BFF’s net. Nelson conducts inclusivity trainings for outfitters and brands, including Orvis, a Vermont fly-fishing and hunting company. Orvis, in turn, donates gear to BFF workshops and is making a concerted effort to share people of color’s stories on its social media channels. “We strive to be a leader in the fly-fishing community,” Orvis chief operating officer Simon Perkins says, “and therefore we have a responsibility to understand how to make the sport accessible to a more diverse audience.”
Last year, Orvis gave Nguyen-Chung its Breaking Barriers Award, which honors those working to improve inclusivity in fly-fishing. To continue that momentum, BFF debuted an Angling for All pledge in fall 2019. Shops and guides who sign on and complete coursework earn a seal of approval along with opportunities to collaborate with BFF. It’s yet another pebble thrown into the community pond—in time, we’ll see just how far those ripples can go.