After searching for a deserted beach along Pyramid Lake’s 15 miles of shoreline on a crisp January morning, Autumn Harry settled at Warrior Point where she could cast her fishing line from the sand-colored tuff rocks.
The sun had just risen over the mountains and there was not a cloud in the sky. She put on her waders and boots, then prepared her fishing line, her practiced fingers tying small knots and tying off a tiny, glittering purple fly she had made herself to bait the fish.
“You don’t need a big hook to catch these big fish,” she says with a smile.
Distinct from a spinning rod, a fly fishing line is slightly heavier, carrying the hook through the air before it lands in the water. Harry gently swung the large fly rod over his shoulders, sometimes more than once, before landing it in a good spot. The wind blew cold and steady over the turquoise waters, inhabited by species of fish including cutthroat trout, tui chub and cui-ui, an ancient fish found only at Pyramid Lake and in the Lower Truckee River.
Harry, 29, has become the first Paiute woman licensed to offer guided fly-fishing trips on the world-class fishing lake, known as Kooyooe Pa’a Panunadu in Paiute, after the tribal council approved his request in December. Harry said the closure of the reserve for months, including public access to the lake, amid the spread of the coronavirus in 2020 gave him the opportunity to hone his fly-fishing skills.
In an industry dominated by white men, she stands out.
“When the lake closed…it made me realize that maybe even in my own homeland, I didn’t always feel welcome in those spaces,” she said. “But I realize that these are my native lands. I belong here. I have a lot to offer as a guide.
She is working to welcome more people of color and younger members of her community to learn how to fish. So far, most women have booked guided trips with her company, called Kooyooe Pa’a Guides, by Instagram. Only planning trips until April to focus on completing her master’s thesis before graduating from UNR in May, her schedule is nevertheless already almost booked.
It encourages him. But she said there was a lot of work to be done to close the wide gender and racial gaps in fly fishing.
From 2018 to 2019, the total number of fly fishing participants rose to a record 7 million people in the United States, according to the Special Report on Fisheries 2020 published by the Outdoor Foundation and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. Seventy-two percent of participants were white and 70 percent were male, making it the most male-dominated fishing category.
Only twelve percent of fly fishing participants in 2019 were Hispanic, with Asian and black participants accounting for less than 10 percent.
In 2019, 17%, or 1.2 million people, were new to the business. First-time female participants represented 22% of all female participants, compared to 16% for first-time male participants.
In addition to his efforts to make fly fishing more accessible through his business, Harry also works with organizations to bring more diversity to the outdoors.
She is an ambassador of fishing for brown peoplea nonprofit organization financially sponsored by the Oregon Wildlife Foundation that focuses on uplifting anglers of color, and Indigenous Women’s Hikea group aimed at encouraging the participation of Aboriginal women in the outdoors.
Harry started fishing at the age of 6 when his father, Norm Harry, taught him how to use a spinning rod. Norm Harry was an environmental and water rights advocate for the tribe. His mother, Beverly Harry, worked in the tribe’s fisheries department, which runs a fisheries restoration project. Together, her parents made sure she was knowledgeable about the tribe’s history and its connection to the water and fish of Pyramid Lake.
“Our people here are fishermen,” she said. “We are known as the cui-ui tucutta, who is ‘cui-ui eater.’ These fish are really the reason our people are still here today.
The importance of access to fish from the lake was underscored early in the pandemic, when tribesmen drove 45 minutes to Reno to find empty or sparse shelves at grocery stores. Harry started catching fish for the elders in his community so they didn’t need to venture into the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“It was a really pivotal time for our people,” Harry said. “It was a reminder that we can’t really rely on…how the current food system works. You have to be able to come to the lake and know how to fish to get our food.
Harry brings together a group of Native women from the Great Basin and Owen River area near Bishop, California in early April for a retreat focused on learning the basics of fly fishing. They will visit the fisheries department to learn about spawning efforts to maintain trout, learn how to tie flies that go to the end of the line to bait fish, learn how to cast their lines (which is more technical in fishing on the fly) and learn to tie the knots necessary to prepare the fishing line.
She sees this retreat as a catalyst for increasing the number of Indigenous women participating in fly fishing, but there are more hurdles to overcome, including the financial costs of participating in the sport.
All it took for her to get hooked on fly fishing was one lesson about four years ago, after a friend offered to teach her. She has since saved to buy her own gear, such as waders, boots, a fly rod and reel, a net and tools to tie the flies.
She wants her guided trips to be as accessible as possible, so she’s also invested in extra pairs of waders and other items to provide for newbies and newbies.
In the 2020 Fishing Special Report, nearly half of fly fishing participants reported earning $75,000 or more per year.
Operating her own guiding business gives Harry, and potentially other Aboriginal women, the opportunity to build a legacy.
“There are start-up costs of course,” she says, “but once you start booking trips, you get your money back. It’s a good investment.
When guiding non-native clients, Harry says she tries to educate about her community, the history of the lake, and concerns that rapid development in Reno and Sparks could lead to lower water levels.
Failing to recognize the Paiute living in the area while fishing off their shores perpetuates the erasure of indigenous peoples, she said.
“I really want to talk to people about the derby dam history, how our water was stolen, our lake level dropped 80 feet and there was a local extinction event here with the trout,” she said. “I want it to be more than just fishing for them.”