Flies, teeth and angling in the digital age: An interview with Jo Stephenson

Since reaching the semi-finals of BBC series The Big Fish, Jo Stephenson has been carving out a successful path as a globe trotting fishing guide, as well as a great role model for women in angling. Angling Trust blogger Dominic Garnett caught up with her on the cusp of the 2019 British Fly Fair International, to talk predator fishing, flies and the trials of today’s digital fishing world.

British Fly Fair 2019 Tyers Row Jo Stephenson

So, Jo, we’re already looking forward to another lively British Fly Fair. Is this a dangerous place for the wallet, or are you hoping that being busy on “Tyers Row” will keep your spending in check?

Well, I try to keep the wallet from getting too light! Being surrounded by all these fantastic feathers and materials for a whole weekend doesn’t always make it easy though- and I’m bound to invest in a few things.

So, what have you been tying up recently?

Predator flies mostly. Pike flies are a winter favourite- and I’ve fairly recently been to Christmas Island, so saltwater patterns have also been coming off the vice.

So, what’s life like now as an angling guide? Plenty of us enjoyed your exploits on BBC show “The Big Fish” but you get around a lot these days as a host too? 

Well, I love what I do but it’s a balance and I fit in a mixture of work with angling, including a day job. I guide for pike in East Anglia at the moment- including a lot of kayak fishing, which is really exciting stuff. I also do various hosted trips overseas.

Jo Stephenson fishing guide

The fishing world, and predator fishing in particular, can be quite a male-dominated place, so it’s always good to see women anglers coming through. Do you think we’re making progress on that front, or is there still serious catching up to do?

Angling is definitely changing. Fishing is one of those sports where you can still have an impact as a female. In other sports, men are perhaps bigger and stronger, but in fishing we can match them pretty well because that’s not what it’s all about. We still have catching up to do when you look at the Scandinavian countries and the US, though. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Norway and there are far more women anglers. Then again, fishing and hunting are more of a way of life over there.

How do you think we can change that in the UK? Are the signs encouraging from your perspective?

Well, I’m definitely seeing more women out at the shows and events who are willing to have a go, which is what we want. It’s all about encouraging more female anglers to take part, especially the youngsters. The Angling Trust is doing a lot to support this with coaching days and events each year, and it’s great to see women’s teams in all branches of fishing these days, whether that means lure, coarse or carp.

Agreed, and our England ladies squads tend to be pretty successful! The greater number coaches and of pathways into angling can’t hurt either. I must say, I’ve also noticed a better proportion of girls at events and open days in the last couple of years. Looking back to last summer, we had close to a 50/50 split at some events, which has to be encouraging.

Yes, it always makes me smile to see girls willing to get outdoors and play with slimy fish and bait! If we give them the chances, more will take it up.

Jo Stephenson fly fishing

Jo has caught some incredible fish in recent years, including this halibut, tamed on one of her own fly patterns.

You’re also an Angling Trust ambassador. What does the organisation mean to you?

I’m really proud to be part of the Angling Trust and hopefully I can encourage others to join. It’s good to be part of an organisation that’s out there looking after our fisheries and standing up for fishing in general, for the sake of future generations as well as this one. There are so many different types of fishing, whether it’s coarse or sea or flyfishing, but ultimately we’re all part of the same sport, so it’s really important there’s an organisation that represents all of us.

Technology has also changed the angling world massively. You’re very active on social media, but has it been a powerful, positive experience for you or do you find there’s also a darker underbelly to it all?

I see it from both sides, I think. I like the fact that even if you can’t get out there fishing on any particular day, social media means you can see what others are catching and get inspired. It’s a great way of interacting and getting information. Unfortunately there’s also a negative side because it has given some people freedom to be unpleasant to each other, because they can hide behind a keyboard or phone.  I’m fortunate not to have encountered too much of that, but there’s a danger that without face to face interaction, things can get nasty. People can say things they wouldn’t dream of if they met in the real world.

I’m glad to hear your experiences have been positive on the whole. Perhaps there’s a danger that with anyone making some kind of living through fishing, others can be jealous or think you have it easy. I’m sure you’d agree that in reality it takes a lot of hard work?

When you make a bit of profile, you can quickly get extra commitments to represent other companies and interests. This is great, but you have to make sure you stay true to yourself and keep the passion there. Sometimes there’s the risk that it can become all about getting the photo, when you want it to be all about being outdoors and enjoying your fishing. There’s the trap that it becomes about “I need to catch X so I can post something on social media”.

I can definitely relate to that. We live in an age where it’s almost as if anything that isn’t photographed and shared doesn’t count or didn’t happen. I think regardless of what your interests are, whether it’s music or cooking or photography or whatever, you have to be cautious about trying to make your passion your living?

Yes, you have to be careful. You’ve still got to have that time for yourself to enjoy it for what it is and remind yourself why you do it. But it can be hard to take the pressure of everything away. For me, it’s about bringing it back to the simple things and enjoying what we have. It’s great just to be outside and casting a line in natural surroundings, and seeing all these fantastic places and fish we have.

Pike fishing suffolk Jo Stephenson

Jo may have fished all over the world, but still loves pike fishing right on her doorstep in Suffolk.

So where is the perfect days fishing for you? You’ve visited some amazing locations around the world, but where’s your favourite place to fish here in the UK?

Well, I live in Suffolk, which is beautiful and not too far from the pike capital of the Norfolk Broads. So my perfect day would probably be going down the river in a kayak. It’s great just drifting down the water with a companion, taking turns to paddle and stopping for a cuppa or lunch on route. It’s a lovely, leisurely way to spend a days fishing.

I know you’re a fan of fishing for the predatory species- and I was especially impressed with your fly-caught halibut!  But is your favourite quarry still the pike?

Yes, they are definitely my thing although I’ve also enjoyed tiger fish and others. Pike are just so ancient. Even when you’ve caught plenty, they can still scare the living crap out of you if you’re not expecting a take and one suddenly launches out!

Agreed, I think that’s something you never tire of as an angler. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens, it’s still a surprise. So do you get out right through all seasons and weathers, even when there’s frost on the ground and it’s bitterly cold?

Yes, although you do have to change tactics a bit. You might need heavier, sinking lines and slower retrieves, for example.

And is it usually flyfishing, or do you enjoy other methods?  

Well, I started off with lure fishing and there are still times it’s the best or only practical method. Given a straight choice though, it’s the fly. It’s just brilliant fun.

What advice would you give others trying to develop their fishing in a professional capacity?

Above all, enjoy it. Keep the pleasure of it there and don’t try and pressure yourself to get there too quickly. Always listen and learn from others, because there’s so much to discover and pick up from fellow anglers. And make sure you spend as much time as you can fishing!

Great advice, especially on time spent fishing! Surely that’s the key to a happy life, full stop? In fact, I’m going to see if I can get that in writing from my GP, to show my wife. Thanks very much for joining us, Jo. It’s been a pleasure to catch up with you and we wish you every success this year and beyond. Keep up the great work.

Meet Jo at the British Fly Fair International 2019…

Jo Stephenson will be tying and exhibiting her work at this year’s British Fly Fair International (9-10 February) in Staffords, see www.bffi.co.uk for further details. She and husband Jonny Stephenson also run kayak fishing trips for various species in the East of England. You can read more about their adventures and services at jostephensonfishing.com

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