Helen Shaw – a real ‘Superhero’ of modern-day fly fishing
Arnold Gingrich, editor of Esquire magazine, upon being presented one hundred Helen Shaw flies at the celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth birthday in 1983, said, tearfully: ‘I have never had a Helen Shaw fly: now I have a hundred. Nobody’s worth that much.’
Helen Elizabeth Shaw: Women’s History Month
Helen Elizabeth Shaw was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and moved with her family to several midwestern locations and states. The Shaw family returned to Wisconsin, settling in Sheboygan’s city along the shores of Lake Michigan. She began to fish with her father at a very young age and started to tie flies as a youngster, learning from other tiers eager to help.
Fly fishing was a passion for her entire life.
While still in high school, Shaw began to tie flies for a local tackle shop owned by Arthur Kade (1890/91–1952), Art Kade Flycraft. After graduating, she worked at Kade’s shop full time, tying flies and training other tiers, and eventually opened her store in Sheboygan.
Her reputation as a talented fly tier and superb fly angle went well beyond Lake Michigan’s shores, and many of her clients were well-known personalities.
After a chance meeting in Milwaukee with Hermann Kessler (1904–1993), art director for Field & Stream magazine, Shaw married Kessler and moved to New York City in 1953. The move east was fulfilling for Shaw as she became a part of the angling crowd in New York very much. Many of her earlier clients made their move with Shaw, and she soon acquired new clients through exposure in the city, primarily through the Anglers’ Club of New York.
Helen Shaw was the first woman to publish a fly tying book
In 1963, Shaw’s groundbreaking book, Fly-Tying: Materials, Tools, and Techniques with Kessler’s photography. It included black-and-white images of Shaw tying flies step by step and was one of the first fly-tying books written by a woman.
A unique aspect of the book was its photography: images were taken from the tier’s vantage point, making it easier for the reader to understand the tying process. It was a great success, and the book was in continuous print for more than twenty years. Shaw and Kessler worked together again to photograph and publish Flies for Fish and Fisherman: Wet Flies (1989).
Besides her publishing accomplishments, Shaw was the Federation of Fly Fishers 2002 Buszek Award winner and the first woman to be hosted at the (all-male) Anglers’ Club of New York luncheon.
The Trout Unlimited chapter in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is named after Helen Shaw and the Onion River, her home river, was restored to its former condition when conservation funds were raised in her name.
And at one time, she was the only female member of “The Grand O’Dawn Club,” a men’s casting club in Chicago
Helen Shaw passed away in Red Rock, New York, where she had lived since 1979. At the time of Hermann Kessler’s death in 1993, the couple worked on a third collaborative book about fly tying. Sadly, that book was never published.
A Graceful Rise:
The sport of fly fishing has a long and rich history – one that informs us that as long as people have been fishing, women have been casting their lines over water. Historical records – as well as numerous prints, paintings, and photos – provide ample evidence of angling as an activity that women all across the world have regularly participated in since the sport’s earliest days.
In 2011 the American Museum of Fly Fishing opened its ground-breaking exhibition, A Graceful Rise, to highlight the careers and contributions of fifty-two women, from the fifteenth century to the twenty-first century. Though the exhibition closed in 2013, the Museum digitally prepared the materials for an eventual online program. This online version of the exhibition recreates the gallery experience enjoyed by thousands.
The American Museum of Fly Fishing and its “Exhibition Profiles” are from the book “A Graceful Rise” written by Catherine Comar, executive director of the museum. Promotional narrative for National Endowment for the Arts is provided by Fly Life Magazine.com. Copyright the American Museum of Fly Fishing (AMFF) – 2014.
A few photos in this original text profile of Shaw may not found in “A Graceful Rise.” However, the book profile has other unique images.