Episode 181: Fishing for Community

Interview with Serene Cusack

Serene Cusack wants to build more community in the fly fishing world, especially amongst those folks who haven’t always been included. Whether through her own social media handle, “Fatty on the Fly” or the community she’s building via “Outcast Anglers,” Serene is passionate about sharing the joy she finds in fly fishing with more people. In this episode, the first of Gabaccia Moreno’s hosting residency on She Explores, we learn about Serene’s path to fly fishing, the change she’d like to see in the sport, what it’s like being a woman of size on the water, and more.

About Serene:

Serene Cusack was born and raised in the mountains of Montana. After successfully completing a four-year degree in five at Montana State University, followed by a Masters in Social Work, she launched into the world of helping adolescents experiencing mental health crises. With a stressful job comes the need for self care. Serene has found that her connection with water and fly fishing brings the perfect rhythm of peace and balance. Passionate about people, fly fishing, and trying to not take life too seriously, she has found herself at the intersection of the things she loves. Serene self identifies as a fat person and noticed that plus size representation in the sport of fly fishing is inadequate. She dreams of the day she sees others that look like her represented in the fly fishing industry. Until then, she will continue to spread the big love to all bodies on the river banks. Currently she lives and fly fishes on the stolen land of the Bitterroot Salish in Missoula, Montana.

Find the episode below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you stream podcasts.

Featured in this episode: Serene Cusack

Hosted & Produced by Gabaccia Moreno

Editing & Additional Production Support by Gale Straub

A Production of Ravel Media

Sponsored by Deuter

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Featured in this Episode

Serene Cusack

Serene doing what she loves on the river!
Serene’s Instagram is called: @fattyonthefly

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TRANSCRIPT

Note: This transcript was lightly edited and created using a transcription service. As such it may contain spelling errors.

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

I’m Gabaccia Moreno and you’re listening to She Explores.

Serene Cusack:

I catch big fish. I catch small fish. Sometimes I don’t catch fish, but I’m out here and I’m fat and I’m doing it. And this is the world that I live in. And this is how I am. And this is who I am. And it’s not going to change today or tomorrow.

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

This is my friend Serene.

Serene Cusack:

Hello I’m Serene. She, hers and I am here on the stolen land of the Bitterroot, Salish and Ponderay in Missoula, Montana.

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

Serena and I have a lot in common, most notably, a love for fly fishing, which has also turned us into collaborators. I wanted to interview serene for my first, she explores episode because honestly I’m a little nervous and I wanted to have the comfort of a friend by my side, beyond that. I also wanted more folks to know serines ever generous soul, her hilarious humor and the ways in which all she does gives back to our world. Before we hear her fly fishing story. I want to share a question. I ask her that just says a lot about who she is and what she deeply cares about.

Gabaccia Moreno:

Why is community and fly fishing so important to you?

Serene Cusack:

Community and fly fishing is, is like one in the same. Even if you are person who chooses to go out fishing by themselves, we all learn from each other. We all grow from each other. We’re challenged to grow our fly fishing and we’re challenged to grow our lives and our characters as people. The intersection of that is so tangible when you’re fishing, it’s it’s as if the frustrations you have on the water are so applicable to the frustrations we have in life to the winds you have on the water is so much better celebrated in community. There are people in my life I would have never known if it wasn’t for fly fishing, and maybe that’s the only portion of our lives that similar or the same, but it allows us to have something in common to grow relationally and to be connected to people.

Serene Cusack:

The connection is so crucial to yourself, to your fly rod, to the line, to the fly, to the fish, it’s all the sense of energy flowing through it and not to sound Wooey-Dewey, but there’s something absolutely life-changing about catching a fish on a fly, and it’s absolutely life-changing to do it with people around you. It’s not really the type of sport. You want 50 people in one spot doing, but as you build connection, you build these branches and you’ll learn things and you grow and fly. Fishing can take people worldwide. It’s such a cool sport. Everywhere you go. Even this past week, I went and fished Washington and was fishing in the hood canal for salt water. And that was the first time that I really like had salt water spraying on my face coming off of my line and tasting it and being in it and feeling a connection to the earth and feeling your connection to the community of people I was with. It’s so intersectional.

Gabaccia Moreno:

You know, I just remember like the first time I caught my quote unquote, bigger fish and having my partner pull out the net and help me, help me retrieve it after, you know, the, the little back and forth, I guess you could call it a fight. It’s so soothing to be able to also share those moments and seeing, not just feeling your joy, but also seeing your joy reflected onto their faces and everyone who’s there to kind of witness your catch. Is it’s something quite magical in my opinion.

Serene Cusack:

Yeah. I, you know, we’re so many years without catching any fish. When I first started that, I just absolutely go buck wild when people catch fish in their first few times of fishing. In fact, the first time that I took my partner fishing, who doesn’t fish, but fish is on occasion with me and they caught a fish. I just absolutely scream. I mean, I was going wild up and down the river, just hooping and hollering so happy for them. And they couldn’t figure out what was going on because it was not, it was definitely a second name. But anyway, it’s more exciting for me sometimes to watch people in my community catching fish, because it can feel like such a defeating time fishing. Isn’t always catching.

Gabaccia Moreno:

It’s called fishing. It’s not called catching.

Serene Cusack:

Exactly.

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

This community serene speaks of with such reverence is something she’s cultivating herself. You’ll notice that’s a theme in Serene’s life. She’s a self-starter. In the beginning though, Serene didn’t fly fish. She started getting out on the water fishing lures with her dad.

Serene Cusack:

My dad taught me to fish with a, with a lure and I remember I had a snag and he was, he still is notorious for walking into the water to get whatever lure is left behind. So I handed him over my fishing pole at the time, and it was not a snag. It was a pretty large trout that I had caught. And he was so excited. I was so excited and it was, it was a whole kitten caboodle to get the fish out of the small hole. And I think that that’s really where things started my bond with my dad and I were pretty close. And so we would go fishing. That was our thing. Just load up the car and drive. So I think that’s kind of what started me in the outdoors. I wasn’t a kid who wanted to stay inside. I did a lot of things. I skied, I fished rode my bicycle. I played a little bit of hockey. I wasn’t very good, definitely was active and outdoors and wanting to be going and moving and doing

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

As a teenager in Montana, a lot of people Serene looked up to fly fished. So she decided she wanted to learn too, but it was a little hard to find someone who wanted to teach her.

Serene Cusack:

But I was young. I was female. I was fat. People didn’t really think that I was serious about wanting to be a fly angler. Why do you think that was? I think that even though my journey began in the early two thousands with fly fishing, there just wasn’t people who looked like me on the water. Even today, I have a hard time finding people who look like me on the water,

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

The lack of community didn’t stop serene from learning how to fly fish.

Serene Cusack:

I think that I just started showing up. I just started doing it. I mean, obviously I’m a Montana kid here. And so Brad Pitt in a river runs through it just is burned into my soul. Maybe it’s in my blood and my DNA

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

Joking aside, serene took it upon herself to learn. And it’s ended up giving back to her too. She really leaned on it as a form of self-care during grad school. And it continues to act as her respite today.

Gabaccia Moreno:

How Does your day job overlap with your fly fishing hobby?

Serene Cusack:

Sure. One makes me swear and one gives me a sunburn. Just kidding.

Serene Cusack:

I am working in and around people who are experiencing crises all day. And those folks are young teenagers who probably are experiencing anxiety, depression, thoughts to hurt themselves or other people for the first time in their lives and feeling really at their wits end. So my job requires me to be on point and to be standing in the gap of life and death for, for teenagers almost every day. And that is so it’s, it just takes a lot to do it. And it takes a lot to be there and be present every day. And so it feels like a requirement for myself to find myself and fill myself back up so that when I get back to work, things can be given. One thing that we say often at work is a little cheesy, but you can’t serve from an empty festival in fly. Fishing is really my ability to fill myself back up. The beauty about fly fishing is you can do it alone, or you can do it with others. So as an extrovert, I find myself fly fishing with others, but there’s also days where I have to fly fish by myself because I’ve been too on for too many people for too long. And it really is. It really is a moment of being in the peace and the quiet of, of the world. After being in the chaos of daily life,

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

Serene wants all people to benefit from the joy of fly fishing. It’s a big reason why she started her Instagram handle Fatty on the Fly.

Serene Cusack:

So fatty on the fly was born. I would say 33 years ago when I was born, I’m just a fat person and I fly fish. And I think that I was getting tired of other fat people thinking that they couldn’t fly fish because no one looked like them. That’s definitely what I thought. When I first started fly fishing, I was invited in February of 2020, just before the pandemic hit to a pretty well-known big company to have my body measured for waders, thinking that they were going to launch a plus size section selection of, of waders. And I walked in there and measured me. They were talking to me, I tried on a few prototypes and I never heard from a company again. They never, they never launched anything. They never talk to me. They more or less just used my body measurements to think, uh, I don’t know what they thought, but I will say that they’ve never wanted to have any more conversations.

Serene Cusack:

I’m more was just used to maybe see like, Oh, this is going to be too hard because everybody looks different and we carry our weight different and it’s not a cookie cutter. We could all walk in as different sizes. And we people to be invested in, in how we walk and how we carry ourselves and what we look like. So I kind of launched into the Instagram world to say, Hey, here I am imperfect. I like to tell people I’m a newb. We’ve been doing it a while. I like to kind of own the fact that we’re all out here. We can all do this. We’re all worthy of being on the water. It’s like the one, one of the few sports in the world that you actually don’t have to wear perfect gear to start. You just need a fishing rod and a fishing rod fits in everybody’s hands. And if they don’t have hands, then we make accessible options for people who might not have that, but it’s available and accessible for all people.

Gabaccia Moreno:

I appreciate you sharing that story about the brand reaching out to you and you having those feelings afterwards of, you know, being used because, and I don’t, I mean, I don’t know the terms of your relationship with them or if they paid you to be there and be their fit model or what, but definitely the lack of followup on their end speaks a lot to an issue that the, not just the fly fishing industry, but really every industry that caters to products that are for bodies really have to deal with and confront and do better at,

Serene Cusack:

You know, I kind of gave up on waiting for the industry to want me in it. I give up on waiting for them to make me the cool jackets and the cool shirts and the cool pants and the nice waders. Like I can’t wait around. We don’t have time to wait around there’s fish to be caught.

Gabaccia Moreno:

Yes, I’m with you. I don’t think we need to wait for anyone to give us permission to fish. And like you said before, all you need is a rod. Granted, once you have waiters and you can access other spots, that pain you can access also without waiters, but maybe it’ll be really cold or, or really, really, really cold, which is when access does become a question. So I’m curious to hear from your perspective, like, what are those intersections of size inclusion and accessibility in the fly fishing industry?

Serene Cusack:

Well, first of all, when I walk into a fly shop, I’m not naive to think that someone doesn’t see me for the size that I am. And oftentimes I get statements like, Oh, well, if you go to that fly fishing access, you’re going to have to walk a long way. It’s like, Oh, how far is it from the parking lot to the water? Oh, probably like a half a mile. I just want to look at Ron and say, maybe he didn’t know that I ran a half marathon four months ago. I can walk, I can move my body. I can get to where I need to go. I’m privileged enough to be able to do that. And you know, we see this intersection that fat people are, are lazy, and that is so not true that people are just bigger than other people who are straight sized, what we’re active and we can move.

Serene Cusack:

I also see the intersection when I’m getting in a guided boat with a fly fishing trip, my sister and I like to go fly fishing together. And I fish a little bit more than she does. And so I liked to give her the front seat of the boat. And then I recognized that there was a safety thing. I do way more than my sister. And that’s one thing. But when the guide is awkward about my size, it’s uncomfortable. It sets up a really hard day. And I get that it’s inconvenient to have me on the boat, but it’s also not inconvenient.

Gabaccia Moreno:

If, if we are in a world in which we have done our job to be understanding of each other, we shouldn’t be putting each other in those uncomfortable situations. And that’s, I mean, I think that’s an education piece and a own learning piece, a treating our own bias piece. How do you think that fly fishing guides can be better equipped to work with that diversity of people?

Serene Cusack:

Oh, that’s such a loaded question.

Gabaccia Moreno:

I did it. I went there.

Serene Cusack:

And I love that. I think that our mere for it fly fishing guides can be prepared. There’s going to be so many different accommodations you have to make for all different types of people and fat people being on your boat is important for combinations for safety. Number one for you, for safety for your client. I think being aware and conscious of how words are used and how things are talked about being upfront, but not frustrated and went on a trip one time. And the guy had made cookies and brought cookies on the lunch. And then I offered him one of the cookies he made. He proceeded to tell me all about his diet and how not eating cookies. And that’s just conscious of your own words and your own choices saying no to a cookie. I don’t really need to hear about your diet, Kevin. I need to just like I offered you a cookie to be kind. So I think the guides overall, when they find the human in the person that’s on their boat are so much more equipped to be guides than when they just see like another paying customer. I think being seen for my humanity when I’m fly fishing makes the world of difference. I’m anxious getting on your boat too. It’s hard for me. It’s embarrassing as well to feel like the judgment could be really thick.

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

We’ll hear more from serene after the break.

Serene Cusack:

Every person that I’ve ever met has struggled at some point in their life with their body and their relationship with their body. The difference with being a fat person is that my relationship with my body is also a relationship that you have with my body. General you obviously.

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

We’re back. Serene is talking about bias. As we talked about before the break, whether it’s on a fly fishing trip, going to the grocery store or showing up as our full self and social media serene experiences, the results of the ingrained negative bias, our society perpetuates against people of size. Yet she’s going to continue showing up as she is because she wants to create visibility and empowerment for others who look like her. In the meantime, she emphasizes why we shouldn’t engage with negativity.

Serene Cusack:

So I think it’s important that when we see harassment towards people of size, people of color, people that are differently, abled people that carry or look any different than what the quote unquote world thinks you should look like that we report it. We don’t engage. We block it. And we move on. I think engagement is exactly what bullies and want

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

Serene found that Outcast Anglers as another way to build community and expand who is welcome in the fishing world.

Serene Cusack:

So what Outcast is, is it’s really a space in the angling world for people who don’t feel like they belong. So that sounds so funny, but we’ve created of this spot where people could come, who don’t typically get seen in the fly fishing world. Well outcasts. So someone like me, that’s a person of size. That’s not taken very seriously, can meet up with other people who feel like they’re not taken very seriously and we can go fishing. So this is a group that doesn’t really have parameters on who it is or who it’s for. If you feel like you belong, you belong and you belong with us on the river. And it’s, uh,

Serene Cusack:

I don’t really have a lot of rules, But we can just so people that are gathering to fish, there’s people who have done it fish before. There’s people who’ve never fished before in their lives. There’s people who’ve always wanted to learn and felt like they couldn’t. And so we’ve created a gear locker that sits in Missoula, Montana that is full of fly rods, fly reels, line flies, kind of just the beginning of what it would be for someone to borrow and use a rod and reel to try to catch a fish or maybe not catch a fish, but they would catch a fish if they were to take on the hobby of fly fishing. And so this is one of many gear lockers that will exist nationwide, that there can be accessed by anyone. And obviously we’ll figure out what that looks like as getting things off the ground. So we’re having our first gathering.

Serene Cusack:

I like to think of it as having like a fishy Woodstock or a fish stock, but then we think of fish stock bonds, which we do here, but we’re going to have a fishy Woodstock in Montana, in the mountains and have a camp out where people are coming together safely to fish to, to meet one another, to be on the riverbank. So many conversations happen around an in endearing fishing that are life conversations that bring us back to who we are and bring us back to grounding. We’ve had a year and a half at the point, by the time we have the camp out, we will have had a year and a half of connecting virtually. And there’s just not enough space or time on a computer screen to really know somebody and really know what they’re passionate about and laugh and have fun and hug each other and yeah, enjoy ourselves. So we’re excited about that from the Outcast camp out, um, is what we’re calling it at the beginning of August. And we have quite a few people signed up already to come to that.

Gabaccia Moreno – Narration:

Truly, I believe there are more good times and bad times to be hot on the water, especially when surrounded by supportive and inclusive friends.

Gabaccia Moreno:

What brings you joy in all the work you do on and off the water?

Serene Cusack:

People, people just bring me so much joy. I’m so happy to learn about people and learn their stories and journeys and how they got to where they are today and where they’re going from here. Think that that doesn’t always feel good when you meet me in my day job, doesn’t feel like you have much to look forward to, but really being able to dig in and find people’s passion and joys is so exciting to me. And I love to fish. I love to be on the water, but I like to do it with people. I like to do it with others and to be teaching and growing myself and constantly learning and being in a spot that allows me to do better every day. I make a lot of mistakes on the water and off the water. And I know that everybody else does too. And I think that there’s, there’s this grace and there’s this forgiveness and fishing. I think some of my worst casts, I’ve caught some great fish and eat when I don’t seem to have an altogether. And I’m having a rougher day on the water. It can all come together and it all works out the way it’s supposed to. People are so exciting. I get so excited about people. It’s so weird. I’m so extroverted. It can hurt.

Gabaccia Moreno:

Oh, and I know you’ve had a hard time during COVID because

Serene Cusack:

Yeah. Yeah.

Gabaccia Moreno:

So is there anything else that you’d like to share or ask from the, she explores listeners?

Serene Cusack:

I think that the best thing you can do, if you have wanted to start fishing, if you’ve never fished before is to just do it. Quit sitting around court, waiting for the right time, stepping up, asking questions and finding a community, right. Where you’re at finding people that you can learn with and learn from they’re there. And if they’re not there, they’re on the internet. We all have a way to get you connected with the water.

Gabaccia Moreno:

Yes, we do anything that we can, that we can help people get excited and, and try this sport. I think it’s, it’s really valuable to have a relationship with wildlife that it’s so tangible, like what you get with fishing, whether you’re doing catch and release or whether you’re harvesting.

Serene Cusack:

And I think that fishing has, is so much bigger than the act of having a fish in your net. And I think that the properties of healing, you would say the properties of grounding and serenity come from the second two, your brain makes the decision that it’s time to go fishing. It’s all such a journey and a process. And it’s so much bigger than the moment that the fish is in the net. And thank goodness for that, because there are moments where there’s no fish in your net and the fact that you saw a moose on the trail, or that you ran into somebody that you knew and hadn’t seen and connected with in a long time, or you learned something it’s a beautiful place to be.

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