- By: Stephen Camelio
Pinning down musician Greta Gaines, whose new album—Lighthouse & the Love Impossible—came out in May, is no easy task.
Maybe Gaines’ incessant motion is something of a preemptive strike so as not to be labeled. Because having acquired so many titles—singer-songwriter, actress, TV personality, snowboarder, outdoorswoman, activist—she probably knows that if she keeps moving no one will be able to trap her in one role.
Still, if there’s a description that remains a constant for Gaines it is the part of fisherman, even if that gender-specific classification is a bit of a misnomer. But even this part of Gaines’ story moves in a different direction than you might think. Given that her dad is Charles Gaines, a renowned angler and writer who penned The Next Valley Over: An Angler’s Progress and, with Monte Burke, Leaper: The Wonderful World of Atlantic Salmon Fishing, you’d expect her first fishing influence would be him.
But despite her lineage and being raised for much of her life in New Hampshire, Gaines first wet a line bait-fishing for sunfish with her grandfather Toots on Tadpole Lake, the family pond near Birmingham, Alabama. “My grandfather was the best. Whenever he caught a fish, no matter the size or kind, he got so excited,” Gaines remembers. “He’d always say, ‘Hot damn,’ out of just true exuberance, and that’s how I developed my love of fishing.”
Fly-fishing came a little later, when Gaines was eight years old, and she learned from both her grandfather and her dad. By accompanying Toots and her older brother on trips to Montana, she learned that, just like bait-fishing, an important part of fly-fishing is to have fun. “My job was to make sure he [Toots] got home safely,” she says. “But it was such a thrill to fly-fish alongside my grandfather that I got hooked.”
But as a young girl, fly-fishing for smallmouth bass, trout and pickerel with her father in the rivers and lakes around their house taught her something completely different. “My dad is very competitive and a great, technical angler,” she says. “There is something very masculine about the way he fishes, about being the best and catching the biggest, and I picked up on that.”
Gaines’ connection to fly-fishing remains as strong as it was when she was growing up fishing with Toots and her dad, but as her life has changed, so has her bond with the sport. After graduating from high school in Massachusetts and attending Georgetown University, Gaines made her way to Jackson, Wyoming, where she became a part of the growing snowboarding craze.
But Gaines wasn’t just another ripper on the slopes—she was the ripper. After routinely beating the guys at what was still a bros-only game, she won the first Women’s Extreme Snowboarding World Championship, in 1992, and later founded Wild Women Snowboarding Camps.
Soon her days in Jackson became a mountain bum’s dream. After shredding during the mornings and playing music at the local bars at night, fly-fishing became something of a retreat for her. By herself, she would escape from the powder and nightlife scenes into the backcountry. It is there she learned to read water, match the hatch, and basically guide herself.
To this day, Gaines still has a hard time picking between snowboarding and fly-fishing, and looks back fondly on the “surf and turf” days when she got to do both. And then there were those epic 24-hour stretches, when she’d finish up with a set performing her growing catalog of original songs.
For others, locking down the link between these seemingly disparate activities might be tough, but for Gaines it’s easy. “The connection for me between fly-fishing, snowboarding and songwriting is all about finding that perfect line,” she says. “To combine all three, for me, that’s the perfect day.”
But it was also at that point in her life that she realized that fly-fishing was different from all her other pursuits. “Fly-fishing allowed me to calm my mind,” she notes. “It was a stabilizing force in my life when everything else was kind of crazy.”
And she would need the steady influence of fly-fishing in the coming years. Her success on the slopes led to a gig hosting the 1997 MTV Sports and Music Festival. Then, in 2001, came her own show on the Oxygen Network, Freeride with Greta Gaines, on which she fly-fished with Ethan Hawke and sang with Sheryl Crow. Other TV appearances would follow, as would a role alongside Hawke in the film The Hottest State.
While filming all these projects, Gaines, now living in Nashville (where she remains), was continuing to play her own mix of country, roots and Southern rock; she released her first EP in 1999. With a slot on the Lilith Fair concert tour and opening gigs for Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette behind her, she has gone on to release another EP and, counting the new release, three LPs.
This type of success means music has had top billing in Gaines’ life for a couple of years. But because she says fishing is “a refuge and a way to refuel,” she hasn’t stopped throwing a line. In fact, she always brings a fly rod on the road with her, sometimes to just jump on a river for the fun of it, like Toots taught her.
Other times, like when she caught a striped bass that was the women’s flyrod record on two-pound-test (until it was disqualified on a technicality), or joined the women’s pro bass tour, or used her fly rod to best a bunch of male spin fishermen in a bass tournament, she has fished with a purpose, more like her dad.
There have been special occasions, once when her two influences came together on Georgia’s Soque River. While being filmed for an episode of Sports Afield on Assignment, fishing with her dad and using Toots’ Orvis one-piece bamboo Flea rod from the 1950s, she caught a monster rainbow. “During the fight, the reel fell off and the water was up to the top of my waders, but I landed the fish,” she says. “That was the day I knew I had finally impressed my dad. It was an incredible moment of family union.”
Gaines has two boys who are about the same age she was when she started fishing. She wants to get the boys on Tadpole so that they can learn the fun of fishing and, by fishing on Toots’ home water, come to understand the “spiritual component” fishing has become in their family. Of course, after that, she is looking forward to introducing them to fly-fishing so that she can develop the same bond with them that she now shares with her father.
As for more immediate plans, she has set aside time to play festivals this summer in support of her new album. And of course, there is Atlantic salmon fishing in Canada, as well as intentions to throw for the northern pike and alligator gar that are found closer to her Nashville home.
Just don’t ask her to pick her dream trip, because then Gaines gets a taste of her own peripatetic medicine. “I love being on Tadpole, topwater popping for bass in beds on my home lake,” she says. “But I’d love to stalk tarpon on the Cuba flats, maybe from a pontoon bike so they could drag me around.” w
Stephen Camelio profiled comedian Christopher Guest in Winter 2013.
by Stephen Camelio