Cornelia Fly Rod Crosby accomplished what legions of outdoor sportsmen can only dream of, and she did it in the 1890s: She made a living at fly-fishing and writing about it. In the process, she attracted thousands of people to the Maine woods to hunt and fish for a uniquely Maine experience, something L.L. Bean would eventually capitalize on.
Fly Rod Crosby was six feet tall, scandalized people with her dress, caught 200 fish in a day and became the first licensed Maine guide. Born before the Civil War, she conquered poor health with her vigorous outdoor life and lived past World War II. She befriended Annie Oakley, shot the first caribou legally in Maine and became an advocate for catch-and-release fishing as well as less-restrictive clothing for women.
She described herself more modestly:
I am a plain woman of uncertain age, standing six feet in my stockings…I scribble a bit for various sporting journals, and I would rather fish any day than go to heaven.
She was born Nov. 10, 1854, to Lemuel Crosby and Thurza Cottle Porter Crosby in Phillips, Maine, home of the Rangeley Lakes. Her father suffered from poor health and died of tuberculosis when Fly Rod was two.
She and her brother Ezekiel also had sickly constitutions, and Fly Rod took a fresh air cure — spending as much time outdoors as possible. She inherited $600 in her teens and spent it on two years at St. Catherine’s Hall, an Episcopal girls’ finishing school in Augusta.
During the 1870s she worked as a bank teller near Phillips. Her health failed from time to time, and she spent months recuperating.
Sometime before 1878 she had a lung ailment from which she wasn’t expected to recover. She was carried to the foot of Mount Blue to try the healing power of nature. It not only worked, but she caught her first trout.
In 1886, a friend gave her a 5 oz. bamboo rod. She got good at fishing. One day she caught 200 trout.
She then got a job as a telegrapher in Phillips, spending as much time as she could fishing in the Rangeley Lakes.
Fly Rod’s Notebook
She began to write up stories about her fishing adventures, which she submitted to O.M. Moore at the Phillips Phonograph. Moore gave her the nickname Fly Rod, and Fly Rod’s Notebook was born. It was a chatty account of fishing adventures and misadventures with information about where to stay and what the sporting camps were like. Fly Rod’s Notebook became a syndicated column appearing in newspapers in New York, Boston and Chicago.
She caught the attention of the Maine Central Railroad, which was looking to replace its lost freight business with tourists. Maine’s population was moving to the city as young people left their farms to work in factories and mills. The railroad paid Fly Rod to promote Maine’s outdoor industry. It was Fly Rod who came up with the slogan ‘Maine — the Nation’s Playground.’
She organized Maine’s exhibit at the First Annual Sportsmen’s Show at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1895. At the second annual show she caused a sensation. She wore a Paris-inspired green leather hunting outfit with a skirt that stopped short at mid-calf, matching tall green lace-up boots, a tailored jacket with a red sweater and a peaked red and green hat. Record crowds came to watch her demonstrate fly fishing and praise the virtues of Maine’s forests in front of a log cabin stuffed with deer heads and fish tanks with live Maine salmon and trout.
At that 1896 sportsman’s show she met Annie Oakley, who became a lifelong friend.
The First Maine Guide
By the mid -1890s she worked in banks in the winter when her health permitted and fished in the summer. She caught 2,500 trout in the summer of 1893, the ‘happiest and best’ year of her life. She probably released most of them as she was one of the first advocates of catch-and-release fishing.
In 1897, the Maine Fish and Game Association hired her to lobby the Maine Legislature for a state-run system to register the state’s hunting and fishing guides. On March 19, 1897, the Legislature passed the bill requiring guides to buy a $1 license every year and file a one-page annual report. Maine registered 1,316 hunting guides that year and gave Fly Rod the first license.
She organized Maine’s entry at the Boston Food Fair that year. Wearing her green suit, she brought the log cabin, stuffed deer and a 107 lb. squash. Her mother demonstrated spinning and Lucy Nicolar showed how to make Penobscot baskets.
She was sidelined two years after she wrenched her knee while boarding a train, and tuberculosis attacked the injury.
In 1926 she lost sight in one eye and couldn’t hunt or fish. She spent the spring of 1926 in St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, Maine, and converted to Catholicism. She still fished in the Rangeley lakes in her 80s.
Cornelia Fly Rod Crosby died on Armistice Day, 1946, a day after her 93rd birthday. In 2012, the first 20 miles of the Fly Rod Crosby trail opened. Find out more here.
With thanks to More Than Petticoats, Remarkable Maine Women by Kate Kennedy. This story was updated in 2021.