Susie Fitzgerald : Pushing the Frontiers of fly-fishing . . . since 1969.
- By: Chris Santella
j Want to swing flies on Russia’s Kola Peninsula for Atlantic salmon? Or maybe you’re looking to hit the Bahamas, and are willing to forego numbers for a shot at an honest double-digit fish? In 2014, booking such adventures is as easy as a few taps on your tablet.
In 1969 things were a little different, and Susie Fitzgerald was getting frustrated with the lack of quality travel options open to anglers. So along with her late husband, Mike, she set out to change that.
“When we hatched the plan to start an outdoor travel business, in the fall of 1968, there weren’t that many fishing lodges open to the public,” Susie, co-founder of the outdoor travel agency Frontiers, recalled. “There were a few in Canada, and some offshore fishing operations, but not much else. If you wanted to go on a fishing trip somewhere, you talked to friends and found out what kind of places they’d been to. Then you’d try to call the place they recommended. If you managed to get through and were able to plan a trip, the experiences were very mixed. Our thinking was that if someone could go and check these places out and understand them—and set some basic standards for service and accommodations—it would benefit everyone. Our travel industry experience at that point was pretty limited—the four months I’d spent as an international airline stewardess 10 years earlier, and the booking of our honeymoon trip to Europe.”
The Fitzgeralds’ outdoor travel ambitions could have easily ended before they began: That spring, Susie was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I got the news the day before Easter, had a radical mastectomy the day after, and was still recovering from massive radiation therapy when we opened on July 1, 1969. I never had a doubt that I wouldn’t make it.”
Susie is a diminutive woman, pushing 4’10” and weighing less than 90 pounds. But those who’ve encountered her over the years know that she’s not to be trifled with. “I’m little,” she joked, “but I carry a big stick.” Often enough, that stick is a fly rod or shotgun.
“The first client trip we booked was a ‘do-it-yourself’ trip to Canada for six guys from Pittsburgh,” Susie recalled. “We made $120 and even loaned them our tent. We learned a valuable costing lesson.” It was in Quebec that she got her first real taste of fly-fishing. “Mike and I used to go to Lake Mistassini in the northern part of the province. I’d bring a spinning rod along, but Mike was having so much fun catching brook trout with a fly rod in a small river that came into the lake, I thought I’d give it a try. It became my favorite place and way to fish from that point forward.”
Canada was a beginning, but Susie and Mike had much broader ambitions. Exploratory trips to Colombia for peacock bass, Ecuador for billfish, Iceland for Atlantic salmon, and the Yucatan for bonefish, permit, snook and tarpon followed. “As we accumulated more destination knowledge, we built more credibility with our clients,” Susie continued. “And from that credibility came more referrals. This—and the help we received from Roger Latham [then outdoor editor at The Pittsburgh Press] and other members of our advisory board—helped us build a clientele. By early 1973, we saw this could work.”
Of the many fisheries that Susie and her peers at Frontiers helped open up over the years—trout angling in Argentine Patagonia, sea-run browns in Tierra del Fuego, Atlantic salmon on Russia’s Ponoi—Christmas Island remains one of her favorites. “Christmas Island [part of the nation of Kiribati] was a truly outstanding location—in the early ’80s, when we started working there, it was the best bonefishing resource in the world. But Christmas had its drawbacks. The accommodations weren’t very good, and the airline connections were not always dependable. I remember one of the early trips I made with a few paying clients in tow. One woman got off the plane, saw the terminal—which was really just a grass shack—and got right back on the return flight to Honolulu.
“Given these shortcomings and the fact that the operators on Kiribati had no concept of marketing, we needed an innovative way to promote Christmas Island. We came up with the ‘7+1’: if the owner or manager of a fly shop could convince seven revenue [paying] anglers to do the trip, he/she could go for free. We wrote up a brochure describing the Christmas Island experience and the 7+1 offer and sent it to fly shops across the US and Canada. This really kick-started the fishery.” Susie, working with renowned guide Moana Kofe [he would ultimately be named FR&R’s 1995 Guide of the Year], also spearheaded catch-and-release protocols on Christmas Island, which has helped preserve the fishery to this day.
Though Mike Fitzgerald, Sr. (who passed away last year) was often the public face of Frontiers before his children (Mike, Jr. and Mollie) took the reins, Susie has always been a key part of the team. “People would always ask, ‘How can you work side by side in your business?’ I would always reply, ‘He handles the forest and I handle the trees.’
“Mike was a brilliant negotiator, knowledgeable about a wide range of topics and a wonderful host. Meanwhile, I was overseeing the organization of brochure production and in the early days, did most of the selling for European bird shooting and Argentina fishing and shooting. I dispatched strategic sorties to check out new destinations, evaluate the resource, solve a problem or help them set new standards of excellence.”
Over 45 years in the business, Susie has cast and shot all over the world. When asked if there was any place that she hasn’t fished yet but would like to, she didn’t hesitate. “First, Kau Tapen in Tierra del Fuego. I was there once on a problem-solving mission when it first opened, but it was the end of the season and too cold to fish. The Seychelles would be second. I did all of our background work to get that fishery going, but never got to visit.” w
Chris Santella lives in Portland, Oregon and travels to plenty of the world’s’ greatest places, many of which he’s detailed in his books Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die and Fifty More Places to Fly Fish Before You Die.