Abbie Schuster gazes out the window of her old, red pickup truck at beaches swamped with anglers during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Her black Lab, Rupert, is seated beside her. Clouser minnows, squid patterns and sand eels adorn the headliner, and there’s enough sand in the foot wells for a small beach. Rumor has it that if a client is a good caster, Rupert sits on the angler’s lap on the way home.
As we roll along Beach Road, passing through Joseph Sylvia State Beach on the island’s east side, Schuster points to the spot where she learned to fly-fish as a kid with her father. Her grandmother lived on the island off Massachusetts year-round, and her family, who lived in Connecticut, visited often during summers.
“My dad was the patient one,” she says. “He’s a good teacher.”
Tanned with a wind-whipped ponytail, Schuster inherited her father’s qualities as a good educator. At 29, the saltwater fly guide teaches casting with a gentleness that makes anything feel possible, and with the wisdom of a guide twice her age.
Schuster’s passion for fishing grew when she attended the University of Montana, where she earned a degree in environmental studies. Fly-fishing on the Clark Fork River helped her make friends, and when she learned that she could get paid to fish, she signed up for Sweetwater Guide School in Livingston, Montana. It was an intense one-week program. Around the same time, she caught her first bonefish with her father in the Bahamas. It weighed 11 pounds, larger than her father’s best bony. It remains her most memorable catch.
Schuster graduated from college in 2012 and started a women’s fly-fishing program at Emerald Water Anglers, a Seattle-based outfitter and guiding company. But her dream was to start her own venture. In 2015, she returned to Martha’s Vineyard and got to work.
If I’m going to do this, I have to do it for myself, she remembers thinking. She wanted to be her own boss, a desire that runs in the family. Her mom runs a landscape design business, her dad operates a health insurance company, and her sister is an artist.
Schuster opened Kismet Outfitters that summer with simple goals: fly only, release every fish and help clients learn something every day. Between guiding, casting lessons and hosted travel, Schuster is a busy woman. When she’s not on the water, she’s tossing a fly from the surf in a pink sweat suit under her waders. And in the evenings, she responds to inquiries from potential clients, most of whom come through Instagram.
“It never stops,” she says, in a way that makes clear she’s more at home keeping busy than sitting still. Fall is her favorite time of year because it’s when all four of the Vineyard’s prized species are present: striped bass, bluefish, false albacore and bonito. She remembers a day last season when the water appeared a strange color on the flats.
“I thought it was seaweed,” she says. “I went over to it, and it was all striped bass. It was thick with fish. There were hundreds of them. In the distance, there was this huge ray, which I’ve never seen in the Vineyard before. It was probably 4 or 5 feet across.” Of course, she caught plenty of stripers that day.
We pull into a dirt parking lot at a marina across the street from where filmmakers shot the beach scene for Jaws. We climb into her 23-foot Parker center console and make our way through the maze of moorings, looking for false albacore and bonito chasing schools of sand eels. “The albies are just so cool,” she says. “You see them break, and they take you to your backing every time.”
We pass the three-car ferry between Edgartown and Chappaquiddick Point, and the hopeful derby anglers on the Jaws beach. Pushing the throttle, Schuster points the boat east toward Chappaquiddick’s sandy bluffs and the glacial deposit where albies often hang out.
It’s a beautiful day, sunny and 65 degrees. The albies show close to shore; we’re fishing 9 weights with 20-pound leaders, and the fish ignore the pink sand eels that her dad tied. I’m having more difficulty with the wind than Schuster is; she maneuvers the boat to help me reach the fish. We continue clockwise around the island. She points to a beach where she guided a client a few days prior. A man had walked up to her and started explaining how to catch false albacore. Baffled, the client stepped in. “She’s actually my guide,” the client told the man. “And we just caught one.”
That was the end of that.
Schuster reckons she’s the only female fly-fishing guide on Martha’s Vineyard. When she founded Kismet Outfitters, passersby at trade shows would ask, “Whose company is this?” as though it couldn’t possibly be hers. So she added her name to the company logo.
Schuster has a knack for teaching the ABCs of saltwater fly-fishing. Midge Jacobs is a veteran spin caster of 40 years who began fly-fishing three years ago after attending a women’s learn-to-fly-fish event that Schuster organized. “What she’s done for the field of women in fly-fishing is tremendous,” Jacobs says.
At each event, the women, who typically range in age from 20 to 70, practice casting on the beach, then meet up for drinks to get to know one another. The event drew 10 people the first year, 15 the next year, then 30.
On our day out, the fish aren’t biting, so we head back past the ferry and toward Katama Bay. Mansions with expansive lawns guard the shore. Rupert’s ears perk up, and he puts his front paws on the gunwales. He sees the fish jumping before we do. One of Schuster’s favorite parts of fly-fishing is the sensory indulgence. Watching the tide, listening for birds, feeling the wind. And, of course, watching Rupert.
“I was lucky enough to be on the water a lot of my life, so some of it comes naturally,” she says. “But every day it changes.”
Schuster says she’s learned not to prejudge her clients. “The minute you judge them, you’re discrediting them,” she says. Some clients have never fished, while others just want to experience the Vineyard, and still others are skilled and feverish. They open up as the day goes on, and sometimes Schuster feels like a therapist. “I probably give them bad advice,” she says, laughing.
Many of her clients return every year, and this year, she was fully booked long before the season began.
In the off-season, Schuster lives in Portland, Maine. She ties flies, teaches yoga and plans trips with clients to Ireland, Patagonia and beyond. Her social media accounts are active, despite winter being a slower time of year for business. The images she posts aren’t doctored or flashy; looking at them, you can almost hear her laugh and sense her clients’ delight. All of that positive energy is contagious, which might be why she has more than 11,000 followers on Instagram.
“Even on a really bad day, I’m like, ‘I’m here,’ ” she says.
Schuster plans to keep guiding for the foreseeable future and says she’s had a difficult time finding a better Northeast fishery than the Vineyard. She says she hasn’t lost any love for fishing since turning it into her job four years ago, and she gains confidence with each new season.
“It’s fun, but it’s hard,” she says of owning her own business. She approaches it the same way she fishes: with curiosity, patience and persistence.
One rainy day a few Septembers ago, Jacobs caught her first albie. “It took a village,” she says with a laugh, “but Abbie pulled for me the whole way. She’s infectious with her love of nature and fishing.”
As Schuster takes me to the ferry back to the mainland, she’s bummed that we got skunked. But she’s already anticipating her next client, who’s coming from Maine for an afternoon of albies. Rupert is also excited. His head is entirely out the window, his nose working the salty island air.