“Passion,” Stephanie Ortiz writes, “leads us all to the streams and rivers that ultimately brings us face to face with the ocean of our hopes, and the depths of our fears.”
Water can be a beautiful metaphor for understanding personal change. And for this young entrepreneur, it also became the channel through which she discovered her purpose and place in the world.
Ortiz runs a business called The Fancy Fluke, a Stratford-based company that sells premium fishing tackle. The rigs and products are composed from 100% made-in-the United States materials. Though gear is unisex, Fancy Fluke’s focus is on what Ortiz deemed an underserved demographic: women anglers.
The company has grown steadily and in marketing materials, Ortiz is the picture of confidence, beaming a wide smile and holding up a large fish in a photo on the website.
But that’s today.
Barely four years ago, Ortiz gazed out at the world with uncertainty, reeling from recent events in her life and reaching blindly for what would come next. She had pulled herself out of an abusive relationship and, although she had a job, she knew it wasn’t what she wanted to do forever.
Stephanie’s former life was dynamic on the outside, but empty on the inside, she says. She grew up a minority resident in predominantly white Trumbull. At home, her family spoke Spanish and was proud of their culture. Out in the community, people would tell Stephanie that she “seemed very white.”
“That was really difficult,” she says. Her parents were both extremely successful, hard workers. “My mom was a businesswoman, and she was always drained. Growing up, I told myself, ‘That’s not going to be me. I’m not going to be stuck behind a desk.”
She studied anthropology and Spanish at Fairfield University, then flew off to teach English in Chile and visit South America, Argentina and Chile. She travelled. But visas eventually run out, as Ortiz noted in a recent interview, and she came back to the States and got a job. She worked in sports medicine: namely physical therapy and orthopedic assessment. The economy tanked. She got entangled in a terrible relationship, then clawed her way out.
Despite these accomplishments, she still struggled with feelings of alienation.
“I understood that there was never going to be a hole for me to fit into. I had to create my own space.”
And there she was, in her mid-20s, staring numbly at the blankness that was her future.
Then she got a unique invitation.
Ortiz had met a man at a friend’s birthday party and he asked if she wanted to go fluke fishing. She’d never done it. In all of her years spent sailing the waters of Long Island Sound with her father, Ortiz had never cast a line.
But it was May, and who doesn’t want to hang out on a boat?
The fishing turned out to be mesmerizing. Her would-be fishing instructor—spoiler alert, he’s now her fiance—had fished his whole life and knew exactly what to do.
The experience was life-changing. It was like something in her heart woke right up, she says.
“An interaction with something that’s wild is very humanizing. Anything can happen. It’s a cross between achieving something and harvesting something. … You return to that level of the old human, the human spirit we all have that we all came from. It starts to activate again, if that makes sense.” She smiles. “And the other part is that it was cool and we caught fish.”
“It was doing something new, but it’s also like a reconnecting. I think all human beings, we all come from this.”
As her skills increased, for Stephanie, the act of pulling a fish from the water became a process of reclamation. Of remembering her deep connection to the natural world. Added to that, the evident power of being able to provide food for herself, family and friends cleared a space for her, emotionally, where her future self could unfold. She knew she wanted to introduce this experience to more women, but she didn’t yet know how.
Then on a deep sea trip out of Rhode Island, Ortiz made her own rigs for the first time and caught a load of really big fluke.
Another defining moment.
“That’s when I had the realization, ‘Oh, this is also something,’ ” Ortiz said. “That passion, that love for it, had been growing. Once I realized I could use the fishing lure, almost as my way in the door, it all came together, as a way to meet people, to spread my vision, but also to have a legitimate way to make money,” she said.
By December of that year, she had plunged in: she quit her job and started the company. Now it was time for the depths of her fears.
“I cried every night,” she says. “The anxiety … all of that stuff. I was lucky that we were doing decent enough that we could get by.”
Ortiz said that she and her fiance, Brian, supported each other through it all. Brian isn’t officially a member of The Fancy Fluke staff (which is all women) but he’s involved by default and by his own love of fishing.
And Ortiz learned fast. She had become very good by fishing with those who were excellent, and she did the same when building her business.
“A big thing has been being humble, trying new things, and being aligned with the right people,” she said, “the people in the industry who are doing the right things, putting out the right products, the right image, acting in a certain way—being aligned with these companies and people and captain and boats, and people in the industry.”
One of those people is Theo Maryeski, the owner of Bike New London and director of marine sales at Three Belles Marina in Niantic. Three Belles Outfitters specializes in outdoor sporting equipment–let’s just say they sell a LOT of fishing kayaks–and Maryeski is proud to carry the Fancy Fluke line.
“I love her products because they are locally made and that’s even more important when it comes to fishing,” he said.
Ortiz feels her earnestness has helped. She makes good products and sells them, and her vision, without gimmicks.
This year, in a continued evolution, the company revamped the way it will run its charter fishing trips. Instead of booking a large party boat, the business is operating a 6-person charter for more 1-on-1 guidance and camaraderie to offer a premium experience. The vessel is still a fully equipped sport fishing boat, but much more comfortable.
“Even if fishing isn’t your thing and you just like to sip wine and hang out, it’s all doable,” Ortiz said. “It’s more about the experience and getting women out there and enjoying it. Yes, it could be hard-core fishing if that’s what the group calls for, or it could be a bunch of friends having fun.”
There’s another possibility as well, one that involves women who may benefit from the little jolt of doing something new and different. Same as Ortiz.
“When you do these experiences that seem random or scary, you’re creating a break in your pattern,” she said.
Maybe that break can help someone. Or maybe the experience itself would help. Ortiz is quick to say she’s no expert and that everyone figures things out in their own way. But she feels she has something to offer.
“You lose your confidence and feel very disempowered after a situation like that,” she said of the domestic violence she experienced. “Some women need help moving on. Women need something in their life to feel empowered, to regain what was lost. …. There are all kinds of ways to do that. We find that fishing is very rewarding, very fun—just like any other sport.”
“The goal is to create a life that you want to live, rather than a life that you’re tethered to,” she says. “The connection to nature also spills over into everything else. You lose the ‘time is money’ mentality. Life becomes centered on experiences as opposed to things.”
Meanwhile, as her business grows, this entrepreneur is looking out at a future that looks much more like the one she wanted when she was younger.
“Everyone goes through difficulties, you know,” she said. “I think that point is important to get across, that everyone goes through their struggles and you can still rise above it.”
For more information on products and experiences, visit fancyfluke.com. The company’s charter season begins in May and the charters will head out from Watch Hill one Friday a month, May through September.
Writers Karin Crompton and Faye Parenteau contributed to this story.