“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” Charles Dickens, from A Tale of Two Cities.
We all saw what happened. Last March, we all wondered how the heck we might survive (literally, and in a business sense) the pandemic. Sadly, some did not. Brick-and-mortar-based shopping got hammered. Travel took it on the chin even worse. But (as AT predicted), in the absence of T-ball leagues, and malls, and movie theaters, and all that, people had fewer other recreational options to tap. And that sent a lot of folks straight to the river (or lake, or ocean), all over the nation. Some to fish, some to float, some to boat, some to swim and others to merely be there. How many? The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation just estimated somewhere around 17 million people.
The “ A River Runs Through It” phenomenon that transformed fly-fishing in 1992 is now small potatoes in comparison to what happened in 2020.
And for all the collective hand-wringing the fly industry has done over the past 20 years… “How do we get younger?” “How do we get more diverse?” “How do we keep fly fishing en vogue in an increasingly urbanizing society?” … the answer/opportunity came out of nowhere. Granted, it took the form of a shitty plague of Biblical proportion, but there are more young families, from all walks of life, from all points of the nation, that literally got their feet wet last year than ever in our lifetimes.
And all many of them want now is to learn how to fish.
But will fly fishing benefit from the goose that laid the golden egg, or will the fly-fishing community just lay an egg itself?
Sure, some businesses sold rods, and reels, and flies, and tippet faster than they could make (or stock) them. Some guides booked more days on the water than ever before. Some media-particularly social media—saw their audiences balloon beyond expectations. And for some, yeah, the money poured in.
But all that all came at another price.
That squeaky, grinding, crunchy noise you hear in your brain when you aren’t listening to the cash register ring is the hole that’s being drilled in the bottom of the fly-fishing consumer bucket.
Many of the die-hard aficionado types, who have been devoted to fly fishing for years (e.g. “the base”… the highest-spending, most dedicated consumers who actually buy $900 fly rods and $700 waders) are absolutely mortified by the crowds, the pressure, and the overall degradation of the on-the-water experience we saw last season. Read the message boards. Look at the threads. We’re in a spot where some lovers of this sport are ready to throw their hands up and walk away, and the newbies are also having gag-reactions to their first impressions, because of the circus atmosphere. And that pressure is unlikely to dissipate—the RBFF study also indicated over 90% of the newbies on the water want to continue that connection. That’s wonderful on one hand… what opportunity! It’s very, very dangerous on the other.
It breaks my heart, as a former guide, and someone who has written about, worked with and maintains so many genuine personal connections with guides and outfitters throughout the country that guides and outfitters risk being the ones who are tarred and feathered.
Guides, outfitters, and shops have been, and in my mind will be, the gatekeepers, the shepherds, the stewards. And manufacturers who see this current situation as an opportunity to sell more direct, and boost the bottom line, without also lifting and working collaboratively with those gatekeeper shops, guides and outfitters right now are not just selling out the partners who made their brands happen in the first place… they are risking selling out the sport as a whole.
On the other hand, some outfitters are hosing the fly community by being short-sighted. For example, it’s maybe not the best idea to run a multi-boat armada to accommodate a bachelor party on a public stretch on one of the most popular floats in Colorado, on a weekend, in the middle of summer. I saw this happen as I rowed my 22-year-old aspiring-attorney niece, and 17-year-old fishing-obsessed nephew—exactly the types we need to engage for the long-term health of the sport—only to have their experience on one of the most sacred, pristine rivers in the world end up being a day of watching a bunch of drunk, foul-mouthed googans reefing on fish and peeing off the backs of dories.
And some wonder why the fingers get pointed at guides and outfitters, and why there are movements in places like the Madison, or the Colorado, or the Delaware to “control” this stuff.
I still believe fly fishing is more than a market; it’s a community, even a family. Which is to say, we’re all in this together. Always have been, and hopefully always will be.
So, let’s work together to think about solutions on how to manage the influx, the crowding concern, and keep things pointed in what might unquestionably be a huge upward path for fly fishing.
As a habit, I never raise a concern without also raising some possible solutions/things to consider. So let me offer a handful here, and if you think I’m full of beans, tell me. I’m a big boy, and I can take the criticism. I just want to find a path forward. Outfitters:
- Raise your prices for guide trips. Add a hundred bucks per trip, and share that with your guides. Pay guides better, and pay yourself better. The dabblers won’t notice the difference, and if they do, fine. Better to do 100 trips at $700 a day than 125 trips at $500 a day.
- Talk to each other. Even though you’re competitors… spread it out. Fine, your permit says you’re entitled to A.B.C… trust that that will come in the long haul. “I’m going to be here with X, you go there with X, so we’re not tripping all over each other” is a very enlightened approach.
- Limit the hours that guides are on the water. Sure, chase the hatches and so forth, but the average non-angler client doesn’t begin to understand that stuff. Yield a window to those who do. Give them a shot.
- Focus on “coaching” and “teaching” and make a new generation of do-it-yourself anglers. The people who just want boat rides and pulling on fish are not long-term prospects… in fact, they are obstacles to those who really are legitimate anglers, or might want to be.
- Catch fewer, better fish, as the benchmark for success. Instill that on your sports. We share the resource, and we need to share the fish. A 30-fish day might have been the gold standard on your river five years ago, but bobber fishing just to feel the tug, without any real thought, isn’t really the essence. Catch a few on nymphs, then endeavor to catch a few on dries, or streamers, whatever. Make anglers… not just photo-ops.
- Work together and make a plan, together, for when the DNR (or whatever it’s called in your state) comes calling. Believe me… they are going to come calling.
- Lastly, double down on conservation and public access. Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, American Rivers, CCA… whatever. These groups make the sport possible in the first place, and it is unconscionable to be in the business of selling fishing, these days, if you don’t also demonstrate a conscience.
This can literally be the greatest, most positively-transformative “moment” in the history of fly fishing. Or it can be the demise of the sport and your business. This should be a priority concern for the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, and all its members. It is the number-one concern of Angling Trade.
Let’s seize the moment. Let’s work together. Let’s figure this out.