Jess McGlothlin takes stock of the U.S. fly-fishing industry in the Covid era

It would be perhaps over-simplifying to say that the past few years have upended the majority of what we’d come to consider ‘normal’ about doing business in the fly-fishing space (and in life in general, really). For those of us with any sort of business that relied upon tourism, travel, or in-store retail, the arrival of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic changed the rules. Temporarily? Perhaps. That remains to be seen. Suddenly we were not able to travel beyond our home countries (and, for some time, travel within our own borders was also limited). Lodges, outfitters and guides who relied on tourism money and travelling anglers were suddenly left without a season. Fly shops had to close their storefronts, transitioning temporarily to mail-order service where possible. Photographers like myself, who rely on international travel and shoots to pay the bills, had a year’s worth of work cancelled within the space of weeks. More than a year and a half into the global pandemic, portions of the globe are opening up. Travel is slowly resuming to regions of the world, albeit with new regulations and oversight. Storefronts can open again (although if manufacturers can ensure the concurrent resumption of supply lines remains to be seen). Guides, lodges, and outfitters can start to resume business, though the clientele may not be the same as it was two years ago. In the United States, rumour is that fly fishing — along with other outdoor activities — has seen a drastic influx of participation since the summer of 2020. Many cite the anecdotal evidence of their local rivers, lakes and streams seeming far busier as people recreate close to home instead of travelling for vacation. Fly shops are reporting they can hardly keep intro-level rod / reel outfits on the shelves, and guides are seeing more families and new anglers try their hand at waving a rod around. But what do the actual numbers say? And if there has indeed been an influx of new blood into the fly-fishing realm (à la the early ’90s A River Runs Through It boom), what does this mean for an industry that, really, is remarkably small and insular? How does this impact already-busy waterways and struggling fish populations? For Kirk Deeter, the editor-in-chief of fly-industry trade outlet Angling Trade and editor of Trout Unlimited’s TROUT Magazine, there’s little question fly fishing has seen an influx of fresh blood in the Covid-19 era. ‘I don’t think anyone doubts that,’ he noted while on a phone call in May 2021. ‘The question is, really, how much? How many were ‘dabblers’ and how many are going to stick? Angling Trade, after talking to many companies, state agencies, and such, is going to peg the number of new fly fishers at just under a million nationwide.’ One million anglers is a sizable influx to an industry that, according to their estimates, is home to roughly two to three million anglers. The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF), a non-profit working to increase participation in recreational boating and fishing, pegs the participation number much higher: 7.8 million in 2020, up from 5.5 million in 2010. (The organisation declines to share how they reached these numbers, however, noting, ‘We don’t consider fishing licence sales equal to fishing participation.’) For scale, RBFF reports that 54.7 million Americans fished (either traditional tackle or fly) at least once in 2020, compared to 50.1 million in 2019, a net increase of 4.6 million anglers year-over-year. The disparate numbers beg the question: does anyone really know how large the U.S. fly fishing demographic is? While the answer remains nebulous, there’s one query we can rally around: how many of the estimated one to two million new fly anglers might stick around? Deeter thinks perhaps a couple of hundred thousand. Trout Unlimited, a U.S. non-profit dedicated to the conservation of freshwater fisheries, saw a 15% jump in memberships in 2020. For an organisation with 300,000 members, it’s a sizable influx of new blood, bringing new ideas and passion for a sport that, in some circles, is viewed as somewhat of a staid undertaking. And that new blood is coming, in part, from unexpected sources. Kip Vieth is the owner of Minnesota-based Wildwood Float Trips, a guide service offering warm water fishing for smallmouth bass and musky. He’s seen a younger audience join the ranks of the fly angling world in recent years. ‘Our fisheries are starting to get more weekend warriors,’ he shares. ‘We’re seeing a lot of young, 20-somethings — YouTubers — that seems to be where most of the growth is coming from.’ During a recent talk to a university fly-fishing club, Vieth asked the students how they started fishing. Roughly half said they’d been exposed to the sport via YouTube, while only a handful had a father or a friend teaching them. Many of the 20-something set have gotten into fishing for ‘the Gram’ — looking for a social media picture that shows them as outdoorsy and connected to their environment. The saying ‘It didn’t happen if you don’t have a picture’ has become a common refrain at boat ramps across the country. Online learning and YouTube channels — such as Orvis’s ‘How to Fly Fish’ series and The New Fly Fisher’s YouTube instructional shorts — rank among the most utilised online learning resources. For Callie Dwyer, a new angler based near Gunnison, Colorado, the profusion of digital learning has taken away some of the ‘intimidation’ of being a new angler. The 30-something professional picked up fly fishing after seeing an Instagram influencer profess her love for the sport, and has learned almost exclusively from YouTube and Instagram. ‘It’s a good way to be in nature,’ she reflects. ‘And I hope to meet people. I’m not sure about fishing by myself yet, but my friends will come and hang out while I try it.’ The easy access to free online casting and angling instruction has allowed a new generation of anglers to explore the sport entirely on their own, if so desired. This brings forth another question: if young anglers are learning how to fish from internet videos, who’s teaching them about river etiquette, proper fish handling, and how to manage the resource? These are the intangibles of fly fishing; the things that can’t be taught well via an online video. It’s difficult to learn how to properly handle fish without handling fish. Without the mentorship of another angler, new fishers may not know how to navigate a busy run with other anglers present. These are the ‘soft skills’ that keep the rivers, lakes and streams running smoothly, and without the mutual respect of anglers, waterways can turn into a battle zone quite quickly. Vieth sees another potential issue with an increased number of faces on the water. Human-to-human interactions — the age-old ‘play nice with each other, kiddos’ — aren’t always pleasant. And more bodies on the water, combined with new anglers who may not know river etiquette and ethics, complicates what can sometimes be an already-tenuous chessboard. ‘Fishing pressure will be the next biggest thing for anglers to learn how to deal with,’ Vieth adds. ‘I’ve been saying that for three or four years now — but Covid has accelerated it. If everyone was decent — a decent human being — it wouldn’t be an issue. That’s not the case now. There’s a lack of common courtesy; the river has become a political environment. Folks are on edge and it makes it tough.’ Deeter agrees that, driven from online learning and more traditional resources, more young blood is entering the ranks, especially young families. Vieth notes that he’s seen more families booking guided trips this year as well, looking for something new outside to do together. And family units, in turn, bring more women into the sport. ‘I think more women are attached to fly fishing now than I’ve ever seen in my career, and that’s wonderful,’ Deeter says. ‘I also think more diverse demographics are into fishing, now, which is also great. Fly fishing has already turned the corner from being a predominantly ‘old, wealthy white guy sport’… I’m not sure the old white dudes understand that or accept it, but it’s already happened.’ But as new anglers mature in fly- fishing, Deeter agrees it’s hard to determine who’s dabbling, and who will ultimately stick around. ‘If guides run ‘production’ trips to turn revenue from newbies and never-evers, without trying to really engage them… that’s going to create a hole in the bottom of the aficionado bucket, and burn the industry,’ he adds. ‘If we inspire a new demographic; become younger and more diverse in the process, creating a new constituency of folks who really care about rivers and oceans… it’s the answer to our prayers.’ The urge for many outfitters to run the aforementioned ‘production’ trips is tempting. With more anglers seeking trips, it’s an easy way to make quick cash, especially after many guides had shortened seasons in 2020 with state closures and travel bans. ‘I do think pent-up demand is a very real thing,’ notes Tim Linehan, owner of Montana-based Linehan Outfitting, one of the most respected guide services in the States. ‘The phone has been ringing and bookings are significantly higher than they were pre-Covid. This year the crew will all be begging for a day off.’ Linehan sees outfitters and guides tackling this pent-up demand with two schools of thought: 1) either booking further out with the outfitter’s current guide team, or 2) companies taking everything they can get; bringing in newer, less-qualified guides in order to fill trips (the ‘production’ guides that Deeter mentioned above). ‘It’s not a criticism, but an observation,’ Linehan comments on the two options. He realises that the quick growth in the sport increases the resource draw on fisheries as well. ‘I think the pressure we’ll see will be significant; I’m not certain that’s a good thing,’ he notes. ‘I’m curious to see how we’ll address it.’ But like any industry veteran, Linehan takes the long, wise view on recent events. ‘Here’s to the feast and famine; be it recession, Covid, etc. By and large we [the fly industry] all agree: we’ll see a surge and then in four or five years we’ll see the folks who have always been there still here, still fishing.’ And while manufacturers and fly shops would love to see the estimated one-plus million new fly anglers spending money on rods, reels, waders and more, the pandemic has brought its own share of frustrations to the retail side of the industry. ‘Some fly shops look like they’ve been looted now,’ Deeter shares. ‘Supply chain issues hamper manufacturers. If you want to buy a boat now, good luck… you might take delivery in September. The number one thing that’s selling now? Combos. Starter kits with rods, reels, lines… more of those have sold this year than in many years before.’ Many fly shops and manufacturers are dealing with the fallout from their spring 2020 decisions, when Covid was hitting globally. ‘The companies that had the chutzpah to ramp up — really go for it — are in tall clover now,’ adds Deeter. ‘The ones that went into a shell are suffering. But even the smart companies are challenged because there’s a labor shortage. People don’t want to work when they can collect government benefits. It’s a really tricky time.’ For many ensconced in the industry, it’s a waiting game. We’re working to make the most of the times we’re faced with, but keen to see what the lasting impacts are. For the moment, we’re dealing with backed-up boat ramps, busy rivers, and a cadre of new anglers who aren’t necessarily playing ‘nice’. ‘I have a feeling there will be a big bump across the industry in travel and tackle sales, but think in another year or two maybe some of the people who jumped in at this point will realise it’s a passing fancy,’ Linehan reflects. And while scarcity may have made our favourite five-weights gain value in the pandemic era, that’s not the only perceived value increase. Our rivers, streams, lakes, and shores — the places where fish live and (theoretically) thrive — have also gained new perceived value as Americans have looked to recreate closer to home. Deeter’s very pragmatic on the subject. ‘We’re seeing more people and more pressure impact fisheries, period,’ he says. ‘We’re already seeing the effects. Catch and release still kills fish. So if the game is about getting as many people to catch as many fish as possible, that’s death to the goose that laid the golden egg. If, on the other hand, the game is about the HOW — the connection to water — taking in the nature, and getting the family on the water… that’s the hope.’ If there’s one thing we know about the sport of fly fishing, it’s that all things come full circle. We may see a surge in new anglers in the post-pandemic era, but only time will tell how many of those new faces stick around. As an industry, we need to look holistically at how we conservatively grow the sport while still maintaining our resources and the quality of the industry itself. ‘If manufacturers and outfitters put short-term profit above all — if it’s all about ‘production’ fishing, instant gratification for a buck without a more genuine value proposition — fly fishing in America will be a Dust Bowl within 20 years,’ Deeter notes plainly. ‘If we play it right; foster a new generation and a broader demographic genuinely connected to water… if we realise the power of the outdoor economy, we’ll crush it.’ He’s quick to underscore that without the water and the fish themselves, however, we’re all out of a job. ‘Without the resources, there is nothing,’ he adds. ‘Screw that up, and it’s game over. With every angler added to the mix, there should be a reciprocal factor of habitat and opportunity added. Manage that well, and you win. Fail that, and you fail the sport of fly fishing.’

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