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Extinction Event!

An Examination Of Fly Fishing Magazines, The Trade Association, Fly Shops, Manufacturers, The Fly Fishing Industry's Headlong Rush Into Irrelevance And How It Might Be Able To Save Itself...

An Editorial by Joe Cornwall


Like you, Iím passionate about fishing.  Iíve fished with (and continue to employ) virtually every technique and type of gear imaginable.  Iíve spent countless hours fishing bait in both freshwater and saltwater.  Iíve cast tin squids and soft plastics and wooden plugs.  Iíve trolled rigged eel skins and Iíve deep-jigged spoons.  From wire line to fly line, Iím fascinated with all aspects of this hobby, an activity that provides me with spiritual, physical, emotional and mental rewards.

Despite my flirtation with hardware, at the end of the day itís the fly rod that captures my imagination and my attention so completely that Iím moved to share my observations, discoveries, experiences and joy in the sport.  My near overwhelming fervor is what drives me to care about the industry.  I believe a growing community of committed and educated anglers can carry the legacy of this beautiful pastime forward for new generations to enjoy.  Iím confident in the knowledge that a larger population of anglers will have increased leverage to protect the quality of our delicate fisheries and ensure the continuance of a great American tradition.  Further, Iím convinced that a healthy and sustainable business opportunity at the core of the fly fishing industry is the engine that will make all that possible.

Unfortunately, all is not well in Camelot.  The fly fishing landscape at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st Century seems to be nearly as desolate as the rock and roll landscape of the early 1990ís.  In just the last four years Iíve seen countless fly shops close up.  A few hardware shops succumbed to the torturous economic climate, but the fly shops dropped likeÖ wellÖ flies.   And for the most part they didnít have to. 

The fishing community is growing again after a long period of contraction.  From 1993 to 2003 fishing license sales plunged by more than 10 percent.  By 2006 things started to turn around and by 2009 fishing license sales were up 6.5% compared to sales in 2008.  The 2010 numbers are solid.  According to American Sportfishing Association President and CEO Mike Nussman, ďWhen the index moves by just a tenth of a point, 40,000 anglers have entered or quit sportfishing. Considering the typical angler spends $176 a year on just fishing tackle alone, and contributes over $40 annually to conservation via license dollars and excise taxes, a small change in the index represents big changes on the ground."  By those numbers alone we can surmise that over $7 billion was spent on fishing tackle last year.  A US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) survey indicates a staggering $45 billion total economic impact from all sportfishing in the United States.  More Americans fish than play golf and tennis combined. Even with numbers like this, very few in the fly fishing industry are singing a song. I think I have an idea why this is so.

The reason the sport of fly fishing continues to decline in participation is the near complete lack of strategy and coordination from the self-appointed captains of the industry. It's not the economy; angling participation actually runs counter to economic conditions with more folks hitting the water during tough times.  It's not a lack of opportunity; as a country we still enjoy enough leisure time (though not as much as most of the rest of the industrialized world) and the most unfettered access to fishing locations (though maybe not the ones youíd like to fish).  It's not due to competition for our time from other activities that deliver a greater reward; few sports offer anything like the rewards of being outdoors, on the water, and concentrating on the eternal puzzle of life. Instead I believe the sport has been diminished through years of bad marketing and a lack of any effective industry leadership or vision.  I'm referring to the kind of vision usually delivered, though not created, by the press and the professional communicators. It's important to note that manufacturers and industry trade associations Ė and even shop owners Ė all share in the blame.

This theory was well illustrated when I picked up the Winter 2011 edition of Fly Rod & Reel magazine.  In it were articles on British Columbia steelhead, New Zealand trout, and a piece called "Sailfish School". The closest thing to any universally useful content was the column from Chico Fernandez about a fly called the Bonefish Special. It's a cool tie; one that may very well wreak havoc on my local carp population.  I'll let you know. Other than that, nothing else even came close to being relevant for a guy who lives, and fishes, in Ohio.  Or almost all of the rest of the U.S., for that matter.  And this is just one example.


I donít believe the other fly fishing magazines are any better at providing compelling content that can pique the interest of the 40 million licensed anglers who donít carry a fly rod, and that's a whole lot of potential fly shop customers!  Fly fishingís printed media machine is absolutely perpetuating the myth that fly fishing is elitist and expensive. Look at it this way.  The median income in the United States is just over $46,000.00.  That equates to a median weekly income of approximately $885 before taxes, or just over $600 after taxes.  If a magazine is publishing nothing but stories like fishing for steelhead in Canada, an adventure that has a cost of about $300 per day per angler, then they are alienating fully 50% of the American public from the very beginning.  I donít know about you, but I canít afford to drop two weekís pay just to hire a guide for a week Ė and this being exclusive of the cost of travel and lodging!     When I spend that kind of money itís because itís a very special occasion, and that only happens every few years if that often.  Thatís certainly not enough to keep me interested and fully engaged in the sport.  I need to fish every chance I can, and itís a safe bet it wonít be for sailfish, southern hemisphere trout or Pacific Northwest steelhead! Thatís probably true for you, too.

When we think of the traditional glossy magazines we have to understand that a large measure of their impotence is related to a broken business model. The publishers of these rags cater to their advertisers, hyping outings that can easily cost a typical middle class working guy more than a month's pay.  They do this because of the powerful demands of "the bottom line".  When youíre running a business you have to keep the revenues flowing to keep the doors open. Altruistic actions donít pay the bills. No money equals no publication; and no publication equals no job.  A voice in the industry is a peripheral consideration with minimal short-term benefit.  Who has time to care about the long term?

Fly fishing's newsstand publications run articles of limited interest to a wider audience because they are in effect ďaskedĒ to by the companies buying their advertising space and underwriting their editorial content.  This has been proven painfully true in the world of general newspapers and itís equally true in the world of fly fishing.  The manufacturers want to advertise to a particular premium demographic.  It's one that rarely exists in reality.  They want to advertise to the elusive guy with lots of discretionary income and an itch to spend. That means the content is going to be biased to a small, elite subset of anglers in order to deliver the audience for which the manufacturers are asking.  A print magazine is highly unlikely to publish content its advertisers don't agree with, don't like or can't leverage.  Itís a lose/lose proposition.  The magazines chase an ever smaller ďtarget marketĒ at the behest of their customers, thereby abnegating the opportunity to effectively participate in the recruitment of new practitioners ó practitioners who could very well generate new and larger advertising opportunities for the magazines themselves.

In short, most fly fishing magazines donít speak to the majority of potential or practicing fly fishers in the same way that ďgearĒ magazines like In-Fisherman, Bassmaster and Fishing Facts speak to their core audience; with respect, perspective and a mission to serve a diverse interest.  Professional communicators, by their very nature, deliver a sector-wide marketing message and in the case of the fly fishing industry they are not delivering a clear invitation for new participation.

Manufacturers are at least equally culpable for this lost opportunity to recruit fresh faces. The marketing managers buying the advertising from the established magazines are actually asking for an elitist bias through the effects of their investment.  By demanding a particular ďupscaleĒ demographic where they can hawk high margin $500 fly reels and $900 fly rods to a small segment of the overall pool of avid anglers, these companies are quietly ceding well over 50% of their prospective market to substitutes (see Porterís Five Forces).  Even a brief business analysis shows that they are acting in a manner contrary to the interests of sustained growth in the sport. Read that as a sustained growth in their industry!  No business, industry or market succeeds without sustainable, responsible growth. This concept is basic economics; something nearly everyone understands at least on an intuitive basis.

Certainly there are some manufacturers who get this.  Companies like Temple Fork Outfitters and Ross Worldwide are competing in an arena of applications-based marketing with affordable, innovative products that appeal to a larger Ė and in many cases, unique to fly fishing Ė audience.  But they canít move the meter alone and are in need of the support provided by an organized, focused and effective industry trade organization. More on that laterÖ

Fly shops are not without blame in this fiasco.   So many of the shops Iíve visited are under funded, understaffed and run without a solid (any?) business plan.  They rely on the keystone margins and inflated demands of a marketplace dynamic that was in play nearly two decades ago.  A River Runs Through It was both a blessing and a curse.  Its effect was to front-load a tremendous amount of business, but when the movie's effect wore off the shops werenít prepared for a paradigm shift.  The result is that many shops found themselves slowly bleeding to death.  Some shops that had management with solid sales and marketing skills not only survived, a few of them even thrived.  Unfortunately, the loss of so many independent shops is analogous to the foreclosure of multiple properties in a single neighborhood or town; the decay felt in a few pockets can infect the entire system and compromise an otherwise healthy body. For each well-run shop that thrived, a dozen failed.

An overwhelming majority of American anglers fish for black bass. Amazingly, I've been in fly shops where "those peopleĒ who choose to fish with spinning and casting gear - or worse still, bait - were considered a lesser caste of angler.  That uppity attitude isnít uncommon.  Very few fly shops actively welcome hardware anglers and fewer still offer any products theyíd want to purchase.  In a world where a great spinning rod can be had for under $200 and state-of-the-art reel for about the same, the price for entry level fly fishing gear can appear exorbitant.  If fly shops push the long-rod-curious to the $300+ ďmid-levelĒ gear, whether through falsely perceived necessity or haughty elitism, then the result is the business equivalent of slamming a door in the customerís face.  To succeed in the future fly shops must enlarge their scope of influence and become active members of the greater angling community.  A catfisher looking for a more enjoyable way to catch small sunfish for bait should be welcomed with the same verve as a trout fisher looking for ultralight gear that makes those pasty put-and-take stockers worth hooking. It doesnít hurt if you can sell him some 7/0 circle hooks, too!

During all of this, where was the fly fishing industryís trade organization?  An industry trade association is an organization founded and funded by businesses with a mandate to participate in public relations activities such as advertising, education, lobbying and publishing for the betterment of the overall market.  A good trade association must have as its main focus effective collaboration between companies and platform standardization that benefits all stakeholders in the industry or sector. Itís a symptom of trade association impuissance when standards slip to the point where a 6-weight fly line can span a range of weight 40% or more beyond industry specifications, and where the ability to leverage the combined marketing voices of industry members degenerates to a cacophony of individual pleas.  If the responsibility for creating a strategy and vision sits on the shoulders of the industry captains, then the responsibility for growing that vision and unifying it with the plans and strategies of all the other stakeholders to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts rests squarely on the shoulders of the trade association.

AFFTA is the American Fly Fishing Trade Association.  According to their website they stay ďon top of the latest issues and trends that affect the fly-fishing industry and we take action as necessary on behalf of our members. At AFFTA, we represent the industryís interests to the fishing public, legislators, and the media. We ďreel inĒ benefits on our memberís behalf to get results!Ē  Angling Trade magazine is the fly fishing industryís sole trade magazine and they had this to say about AFFTA in their December 2009 issue.  ďThe Discover Fly Fishing program should be AFFTAís number one priority, above FFR [the annual fly fishing industry trade show], and the Congressional Casting Call, and everything else.Ē

Discover Fly Fishing is an industry-wide effort to recruit new anglers to the sport of fly fishing.  Itís widely praised, but in reality has generated less than impressive in results. The article goes on to say to AFFTA; ďProve your value, and make the sport accessible.  Find a major consumer media partner, AFFTA, to attach the Discover Fly Fishing program toÖ and drive it to mutual benefit.Ē

Elsewhere in this same editorial Angling Trade says; ďIf we want to turn things around, all of us Ė media, manufacturers, retailers, the trade organization, and various nonprofits associated with this sport Ė must do more than change a show venue, wait for a Hollywood film release, grin and nod when Barack Obama goes fly fishing, inspire amateur filmmakers and bloggers to express themselves, and then collectively cross our fingers.  We must innovate. Get bold.  Invest in the sport (beyond our own brands).  Work together. And ultimately, set some realistic benchmarks, and then hold ourselves accountable.Ē That sounds like a solid core for an industry-wide business strategy. I wonder when AFFTA will take action?  Industry leadership isnít conferred by membership dues; itís earned through hard work, clear vision and focused determination. 

So here is my suggestion to the industry; How about dropping the out-of-touch elitist bias and making an effort to promote the sport through articles and events focused on outings that are proportional to the actual percentage of angling they represent? That is to say, try filling less of your available space with stories about exotic "dream fishing" excursions. Instead of the "Town and Country" nose-in-the-air drivel, give us something relevant for the 90% of fishing actually enjoyed by folks whose last names aren't Madoff.  At least try covering stuff that can be done in the Continental United States!

I make my living in a sales and marketing capacity.  Iím not paid to complain about a drought, Iím paid to make it rain.  I don't believe itís fair to criticize even an imbroglio like the current state of the fly fishing industry without also offering some suggestions to improve the situation.  Here are mine.

To the magazines I say publish content that appeals to a wide range of anglers by featuring techniques, gear and opportunities that they can enjoy locally and inexpensively.  Donít throw the occasional warm water feature into the editorial mix as though it were a chore.  A half-assed article on bass published once a year is worse than lip service, itís embarrassing. If Bassmaster magazine can regularly (and I mean nearly every issue) run articles on fishing creeks and rivers, ponds and small impoundments, then maybe Fly Rod and Reel, American Angler and Fly Fisherman magazines can do the same. Bassmaster Magazineís circulation is more than three times the combined circulation of all the fly fishing magazines I just mentioned.  If I were the publisher of one of those fly fishing print magazines I know Iíd be wondering why.  I wouldnít take too much time to wonder, though.  Even small, independent and privately funded  web sites like www.flyfishohio.com have a larger monthly readership (in most cases it's significantly larger) than all but the single largest fly fishing print magazine.

Here are a few content ideas in case you canít come up with any on your own.  Start with a few articles examining the way flies and fly fishing can mimic the actions and profiles so successfully employed in a gear fishermanís arsenal. There's a real evolution of the sport happening there.  Add some articles exploring the use of soft plastics with a fly rod.  There are so few critical reviews of entry level gear such as sub $200 rods and sub $100 reels that adding that content should be a "no brainer". In fact, learn to publish critical reviews; I'm really tired of the advertising-in-disguise that passes for content.  Interview a couple or three major BASS Pro winners and get their take on fly fishing - Kevin VanDam has more fans than you have readers. Write a bit about when a fly rod might be a more effective choice than spinning or casting gear, and why.  Make a case for what we do. Don't be afraid to get technical.

While Iím at it, why is there so little content on fly fishing for bass and warm water species, including the all-important strategies of fishing subsurface structure, when statistics show that the bass fishing population is 32% larger than the trout fishing population and trout fans fish only about 45% as much as the bass guys?  When there are four times the number of anglers who pursue black bass, panfish, crappies and white bass combined as compared to the number of anglers who pursue all forms of salmonids, why are serious fly fishing articles aimed at this enormous market segment so conspicuous by their absence? How about a few articles featuring domestic warm water destinations? It really is okay to write about places where ordinary working class people have the ability to fish.  You may not have noticed in your zeal to fly to New Zealand, but there are a lot of places to fish right here at home. When last I checked, spending money in the United States seemed to be a good idea for all of us.

To the manufacturers I advise exploring new gear configurations that the majority us fly fishers donít already have in multiples.  I can already hear you sneering that 9-foot 5-weight trout rods outsell all other freshwater configurations by a wide margin, but that statistic is Pygmalion in nature.  You sell more because you believe youíll sell more of this tired configuration, and those predictions become reality because of your expectations.  Turn this on its head. Believe that trying new things will be successful, and invest in those efforts with the expectation that youíll succeed Ė in the end you will. There are a whole lot of fly fishers out there who donít have a moderately priced, medium action 7 Ĺ foot 7-weight (a great choice for smallmouth bass, by the way), and selling a brand new configuration to a much larger market requires only that you effectively communicate an exciting and true statement of value.  Certainly that has to be easier than convincing skeptical anglers that a subtle difference in some arcane modulus number will magically improve casting distance by some arbitrarily fantastic percentage as compared to last yearís $800 wonder rod which, incidentally, made the same exact claims!

To the shops I sincerely suggest the adoption of a fully formed business plan.  AFFTA once showed me a resource designed to help shop owners create a business plan.  While it was a good start for the time, Iím not sure if the trade organization has put any more effort into actually helping improve the professionalism of the small businesses associated with the industry.  I remember thinking at the time that the AFFTA effort wasnít complete, but it was a start.  Perhaps they have more refined resources now, but even if they donít you can certainly leverage your local community college.  While youíre putting together a business plan, spend some time understanding and developing a coherent retail floor plan and adopt and use plan-o-grams for your fixtures.  Good retail product placement and display will reward your efforts with increased sales and make it easier for your customers to find what theyíre looking for.  Investing in a deep understanding of professional selling skills for shop owners, sales associates and guides is so vital it should be considered mandatory.

One additional item Iíll suggest that may help some shops to increase business is by both offering classes and assistance for anglers new to the sport of fly fishing (something most already do, if not necessarily to the best of their ability) and also by offering classes and assistance in expanding an established fly fisherís arsenal to include spin fishing and casting techniques and gear (something almost none of them do).  Youíll find you donít have to compete with big box national chains if youíll just remember you have something they donít - local knowledge and community ties.

Finally to AFFTA I have to echo Kirk Deterís challenge from his Angling Trade editorial.  Prove yourself. The bar of expectation is so low that any positive action will be a win.  Get out of the mountains and find your way to the people in this industry who are making it exciting again and ask them to help.  Stop fiddling with a trade show thatís clearly only important to your short-term bottom line.  The last few years have beenÖ wellÖ embarrassing is the only word that comes to mind.  Even you have to admit you can, and should, do better. And by the way, nothing west of the Mississippi is near the East Coast.

Until the magazines and manufacturers, the trade association and shops get on-topic ó or get replaced ó the sport of fly fishing will continue to wilt. Unfortunately, in the end it's the places where the sport is played out, the lakes and ponds and creeks and rivers in our communities, which lose in societal value.  When there are fewer citizens fly fishing then there are fewer voices that assign economic value to our local resources.  Until the industry of fly fishing wins, we all will continue to lose.


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