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Stuck Squarely In The Box – Current Thinking and the Fly Fishing Industry

An editorial by Joe Cornwall


“It is self evident that no fish which inhabit foul or sluggish waters can be ‘game fish’… They may flash with tinsel and tawdry attire; they may strike with the brute force of a blacksmith, or exhibit the dexterity of a prizefighter, but their low breeding and vulgar quality cannot be mistaken.” ─ Charles Haddock from The Wit & Wisdom of Fishing


Angling Trade is a fly fishing industry trade magazine.  It’s a magazine targeted at fly shop owners, guides and other industry professionals.  Published four times a year, it’s a magazine the average angler can’t buy and rarely, if ever, sees.  There’s very little in it that’s “secret” but there’s also very little that is of great interest to the casual angler.  The magazine does, however, have a lot to say about the business climate, trends and developments that are, or should be, of tremendous interest to those who have a stake in the growth of this wonderful sport.


In the March issue of Angling Trade, Monte Burke, a top-shelf writer who has to his credit the fascinating book Sow Belly, the story of the quest for a new world record largemouth bass, published the article America’s Fish.  I was immediately intrigued.  Here is a gentleman of utmost talent and sensitivity, a refined and perceptive author, and he was writing about black bass in the only print vehicle concerned exclusively with the business of fly fishing.  “It’s about time!” I thought. Then I read the article…


To say that I was surprised is an understatement.  Like the quote from Haddock above, a quote that I’ve gone on record as saying “embodies all the foolish prejudices, aristocratic hubris and general nonsense that has kept fly fishing on the back burner of sports for the better portion of the last century”, I found America’s Fish to be unfortunately shallow.  Perhaps not deliberately so, but the net effect is the same.


Burke tries for humor in the piece.  “Let’s pretend for a moment,” he says “that the largemouth bass is human.  What kind of person would the bass be….”  Burke then goes on to list thirteen bulleted points.  I’ll save you from having to plow through all of them.  Instead I’ll give you just a taste of this bitter spice.


“All bass parents would name their first-born sons Bubba.”


“The bass would live in the suburbs and drive the biggest SUV on the cul-de-sac.”


“The bass would have a 62” wide-screen HDTV.”


Is that really reflective of what the fly fishing industry thinks, not only of the largemouth bass, but of Middle America?  Is the fly fishing industry so self-absorbed and class-conscious that it actually believes there’s an inherent superiority in fishing upstream-with-a-dry-fly to trout?  


Burke’s comments aren’t so vulgar, nor so far off the mark (except the Bubba part), that they can’t be quickly forgiven.   I believe Burke intended to lampoon the existence of the angling-caste system that extends back to Skues, Halford and the British aristocracy.  I believe it was an effort to draw a humorous parallel between the ‘average Joe’ and the more enlightened ‘trout-fetishist’ members of our society that fell a bit flat when it finally appeared in print.  But that’s where my patience ends. 


The largemouth is the most popular fish in America.  By Burke’s own count, more than eleven million devoted fans fish for bass more than two weeks per year.  Disregarding Robert Ramsey’s comments (Ramsey is the former President of AFFTA, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association), where-in he claimed in a Fly Fish Ohio interview that fly fishing participation approached 15 million, the number of enthusiastic bass anglers thoroughly swamps the number of practicing fly fishers.  And the dollars these (supposedly) SUV-driving, Bubba-loving, NASCAR-following, HDTV-watching, Internet-shopping, tobacco-spitting sportsmen spend dwarfs the entirety of the world fly fishing market.  And there-in lies my problem with the article and, more so, with the industry organizations and periodicals that purport to represent the interests of the fly fishing industry.  Despite half-hearted attempts to the contrary, only lip-service is being paid to actually engaging the 22.3 million male and 7.6 million female anglers presently licensed in America, and getting them to pick up the long rod.


The American Sportfishing Association recently reported that “Recreational fishing is big business, generating more than $125 billion in economic output and more than one million American jobs. If sportfishing were a corporation, it would rank above Bank of America or IBM on the Fortune 500 list of largest American companies.”  Yet fly fishing, as a subset of that industry, is in trouble.  A great pair of articles on www.singlebarbed.com details an important part of the story.  Brick-and-mortar local fly shops are closing by the drove, only to be replaced by e-Bay power-sellers and big-box volume retailers.  Successful local fly shops are a rarity, as are domestic fly and tackle manufacturers (other than a small handful of rod manufacturers).


The 2006 US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW)  2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation reports that we currently have nearly 30 million people in the United States who fish, 25.4 million of whom practice the sport in fresh water.  In total, these freshwater anglers inject over $26.3 billion into the economy.  Black bass are, by far, the most sough-after of all freshwater game fish.  Panfish and catfish rank a very distant second and third, with 7.5 and 7.0 million participants respectively.   The fly fishing industry can take solace that its beloved trout ranks 4th, beating out both crappie and white bass.


The most unsettling fact uncovered in the survey is the trend of participation; in other words, the total size of the customer base.  It's shrinking faster than virtually any mature market.  According to the USFW, “In 2006, participation for all types of fishing was down significantly from both 1996 and 2001. The majority of the downturn occurred over the five-year period from 2001 to 2006.”  They go on to note “The total number of anglers fell 15 percent from 1996 to 2006 and 12 percent from 2001 to 2006.”  


Common sense dictates that if you want to increase revenue year-after-year (as every successful business must), and you want to do it when your consumer base is declining, then there are two paths that are viable.  You need to either make more money from each transaction (by increasing prices or adding new, desirable products) or you need to find more customers who can generate more transactions.  One look at the current economic climate quickly reveals the folly of pursuing the increased-price strategy.  After all, if the customers (us) have to pay more for gasoline, healthcare, food and other necessities, then those same customers probably can’t afford to spend twice as much on a new fly rod.  Angling Trade even acknowledges this fact, saying “The barrier most of them pointed to as the reason they or their friends had not gotten into flyfishing was, you guessed it, price.”  Our sport is already seen as too expensive. And too elitist.


As a career sales and marketing professional I can tell you that the only practical and efficient way to find new customers under such circumstances is to recruit them from closely related markets.  The term "low hanging fruit" is often used to describe such an opportunity.  In the case of fly fishing, it’s a lot easier to get a spin fisherman or bait angler to pick up a fly rod than it is to get a golfer or tennis player to try a whole new sport (a lesson the FFF might want to note).  In “business-speak”, the inertial barrier to entry is much lower.


At the 2007 Fly Fishing Retailer World Trade Show at least two manufacturers unveiled new bass “tournament legal” fly rods. This is the first real effort to reach out to the legions of the tackle-toting, tournament-loving crowd I’ve witnessed.  Scott and Sage both understand, and have acted on, the numbers and trends shared above. (Look for a review of the Scott Warmwater series of rods and the Sage Smallmouth rod coming to this site very soon - ed.)  They are looking to enlarge their market by providing something new and attractive, and more importantly by appealing to a related, receptive audience.  They are employing sound, proven business practices.  Waiting for someone to make the next A River Runs Through It movie and hoping it will revive the fly fishing industry is not a good business plan, it's a fantasy!  But that’s just what it seems most of  the fly fishing industry is doing.  And that brings us back to Angling Trade.


Kirk Deeter, Editor of Angling Trade, made note in his Editor’s Column that “in this issue we’re expanding our focus beyond the trout and saltwater world.”  Thank goodness and it’s about time! The same issue featured an op-ed piece by Jerry Darkes.  Darkes wrote: “I believe the key will be refocusing our efforts outside the traditional boundaries that have been set.  As an industry, we have coldwater and saltwater tunnel vision.  We need to peek outside the tunnel a bit and then open up completely and see what all is out there to learn and explore.  There is a lot of territory east of the Rockies, west of the Atlantic and north of the Gulf.” 


Let me be very clear in my point.  I am not railing against the Angling Trade article, or the magazine itself.  I’m railing against the fact that somehow the idea of promoting fly fishing for black bass and other ubiquitous warmwater species seems like a radical step!  I’m not disparaging Mr. Burke for writing an otherwise entertaining article.  Nor am I indicting the magazine for publishing the article.  And I am not implying they’ve discouraged fly shops, guides and manufacturers from pursuing this large, vital and incredibly important market segment.  Quite the opposite!  Clearly both Mr. Burke and the crew at Angling Trade are working to let us know that it’s time to chart a new course.  Instead of the fly fishing industry thumbing its collective nose at B.A.S.S., the industry must recognize that tournament bass fishing is popular and fun. To my knowledge B.A.S.S., the F.L.W., and the professional bass tournament anglers have done more to promote responsible catch-and-release and watershed management for angling than any other single group of sportsmen.  From all of us with a long rod and fat line I'd like to say "Thank you."  And if you think taking a bass on a buzzbait is a hoot, wait till you try it on a fast-worked marm!


Fly Fish Ohio exists to deliver the message that more is better.  More anglers enjoying the beauty and sport that can be found on our local warmwater creeks (wherever they are) means more voters willing to cast that vote that could protect those fragile, suburban resources.  More anglers also means more people who will take the time to connect with the environment in a productive way.  And more anglers who reach for the long rod means more folks who’ll appreciate and protect our rights to unfettered access, clean water, and healthy fish populations.  More fishing is better. More people caring about more fishing is powerful.


It’s well past the time when we, as an industry, should let go of the hubris and elitism so amply demonstrated in the quote that opened this essay.  It still exists and is often promulgated by those who seem to have little to actually offer the sport.  As an example, just recently one fly rod toting fellow I met on the banks of the Ohio River pointed at a strung-up spinning rod and Acme Kastmaster propped against my gear bag.  He said to me in passing “I don’t fish like that, it’s too much like snagging them.”  All I can say to that fellow is "You are the problem, not the cure."  No one can recruit active and devoted practitioners to a sport through snobbish quips.  It’s better to employ empathy.  We must look at the world through bigger eyes. 


In the words of Dave Whitlock, fly fishing is the most fun way to catch a fish.  If we are to have a growing, vibrant and exciting sport that can generate the necessary return on investment to keep the innovators inventing, the shop owners selling and the guides guiding, then actively recruiting new members to the sport of fly fishing is critical.  And to bring in new fly fishers we must actively and genuinely embrace the participation of all anglers who fish with bait or hardware for bass, catfish, trout, crappie, carp or any other species.  They are every bit as talented, innovative and caring of the environment as any fly fisher. This is the crux of the message that all the fly shops, all the manufacturers and all the outdoor communicators must deliver.  I’ll look forward to the day when we have an industry leadership that understands, and acts on, this simple fact.


Think globally, fish locally.

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