Tuesday, July 27, 2021

In Our Time of Covid
By Greg Thomas

Ironically, Covid may have been just what the doctor ordered.

About a decade after “The Movie” premiered, some fly-shop owners and gear manufacturers were already shouting, “What we need is another movie.” They feared an aging population of traditional anglers, which represented their key customers and core revenue base, was phasing out, meaning, literally, dying. They desired fresh meat, another influx of newcomers to the sport, people who would buy at all levels, from beginner to advanced, and push the industry to its highest goals.

Unfortunately, by that time Norman McClane was dead—i.e., A River Runs Through It II was out of the question—and 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis were soon to arrive.

Still, there was lots of creative energy coming into fly fishing, all trying to appeal to that fresh demographic, such as youth, hipsters, spey junkies, women, tenkara posers and, more recently, Euro-nymphers. Bro brah speak and shaggy beards were in abundance.

There were other efforts, too. Fly fishing DVD’s turned into the Fly Fishing Film Tour, and subsequent iterations, which appealed to that younger demographic and offered considerably wild and, admittedly, fun pre-screening parties (minus the hangover); advertisers and their marketing agencies pulled dollars from traditional media, such as magazines, and shifted it to in-house content creation and online advertising, where they could better reach a youthful/i phone addicted audience and track their efforts; beginner fly-fishing kits morphed from pathetically slow clunkers to something a beginner could throw well, and a sage angler might cast and then say, “This ‘aint bad”; online 101 tutorials offered all the questions newbies needed to have answered, minus the trepidation they may have felt if stepping into a shop; big box gained access to key brands’ products, bringing the seemingly nonsensical $900 dollar fly rod and the improbable $700 wader in front of curious general market eyes.

It all added up, made smart sense. The industry seemed to be doing ok, and in some cases great. But if you listened to conversations and grasped the general vibe at fly-fishing trade shows (IFTD and ICast) you knew the key players wanted more. More anglers. More voices for water and habitat conservation. More support for native fish. More support for independent fly shops and guides, domestic and abroad. More rod-toting worldly travelers and their affiliated gear sales.

But still, the question: Where would that uptick come from?

Enter Covid-19.

In March and April it was doom and gloom with the industry fearing a massive fallout, if any of us even survived the pandemic. By May and June some pencil-pushers reported reasons to be optimistic. In July and August it was absolutely clear that something phenomenal occurred and the issue wasn’t whether any of us would make it through the pandemic, but how supply chains could keep up with demand, all fueled by new people coming into the sport. Accounting books had gone from blurry to black in a blink of an eye. Boom! A new movie in the form of a pandemic. Who knew?

Ben Bulis is president and CEO of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, which acts as the de facto voice for fly fishing in the United States. He, too, sees a comparison to the post-A River Runs Through It timeframe.

“If you go back to March, people were worried,” Bulis said. “What would the market look like for fishing? Governors were closing down fishing in their states. You could easily fear the worst was coming.

“But the governors soon realized that closing fishing wasn’t a good idea, that people wanted to be outside and recreating. So where we are now is totally different than where we were in March. We saw a wave of new people coming into fly fishing and people who hadn’t fished in a while got back into it. It’s been a good year for retailers and manufacturers. And I would say this is only the second time we’ve seen something like this. I don’t know if this is a bigger shift than after A River Runs Through It came out, but it’s similar. Right now we have to make sure we reach out to the new people, keep them engaged and accept their participation.”

Kirk Deeter is the editor-in-chief of Trout magazine and the owner of Angling Trade, an industry-focussed digital publication. Deeter has as solid a pulse on the industry and was quick to realize we are in the middle of a fundamental shift.

“The rivers and lakes have blown up,” Deeter said from his home in Colorado. “Fishing license sales way up. Product sales way up in certain categories—personal watercraft, flies, tippet, rods. In fact, the rod companies that inventoried raw materials before the pandemic, or shortly after it began, are crushing it now. Those who seized up or were super dependent on a China supply chain ate it. You can’t buy a rod on some of the pro sites now if you wanted to. Demand is that strong.”

Justin Karnopp is a jack-of-all-trades. Writer. Photographer. Guide. Distributor. He lives in Missoula, Montana and is a principal, with North American distribution rights, in CD Fishing USA, a rod manufacturer that has a solid history in New Zealand and is now branching out. When I recently spoke with Karnopp he said the issue is keeping up with demand, something that he had a better line on than some brands.

“From a guiding standpoint, the pandemic didn’t effect me much,” he said. “I got as many days as I wanted. People had to cancel their bigger ticket trips and were able to drive to Montana to fish. A lot of Washington people were here. And we saw an influx from California, Texas, Colorado and Utah, too.

“From a rod sales standpoint, it was good for me,” he said. “I definitely saw the urgency in having entry-level product because we saw an influx of beginners. I spent a lot of time sourcing out a reel and a line to make an affordable entry-level kit. That is a reflection of how many people are entering the sport right now. People decided to spend money on being outdoors.”

“I was lucky, too,” Karnopp said. “I had a lot of 5-weight rods shipped over from our New Zealand warehouse, right when many companies were sold out of them, and either delayed in manufacturing or simply backed up. There was serious demand for those rods.”

Jack Reis is director of marketing for fishpond, which is based in Colorado and sells a variety of high end and highly functional fly-fishing gear, ranging from straw hats, to submersible duffels, to tippet holders, to backpacks and hip packs, all as sustainably sourced as humanly possible. Reis saw the same shift as Deeter and Karnopp.

“From a business standpoint, I can confirm that we were pretty concerned when the pandemic began,” Reis said. “There was a lot of confusion over what effect it would have on participation and manufacturing. But early on we saw people taking refuge and finding distraction in the outdoors. We saw a massive bump in new participants this spring and summer.

“The problem with this growth is keeping up with demand,” Reis noted. “It’s hard to get your hands on some products now, like 4X tippet and 5-weight rods. It was, at once, a demand and manufacturing issue. There were shutdowns that effected suit’s just that so many people want these products right now.

“The 5-weight rod thing is wild,” Reis said. “There are more people wanting to fly fish this year than ever before. The demand completely exceeded the 5-weight inventory. And we have seen that for some of our products, too—packs and bags, slings, Thunderhead submersibles, Nomad nets, Tacky fly boxes . . . .

“I have high hopes for 2021,” Reis said. “We see demand still being there. We just want to be consistent with our manufacturing road. For us, materials have been critical to our mission, which is to be good to the environment as well as good to the sport. For us, it’s going to be business as usual in our use of recycled materials. And I’m excited about what we will bring to market. We may not have as many new items as we normally would, but we will offer some really great stuff, things we’ve had our eyes on for a long time.”

Simms Fishing, based in Bozeman, Montana, also has seen a spike in sales, noted by John Frazier, who heads that company’s PR, content and digital marketing strategies.

“Being outdoors is a safe thing that people can do right now, and there are more people fishing than we’ve ever seen,” he said. “That’s helped us position ourselves for a healthy post-coronavirus arena. An increase in outdoor activities, across the board, is what’s getting outdoor brands through this. I see it as a good thing—more people getting outdoors means more consumers and a louder collective voice for conservation. We need that right now.”

Unfortunately, all segments of the fly-fishing industry can’t report such rosy numbers. To point, fly-fishing travel has taken it on the chin, with many borders still closed and no promise of when certain target-rich environments might reopen. In addition, many guides and lodges struggled in 2020, in particular in Alaska and Florida.

“Definitely travel has been hit hard,” Bulis said. “And depending on where you are located, guiding and outfitting has been hit, too. The southeastern guides lost their whole tarpon season. And some lodges in Alaska didn’t even open. Obviously, with the Canadian border closed, the British Columbia steelhead season was a big miss, too. Atlantic salmon in eastern Canada—same thing.

“Fortunately,” Bulis added, “I haven’t heard of any lodges shutting down for good. Regarding travel, we’ll only know how severe the hit will be when we finally have a vaccine ready for everyone in the world, not just the U.S, and people are comfortable getting back on airplanes. If it takes a long time for travel to rebound, we’ll see a trickle down effect on the entire industry. Travel is a segment our industry relies on, whether you’re a manufacturer or a shop . . . it will impact everybody.”

Reiss, at fishpond, echoed that concern. “Domestic demand made up for a loss in our travel gear sales,” he said. “The things you have to have to be on the water, like packs and accessories sold very well. Our travel items didn’t see the growth they normally would. That is a direct result of people not getting on planes. Those sales are reliant on people’s willingness to get on planes and fly across the world and spend money. That all plays into the mix for our bottom line.”

Karnopp, at CD Fishing USA, said, “The fly-fishing travel scene makes me anxious. We’ve developed rods for specific travel and I’m concerned that the travel trend may continue indefinitely. (Covid) cases are up. They’re not going down. If people aren’t traveling for two or three years it is going to effect the entire industry. I look at bonefish guides in particular. I don’t know if they will ever recover. A lot of those guys probably move on and do other things. Damn, like everyone, I cancelled a redfish trip this fall. I have a wife and two kids, ages six and three . . . couldn’t take the chance.”

One of the biggest questions being asked by the industry is whether the International Fly Tackle Dealer Show (IFTD) will take place in 2021. The 2020 show, scheduled for October at the Denver Convention Center was cancelled. Bulis can’t say for sure whether a 2021 show will take place, but he’s planning as if it’s a go.

“We are still moving forward on an October show next year,” Bulis said. “But, we will continue to evaluate that potential as we learn about the number of (Covid) cases and any shutdowns. I would say we’ll have to let the manufactures know, one way or the other, by the first of July. If we couldn’t do the show we would probably reach out and see if people want a virtual show. But the virtual shows I’ve seen are not very good. We’ll just have to see as we move into 2021.”

It’s almost impossible to believe that a virus likely spreading from a bat to a human in an open-air market in Wuhan, China could promote fly-fishing gear sales in North America. But, that is exactly how tied in and strange our world is these days, with nothing—not even those $900 dollar rods and $700 waders—seeming completely improbable anymore.