Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Post Apocalyptic Fly Fishing
By Greg Thomas

No portion of the fly-fishing industry, nor the common angler, has gone unscathed.

Like other small-to mid-market industries, ours has taken a serious hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, and it’s anyone’s guess what the fly fishing landscape might look like when we emerge from this crisis.

Some businesses received a portion of the $350 billion in loans that the U.S. government recently doled out, but others are still waiting for any share of the loot. Fly shops, the rep industry, guides, outfitters, and travel have been hit especially hard. Even John Gierach, the legendary fly-fishing author who’s newest book, Dumb Luck and The Kindness of Strangers, was about to hit shelves when the crisis emerged, had his national book tour cancelled.

In my neck of the woods, meaning the fly fishing publishing world, some magazines were hitting the newsstands right when Barnes & Noble, which serves as the largest newsstand venue for most magazines, refused to take copies and closed its doors. Of course, the airport industry and its newsstands dried up, too. I know of several magazines in the United States and abroad that have simply decided not to print issues. American Angler and its sister publications, Fly Tyer, Alaska and Gray’s Sporting Journal, temporarily cut 10 pages from each issue to stem the bleeding from nonexistent newsstand sales.

Manufacturers are in a unique position to serve themselves, their employees, and the public during this crisis. Simms has manufactured PPE gear for local hospitals in Bozeman, Montana and elsewhere. 3M was ordered to shift some of its manufacturing to the PPE arena and it has been banging out air-purifying respirators for medical facilities.

In March, Simms reached out to the Bozeman Health Group and asked what they needed. John Frazier, Simms’ community specialist, said, “Initially we had conversations about producing masks, but found that there were a lot of businesses fulfilling that need. So we asked the local hospital what they really needed, and they needed gowns. It fell into our sports competency so we decided to look around and see what kind of fabric we had on hand in bulk quantity. We found a three-layer waterproof treated material that was approved by the hospital, at least for short-term needs. The first email I got regarding gowns was on a Saturday and by the following Friday we were delivering. [After] we boxed up the last of the gowns for Bozeman Health Group we started working for other communities in need, like Shelby and Livingston.”

It was anyone’s guess whether there would be a shortage of fly fishing products available in 2020, 2021 and beyond. Some shops were “killing it” on rod sales and actively searching for any quality manufacturer with availability so that they could restock their “digital” shelves in late March and April. Some manufacturers, off the record, said they would push their 2019 and spring 2020 product launches into 2021, meaning there may not be much “new” product found later this year, and early next.

In early April the American Fly Fishing Trade Association announced that the 2020 International Fly Tackle Dealer Show, scheduled for Denver, Colorado in mid-October, was cancelled due to the virus. Shortly after that announcement, the ICAST show – the major show for conventional fishing and to a lesser extent fly fishing – scheduled for Orlando in July, was also cancelled.

Firings and layoffs at the big name manufacturers – even upper management positions, and at retail fly shops, boat manufacturing companies, basically up and down the board throughout the fly fishing world, were issued in March. As self-isolation and quarantine orders were being lifted in late April, some employees were returning to work.

It’s difficult to suggest silver linings when people are dying and the world economy, along with people’s incomes, are being destroyed. But there is room for optimism.

In Vermont, an increase in fishing license sales were reported as “unprecedented” by the Burlington Free Press. And rivers and streams in my home state, Montana, were crowded in March and April as stay-at-home orders did not restrict residents from accessing most public lands. Entire families could be on the water – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Some people I spoke with said they thought that fishing, and hunting for that matter, may see a surge of new participants during and after the pandemic, in the same way that the farm and ranch sector has seen unprecedented interest in chickens, seeds and general gardening equipment.

Fly fishing travel, of course, has been hit hardest by the pandemic. When people might again feel safe in a plane is anyone’s guess, but domestic lodges, especially in the American West and western Canada, could stand to prosper when restrictions are eased, especially if that allows lodges to conduct a summer season, meaning during July and August. One travel industry insider expects, “A last minute domestic rush because this year, and probably next year, people are going to be tentative about flying and they’ll want to stay closer to home.”

While some manufactures and retailers look at the current easing of restrictions as a good thing, some regard it as risky at best. One large fly shop owner told me, “I think the first wave of reality, of how damaging this really is, will happen when things start to open up. I’ve had some real challenging conversations with my staff and I’ve told them, ‘Just realize that the whole world is going to descend on the grocery store and you might be right in the mix. Just remember, when they say, ‘all clear’ in May, June or July, there’s still not a vaccine for this. It’s still going to be out there…and I won’t let them bring it to the shop.”

When discussing whether manufacturers would continue with R&D and product production, one representative of a major fly fishing player summed it up like this, “We’re having discussions about that very thing,” he said. “Do we really need another product or the same product in a new color right now? Nobody has the answers, but every day that passes brings us closer to when this is over.”

“When the little things are taken away you say, ‘What the hell happened to my life?’ When things loosen up and we can do X, Y, and Z safely, people are going to be so jacked up to get back to living. That’s what we’re looking at right now. That’s what we are waiting for.”

Greg ThomasOwner of Anglerstonic.com

Photography by

Greg Thomas

Gil Greenberg

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Cover Photo by

Ramy Saboungui