The way it has been (what’s wrong with the fly fishing industry – part 2)

Singlebarbed opines that fly shops are being taken over by internet retail (h/t to Tom Chandler). The hypothesis is manufacturers are too quick to get new products out the door, and when clearance time becomes eBay time, shops are taking a whacking as a result. An impending recession is driving bargain hunters away from the shop front and onto the net. Maybe that is so, but I’m not sure that is the whole story.

While I hate hearing the little guy lose the fight, I also believe that businesses in general need to adapt to changing times or go the way of the horse and carriage. Once “the movie” came out the fly fishing industry burgeoned, and there have certainly been some good times. However, the go-go days allowed many shops to adopt a traditionalist attitude towards their customers – I’ve been in a number of shops where “the help” never bothered providing me with any because I didn’t look or act the part of someone who was about to buy an $800 rod and a $500 reel. Many would rather stand around with the regulars, yaking about the fish I know they didn’t actually catch than provide assistance to a so-called stranger. A prime example follows…

A buddy and I planned a hike/camp/fish up in the Nevada Desolation Wilderness area. We’d heard of the chain of lakes, and were amp-ed about the prospect of finding a few Goldens. We drove from San Francisco and stopped in this (now forgotten named) local shop to get the scoop and gear up. When it came to fly selection, I thought the shop keeper’s opinion would do the trick. But when I asked the guy behind the counter what the fish were feeding on, he looked me up and down once and then replied…”bugs”. Needless to say we walked right out, leaving some tippet material on the counter.

The bottom line is some fly shops and equipment dealers know how to burn you, but there are others that can surely pick up the slack. Some shops will do the obvious, embrace the net, while others will simply maintain an attractive persona (in one way or another) that drives consistent foot traffic. Others will do both. I’ve had some great experiences with some shops, and for that reason they keep me coming back regardless of the latest deal on eBay…

Some of my favorites:

  • Western Rivers Flyfisher (Salt Lake City, UT) – The first time I walked into this shop, Steve Schmidt asked me if I wanted a fresh cup of coffee. That’s all she wrote. During my time in SLC, Western Rivers prepped me for Green River trips with piles of cicadas. My old (but still kicking) Simms waders came from there. One of their guides fixed me up with flies and custom maps for an Alaska trip (that sadly never ended up happening). An hour before I was leaving for Cabo I realized I was short a reel, and the shop came through last minute with a Tibor Gulfstream – my girlfriend picked it up while I was frenetically packing, and even she thought the folks there were mighty cool. And when I absolutely had to have a Scott G2, Western Rivers came through again with the best price I could find and likity split shipping.
  • Discount Fishing Tackle (Denver, CO) – Probably the most “non-nonsense” shop I’ve ever been in, and probably the main reason I never bothered picking up tying again. It’s like a small warehouse of fishing gear, catering to both the fly fisher and conventional tackle folks alike. No fancy fixtures in this place, but the fly selection is outstanding (in fact, at least half of my boxes are filled with their flies). And besides a few posters, the only advertising in the joint are the gratuitous pictures of hardcore fishing folks/customers with trophy fish, stapled prominently over the checkout counter. One of the proprietors even knows some old friends of mine, Grant and Gisel Hartman of Baja Anglers (some extraordinary people in their own right).
  • Orvis Cherry Creek (Denver, CO) – Orvis is a big outfit, and I generally stay away from big outfits. But the folks in the Cherry Creek shop get it, and I am hard pressed not to visit every time I am in the area (which is almost daily). My “license” experience wasn’t the only positive case at Cherry Creek either. Last year I was looking for a particular fly, and the open tray was empty. The rep jumped through hoops, pulling out drawer after drawer, opening box after box, looking for this particularly fly. We didn’t score, but all was not lost. He pointed me to Orvis on the net, and in less than a week I had what I wanted.

Note that these three shops share little in common besides the subject matter fly fishing. One is an independent, high end outfit that relies on personal service to make the grade. Another is a no frills, hard to find place that competes on price and lets their experience (in photo) tell the story. And the last is one step removed from a big box retailer, but doesn’t forget that fly fishing is still a sport that requires people.

In a recessionary environment, the fly fisher will hunger for bargains. Manufacturers will flood their SKU list, and drown the market in leftovers. That is always “the way it has been.” But if retailers presume that their revenue will always be “the way it has been” and don’t act in accordance with the changing tide, an empty shop and an empty cash register is the way it’s gonna be.

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