I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting my share of people who make their profession in the fly fishing industry. I have been personal friends with owners and managers of fly shops. I have fishing buddies who work for big name gear manufacturers. I have helped teach fly fishing schools and guided a handful of times when my local shop was in a pinch. And, generally speaking, I have enjoyed the company of these people and have learned far more than I would have on my own. As a consumer of the fly fishing product, however, there are three essential types of people who have directly or indirectly impacted my experience.
The first, and maybe the hardest working, are the guides. I have being guided by some truly amazing, intelligent gentlemen over the course of my fly fishing life. They have been interesting boat mates, knowledgeable about their waters, and eager to make the client feel good about their fishing experience. They have been professional in their duties and have earned every cent they make in a very physically demanding job. A few stand out as examples. Captain Mike, a seasonal guide who winters in the salt of Florida, introduced me and a friend to the Madison River and chatted as much about literature as he did about fishing. Then there was Dave, a New York transplant who put us onto more fish on the Bighorn than I had ever caught in one day at that point in my life. He was demanding, sarcastic, and smoked almost non-stop, but he earned his keep and taught me how to nymph on big water. And there was also Brent, a friend of Dave’s, who was maybe the most enthusiastic person I have ever fished with. He genuinely got a charge out of every fish we caught, shrieking with exhilaration and patting us on the back with each netful. And they all brought great lunches with them. They are the models in the industry by my standard. They represent fly fishing and their fly shops with the utmost dignity. And if they don’t, they don’t get paid, and they don’t last long.
Then, there are those who work in the fly fishing industry on the side of manufacturing and creation.They are the ones who design, test, and develop all those cool, new products you salivate over every year at the Fly Fishing Expo. They might be a rod builder who is looking for the perfect taper or the next great material that is lighter and stronger. They might be a fly tier, an artist who uses fur and feathers to express realism as well as impressionism for their clients, the fish. Or they could work as a representative who visits fly shops and expos in order to inform the public about how they can catch more fish, have fewer frustrations on the water, or stay drier, cooler, and more comfortable. Most, however, work behind
the scenes on production lines or in customer service dealing with disgruntled guides and owners. They help to breathe life into the design while honoring what are often some of the most forgiving customer warranties you will find in the outdoor recreation industry. While a lot of what these people produce is not essential to the sole purpose of catching fish, they provide a service that is much desired and does make the experience much more rewarding. In this competitive marketplace, if you don’t produce, and don’t continue to create great products that function well and are durable, you will quickly be replaced.
And there are those who work in the fly shops themselves, the guys who take your phone calls and answer monotonous questions about fishing conditions. They help you try on waders and sell you tippet and listen with enthusiasm to your stories about the 24-inch brown you caught last year on the Yellowstone (it was actually 16 inches) or the last time you booked a trip to Alaska and landed over 100 pounds of salmon in a morning. They assist you in rod selection and they count out flies and they do it all day long for very little pay. They are the worker bees, the upstarts, those trying to get a foot in the door or those looking to ease their way out. They are the face that goes with the name on the front of the building, and they are vital to the small businessman who has to pay the bills for they come into direct contact with the customer at the point of purchase.
But this is also where the rubber meets the road, as they say. It is where the average consumer has the most personal relationship with the industry itself. The fly shop can be a wealth of information and a place to buy the best and newest gear. But it can also be a comfortable environment that invites customers in and hopes they will stay. It can encourage loitering. It can be a clubhouse of sorts, a place where people share their passions as much as they part with their dollars. It can be a community that welcomes newcomers and does not require a secret handshake or a tutorial on the inside joke of the week for people to feel comfortable.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Occasionally the modern fly shop becomes unnecessarily arrogant. It can take a fairly complex and difficult sport and make it seem impossible to ever master. It can be egotistical and selfish, a place where shop employees battle for supremacy by trying to outdo one another, where they argue with the customer about where to fish, how to fish, and what tackle and techniques will catch the most or biggest fish. Why would you want to go fish there? Why aren’t you nymphing with a ten-foot rod? What you should do is fish soft hackles to get the big boys. It’s as if their chief intent is to make you feel one step behind, like you shouldn’t be happy with the way you currently fish, like that isn’t enough.
One day it is all about fishing articulated streamers made completely of flash. The next day we are casting two-handed rods and swinging flies. Later on it is all about the purity of Tenkara. Then Tenkara sucks. Then urban fishing is all the rage, or furled leaders, or Flyagra instead of Gink. And it is all well and good when the customer comes in and asks for information on these topics, if he is looking to the shop employee as a source of knowledge. But, there are times these opinions are offered without warrant because the person who works behind the counter wants to feel important and knowledgeable. Or he is bored and stuck in a fly shop surrounded by all the gear in the world with no time to actually fish and is living vicariously through the customer. It might even be he feels his job is just a temporary distraction on the way to some greater destination like full-time guiding or production fly tying, or being the next Landon Mayers (though these levels in the industry require patience, humility, and an ability to read the situation correctly, to know your role in the moment). He is trying to establish his opinions as valid so he might be able to take that next great step.
Regardless, when these attitudes prevail, the shop can be intimidating and unfriendly, especially to newcomers who are just trying to buy the basic equipment to go out and splash around in the water a bit. While most people who enter into a new sport are willing to take advice and are eager to learn more, others feel overwhelmed and ignorant when confronted with so much information. This is where a set of kid gloves is vitally important. If this novice is confronted by a beard in a flannel shirt who is inundating him with information just for the sake of showing off what he knows, or if two or three employees form a flannel shirt circle and begin spouting off different pieces of advice from behind their beards just to show each other up, they have probably done as much damage as they have good.
This can happen with seasoned veterans as well. There is an assumption, in some shops, that no matter how many years you have been fishing, you don’t know anything, or at least you don’t know enough. So often I go into a shop looking for something simple – a standard nymph hook on which to tie a size 18 pheasant tail might be an example – only to be asked by the shop employee (we will call him Bearded-Flannel-Guy #1), “Why don’t you tie it on a scud hook instead? Or a short-shanked, 2X strong down-eyed hook? Those standard hooks bend out too easily.” The assumption that I needed, or wanted for that matter, this level of assistance shows a lack of respect for the customer. In this case, if I had asked, “What kind of hook do you recommend for this type of fly my fine, flannelled friend?” the advice would be well-received. But to simply make contrary suggestions at the utter disregard for the customer’s skill set, needs, or desires is bad business. Rule number 1 should be: Provide the service the customer is requiring of you.
But it can go further than this. A friend of mine recently went to his local shop to buy a few flies for our trip the next day. As he stood at the cash register ready to purchase the flies, two Bearded-Flannel-Guys (#2 and #3) decided to argue where they should go fish the next day. Each one took a turn suggesting a more outrageous or elaborate trip in a pathetic game of one-upmanship:
BFG #2: We could hike into the lower Blue and fish the Browns post spawn.
BFG #3: Yeah, but we should really drive to the Frying Pan, leave at 3 a.m., sleep in the car and get first crack below the dam.
BFG #2: No, let’s just drive to Casper. I think there are some huge fish below the dam right now.
BFG #3: Who do we know who owns a drift boat?
BFG #2: If so, we could drive to the Bighorn tonight and get there at 8 a.m. Drive home tomorrow night. Be back by 1 a.m. Do you have to open Wednesday?
This went on for two or three minutes, each beard trying to outdo the other beard with his extreme trip idea. All the while, my friend is waiting to just buy his flies and be on his way. The lack of concern for the customer was overwhelming. And to watch the two shop employees sparring in some egocentric circle jerk to see how extreme they could be was a bit sad, not to mention unprofessional. I hope they had a good trip and caught a few fish, but take care of the plans with a little more discretion and a little less bravado. I hope the fly shop owners thinks they should, after all, it is his investment.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe this isn’t arrogance or ego. Maybe it isn’t boredom or disrespect. It could just be misplaced enthusiasm and an overzealous desire to share newfound information. It could be an earnest zeal for fly fishing that bubbles to the surface without restraint. If that is the case, then maybe a little temperance is all that is needed. Nobody wants to feel ignored when they walk into a place of business. But we all deserve to be respected and to feel our wants and needs are being considered in the exchange of goods and services. The fly fishing industry is filled, for the most part, with passionate, knowledgeable, highly-skilled professionals who have a love for sharing their sport. That cannot be underscored enough. However, this same industry must reel in the attitude on its own. It must understand that being an expert in a skilled endeavor means having a respect for those who come to you for help, whether that is a newcomer looking for any and all advice that can be given or an intermediate angler wanting to share his experience, and be heard, as much as to he wants to hear from others. It means listening as much as talking. It means learning as much as it does teaching. And it means knowing when and how to give an opinion and when to just ring up the order.
The best example I have is the Slide Inn on the Madison River. It is run by Kelly Galloup, one of the more famous figures in fly fishing in the United States. He has been featured in the Fly Fishing Film Tour, has written books on dry fly fishing, given lectures on streamers, has designed rods with St. Croix, and is one hell of a fisherman. I once dropped in before fishing the Madison just to purchase a license, nothing more. And instead of being greeted by Bearded-Flannel-Guy #4, it was Galloup himself who welcomed me into the shop. And while he was filling out my paperwork and ringing me up, all he did was ask me about my trip and where I was fishing and how we had done so far. He never once told me what to do or where to go. He did not make it about him, but wanted to let me have a turn at being the center of attention. And when I did eventually ask for advice, he gave me good, simple, straightforward information… and he was right.
I suppose I am mostly talking to the young people who are just entering the trade. And I understand there is a tendency, especially when you are taking your first steps, to stumble because you try to run too fast. And I get that there is a need to try to establish yourself as an expert quickly in a competitive industry. After all, who wants to buy flies or be guided by somebody who knows less than the customer. But the best guides and the best fly shops I have been around all make me feel like I am a part of their world and am respected for whatever knowledge or skills I have. They seem to want to bring you into the fold rather than cull you from the herd. It’s about inclusion, not division..
Most fly shops, and the hundreds of employees they hire, get it. They are professional places of business and treat the sport and customers with respect. They are the models to which all fly shops should aspire. But sadly, there are too many shops that allow, even promote, this type of behavior. Fly fishing has a reputation for being a sport that is challenging and mystical. It takes years to become proficient, let alone perfect. It makes the angler feel like a chump more often than it makes him feel like a hero, and we don’t need the spokespeople of the industry adding to the frustration.