Is Fly Fishing Dying?

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Fly fishing may be dying.

It pains me to say it. But I’m a facts kinda guy and there are some data we can’t ignore.

Let me explain. Google runs things now. And Google Trends provides us basically all the trend data we need to understand all the things.

Here’s what the Google shows about “fly fishing” trends:

The worldwide trend in “fly fishing” interest based on web searches from 2004 to today is not awesome.
 
We are beating “bass fishing”, barely.
 

But badminton has us beat.


 
My first assumption was that we were losing people to hipsterdom.
 

But no, doesn’t look like it.

So maybe it’s pickleball we should be concerned with.


 
Hair feathers took a run at us.
 

Whatever the cause, if I were an Orvis employee I’d be working on my Linkedin profile.


 
Crap. Why am I still writing a blog?
 

And why am I still a fly fishing guide?

I don’t mean to be an alarmist but these unfortunate trends should be on our collective radar. Added to the current situation in American politics and myriad other apocalyptic signs (Kanye, Pokemon Go, Taco Bell) and I feel like I need to warn all my angler friends and neighbors. Get your bunker outfitted with GoalZero gear and freeze-dried meals before a comet (or global warming) wipes us mercifully from existence.

Or maybe just stock up on flies, fly boxes, leaders, and tippets. Looks like there’s going to be a surplus, and more room on the rivers.

 
 

12 Comments

  1. more room on the rivers!!!! got it!!! Jack Crowley, Seattle

  2. At least this week trout are still rising to dry flies and smallmouth are still chasing down streamers. Fly fishing is relatively expensive, has an extended learning curve, if you really want to be proficient it’s time consuming. Even most people that consider themselves fly fishers don’t reall hit the water that often and are more of a consumer of stuff than a participant in the sport. It’s probably not a growth industry, but that’s only important if you are trying to scratch out a living in the sport. For the rest of us it’s as good if not better than it’s ever been.

  3. It’s okay for a thing to go from popular to passé. We no longer set type, film is now a cottage industry and who reads newspapers these days? Even your x-Rays are now digital.
    Pokemon go is a fad and politics reflect the times and culture.
    Even the best fly shop would only occupy a small corner in Cabelas or Bass Pro.
    Fly fishing will never really cease to exist, it will ebb and flow along with changes in society and culture so our fears of eminent demise are somewhat premature. After all you can still get a badge from the scouts for fly fishing! As long as we have that, I think we’re okay. Human beings have survived by adapting to changes. Consider this a stage of evolution.

  4. People do keep saying that the numbers are going down, but there are a few things that make that assertion confusing. First, I definitely see more people on the water (or at the very least, I run into other fisherman more often). Although it is anecdotal, a lot of people also think this. I have lived in a southern state for 7 years now, and when I first started fishing a popular river, I either had it to myself, or only ran into a a few people during the day. Now, if it is summertime, I pretty much have to stop fishing around 11AM because there is a fisherman spaced out every 50-100 yards. A lot of these fisherman I run into are younger too. The other thing is that there seem to be an explosion of small businesses selling fly rods, reels, lines, flies, fly tying materials, etc. And I haven’t heard of any major fly fishing brand going out of business recently. Maybe fewer people are into fly fishing, but those that do fly fish are way into it?

    Most of me will be glad when fly fishing goes back to being an obscure pastime, because it means more room on the river, and less fish who have been put down by shitty casts and even shittier wading.

    But a tiny part of me is not glad, because people fishing in our public waters become an advocate for the resource. Fewer users means fewer advocates. When there are lots of politicians around who seem to think resource extraction and privatization of public lands and public access will solve all of our problems, who will be left to speak up?

    • Thanks for reading. I think you’re probably on to something. It seems that fly fishing as a sport/pastime/hobby is likely shrinking breadth to a degree, while simultaneously increasing in depth and geography.

  5. Considering the fact that the aging demographics of fly fishing is dying, I am not surprised. I wonder how much this demographic has changed since I was that awkward teenager chasing cichlids with cork poppers in Texas. While those early years honed my casting skills, and perhaps preserved my virginity throughout high school, they also served to affirm my suspicion that in 1973, there were not a lot of kids flailing fly rods, especially kids who looked like me. It would be almost two decades before I met another brown brutha who fished a long stick.
    Sanchez and I were relatively new teachers working at a tough inner city school in Albuquerque. The kids were pretty much kicking our asses back then, but we found solace in after work happy hours. It’s difficult to remember how and when the subject of fly fishing started, but by the mid-eighties we were spending a hell of a lot of time nymphing football-sized rainbows on the Rio San Juan. Those long drives and days on the river forged a lasting friendship that continues to this day. On rare occasions, we would encountered a fellow mestizo, but typically we were the darkest shade on the river. Ironically, At the time, the only fly shop on the San Juan was owned by Abe Chavez, who,s son would grow up to become a prominent guide.

    Obviously, the lack of diversity within fly fishing is in part, due to cultural and socio-economic differences. While many people of color fish with conventional tackle, most of these working class folk consider fly fishing to be somewhat a pretentious sport, if not a particularly inefficient means of catching fish. Then there’s the prohibitive cost.

    In the mid-nineties, Sanchez and I discovered bonefishing. I had been watching a lot of Flip Pallot and Jose Wejebe in those days. Wejebe, a Cuban born Florida guide had a show called Spanish Fly. The show, like the man himself, was unlike anything I had ever seen. I was truly inspired by Wejebe’s passion, not just for fishing, but for adventure, and his respect for the natural world. He was also the only brutha out there with his own fishing show!

    Armed with a pair of Saint Croix eight weights and the first affordable reels (Scientific Anglers) on the market, Sanchez and I made our way to a small rustic lodge deep within the Yucatan’s Sian Ka’an bio reserve. It was during that fateful, if not disastrously hilarious excursion that we first encountered other minorities who were into saltwater fly fishing, albeit, in Mexico, Mexicans are not considered a minority. These Mexican fly fishermen? Well, they were all guides, many of whom could out-cast, or out-fish their rich white clients. I had two epiphanies on that trip. The first, was the realization that there were people of color within the sport, and the second, that I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to saltwater fly fishing.
    Over the next twenty years Sanchez and I made annual pilgrimages to Mexico, Belize, Venezuela, Chile, Nicaragua, and Cuba. At all these destinations we found the same thing; water of every conceivable hue of blue, and folks of every conceivable shade of brown, albeit they were in the kitchens, gardens, or behind push poles and engine throttles. I recognized family in these people, men who looked like my cousins and uncles, but mostly I recognized poor working class. If you have experienced poverty, you forever know the look of hard living. I recall during those early years, the common question from guides, after their initial shock of seeing two Mexicans step on the dock, was, what kind of doctors we were? This assumption that we were wealthy forced me to reconsider whether the lack of minorities in fly fishing was about ethnicity or class?

    There is no denying that wealth, and the elitism that manifests out of privilege has shaped the historic and contemporary face of fly fishing. Let’s get real, fly fishing has its roots in the leisurely pursuits of the landed gentry. Consumer demographics of many of the fly rags illustrates that while it is no long the sport of royals and land owners, it has remained predominantly a rich man’s game, or at the very least, an upper middle class pastime. Consider the typical fly rag reader.
    * 53 Average Age
    * 18.4 Years Fly-Fishing Experience
    * $166,200 Average Household Income
    * 89% College Educated
    What’s missing from this survey was the ethnicity breakdown, but a 2013 report on fishing and boating in America did just that.
    78.3% Caucasian
    8.2 % Black
    5.6 % Hispanic
    4.0% Asian
    4.0% Other
    Keep in mind that this report is inclusive of all fishing methods. I think it would be reasonable to assume that if it were just fly fishing, minorities would represent a much smaller percentage, perhaps less than one. That’s not to say that the social demographics have not changed. They have, and not only is it inevitable, it is also good for the sport, and more importantly the environment.
    Today, freshwater fly fishing has never been as popular across classes. This became especially apparent when Maclean’s novel, A River Runs Through It, reached mainstream audiences. Suddenly, what was once the exclusive pastime of rural pastors and rich urbanites, was open to working class citizenry. It also created a boom within the industry, and for the first time, competition, which resulted in quality rods and reels that didn’t require a second mortgage to purchase. Soon, a neophyte hatch of biblical proportion exploded on every river in North America. Indeed, there were grumblings. I was one of them, but like most fads, the initial fervor dissipated, and our rivers eventually returned to normal with the addition a few extra fishermen. For the most part, this boom did not change the demographics much, and fly fishing, like public radio, frisbee sports and art degrees, remained the domain of white folk.

    But what most Americans don’t realize, is that the demographics have improved internationally. In recent years, I’ve had the good fortune to have fished with a diversity of people from all walks of life. Fishermen from Spain, South Africa, Britain, New Zealand, Oman, the Philippines, Denmark, Poland, France, Singapore, Italy, Australia, too many to list. I’ve also discovered that within the fly fishing community exists a rich subculture of DIY travelers. From the hardcore swoffas of South Africa, to the back country, rock and roll, barbel fishermen of Spain, there exists a new breed of fly fishermen and women who are bucking convention, targeting new species, experimenting, inventing, adapting, innovating, and criss-crossing the planet in pursuit of new water. The question remains, will the industry evolve with the changing demographics?

    • Ray, this comment was much much better than the blog post. Thanks for the contribution to the discussion, and the sport!

  6. Well, charts and statistics don’t lie, fly fishing is the leading cause of vaginal dryness.

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