Searching for Fly Fishing’s instructional gold mine? Look for the Orvis flag as they’ve already claimed that turf


The trade magazines are busy writing odes to guides, how they’re an underappreciated yet potential sources of much retail trade, waiting to be exploited by a canny fly shop management team …

I wind up scratching my head a lot at the prospect, wondering how once per year makes for an indivisible instructional bond between client and guide – and why fly shops and fly clubs aren’t talked about in the same breath.

Then again, fly clubs and free instruction in nowhere near as sexy as being a qualified professional, and while I might agree that guides are troubled souls whose mettle has been tested countless times, whose heroism is worthy of a credential akin to an M.D, most are addled by too many blazing summer days with too little hat – to be the poster child that clients would want their daughters to marry …

These trade-centric pieces suggest guides are key to an untapped retail juggernaut, that can only be realized when vendors and larger industry players seek amends with red carpets and acres of free schwag. The instructional nature of the guide-client relationship and the sacred bond that forms being pointed out as an underutilized path to the client’s pocketbook.

I’ve worked with guides. Mostly making their life easy by fixing lunches and assisting clients, tying flies and making sure licenses were packed in wallets, and ensuring everyone knew where to be at what time …

… eventually I joined their ranks for a half dozen seasons, learning enough to be really impressed at the grueling schedules, the countless hours baking in hot sun, how picky fish can be when least expected, and how bone weary all that hard work can make a fellow. How they sustain an unending supply of good humor – despite pissed off clients, alcoholics masquerading as anglers, and tolerated all those sharp objects buried in their extremities while they taught clients to cast, set hook, and distinguish a mayfly from a caddis.

Only they never talked like those magazine articles said. They didn’t see themselves as the key to anyone’s retail ambition, and while they were partial to brands (as we all are) were respectful enough to suggest six that would work well, three the shop carried, ensuring the owning shop got its due, and the remainder available in the client’s hometown, should the client wish to spread the cash around. Despite their profession these fellows loved fishing, and the ability to fish for a living in a job that had both good and bad days, same as ours …

… only their office window beats ours all to hell.

I don’t think they were overly eager to exploit the client’s pocketbook even if they were a partial beneficiary. It was only one more thing to get in the way of the Experience – and even charging for extra flies was something the shop insisted on and most guides ignored. The best were still uncomfortable being tipped – yet gave us junior guides tips aplenty, “… you’re young still, stay in school and get a real job“… or … “get outta the business.”

Most were retirees, and had another sources of income given the surrounding areas were largely depressed, whose seasons made anything other than waiting table a six month career.

A destination fly shop has similar retail woes of its big city counterpart, and can reliably employ a couple of full time guide-contractors, but usually relies on a stable of part timers to flesh out their guide roster. Management is often reluctant to beatify guides – not because of their unwillingness to part with a dollar, but because guides are often unprofessional, two-faced, and an asset that shop owners often drink themselves to sleep over, something they’d just as soon not have to manage.

Issues with local talent versus imported “flatlanders” like college kids, most of which could care less about guide politics and would give an extremity just to be able to fish daily.

Issues with clients being a middle aged Big City professional and more at ease with someone of like background. Requiring shops to be on the lookout for non-partisan sophisticated talent, the piney woods being home to many woodsy characters, but not all were suitable for public display.

… especially with the high roller crowd – where shops often bent over backward to accommodate urbane clients, often bringing families, and insisting on a handler with similar tastes and education.

Client shenanigans are the source of the greatest tension, given their well meaning attempts to curry favor with guides often angers shop owners. Attempting to book directly with the guide on subsequent outings puts guide and shop owner at loggerheads, as the client was originally introduced via shop booking, and owners expect to see some loyalties or recognition of their drumming up that business in the first place.

Guides frequently run their own side businesses, using shops to flesh out the season with bookings during traditional woodsy holidays. Most feel that a booking via their phone service makes the client theirs – with no allegiances (or money) owed the originating shop.

Naturally, every owner is scratching his chin wondering whether all those shows and speaking engagements done during the winter, incurring all that travel and expense in an attempt to drum up business, might have limited returns given his guides may be siphoning his paying customers at the first available opportunity.

… and while he’s got no issues with cutting a guide in on the retail generated, is that street “two way” or is he really being played as a patsy?

Which is the real reason guides and shops have a sort of “don’t ask – don’t tell” relationship, and why owners are often perplexed as to their loyalties and relationships, guides being Ronin, Samurai for hire and fiercely independent.

And as I sat there wrapping sandwiches, listening to a parade of shop owners describe their on-again-off-again relationships with the local talent – it dawned on me why management was so interested in getting me trained and guiding. The owner need not fear me,  I was only in it until I graduated, which meant I respected the client-shop relationship completely – I had no designs on leveraging it for my own ends.

Before owners and guides ascend any Golden Retail Staircase, they’ve got to define their relationship and the limitations each faces to ensure both exist for many seasons. As only when the suspicions ease, will both parties gain respect for each others needs and predicament.

… which isn’t likely anytime soon.

Orvis has pre-empted that instructional-bond with their Fly Fishing 101 classes. Each neophyte that breaks his wrist at the casting ponds will require twenty years before he’s sophisticated enough to want more than the Orvis catalog offers – and that’s pure retail gold.

It’s the casting classes and time at the ponds that equals the unbiased and unsolicited gear recommendation. Why the big named vendors have ignored the clubs and their organized public events is beyond my understanding. Local casting clubs see a multitude of visits from those interested in learning, where a guide sees a customer only rarely – and only if the water or access is scarce.

Disclaimer: This was not meant as an exhaustive treatise on the client, owner, guide, issue – only as a perspective on the relationships that I saw, and the issues I worked through while guiding for three destination shops. Guides work really hard and are deserved of accolades, but until they understand the shop ensures their mutual survival, there will be no rose petals cast before their feet. Your experiences may differ dramatically.

6 thoughts on “Searching for Fly Fishing’s instructional gold mine? Look for the Orvis flag as they’ve already claimed that turf”

  1. Whole-hearted agreement here. Though I’m the first to recommend hiring a guide for an on-the-water instructional trip — hopefully with incidental landing of fish — to students attending the one-day “fly fishing 101” class put on the one club that accepted me, it’s the casting instruction that takes place before meetings and the numerous outings to local and semi-local waters that allow those still learning to hook up with knowledgeable “old timers” and get an education the old-fashioned way.

    That said, there are some smarter manufacturers that indirectly support club-level educational efforts with offers of sometimes substantial discounts on equipment to be used in instruction, and I know from personal experience that a good number of students do end up buying that brand either at a club auction or on their own.

  2. I’d love to see rod companies offer packages for clubs as a means of incentive for their contribution to the sport …

    A dozen rods, with matching reels and lines, that can be trotted out for public casting instruction – perhaps even vises and tying gear for fly tying classes.

    Casting clubs likely do more to promote the sport and attract more casual inquiries than the entire vendor community added together.

    For most that’s where we got our start – where we found someone that took the fear and loathing out of the procurement equation.

  3. Casting down pond from the Rajeff brothers made me want alot of things but without their eyes and reflexes the finest equipment would remain a dull sword in my hands. To defray the costs I learned to build rods. My mother sewed us “custom” fishing vests; a tradition I continued. My brother learned to tie flies with rare skill. My father gave us the opportunities to prove that the casting skills we had were enough to fool trout if not the casting judge. It all started at the lip of a concrete pond at the casting club. Any effort that serves to improve that first experience will likely become part of a life long story.

  4. I totally agree. It would seem vendors would promote the sport more, realizing that service is important in getting repeat business. Maybe with the downturn in the economy, more vendors will come on board?

  5. I think pointing at guides as the salvation of the fly fishing industry is a good example of grasping at someone else’s straws.

    They’re a cross-section of humanity, and while they are in close contact with a subset of the angling public, they’re also shy, overbearing, tired, over energized and — like the rest of us — wondering what’s in it for them.

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