Guest Editorial: The Fly Fishing Industry Imperative: “Evolve, But Stay the Same”


By Craig Langer of THE FLyBOOK

According to the Outdoor Industry Association 50 percent of all Americans ages six and older participated in outdoor recreation last year. In this same group, 16 percent (or 45.4 million people) participate in saltwater, freshwater and fly fishing. There are more than 18M people who fly fish every year. Of this number, only 5 million consider themselves enthusiasts.

There are plenty of people recreating in the outdoors, in fact the number continues to grow year to year. Why is it that the fly fishing industry continues to capture a fraction of the available market?

Certainly there are access and perception issues to contend with. On the other hand, I recognize that the goal is not to turn the fly fishing industry into a mass produced monster.

There is a middle ground.  The fly fishing industry needs to thrive, not just survive. What if rather than having a three percent share of the market we had five percent?  Imagine the impact of an additional X million people buying flies, gear and taking trips.

This kind of growth can come from individual businesses in the industry taking the opportunity to improve and grow. Too many guides, outfitters and retailers operate the same way they did 20 years ago. Paper calendars. Sticky notes. No customer database. No efficiencies. No POS systems. Static websites built by the “neighbor kid.” Inability/ unwillingness to delegate. Low employee expectations. Lack of standard operating procedures. Lack of professional communication. No plan to attract new customers. The list goes on…

Don’t get me wrong. It is important to protect the charm, romance and character the sport is known for. Not just important, critical.

But that can no longer be an excuse for “why not” endure change and embrace 21st century business practices. The culture within the industry needs to develop more sophisticated and creative tools, systems, and approaches that will reach new customers, create new business and continue to drive the sport.

Two business owners in the industry have seemed to figure out the balance between the old school outdoor lifestyle, and 21st century business practices.  Jack Mitchell, owner of the Evening Hatch Fly Shop and Guide Service ( and Craig Nielsen (owner of Shasta Trout ( ), are two professionals who have managed significant growth despite a struggling economy and changing landscape.

When it comes to personality Jack and Craig are two very different individuals. Mitchell is a hard worker, and an industry veteran with “old school” style and charm (and never more than an arms length from a Spey rod, a can of chew and a cold beer). Nielsen, also a very hard worker, is a calculating critical thinker and has a very polished approach. (Although he has been known to pull margaritas out from under the captains seat on a hot summer day).   These two individuals share a very similar mantra about the importance to two things: attention to the business and attention to the customer.

Adapting business to today’s times

Both business owners stress the importance of setting aside time to “work on the business.”  Not once-a-month or once-a-week activity, but taking time everyday to develop and evolve their businesses.  “This is a hard job, period,” Mitchell said. “Guiding all day, pulling the oars, walking the bank serving your customers, it takes effort.  When the customer leaves your workday is really half over.  Now it is time to hustle back to the computer, organize gear for the next day, answer emails and phone messages, update the website, and contact your guides.  It never ends.”

Their efforts can be summarized into three main categories:

  • Business Organization: Establish Disciplined Processes for Efficiency. From the customer’s perspective, much of the charm and romance associated with the fly fishing industry is riding to the river with their guide, on a bumpy road, in a dusty truck, flies stuck to the dashboard, drift boat bouncing along behind, and the excitement of catching the fish of a lifetime.  However, behind the scenes of that dusty truck office there needs to be a well organized and executed operation. “Three years ago I was growing at a 15-20 percent clip,” Nielsen said. “However, last year I nearly doubled.  I credit a lot of that to systems I put in place that forced organization, and improved efficiencies.”  Understanding that growth does not happen without change. Both men have embraced technology to force organization with tools and processes to stay ahead:
    • Technology: Both have implemented THE FLyBOOK to help automate their booking, payment collection and customer database.
    • Delegating tasks to capable staff and teammates
    • Raising expectations of entire staff
    • Business Basics: Budgeting, Forecasting, Reporting, Determining workflows, Project Planning, etc.

  • Marketing for New Business: Maintaining order in day-to-day business is critical not only for operating smoothly but also for enabling more time spent on marketing for business growth. “When your business grows, so grows the number of items that need your immediate attention,” Mitchell said. “If you are not prepared, some of the most critical aspects, like marketing, get left behind.” Both the Evening Hatch and Shasta Trout have managed to achieve growth in a challenging economic environment, a couple examples include:
    • SEM and SEO: Your website does you no good, if nobody can find it.  This can very affordable, and ridiculously effective.
    • Networking outside the industry: Relationships both in the industry and out of the industry are vital. Both men mentioned involvement with local fishing clubs, conservation groups as great ways to help feed new business.
    • Selective donations: Donating services raises exposure and in most cases the return on that investment far exceeds the cost.
    • 3rd party collaboration: leverage relationships with other businesses to work together to serve like customers (ie: local B&B’s, Hotels, Brew Pubs, etc.)
    • Beyond the website: Tripadvisor, Google Places, facebook, Twitter, Blog, Flickr, Youtube, reciprocal links…
    • The Beginner Factor: Cater to the “newbie” as much if not more than to the seasoned angler. Do you have a plan to attract new customers and/or new anglers?

Editor’s Note: You can read the rest of this piece in the next print edition of Angling Trade, the theme of which is “Success Stories,” case histories from retailers, guides, and other industry professionals that are growing their businesses now.

About Craig Langer and THE FLyBOOK:

The FLyBOOK™ is a reservation and business management system designed specifically for guides, outfitters and fly shops.  The FLyBOOK™ was established in 2006 and is currently working with 200+ guides and outfitters scattered across the country. / [email protected] / 503.706.3933


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