Editorial: What We Really Need Are More “Three-Knot” Anglers


kirk-headshotAT is going to feature regular editorials designed to provoke thought and discussion. Feel free to add your comments here, or carry these discussions over to the Angling Trade LinkedIn Forum, specifically created for retailers to discuss issues like this with each other…

By Kirk Deeter

I’ve really been wrestling with this whole question of “growing the sport” lately.

Well, not just lately… as editor of the industry trade magazine, that’s been a topic I’ve had to address (for better or worse) over the past 10-plus years. But I’m feeling a real crescendo in sentiment on that matter lately.

David Leinweber, owner of Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs, rightfully bends my ear (and AFFTA’s) often. I talk to Chuck Furimsky, founder of The Fly Fishing Show, and he is passionate (with great ideas) about the topic. I commiserate with AFFTA chairman Tucker Ladd regarding this. I also have talked about this with many guide friends and others on the manufacturing side, both on the water, and over lunches, or beers, or whatever…

So a few months ago, we floated the question in “Angling E-News,” asking very simply: “Do we want to grow angler numbers?” and here’s how the 130 responses (pretty solid sampling from niche this small) broke out: Forty percent (52 votes) said, “The business owner in me says grow the sport; the angler in me longs for more solitude.” Another 21 percent (27 votes) said, “Absolutely not. The waters are crowded enough as it is, and more is not merrier.” And then 38 percent (50 votes) answered in the affirmative, “Absolutely. We need more people fishing, and that should be our number-one priority.” One voter said they didn’t have an opinion on the matter.

I must wonder how in the heck there will ever be any truly meaningful, cohesive, industry-wide initiative to attract new blood to this sport when, A) fly fishing is such a small niche that there simply isn’t the financial firepower for an effective national promotional campaign, and B) on the grassroots level, 61 percent of the retailers in this business either don’t want it, or don’t know that they have the heart for it in the first place.

Several weeks ago, I played a little back-and-forth blog game with Louis Cahill of “Gink & Gasoline” about using strike indicators, which I loosely referred to as “Bobber Wars.”   Mind you, I said, game. Not hoax. Not joke. Game. Experiment. I darn well meant a lot of what I said, as did Louis. The point, however, was to learn some things about social media, and angling ethics, how anglers look at the conservation impact by guides who only nymph fish, and inevitably, the whole “growing the sport” thing.

I have to tell you, in hindsight, I found that whole exercise to be depressing.

Only in the American fly-fishing blogosphere can you post a self deprecating photo of yourself in a dress on fieldandstream.com (the widest-read outdoors media site in the world), accompanying a serious commentary that criticizes fly fishing for being male dominated, demand changes to the sport to make it more inclusive for women (coincidentally, win an award from the Outdoor Writers Association of America for the post)… which is what I did… and then see your friend rip the photo from the site, wrap it around an inflammatory debate, and call you an elitist… which is what ultimately happened.

No, I’m not pissed at Louis. I love Louis. I signed up for that, knowing full well what might result. And it was probably worth it to “focus group” the sentiment that’s out there (web traffic also blew up). The number-one takeaway, however, is that there are many anglers (or at least blogniks) who are repulsed by even the slightest suggestion that one might tell them how to fish, and they’re going to do it their own damned way, no matter what anyone says or does…

Which, as I anticipated, proved to be a perfect metaphor and replication of what’s happening on the water right now. The comments proved the thesis exactly, and showed why there is, in fact, a philosophical “rift” worth paying attention to.

That’s the reality. Perhaps more to the point, many of the comments that sprung out of that debate centered around the notion that the bobber is a way to “grow the sport.” Show the newbies and day-trippers some level of success, and success breeds interest. Limit the bobber, and you limit the future!

Conversely, I was stunned by the amount of anti-bobber feedback, much of it from guides and outfitters, who pointed out with detailed tracking data on return clients, and license purchases, and so forth, how they (and we, as an industry) never see the vast majority of those newbies on the river again, after they get the bobber-born photograph for the office wall. Most don’t come back. They don’t buy waders, or rods, or reels. They don’t join Trout Unlimited or the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. They just disappear.

Look… the honest truth is, I could personally give a frog’s fat ass about the methods anglers choose to fish with. And I’ve been all about “dumbing it down” and have overtly challenged anyone who wants to equate fly fishing to high art, quantum physics, or molecular biology. With Charlie Meyers, I wrote, The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing. I wrote a book on fly fishing for carp, fer crissakes.

I also publicly fight for stream access. (Who called the person whose life mission is to keep people off their water a “dick” in Angling Trade?) I did. But given mortality data on caught-and-released fish, and understanding that the heavy, weighted nymph rig is often forcing a bite to yield results, I think it’s fair to ask if the production guide whose mission is to “catch,” more than it is to “fish,” or more particularly, to “teach” fly fishing, isn’t just as suspect on the selfish scale as the person who would hang “no trespassing” signs around a river so they can go dry-fly fishing all by themselves.

Either way, I’m done with that silly bobber debate.

But I’m not done with the discussion of growing the sport, because what I think all of this shows is that we need to do a better job of defining successful growth in the first place, and take a really hard look at who we want to attract.

After a lot of thinking on this, and based on all I just explained, I do not feel like I can support efforts to grow the sport at any cost. In other words, I’m not interested in throwing the spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks anymore. Because I’m starting to feel as if we’re neglecting the hole that’s growing at the bottom of the bucket, for the sake or blindly pouring more water into the top of the bucket. I’m not willing to alienate those who actually care about fishing for the sake of some future bet that may or may not pay off.

Thing is, I don’t think that means we have to focus only on the hard-core. I think the threshold can and should still be extremely low. But there should be a threshold. It’s okay for fly fishing to be a challenge. It’s also okay for the fish to win sometimes. That’s the essence of this wonderful sport, and the community of great people who enjoy it.

So show me more “three-knot” anglers. By that, I mean, one can spend an entire lifetime enjoying fly fishing if they simply invest the time and effort it takes to learn how to tie three simple knots—a cinch knot, a double-surgeon’s knot, and a nail knot. You can substitute any number of knots for those… blood knots, loop knots, whatever. That’s not the point. But if you learn how to tie a leader to a fly line on your own… extend your tippet when you have to… and tie on a fly by yourself, then the fly-fishing world becomes your proverbial oyster.

If a person doesn’t care enough to learn three knots, and they only want the guide to tie them for them, they aren’t serious about fly fishing. And, frankly, I don’t know if we need them. I don’t know if I want them.

After all, like many of you, I’m tired of working around crowds of no-knot anglers on the best trout rivers in America. I’m enamored with the flats and saltwater now, because almost everyone who fishes those waters is at least a three-knot angler. But we have to remember that at least 70 percent of the rods sold in this market are 9-foot, 5-weights… for trout.

To wit, everyone who walks in the door of a shop willing to take an “Orvis 101” class already has shown at least cursory interest. And that’s why that program is successful and important. Give me 20,000 Orvis 101 grads over 200,000 day-floaters, and I’ll give you a sport that’s on a positive trajectory.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, definitely has it right as he promotes the “Simple Fly Fishing” mantra through tenkara gear. I’ve seen equally eloquent, beautiful approaches professed by Scott, and Far Bank, and Simms, and many, many other companies.

That’s what we need folks. Not more pasta flung at the wall.

And the guides—the great guides—are the ones who have more power than anyone to make that happen. By the same token, nobody stands in the way of that more than the guides who ignore that opportunity and responsibility.

The “media” also owns part of this responsibility, as does the trade organization, and the conservation organizations… heck, even the individual angler who cares about the sport and the resources has some level of responsibility to foster the interests of any other angler who has shown at least some modicum of investment in learning to fly fish. It is irresponsible, even neglectful, to not do that.

But in the end, the onus is always on the individual. We’ll show you the world, we’ll cheer for you and help you every step of the way. But ultimately, you’re either an angler or you’re not. If not, no harm, no foul. Good luck, and we hope you come back. But we’re not going to sell our souls, and something we care about so deeply to a culture of dabblers. And we shouldn’t let those who cater only to dabblers for personal profit dictate the future of fly fishing.

It’s okay to shoot for the stars, and cast a wide net, and so on. I understand that. But what I am saying is that we, as anglers, and we, as an industry, need to take a very hard look at exactly how we go about “growing the sport,” and that should begin with solidifying the base, then picking the lowest-hanging fruit, and doing our ready best to nurture all of that.

Do that, and the money, the growth, the base, the conservation effect, and everything else will happen naturally. Neglect that, and this sport will be crippled for decades.



  1. Very well said. I would much rather sell a rod to someone who may not be the best angler but has the passion to want to use it every weekend as opposed to the once-a-year type. The way I see it, taking the time to cater to those who have a true passion for the sport will ultimately result in more business (initial and repeat) than trying to get everybody and their dog into fly fishing with what is likely a one-time purchase.

  2. Damn, you’re a mighty fine writer Mr. Deeter! The message here is compelling and I hope your G&O readers take it the right way. As a Past President of Colorado TU, I grappled with an interesting and related parallel in TU membership. National TU consistently pushed for growth in the top-line member number (and I too get that it’s a goal), but there was greater bang for our very limited buck in solidifying our core members. These are the 10% that are aware of our mission and engaged as donors and/or volunteers. Take care of them and they are the advocates that ensure the future of the organization. For the record, I only know how to tie two knots – have to get out a book on the rare occasions when I need a nail knot!

  3. cbrian moran on

    agreed here as well ,I’ve had days in the past 20 years or so with newbies who had the day of there life’s!!! I on the other hand never had a day like theirs’ on my own,, never to see ,hear of them again….as far as knots go I don’t bother,,, I use Velcro…. I love the 10 pecenters ,, they are the core group who get issues done … good piece of writing,,, thanks

  4. Chris Rohr on

    Great article Kirk! The issues you raise cast well beyond the far bank of the trout stream. I see this everywhere regardless if it is a summer holiday only fishing outing, the trophy catfish hunter, the weekend “bass pro” or the freezer filling, if-I-catch-it I fillet it crowd. They all have a different level of expectation for what the experience should be for them. I have always believed in offering help or sharing a tip when appropriate to help someone who shares the same passion. In my experience, the most willing to learn are the ones are kids and I believe that is where we can make the biggest difference I growing the sport. More than once I have encountered some youngsters who struggled to catch fish using worms and the old red and white bobber. With a few tips on using the right size hook, weight, adjusting depth, what fish need (security, food, etc), how weather affects fish, etc. the conversation grows from Me telling them what to do to teaching them to learn what to do. I have seen some of these kids years later and they are now using spinning gear and throwing soft plastics, jigs, top water baits etc and catching fish. They or their parents have came up to me to say thank you many times for teaching and not telling. If they learn early on that treating the land, the water, and the fish with respect that it pays dividends down the road. Much like in your carp book, I always tell them to sit and watch for 10-15 minutes and observe what is happening around them. Once they get it, they can make the connections between what their observations and what it takes to be successful in that situation. If they learn early and understand it becomes a positive mental endorphin that they can build upon for the future. Thus, in my mind the question is not whether we work to build the sport but rather who do we engage to help build the sport. Youth may not have the big money to buy like many shops would want. But, their parents, grandparents or a fellow family member or friend may have it and many kids, as evident by ever changing fashions, latest electronics, game systems etc. The young fisher can have a lot of influence on the spending habits of those who can afford.

  5. Enjoyed reading your thoughts and others about growing the sport, bobbers, and levels of fly fishing participation. There is so much to think about and share it is difficult to narrow my thoughts down to a handful of sentences, but here goes.
    As with most topics about our sport it almost seems like politics. I was picturing the Donald slamming his bobber on the Bighorn with a three ring nymph set, and Bernie Sanders crouched along the shore line looking for rising noses. Every fly fisherman has the power to vote how he wants to fish. That’s “river democracy”. However, I am surprised at the number of Trump like clients that guides report not being repeat customers. All they want if an aggressive day trying to catch the most fish. It’s too bad that they didn’t realize they aren’t back at their office, but on a beautiful and relaxing flat fishing vacation.
    I remember back over forty years ago when I fished the Bighorn and hired a guide this first trip. He was what some guides still do, and should do. He asked me how I would like to fish that day. Don’t just rig the bobber leader and expect a beginner to challenge you right off the start. Maybe they want variety, a learning experience of techniques a guide is expected to offer. And if the client would rather concentrate on his cigar while checking his stocks and let you do all the work, including telling him when to “strike”, so have a nice day! I’ll likely have to sit at the dining room listening to how many fish he caught that day, trying to keep from gagging. So maybe it’s O.K. that this one trip wonder doesn’t return to the sport. Nicer for my evening meal, anyway, and likely less hooting and hollering on the river.
    But how about the ones we want to learn to love the sport and not treat it like cage wrestling. We can all teach in a way that develops a respect for the challenge fly fishing offers. Start with some introductory lessons, maybe even bluegills on a farm pond. Not everyone has to have their first fly fishing experience on a challenging river hoping to land dozens of fish. It makes sense to me to mentor someone in small steps, then grow into all the various other avenues the spot has to offer. As Kirk mentioned he does a lot of salt water fishing. If a crowed river ruins your experience try a bigger body of water. At our show in Denver Jeff Currier had a big crowd at his carp talk. I personally fish half my time in the salt. But that too can be a dog fight with boats racing to fish. But most of them are not fly fishing if that means we’re nicer folks.
    I do think the nicest people are fly fishers, so why not grow the sport with more nice people. And everyone can help select and help newcomers, especially guides. Hey, that’s why you are called a “guide

  6. Marketing the sport with a warrior pathos has done more harm than good. Posing for the camera with fly rod in mouth epitomizes all that’s wrong with the way the sport has been sold in recent years. Trying to grow fly fishing with this fundamentally contradictory image, I believe, has backfired – and on many levels. No getting that toothpaste back in the tube for this generation.

  7. Nice article. I grew up fishing and enjoyed every minute being in nature, learning to adapt to the conditions, and relishing in the successes of challenging conditions. However, as I grew up (20’s & 30’s) the pressures of my career taught me that more is better and not to have excuses for not achieveing high volume production. These pressures killed “the boy” in me who loved the simpler things. I applied these same pressures to my fishing and it became less enjoyable and more frustrating and disappointing. Until recently, while fishing with my son, have I realized that fishing is not a contest nor does my family’s livelihood depend on it. When we bring new “members” to fly fishing we should make sure to point out that it’s about more than just catching fish. This last year my son and I chose 4 flies to fish with for the entire year. Did we catch as many fish as the previous season, no. But I think we created a lot more memorable stores!

  8. I wonder if the sight casting in the areas where I like to fish are beginning to catch on with other types of fishing. It seems that popular species attract anglers from great distances. All the traveling anglers find out about the opportunity
    thru social media of some description. Since I started the increased numbers of anglers has been amazing. I wish the average skill levels were higher by now. The fact that outfitters and guides supply equipment these days is possibly one reason for the increased popularity due to the ease of getting to their destination.

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