by Kirk Deeter, Editor of Angling Trade
On March 3, 2020, Angling Trade sent an electronic survey to readers asking if their businesses had been impacted at all by the coronavirus. Nearly half of respondents answered, “not yet, but I am concerned.” Twenty-five percent said they were already financially affected. Fifteen percent said they didn’t know, and 12 percent said, “not at all.”
My goodness, how the entire world has changed in several weeks. I think it fair to assume that everyone in the fly-fishing community would acknowledge a massive paradigm shift from the days when we were getting ready to fill out March Madness brackets, spinning up Blue-Winged Olive flies to prep for the big spring road trip, and/or heading to the theater to watch the Fly Fishing Film Tour. The COVID-19 pandemic is a human tragedy of unprecedented proportion. Our hearts go out to any and all who have been seriously impacted by the virus, foremost those who have lost loved ones and friends, and those who are hopefully on the path of recovery—also those who have lost their jobs and incomes.
Less than a month ago, I had a wife teaching 5th grade in an actual classroom, a son on a college campus, and I was cranking out stories and editing magazines focused on the lighthearted aspects of angling with a fly rod. Now, she’s in the kitchen teaching via Zoom, he’s in the basement listening to an “E-lecture,” and I’m here in my office wondering what in the heck the future holds for fly fishing… as a community… as a pastime… and yes, as an “industry.” I actually see great cause for hope…
The thing is, the more I talk to people, the more I research, and the more I just plain sit (or walk, or cast) and think about it, the more I believe that there will be lasting changes—some bad, and some, however, perhaps very good. I don’t think there will be a switch flipped, or a horn sounded, and we get the “all clear” and go back to exactly where things were on March 3 or before. But we were on a very solid trajectory for this industry earlier in the year, and even as the coronavirus crisis started to loom, some shops were making money hand over fist—just a bit differently than they do in “normal” years.
“I firmly believed that 2020 was going to be an all-time record year for fly-fishing product sales… until most businesses were deemed ‘non-essential’ and everything shut down,” said Scott Harkins, owner of Five Oceans Inc., an independent sales representative company that represents a number of leading fly-fishing brands. “Even with the virus approaching, we saw some shops selling $5,000-$6,000 a day or more on small stuff like tippet and flies because people were so eager to get out to fish, and they still are where they can.”
What troubles me is that I don’t think there will truly be another side of the pandemic until there is a proven vaccine. And the experts say that’s a year off, still, at best. I think if we follow the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci (whom I actually met once in a previous professional life and remember being deeply impressed then) via social distancing, and staying at home, “flattening the curve” and what-not, there will be ways through which we collectively achieve some level of “normalcy” or at least “functionality” within the next few months—at least in certain parts of the United States. That said, people will continue to get sick and die, which is the most awful reality. Our health care system will remain stressed, which will have reciprocal effects. And many small businesses—fly fishing is rooted in small business—will not survive.
But… and I do not want to sound like a Polyanna as I certainly think the human factor in terms of lives and livelihoods is a billion times more important than fishing… I do see some silver linings relative to those of us in the fly-fishing community.
When restrictions are eased, I think getting outdoors, and fishing on lakes and rivers will boom like never before. There will literally be no better time or opportunity to experience fly fishing. It’s going to be like school kids with pent-up energy flooding out onto the playground for recess.
Heck, there are many places where anglers are able to fish and find some escape, solace, and sanity right now. Which is great. Just play by the rules wherever you are and err on the side of caution. Walk to fish if you can. The local creek or pond is good enough. No boats, except with family. If you must drive, a drive to fish should be minutes not hours. Realize it’s about so much more than you and your right to fish. I’ve already talked about this in detail, having spoken with experts far more credible than I am on the do’s and don’ts of fishing now. Here are some resources to help you set your barometer on that front:
We just don’t want to overplay the push to fish right now. Poise is the operative word. The more we play within the rules now, the sooner we will see opportunities for social distancing on lakes and rivers open up, and maybe even visiting fly shops and going on guide trips, hopefully in a matter of weeks. And in some places, that’s literally going to be one of the only games in (or near) town. Maybe we even end up with greater appreciation for the fishing and casting that can be had right out our back doors, which is something the industry as a whole has been trying to kick-start for decades.
If we do the right things now—and by all the feedback I have received, 99% of fly shops, manufacturers and anglers are doing the right things, which is why my immense pride in this community grows stronger by the day—there will be a positive path forward. Because long before people will feel comfortable going to the ball game, or the shopping mall, or the movie theater, or the bowling alley, and maybe even their favorite restaurant, they’re going to feel good about going to the river to fish.
Do I know what the future holds for fly-fishing travel when people are going to hesitate to get on airplanes? No, I do not. Do I know if they’ll want to sit in crowded theaters and watch videos for a couple hours next winter? Can’t say I do, yet. With the economy taking it on the chin and massive unemployment, do I see a ripping market for $900 fly rods? Maybe not. But based on my experiences watching the market after 9/11 and the recession in 2008, the people on a financial footing to buy $900 fly rods in the first place are still going to be able to buy $900 fly rods in the coming months… and they will likely yearn to use them more.
Fly fishing is inherently wonderful, and soothing to the soul, and beautiful in every way. And it has been a healing balm to millions of people, especially during or immediately following times of crises. Maybe the only thing I am sure about now is that people are going to want to fish, and they’re going to love it and appreciate it even more in the months and years ahead than they have in the past. Tap that, and we’re going to make it.