The Business of Fly Fishing

The Business of Fly Fishing

A few days ago, a client aboard my skiff asked, "Scott, how do you justify the price you charge for a day of guided fishing?"

Rather than attempt to answer directly, I countered with a query of my own. "Do you know how much it costs to purchase, maintain, store and insure a technical poling skiff – much less three?"

He did not, and thus began a long discussion of the economics of running a fly fishing guide service.

Historically, fly fishermen have been labeled snobs, partly due to the holier-than-thou exhibited by a very few who would probably also be snobbish golfers or bowlers, and also because fly fishing has perhaps always been perceived as the most expensive form of angling sport. If you could afford to be a fly fisherman you must be rich, and common folk generally despise wealth. Truth is though, the greater numbers of fly fishermen have simply been sufficiently dedicated to make sacrifices in other areas to afford it.

Times have changed and so has the manufacture and cost of fly tackle. Increasingly affordable tackle and gear imported from overseas enables greater numbers of fishermen to participate, which is both good and bad. But, I digress....

Back in the day, most high-quality fly rods and reels were manufactured either domestically or in the UK. Given the standards of living and labor costs, fly tackle was inherently pricey. The remarkable amount of R&D the producers invested also drove prices through the roof. Likewise the unconditional and limited-unconditional warranties of that era, which basically provided a no-questions replacement if you accidentally stuck the tip of your fly rod into a whirling ceiling fan.

When I got into the sport nearly 30-years ago, a quality rod cost maybe $300 and top-of-the-line knocked on the door of $500. Nowadays, the equivalent prices would be about $500 and $850 respectively. That is unless you purchase top-of-the-line imports for about $300-$350.

I could go on about my beliefs in purchasing domestic, but such is not always an option. For example; the best fly fishing outerwear available today comes from Simms. Another great brand is Sitka Gear, although they have yet to offer fishing-specific clothing (I wish they would.)

Simms has done a great job in creating fishing outerwear made from waterproof and windproof GORE-TEX fabrics. Sitka Gear did the same in hunting clothing and is now owned by Gore. Long and short of it – there are only two countries (so I have been told) where products utilizing Gore technology can be made – the USA and China. Most products using GORE-TEX, with the exception of Simms waders, are made in China. And, while I know that many of the products are already very pricy, some people just do not get the economics of it all.

While China is, in fact, one of the cheapest countries in which to manufacture outdoor goods, Gore has invested hundreds of millions, if not more, into the creation of a fabric that allows us to suffer the harshest of conditions in relative comfort, and neither Sitka nor Simms would be able to afford to manufacture all of their gear here in the USA. I would still be willing to pay a lot more for any product made in the USA but, I am also a realist, and not willing to give up my GORE-TEX duds.

Moving on, let’s look into retail side of the fly fishing business, and I will try to be succinct. The practice of purchasing by way of the internet or big box sports stores is destroying an American institution known as the local and destination fly shop. Sure, it might cost a little more but, in reality, most manufactures set the prices of their products to prevent undercutting at the retail level. The exception to this method of price control is a few hack guides or other so-called industry professionals who manage to con their way into favorable discounts from manufacturers, and then sell on eBay to make a few bucks on the side. Bottom line: Support your local fly shop before they all disappear.

Back to guide fees. I can assure you the margins here are a lot thinner than most might think. Even for the western trout guide who does not have to shell out daily for boat fuel or upwards of $2000 annually for four-stroke outboard maintenance.

Despite where a guide chooses to work, there are costs of operation that many never see. For example: Federal parks and lands permits and outrageously expensive insurance policies a guide must purchase to become permitted. License fees, paying part of your wage to an outfitter or booking service, livery costs, ramp fees, etc. I could go on but I think you get the point.

It is true that saltwater skiff guides charge more for guided days than say mountain stream guides, but they also have more expenses to cover. The economic reality of operating a successful guide business is that you have to spend less than you bring in. Sounds easy – but what about a blown outboard powerhead, a blown tire on the boat trailer that rips off a fender and tears up the side of the boat, a tankful of bad gas, etc.

And the weather – wind, rain, floods and tropical storms. Believe me when I say this; no guide wants to send you back home or the hotel because of the weather. He would much rather collect a charter fee, pay his bills, and have a few bucks left to put in the bank.

So, let’s try to put this all together. All the players in the fly fishing business comprise one big symbiotic relationship. Manufacturers rely on fly shops and guides to promote and sell their products. Fly shops rely on manufacturers for quality goods and guides to promote them. Guides in turn rely on manufacturers to help them with gear discounts and fly shops to recommend their services. This has and always will be accomplished through marketing, and marketing isn’t cheap.

Just ask what I spent on my new website It rocks big time, but it put a big dent in my operating account. Sure, I could have gone cheap on the website and let my ego run amuck for free on social media, but I have chosen to limit my exposure to social media for a host of reasons. I stay away from message forums and Facebook, and use Instagram sparingly.

Remember that symbiotic relationship. We are all in it together and we all support each other – anglers, guides, retailers and manufacturers. Whether you are blessed to enjoy greater than average disposable income or scrimping and saving to afford high-quality gear and guide services, let’s all do our part to keep the fly fishing industry healthy and thriving.